Thursday, May 30, 2019

Restoring the Health of a Forested RPA

Prince William County is located within the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. All of the creeks and streams in the County eventually flow into the Chesapeake Bay. Thus, Prince William County adopted the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act into its local ordinance in 1990. The Bay Act has guidance and requirements for property owners to protect and improve the water that flows into the Chesapeake Bay. This creates obligations and duties for property owners that they might not be aware of. Owners are responsible for determining if an RPA exists on their property.  If you violate RPA requirements, you will also violate county ordinances that can result in penalties. Welcome to the world of secret environmental regulations. 

The Regulations of the Chesapeake Bay Protection Act require that a vegetated buffer area of at least 100-feet wide be located adjacent to of all tidal shores, tidal wetlands, certain non-tidal wetlands, and along both sides of all water bodies with perennial flow within the County. These water bodies, along with the 100-foot buffer area on its edges are the Resource Protected areas or RPAs and serve to protect water quality by reducing excess sediment, nutrients, and potentially harmful or toxic substances from groundwater and surface water entering the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

In the RPA the roots of the woody vegetation helps to maintain the stability of the stream bed, minimizing bank erosion to limit sediment. A wooded buffer has porous soils from leaf litter, fungi, twigs, fallen branches and associated bacteria all help to enhance the infiltration of the rain water and snow runoff. The root mass and forest floor also retains nutrients, aids in denitrification and pollution degradation. Property owners are responsible for determining if an RPA exists on their property. Violation of the RPA rules, also violates county ordinances and may result in penalties. The Environmental Services Division of Prince William County Public Works is responsible for approving any activities in the RPA including removal of trees and vegetation.

The almost seven acres of woodland behind my house is mostly part of the RPA. The woodland does not appear to be in good health. Until recently when emerald ash borer invaded the woods I felt we did not have to worry about dead trees, as it was all part of the natural process of renewal. However, the number of dead and dying trees has increased dramatically and it is obvious that the vines are preventing the dead trees from falling to the forest floor. The trees are just sort of hanging in the air, dangerously.

Though, honestly, as an engineer, I do not truly understand the nuances of the forest ecosystem. It is a complex mix of trees, under story shrubs and ground cover. In a healthy woodland the process of natural succession occurs over time. Small saplings develop and will become the next generation of trees as the older ones die out. Thought benign neglect is the rule for RPAs, my woodland needs some help beginning with removal of the invasive vines and the hanging dead trees. We contacted the Virginia Department of Forestry for assistance and guidance in this effort, highlighting that the woodland is part of an RPA.

Kinner Ingram, an Urban and Community Forestry Specialist from the Virginia Department of Forestry came out and inspected the woodland and made some recommendations that he is preparing in writing for me to submit to Clay Morris, Natural Resources Section Chief, Environmental Services Division of Prince William County Public Works for permission to remove the invasive vines and some of the dead trees. 

In order to do this I will need to apply for a Permitted Buffer Modifications under (9VAC25-830-140.5). The wooded area encompasses 6.9 acres about two-thirds in the RPA. Kinner will provide me with a roadmap for restoring the woodland health, but because this is an RPA it must begin with applying for permit for General woodlot management for the removal of the invasive vines and some of the dead trees to facilitate regrowth and regeneration of the woodland. This may be all that needs to be done, but it will take a few years to know if I will need to plant native tree saplings or additional work on preventing the reintroduction of the invasive vines. In addition, under the general buffer modification I would like a permit for the installation of a meandering access path. Both of these are allowed activities under Permitted Buffer Modifications.

I could not find instructions for the permitted buffer modifications process in the online materials for Prince William County. I have contacted Clay Morris at the Environmental Services Division of Prince William County Public Works Environmental Services Division for guidance in this process and make sure I provide all the information needed to grant the permit for this work before I begin.

According to the Department of Forestry In a woodland the roots, twigs and leaf litter and detrius are important for slowing storm water runoff and trapping debris and sediment. The twigs and roots also trap blown litter. Our spring clean- up of the RPA is to walk the woods collecting plastic bottles, and other litter. The access path will make this easier and allow us to enjoy the woodlands.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Beach Season is Here

It’s Memorial Day, the traditional launch of swimming season (at least in my hometown). As we arrive at summer beach season, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has begun awarding grants across 39 states, territories and tribes to develop and implement beach monitoring and notification programs. EPA has a total of up to $9.24 million that they can grant. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said “These grants will increase public information about water quality at our beaches and help our state and local partners conduct testing and address potential sources of contamination.”

Under the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health (BEACH) Act, EPA awards grants to eligible state, territorial and tribal applicants to help them and their local government partners (in Virginia that is the Department of Health) monitor water quality at coastal and Great Lakes beaches. When bacteria levels are too high for safe swimming, these agencies notify the public by posting beach warnings or closing the beach. Since 2002, state and local governments, territories and tribes have been granted a total of $167 million in to monitor beaches for fecal indicator bacteria, maintain and operate public notification systems, identify local pollution sources, and report results of monitoring and notification activities to EPA.

