Monday, September 30, 2019

Blue Plains Prepares for a Future with More Flooding

 Sitting on the southernmost tip of Washington DC, across the river from Alexandria is the Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant. Blue Plains serves not only Washington DC but also parts of Maryland and Virginia. Because of its location adjacent to the Potomac River Blue Plains is vulnerable to flooding. The facility has historically been protected from flooding by a seawall built to withstand a 1-100 year flood. However, that is no longer enough.

Blue Plains is in the middle of constructing a new seawall to protect their billions of dollars of infrastructure and treatment capabilities from storm damage. The new seawall will be a minimum of 17.2 feet high three feet higher than the level now required for a Category 3 storm or what used to be known as a 500-year flood. The seawall is expected to cost $13 million and be completed in 2021. This will help protect the facility against rising river levels and storm surges and protect the community during storms.

As a federal facility DC Water conducted required assessment of the potential impacts of climate change on its critical facilities under the 2018 Water Infrastructure Act. Blue Plains is a category III critical facility (as defined by FEMA) that currently lies within the 100-year floodplain and protected by a sea wall. EPA has a handy dandy tool to perform assess the risk and identify vulnerabilities and adaption strategies. As a major facility with a large investment along the riverfront, building a seawall to protect against flooding was deemed a better strategy rather than moving the entire facility to higher ground that DC Water did not have.

For the past decade Blue Plains has been engaged in the Clean Rivers Project an ongoing program to reduce combined sewer overflows (CSO's) into the District's waterways - the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers and Rock Creek. The Project is a massive infrastructure and support program designed to capture and clean wastewater during rainfalls before it ever reaches the rivers and when completed will cost billions of dollars. The Clean Rivers Project was conceived and agreed to under a consent order from the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, to meet new effluent limits for total nitrogen released and better control of the system during rain storms. The Clean Rivers Project is comprised of a system of deep tunnels, sewers and diversion facilities to capture combined sewer overflows and deliver them to DC Water’s Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant when the capacity is available to treat them, enhanced nitrogen removal, ENR, facilities, improved and expanded treatment of waste and upgrading the treatment of Biosolids.

Blue Plains now has Cambi thermal hydrolysis trains, four digesters, new dewatering equipment and a combined heat and power plant. The new digestor system uses thermal hydrolysis (heating to over 160 degrees under high pressure) followed by anaerobic digestors. The system produces methane gas which is captured and used to run turbines to produce power that will meet over one third of DC Water's electric demand at Blue Plains and the digestion process destroys nearly one half of the Biosolids and producing Class A Biosolids reducing the chemical treatment costs and the transportation costs to get rid of the Biosolids.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Planning Office Presents their Recommendations

On Tuesday, September 24th the Prince William County Planning Office held a third community meeting on the implementation of the Rural Preservation Study. The meeting was held at the Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas. As with other meetings many in the community were left confused by the presentation, and truthfully only by reading all the materials posted by the Planning Office more than once do I feel I have a handle on their recommendations. The discussion below is from the Planning Office’s Rural Preservation web page. I’m hoping that studying the summary and maps has given me a clearer understanding of the proposals.

The Planning Office states that some of the recommendations in the 2014 Rural Preservation Study recommended an inappropriate levels of density within the County’s rural areas. In most of the hundreds of comments received residents expressed their concern at the development of the transitional ribbon, therefore, in the final recommendations Planning Office staff does NOT recommend adoption of a transitional ribbon. The community also expressed concerns about the extent and cost of sewer extension in the rural area, therefore the Planning Office staff is NOT recommending a county-wide extension of sewer lines. Instead, the Planning Office staff recommends the creation of permanent conservation easements that would to prohibit the crossing of sewer easements in the conserved green space of clustered developments.

In addition, the community indicated there was a need for TDR (Transfer of Development Rights) receiving areas within the Development-Area of the county. Planning Office staff has recommended several Regional Activity Centers in the Development Area as receiving areas for TDRs as seen on the map below. The community rejected the idea of increased density in rural cluster subdivisions, therefore Planning Office staff does not recommend a county-wide increase of density in the rural cluster regulations, though Planning Office staff is not recommending a change to the minimum lot size in the A-1 zoning district.