The Virginia Department of Health operates an online “Swimming Advisories and Monitored Beaches Map” you can check the status of your favorite beech by clicking on the flag marker for the latest sampling date, results of monitored beach sites and information on swimming advisories or beach closures. The flag marker sites are on the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean. Water samples are collected weekly during the swimming season by Local Health Departments and analyzed by local laboratories for enterococci bacteria or the flag marker sites. If bacteria levels exceed Virginia’s Water Quality Standard of 104 colony forming units (cfu)/100 mL of water, a swimming advisory is issued. I clicked on the flag for Fairview Beach in King George County and this is the information from this week. ( It's safe to swim.) 

The Virginia Department of Health advises that you can help to protect your family’s health while swimming at the beach by taking these simple steps:

  • Observe Swimming Advisories; do not enter the water at a beach under a swimming advisory.
  • Avoid swallowing water when swimming; natural waters may contain disease-causing organisms that can cause gastrointestinal illness if swallowed.
  • Avoid swimming for a few days after heavy rainfall; bacteria levels are likely to be high and disease-causing organisms are more likely to be present after rainfall due to pollution from land runoff and other sources.
  • Prevent direct contact of cuts and open wounds with recreational water; natural waters may contain disease-causing organisms that may cause skin infections.
  • Avoid swimming in areas where dead fish are present; if you observe a fish kill call the Department of Environmental Quality (703-583-3800).
  • Don’t swim if you are ill or have a weakened immune system; some organisms are opportunistic and may only cause illness when you are already ill or your immune system is weakened.
  • Shower with soap after swimming; showering helps remove potential disease-causing organisms.
  • Avoid fishing piers, pipes, drains, and water flowing from storm drains onto a beach.
  • Do not dispose of trash, pet waste, or dirty diapers on the beach.
Have fun and be safe!

Thursday, May 23, 2019

In 2018 the Water Table Rose 3 feet in Fairfax

Climate projections predominately forecast that Virginia will become wetter and warmer. Last year’s excess rain caused to an extent by an El Nino and other weather may have been a preview. I moved to Virginia from California for the water so I was more pleased than not when the measured total precipitation inches in my yard was almost 71 inches. The rain was somewhat less about 66-67 inches in Fairfax, just a few miles northeast.

The result of all that rain was that the water table, the level of groundwater beneath the surface rose three feet in Fairfax county. The water table naturally fluctuates during the year. Groundwater levels tend to be highest in the early spring after winter snowmelt and spring rainfall when the groundwater is recharged. Groundwater levels begin to fall in May and typically continue to decline during summer as plants and trees use the available shallow groundwater to grow and streamflow draws water. Natural groundwater levels usually reach their lowest point in late September or October when fall rains begin to recharge the groundwater again. 

from USGS

As you can see in the chart above, the peak ground water in May 2017 was three feet below the peak groundwater level in May 2018 and unusually, the winter levels of groundwater climbed another foot. The result of groundwater level, the water table, going from 12 feet below grade to 9 feet below grade is often a wet basement. Especially, if a sump pump failed.

The American Society of Home Inspectors estimates that 60% of U.S. homes have wet basements. Even if you had not previously had any problems in the past a three foot rise in the water table, from a very wet year like we’ve just can suddenly cause a previously dry basement to become wet.

Water or moisture in a basement can come from three sources: seepage of groundwater, condensation and rain. Condensation often occurs where cold meets warm air. Basements often get wet when rainwater runs toward the walls of houses from roofs, yards and driveways and infiltrates, but can also result when the rain causes the water table to rise as happened last year. So, if you are in Fairfax and had a basement moisture problem last year, you are not alone. As you can see below, the high water table continued into the spring of this year. Check your sump pumps to make sure they are working, and check your gutters and downspouts to make sure they are not blocked. Clean out the gutters, repair or replace any damaged gutters and extend your downspouts away from your house. Water from down spouts should be directed away from the house, discharging at least a few feet from the foundation. With a little effort you can keep your basement dry.  

Monday, May 20, 2019

USGS Launching Algal Bloom Study

This month scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), with financial support from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, launched their advanced monitoring platforms and probes to study water-quality conditions and harmful algal blooms in New York’s Owasco and Seneca lakes. In the next several weeks, monitoring probes will be launched in Skaneateles Lake, too.

The USGS built these monitoring platforms last year and tested them with the first set of instruments in September 2018. The platforms were retrieved from the water during the winter to avoid weather damage, and they were reinstalled last week to start collecting data. The monitoring platforms include a variety of instruments and will allow simultaneous gathering of data and provide a fuller picture of water quality before, during and after algal bloom events. The platforms measure water-quality at many depths, and have devices to monitor light and temperature, nutrient sensors and fluorometers to measure algae and organic matter. 

Algal blooms also called Dead Zones typically form in summers when the higher temperatures reduce the oxygen holding capacity of the water and the air is still and especially in years of heavy rains that carry excess nutrient pollution from cities and farms. The usual explanation is excess nutrient pollution combined with mild weather encourages the explosive growth of algae fed by excessive nutrient pollution. While the algae produces oxygen during photosynthesis, when there is excessive growth of algae the light is chocked out and the algae die and fall from the warmer top layers to the colder depths. The algae are decomposed by bacteria, which consumes the already depleted oxygen in the lower cooler level, leaving dead fish in their wake. Only certain species of blue-green algae form the toxin, for reasons that aren't fully understood. 
 cyanobacteria, Microcystis aeruginos from USGS
Toxic bacteria were not a problem until the 21st century, though algae blooms are believed to be caused by both natural and man-made factors. While there have been an increased number of observed Hazardous algal blooms worldwide, it isn’t clear whether they are increasing in size and occurrence or if heightened awareness has led to more people observing and reporting them. Data is needed for scientists to answer this question. This monitoring will collect data over the next few years in New York and other high-priority watersheds throughout the. This data will help the United States not only understand the process of algal blooms, but better understand the amount of water available for human and ecological needs and where water supplies may be threatened in the future.

“Most algal blooms are harmless, but in some cases, something is triggered to overwhelm the system, which leads to potentially harmful blooms that deprive aquatic organisms of oxygen. Hazardous algal blooms also can produce toxins that pose health threats to humans and other organisms coming into contact with them,” said Guy Foster, USGS New York Hazardous algal bloom project lead. “USGS research capabilities are being deployed to figure out the environmental conditions and processes that result in the formation of Hazardous algal blooms, their growth and severity. In addition, new monitoring techniques are providing near instantaneous detection of when the public could be exposed to a potentially harmful algal bloom.”

Hazardous algal blooms have become a global concern in lakes, rivers and oceans. They occur when algae grow out of control in response to favorable environmental conditions. If the Hazardous algal blooms contain microcystis a type of blue-green algae that spreads in the summer algae blooms. Microcystis produce Microcystine or cyanobacteria toxins, that can lead to the poisoning of fish, shellfish, birds, livestock, domestic pets and other aquatic organisms that can lead to human health impact from eating fish or shellfish exposed to toxins as well as drinking water contaminated by toxins.

If you recall in August, 2014 routine water testing at the Collins Park Water Treatment Plant in Toledo, Ohio had two samples test positive for microcystin at concentrations higher than the standard of 1 microgram per liter for potable water and water to the city had to be cut off until Hazardous algal bloom had moved away from the water intake in Lake Erie.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

The Wells of Virginia 2018

Private drinking water wells serve more than a fifth of Virginia’s population or 1.7 million residents.  To serve these residents Virginia created the Virginia Household Water Quality Program (VAHWQP) to provide affordable water testing and education about private water wells to residents of the Commonwealth. Volunteers and Extension Agents hold drinking water clinics and provide information to assist private well owners in understanding and maintaining their wells. 

The quality and safety of private wells are not regulated under Federal nor, in most cases, state law. In Virginia regulations control only construction and the absence of bacteria at the time of a well’s completion. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Safe Drinking Water Act does not regulate individual households. As a result, individual homeowners are solely responsible for maintaining their domestic well systems and for any routine water-quality monitoring that may take place.

The Virginia Household Water Quality Program was, originally created in 1989, was relaunched in 2007 with a USDA grant. In 2011 the program was expanded under another USDA grant to subsidize testing, quantify bacteria, add metals and begin research out of Virginia Tech. Now the program is self-sustaining with annual clinics in 93 counties. The analysis is done by the Virginia Tech laboratory of Dr. Mark Edwards (a recipient of MacArthur Genius Grant and world expert on water chemistry) and research utilizing the data is being pursued by graduate students.

In all the Virginia Household Water Quality Program  clinics the water samples are analyzed for: iron, manganese, nitrate, lead, arsenic, fluoride, sulfate, pH, total dissolved solids, hardness, sodium, copper, total coliform bacteria and E. Coli bacteria, and last year cost $55-$60. These are mostly naturally occurring contaminants and common sources of contamination: a poorly sealed well or a nearby leaking septic system, or indications of plumbing system corrosion. Though not an exhaustive list of potential contaminants, these are the most common contaminants that effect drinking water wells.

Though about 600,000 of Virginia households with 1,700,000 residents or 22% of the Virginia population have private wells, only around 2,161 households chose to participate in the Virginia Household Water Quality Program clinic  last year and may not be representative of all private drinking water wells in the Commonwealth. Nonetheless, the data collected over the past 12 years is the largest database on private drinking water wells available.