To encourage the use of TDR’s the number of TDR’s per property was increased to 1 TDR per five acres for the area in the map below designated Agriculture and Forest (orange areas) and 1 TDR per three acres in the area designated Estates and Subdivisions (yellow area). These are donor areas only so the development must take place in one of the TDR receiving areas above. This holds promise of reducing the future development in the Rural Crescent.

Finally, the Planning Office staff proposes that Prince William County create a new use classification and zoning of Conservation Residential, CR-1 within select areas of the Rural Area. The Conservation Residential areas is where cluster developments would be built, would allow extension of sewer and would require 60% of the property to be dedicated in a permanent conservation easement. The buffer around the entire property be restricted so that no sewer easements or crossing of any kind is permitted within the buffer area, effectively creating a permanent “green” obstacle to sewer extension into rural areas. The 60% of open space will be placed in a permanent conservation easement and be located adjacent to the Rural Area. Easement terms could include farming, passive recreation or open space as determined through the rezoning process.

These are just the crib notes on the Planning Office recommendations. These recommendations will eventually be scheduled for public hearings before the Planning Commission and the Board of County Supervisors. The Planning Commission may choose to recommend portions of these tools, or they may recommend no action or policy change and retain the existing land use policies in the Comprehensive Plan today, and the Board of Supervisors may act as they choose. Full texts of the draft policies and ordinance are in separate documents linked on the County’s website. You need to contact your District Supervisor to have your views heard.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Before Purchasing a Home-Test a Well for Nitrate

Before you purchase a home with a well, you should test it for more than the presence of bacteria. One of the contaminants you should test for is nitrate. The levels of nitrate in groundwater tend to increase over time from the presence of fertilizer and human and animal waste. The Safe Drinking Water Act maximum contaminant level (MCL) for nitrate in public drinking water supplies in the United States is 10 mg/L as nitrate-nitrogen (NO3-N). This concentration is slightly below the World Health Organization (WHO) guideline of 50 mg/L as NO3 or 11.3 mg/L NO3-N. The regulatory limit for nitrate in public drinking water supplies was set to protect against infant methemoglobinemia, but other health effects were not considered.

Dr. Mary Ward of the Occupational and Environmental Epidemiology Branch, Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics, National Cancer Institute has lead several important studies comparing all the research on the health impacts from exposure to nitrate in water. The first review was of studies published before 2005. In 2018 Dr. Ward was lead author on a review of more than 30 epidemiologic studies on drinking water nitrate and health outcomes.

According to their study, the strongest evidence for a relationship between drinking water with elevated nitrate concentrations and adverse health outcomes (besides methemoglobinemia) is for colorectal cancer, thyroid disease, and neural tube defects. “Many of the studies observed increased health risks with ingestion of water nitrate levels that were below regulatory limits.” So, having nitrate concentrations below 10 mg/L is no protection against increased cancer risk or birth defects.

For example, Dr. Ward’s study found “Mothers of babies with spina bifida were twice as likely [to have ingested] ≥5 mg/day NO3 from drinking water than control mothers. Mothers of babies with limb deficiencies, cleft palate, and cleft lip were, respectively, 1.8, 1.9, and 1.8 times more likely to [have ingested] ≥5.4 mg/day of water NO3 than controls.”
Ward, M.H.; Jones, R.R.; Brender, J.D.; De Kok, T.M.; Weyer, P.J.; Nolan, B.T.; Villanueva, C.M.; Van Breda, S.G. Drinking Water Nitrate and Human Health: An Updated Review. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2018, 15, 1557.

In the United States, nitrates are present in most surface water and groundwater supplies at levels below 4 mg/l, with levels exceeding 20 mg/l in about 3% of surface waters and 6% of groundwater. “A recent nationwide study found that concentrations of nitrate over 1 mg/L nitrate indicate human activity (Dubrovsky et al. 2010).” According to the EPA levels of nitrate in groundwater have been increasing. The increasing use of artificial fertilizers, the disposal of wastes (both human and from animal farming) and changes in land use are the main factors responsible for the progressive increase in nitrate levels in groundwater supplies over the last 20 years. In Virginia the EPA estimates that on 2% of the state has groundwater nitrate concentrations >5 mg/L. Boiling water to concentrates the nitrate. A survey of bottle water sold in 42 Iowa and 32 Texas communities found varying but generally low nitrate levels. Nitrate concentrations ranged from below the limit of detection (0.1 mg/L NO3-N) to 4.9 mg/L NO3-N for U.S. domestic spring water purchased in Texas.