Well water quality is driven by geology, well construction and condition, nearby sources of contamination, and, within the home, water treatment devices and composition of plumbing materials.  Prince William County has a portion of the county within the coastal plain and the majority of the county within the Piedmont. There are areas high in minerals with pockets of iron, manganese, and sulfur. The most common contaminants found in well water in Prince William County were sodium, coliform bacteria, hardness, low pH, followed by hard water, iron and maganese above the SMCL, copper and lead exceeding the the MCL on first draw, and the presence of E coli bacteria.   
from VHWQP VA Tech

Overall the statewide sampling last year found that 41% of the wells have coliform bacteria, and 9% have E. coli bacteria. Though 20% of wells were found to have acidic water (low pH) only 9% of homes have first flush lead levels above the EPA safe drinking water standard maximum contaminant level for lead and copper. Lead and copper leach into water primarily as a result of corrosion of plumbing and well components, but can also result from flaking of scale from brass fittings and well components unrelated to corrosion. Copper and lead do not naturally appear in groundwater and lead in drinking water is predominately coming from the pipes. Over time older pipes and fixtures corrode or simply wear away and the lead and other corrosion material (like rust) is carried to the drinking water. Time and water do cause corrosion, but this can be aggravated by the pH of the water or other changes in water chemistry. The amount of lead corroded from metal plumbing including faucets with brass interiors generally increases as water corrosiveness. For more information on lead in drinking water see here.

Around 33% of households have elevated sodium exceeding the EPA Safe Drinking Water Act limit. This could be a result salt water infiltration from natural or man made sources or could indicate that water softeners are adding too much sodium to the water. Annual well testing is recommended.  Of 2018 participants, 41% report NEVER testing their water before. About 20% of participants are return clients; many new people participate each year.  You might want to test your water to make sure it is safe to drink and you have the appropriate treatment system.

Monday, May 13, 2019

A New Vaccine May Save the Bat Population

The bat population is being decimated by white-nose syndrome, a disease affecting hibernating bats. Named for the white fungus that appears on the muzzle and wings of hibernating bats, white-nose syndrome has caused the death of over 7 million bats since it was first documented in New York in the winter of 2006-2007. Now a new research study from the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center and others, found that an oral vaccination may reduce the impact of white-nose syndrome in bats. 

White-nose syndrome is caused by a fungus called Pseudogymnoascus destructans, or Pd. The disease is spreading rapidly and there is no cure. This study marks a milestone in what has become an international fight against one of the most destructive wildlife diseases in modern times. According to USGS scientist Tonie Rocke who lead the study that developed the vaccines for the bats, “Our initial studies suggest that an effective vaccine could be a critical step towards conserving North America’s bat populations.” He went on to say that; “Insect-eating bats are incredibly valuable, saving the U.S. agricultural industry billions of dollars in pest control services every year.”

During the trials, scientists administered several vaccine formulas to east coast little brown bat prior to exposure to Pseudogymnoascus destructans and hibernation. They found that bats vaccinated orally or by injection survived at a higher rate than unimmunized bats. The bats also developed specific anti-fungal immune responses. Although work is still progressing to select the best vaccine candidates, the findings suggest that vaccination could potentially protect bats or reduce the effects of white-nose syndrome by providing them with immunity against Pseudogymnoascus destructans.

In the natural cave environments, vaccines could be applied to bats in a jelly-like substance that they would ingest as they groom themselves and each other. Bats would also transfer the vaccine-laden jelly to untreated bats. “These results represent an exciting step forward, not only for managing white-nose syndrome but for treating disease in wildlife,” said Jeremy Coleman, National White-Nose Syndrome Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Vaccine development is among multiple options the Service is funding to treat white-nose syndrome, but it is one that holds great promise for heavily affected bat species.”

White-nose syndrome is named for the fuzzy white appearance of Pseudogymnoascus destructans as it infects muzzles, ears and wings of hibernating bats. The disease is not known to affect humans, pets, livestock or other wildlife.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Treating Iron and Manganese in Your Well

In the Piedmont region of Virginia iron and manganese are commonly found in well water and are one of the causes of the perception that the well water is “bad.” Iron and manganese are often found together and can give water an unpleasant taste, odor and color. Iron causes reddish-brown stain on laundry, porcelain, dishes, utensils, glassware, sinks, fixtures and concrete. Manganese causes brownish-black stains on the same items. This staining does not wash out with detergent, and chlorine bleach may even make the staining worse.

Iron and manganese deposits can build up in pipelines, pressure tanks, water heater and water softening equipment. These deposits restrict the flow of water and reduce water pressure. More energy is required to pump water through clogged pipes and heat water if the hot water tank’s heating rods are coated with minerals deposits. In addition, water contaminated with iron and manganese often contains reducing bacteria (often called iron bacteria) which feed on the minerals. These bacteria do not cause health problems, but can form a reddish brown or brownish black slime in toilet tanks, hot water heaters, water softeners and in filters.

Iron and manganese are naturally occurring elements commonly found in groundwater here and many other parts of the country. Interestingly enough, few surface water sources have high levels of these metals. At t levels naturally present in groundwater iron and manganese do not present a health hazard. However, their presence in well water can cause unpleasant taste, staining and accumulation of mineral solids and significantly impact the perceived quality of the water. In addition, a persistent bacteria/ biofouling problem may be caused by iron bacteria.

Iron and manganese are considered secondary contaminants under the U.S. EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Act. Secondary contaminants are substances in water that cause offensive taste, odor, color, corrosion, foaming, or staining but have no direct impact on health. The standard Secondary Maximum Contaminant Level (SMCL) for iron is 0.3 milligrams per liter (mg/L or ppm) and 0.05 mg/L for manganese. This level of iron and manganese are easily detected by taste, smell or appearance.

Iron and manganese exist in many different chemical forms. The presence of a given form of iron or manganese in geologic materials or water depends on many different environmental factors. Dissolved iron and manganese are easily oxidized to a solid form by mixing with air. Groundwater tends to be an oxygen poor environment; typically, the deeper the aquifer the less dissolved oxygen is present. Iron and manganese carbonates in an oxygen poor environment are relatively soluble and can cause high levels of dissolved iron and manganese to be carried from a deep well. If sulfur is present in the water then the iron can form iron sulfide rather than iron carbonate and the water may have the familiar and unpleasant rotten egg smell. When the iron and manganese are oxidized reddish brown or black particles form and settle out as water stands. These particles are often found trapped in washing machine filters, water treatment equipment, and in plumbing fixtures.

As mentioned above some types of bacteria react with soluble forms of iron and manganese and form persistent bacterial contamination in a water system. These organisms are usually found in waters that have high levels of iron and manganese in solution. The reaction changes the iron and manganese from a soluble form into a less soluble form, thus causing precipitation and accumulation of black or reddish brown gelatinous material (slime). Iron bacteria often produce unpleasant tastes and odors commonly reported as: "swampy," "oily or petroleum," "cucumber," "sewage," "rotten vegetation," or "musty." The taste or odor may be more noticeable after the water has not been used for some time. Recently, the VA DEQ has been examining wells in Fauquier County and found, according to Brad White of the DEQ Groundwater Characterization Program, he found iron bacteria in every well examined.

The recommended strategy is to treat the well with a 500-1,000 parts per million chlorine and then dilute the remaining water in the well. Chemical treatment with chlorine is inexpensive, but may require repeated treatments. Effective treatment requires sufficient chlorine strength and time in contact with the bacteria, and is often improved with agitation. Be warned that too high a concentration can make the well to alkaline and reduce effectiveness. In addition high concentrations of chlorine may affect water conditioning equipment, appliances such as dishwashers, and septic systems, so it is important to not draw the chlorinated water into the house until it has been diluted. This can be accomplished by allowing a significant amount of the water to runoff to a safe disposal location using hoses until the water runs clear, and allow the well to refill and dilute the concentration then introduce the water into the house water system to disinfect the household treatment units, appliances and piping with lower concentrations circulated through the water system. Always check with the equipment manufacturer before you treat any equipment with chlorine.

All systems of removing iron and manganese essentially involve oxidation of the soluble form or killing and removal of the iron bacteria. When the total combined iron and manganese concentration is less than 15 mg/l, an oxidizing filter also called an iron filter is recommended. These filters convert dissolved iron, manganese, or hydrogen sulfide into a solid form and then filters the solid particles from water. The device uses the same casing as other products by the manufacturer, but the media in the oxidizing filter is typically a manganese-treated greensand or manufactured silica gel zeolite coated with manganese dioxide, plastic resin beads, or other trade named media. Maintenance typically involves periodically recharging the greensand media with an oxidizing agent (typically potassium permanganate) and backwashing. The potassium permanganate forms a coating that reacts with the dissolved iron, manganese, or hydrogen sulfide to form solid particles that are then trapped in the filter media. The backwashing and recharging frequency depend on the type and amount of impurities. Iron filters need to be selected to match the pH of the water. If pH is not in the range of any of the iron filters, then it is best to use chemical oxidation.

Higher concentrations of iron and manganese can be treated with an aeration and filtration system. This system is not effective on water with iron/ manganese bacteria, but is very effective soluble iron and manganese. In this system an aspirator valve pulls air into the water stream to oxidize the iron and manganese to the carbonate form. The air saturated water then enters a precipitator vessel to allow the iron and manganese time to precipitate out and then is passed through a filter. Backwashing the filter is very important to maintain the filter’s function. This system of removal does not involve any chemical additives.

Chemical oxidation can be used to remove high levels of dissolved or oxidized iron and manganese as well as treat the presence of iron/manganese bacteria. The system consists of a small pump that puts an oxidizing agent into the water before the pressure tank. The water will need about 20 minutes for oxidation to take place so treating before a holding tank or pressure tank is a must. After the solid particles have formed the water is filtered often through a sand filter with aluminum sulfate added to improve filtration. The oxidizing agent is used is chlorine, potassium permanganate or hydrogen peroxide. If chlorine is used, an activated carbon filter is often used to finish the water and remove the chlorine taste. The chemical feed has to be properly calibrated for the specific water chemistry. Chlorine oxidation requires a pH of 7 +/- 0.5. Potassium permanganate is more effective on water with a pH above 7.5, but is poisonous and a skin irritant and requires very careful calibration, maintenance and monitoring. Hydrogen peroxide is less pH sensitive.

Low levels of iron and manganese can technically be removed by a water softener. Water softeners are expensive pieces of equipment and using a softener to remove iron or manganese will reduce the softening capacity of the unit. Water softeners can become clogged when levels of iron or manganese in the water exceed manufacturer recommendations. In addition the softening may result in lower pH, and therefore slightly more corrosive water. Additionally, a sodium-based ion exchange system will increase the level of sodium in the treated water and should never be used for cooking or drinking. Since iron and manganese are often a taste issue additional treatments would be necessary and it is usually, best to use other methods of iron and manganese removal.

Careful monitoring and maintenance of a water treatment is necessary to maintain a high quality of  water. Testing and maintaining your water supply and treatment system is your responsibility. Without regular monitoring, maintenance and adjustments your results are likely to be disappointing.

Monday, May 6, 2019

2019 Prince William Water Wells

Tonight, May 6th 2019 we will have the results meeting for all who participated in the 2019 Prince William County Well Water Clinic. What we tested for were mostly the naturally occurring contaminants and common sources of contamination: a poorly sealed well or a nearby leaking septic system, or indications of plumbing system corrosion. These are the most common contaminants that effect drinking water wells. The chart below shows what was found in the 86 samples tested in Prince William County in March 2019. 
In order to determine if treatment is necessary, water test results should be compared to a standard. The standard we use is the U.S.EPA Safe Drinking Water Act (SDW) limits. Though private wells do not fall under the regulatory authority of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or the Safe Drinking Water Act, the SDW act has primary and secondary drinking water standards that we use for comparison. Primary standards are ones that can impact health and from the tested substances include: coliform bacteria, E. coli bacteria, nitrate, lead, and arsenic. Secondary standards impact taste or the perceived quality of the water.

Just because your water appears clear doesn’t necessarily mean it is safe to drink. The 2019 Prince William County water clinic found that almost 22% of the wells tested present for coliform bacteria. This is the same as last year. Coliform bacteria are not a health threat itself, it is used to indicate other bacteria that may be present and identify that a well is not properly sealed from surface bacteria. The federal standard for coliform bacteria is zero, but the federal standard allows that up to 5% of samples can test positive for coliform during a month.

Two wells tested positive for E coli. Fecal coliform and E. coli are bacteria whose presence indicates that the water is contaminated with human or animal wastes. Disease-causing microbes (pathogens) in these wastes can cause diarrhea, cramps, nausea, headaches, or other symptoms. These pathogens may pose a special health risk for infants, young children, and those with compromised immune systems. However, people can drink water contaminated with fecal bacteria and not notice.

If your well is contaminated with coliform but not fecal coliform or E. coli, then you have a nuisance bacteria problem and the source may be infiltration from the surface from rain or snow melt. Typical causes are improperly sealed well cap, well repairs performed without disinfecting the well, failed grouting or surface drainage to the well. If your well had coliform bacteria present you should shock chlorinate the well (according to the procedure from VA Tech), repack the soil around the well pipe to flow away from the well and replace the well cap. Then after at least two weeks and the next big rainstorm retest the well for coliform. If coliform bacteria is still present then a long-term treatment should be implemented: using UV light, ozonation, or chlorine for continuous disinfection. These systems can cost up to $2,000 installed.

If you have fecal coliform in the well or E. coli, your well is being impacted by human or animal waste and you are drinking dilute sewage. If there is not a nearby animal waste composting facility, then you are probably drinking water from a failed septic system- yours or your nearest neighbors or in some older areas a leaking sewer line. To solve this problem you need to fix or replace the septic system that is causing the contamination, replace the well or install a disinfection and filtration system. Disinfection does not kill Giardia or Cryptosporidium, two microscopic parasites that can be found in groundwater that has been impacted by surface water or sewage. Both parasites produce cysts that cause illness and sometimes death.

The failing septic systems can often be identified by using tracer dyes. While continuous disinfection will work to protect you from fecal bacteria and E. coli, be aware that if your well is being impacted by a septic system, then the well water might also have present traces of all the chemicals and substances that get poured down the drain. Long term treatment for disinfection, and micro-filtration should be implemented: using UV light, ozonation, or chlorine for continuous disinfection, carbon filtration, and anything that is used for drinking should be further treated with a reverse osmosis systems or micro membrane system that works by using pressure to force water through a semi-permeable membrane. Large quantities of wastewater are produced by reverse osmosis systems and need to bypass the septic system or they will overwhelm that system creating more groundwater problems. Reverse osmosis systems produce water very slowly, a pressurized storage tank and special faucet needs to be installed so that water is available to meet the demand for drinking and cooking.

Nitrate can contaminate well water from fertilizer use; leaking from septic tanks, sewage and erosion of natural deposits. None of the wells in our group of 86 samples had nitrate levels above the MCL.

This year we had 9% of homes have first draw lead levels above the SDWA maximum contaminant level of 0.015 Mg/L. After the flushing the tap for at least one minute only one home had lead levels above the 0.15 mg/L level; however, many scientists do not believe that any level of lead is safe to drink over an extended period of time. Often homes that have elevated lead in the first draw, have lower pH values.

Houses built before 1988 when the ban on lead went into effect and have low pH water typically have higher lead concentrations. Lead leaches into water primarily as a result of corrosion of plumbing and well components, but can also result from flaking of scale from brass fittings and well components unrelated to corrosion and corrosion control techniques such as adjusting pH or alkalinity that are commonly used to neutralize aggressive water will not work in those cases. For most instances, though, a neutralizing filter and lead removing activated carbon filters can be used to remove lead. Recently, some home water treatment companies are offering in home treatment systems that neutralize the water and add orthophosphate other phosphate solution to coat the piping to prevent further corrosion. It should work, but I have never seen such a home system and am not aware of any testing.

Iron and manganese are naturally occurring elements commonly found in groundwater in this part of the country. 16.3% of the wells tested exceed the iron standard and 8.1% exceeded the manganese standard. At naturally occurring levels iron and manganese do not present a health hazard. However, their presence in well water can cause unpleasant taste, staining and accumulation of mineral solids that can clog water treatment equipment and plumbing and discolored water. The standard Secondary Maximum Contaminant Level (SMCL) for iron is 0.3 milligrams per liter (mg/L or ppm) and 0.05 mg/L for manganese. This level of iron and manganese can be detected by taste, smell or appearance. In addition, some types of bacteria react with soluble forms of iron and manganese and form persistent bacterial contamination in a well, water system and any treatment systems. These organisms change the iron and manganese from a soluble form into a less soluble form, thus causing precipitation and accumulation of black or reddish brown gelatinous material (slime). Masses of mucous, iron, and/or manganese can clog plumbing and water treatment equipment.

All systems of removing iron and manganese essentially involve oxidation of the soluble form or killing and removal of the iron bacteria. When the total combined iron and manganese concentration is less than 15 mg/l, an oxidizing filter is the recommended solution. An oxidizing filter supplies oxygen to convert ferrous iron into a solid form which can be filtered out of the water. Higher concentrations of iron and manganese can be treated with an aeration and filtration system. This system is not effective on water with iron/ manganese bacteria, but is very effective on soluble iron and manganese so you need to do further testing to determine what type of iron/manganese you have before you install a treatment system. Water softeners can remove low levels of iron and are widely sold for this purpose because they are very profitable, but are not recommended for just this purpose.

Chemical oxidation can be used to remove high levels of dissolved or oxidized iron and manganese as well as treat the presence of iron/manganese (or even sulfur) bacteria. The system consists of a small pump that puts an oxidizing agent into the water before the pressure tank. The water will need about 20 minutes for oxidation to take place so treating before a holding tank or pressure tank is a must. After the solid particles have formed the water is filtered. The best oxidizing agents are chlorine or hydrogen peroxide. If chlorine is used, an activated carbon filter is often used to finish the water and remove the chlorine taste. The holding tank or pressure tank will have to be cleaned regularly to remove any settled particles.

The pH of water is a measure of the acidity or alkalinity. The pH is a logarithmic scale from 0 – 14 with 1 being very acidic and 14 very alkaline. Drinking water should be between 6.5 and 7.5. For reference and to put this into perspective, coffee has a pH of around 5 and salt water has a pH of around 9. Corrosive water, sometimes also called aggressive water is typically water with a low pH. (Alkaline water can also be corrosive.) Low pH water can corrode metal plumbing fixtures causing lead and copper to leach into the water and causing pitting and leaks in the plumbing system. The presence of lead or copper in water is most commonly leaching from the plumbing system or well rather than the groundwater. Acidic water is easily treated using an acid neutralizing filter. Typically these neutralizing filters use a granular marble, calcium carbonate or lime. If the water is very acidic a mixing tank using soda ash, sodium carbonate or sodium hydroxide can be used. The acid neutralizing filters will increase the hardness of the water because of the addition of calcium carbonate. The sodium based systems will increase the salt content in the water. 16.3% of the wells tested were found to have acidic water this year.

Water that contains high levels of dissolved minerals is commonly referred to as hard. Groundwater very slowly wears away at the rocks and minerals picking up small amounts of calcium and magnesium ions. Water containing approximately 125 mg/L can begin to have a noticeable impact and is considered hard. Concentrations above 180 mg/L are considered very hard. As the mineral level climbs, bath soap combines with the minerals and forms a pasty scum that accumulates on bathtubs and sinks. You either must use more soap and detergent in washing or use specially formulated hard water soap solutions. Hard water can be just a minor annoyance with spotting and the buildup of lime scale, but once water reaches the very hard level 180 mg/L or 10.5 grains per gallon, it can become problematic. Overall 8.1% of homes tested had hard water.

At the present time the EPA guidance level for sodium in drinking water is 20 mg/L. Given the number of homes with elevated sodium and our local geology, it is probably a reflection of the number of homes with water softeners-41.9% of the wells tested had elevated sodium.

No wells were found that had arsenic exceeding the EPA MCL for drinking water of 10 ppm. While arsenic is a naturally occurring element found in soil and groundwater it is not typically found at significantly elevated levels in this geology.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

24/365 Electricity No Longer Possible in California

Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) 2019 Wildfire Safety Plan submitted to the Public Utilities Commission plans to shut off electric power during high wind events to prevent wild fires. This plan expands the scope of their Public Safety Power Shutoff (power shutoff) program to include all electric lines that pass through high fire-threat areas - both transmission and distribution. The power shutoff program will include 25,200 distribution circuit miles, and about 5,500 circuit miles of transmission lines including 500 kVu across elevated and extreme-fire risk areas, designated by the California Public Utilities Commission.

As California grows drier PG&E plan to address the growing threat of extreme weather and wildfires is to cut off power. Apparently, despite several plans, they have made little if any progress in improving the grid and hardening the power infrastructure to prevent sparking. PG&E cannot guarantee 24/7 -365 power to their customers. Great nations do not have power or water only when the weather is right.

PG&E states that while customers in high fire-threat areas are more likely to be affected, any of PG&E's more than 5 million electric customers could have their power shut off for safety when forecasted fire danger conditions warrant it. PG&E is one of the largest combined natural gas and electric energy companies in the United States, They have more than 20,000 employees, and the company delivers energy to nearly 16 million people in Northern and Central California- home to Silicon Valley. This is ironic.

PG&E says that due to the complexity of the electric grid, and the web-like connection between transmission lines, distribution lines and substations, there is a possibility that some customers outside a high-risk fire threat area, could have their power turned off based on the need to turn off a specific high-voltage circuit. They plan to give notification to customers of potential power shutoffs.

The 2019 PG&E Wildfire Safety plan addresses a wide array of wildfire risk factors through new and ongoing measures. Among the safety steps and actions include:
  • Installing nearly 600 new, high-definition cameras, made available to CAL FIRE and local fire officials, in high fire-threat areas by 2022 (can’t fix the grid-let’s look at it);
  • Adding approximately 1,300 additional new weather stations by 2022, (better to know when to shut off power);
  • Conducting enhanced safety inspections of electric infrastructure in high-fire threat areas (still not fixing the problem- but maybe identifying it);
  • Improving vegetation management, including clearing overhanging branches directly above and around power lines;
  • Disabling automatic reclosing of circuits in high fire-threat areas; (make sure that the power does not get automatically turned back on)
  • Installing stronger and more resilient poles and covered power lines, including targeted areas of burying of power line, starting in areas with the highest fire risk, ultimately upgrading and strengthening approximately 7,100 miles over the next 10 years; and
  • Partnering with communities in high fire-threat areas to create new "resilience zones" that can power central community resources during a shutoff. (Have communities buy generators to power essential services.) 
According to the American Society of Civil Engineers: “Some parts of the U.S. electric grid predate the turn of the 20th century. Most T&D lines were constructed in the 1950s and 1960s with a 50-year life expectancy, and were not originally engineered to meet today’s demand, nor severe weather events....As a result of aging infrastructure, severe weather events, and attacks and vandalism, in 2015 Americans experienced a reported 3,571 total outages, with an average duration of 49 minutes.” PG&E’s new plan will increase that.

PG&E  is a publicly regulated utilities. Most of their revenue comes from electric rates approved by regulators that are set at a level to guarantee the utility recovers all costs for operating the electric system as well as the cost of building or buying a power plant — plus their guaranteed profit. The question is why have California Public Utilities Commission has allowed vastly expanding the number of  electricity generation plants in the state as electricity demand has fallen since 2008 while allowing the grid to deteriorate. California has some of the highest electric rates in the nation. What are their consumers getting for their money?