Dr. Ward concludes “To date, the number of well-designed studies of individual health outcomes is still too few to draw firm conclusions about risk from drinking water nitrate ingestion. Additional studies that incorporate improved exposure assessment for populations on PWS, measured or predicted exposure for private well users, quantification of nitrate-reducing bacteria, and estimates of dietary and other factors affecting nitrosation are needed.” The bottom line here is that if you, like 22% of Virginians get your water from a well you need to know the nitrate levels of your water; and if you are considering buying a home with a well test it for nitrates and bacteria before you buy the home. (Make sure your offer to purchase has a water quality contingency.).

The most common contamination problem for a well is an adjacent septic system. Research done in Duchess county New York identified density of septic systems as an easy indicator of nitrate contamination to groundwater. The Dutchess County study and another study performed in North Carolina found that overall average density of on-site waste disposal (traditional septic or alternative) should not exceed one unit per 2-3 acres for an average size house to ensure water quality and recharge in groundwater supplies. The controlling factor in minimum lot size requirements in the northeast appears to be maintaining water quality, not groundwater recharge. The measure they used to test water quality was nitrate level. Adequate dilution, soil filtration and time are necessary to ensure that the nitrate level did not rise. It is often surprising how close to a private well the recharge zone is.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Supervisors Take Up the Battle for the Rural Crescent

On Monday night Brentsville Supervisor Jeanine Lawson held a bi-partisan town hall meeting co- hosted by Supervisor Pete Candland of Gainesville District and Supervisor Frank Principi of Woodbridge. They reached out to all the citizens of Prince William County to try to get all the stakeholders in the Rural Crescent “dispute” to the attend. The meeting was held a Stonewall Jackson High School and a moderate sized crowd attended.

The Supervisors each had an opportunity to comment, none of the three supported further growth within the rural crescent. All three supported Supervisor Lawson’s message that had been sent out earlier:

Under the staff proposal...“You will commute to work on increasingly clogged roads, your children’s schools will be more overcrowded, and your sports leagues will face field space shortages. Additionally, our real estate tax bills will rise dramatically to pay for all the new infrastructure required in the rural area to accommodate all these homes. Developing the Rural Crescent not only destroys our green open space, it transfers financial resources away from the parts of the county with dense populations and diverts it to an area that would need many infrastructure improvements to handle that type of growth.”

Supervisor Principi and Supervisor Candland spoke in agreement of that view, and Supervisor Principi spoke in support of further development in the eastern portion of the county. Then the Supervisors opened up the floor the allow citizens to have three minutes each to comment. Though large landowners and developers that have the most potential economic gain from a change in zoning and nature of the Rural Area, most people residing in the Rural Area and who enjoy the rural area are not large landowners. Thus, most of the comments were in support of restricting the growth and development of the Rural Crescent. There were some farmers and large land owners who reminded the crowd of their rights and concerns. However, the overwhelming majority of commenters were critical of the increased development of the Rural Crescent and highly critical of the process that had been used by County Staff.

The strongest feeling in the room was that Prince William County Planning Staff were not responsive to the needs and wants of the voting public and had taken too much upon themselves in shaping the future of Prince William County.

If you recall Prince William County is engaged in revising the sections of the Comprehensive Plan that pertain to the Rural Crescent and the Infrastructure and Facilities plan. According to Supervisor Lawson, the current Prince William County staff proposal contains changes that would greatly increase housing density in the rural area. The public has not seen the final proposal. PWC Planning Office will present the proposed revisions to the public on September 24th 2019 at the Hylton Performing Arts Center at George Mason University in Manassas from 5:30p.m - 8:30p.m. Despite the fact that the comments submitted by email were about 10 to 1 in support of restricting development in the Rural Crescent, it appears that the Planning Office intended to proceed with the plans to increase development within the Rural Crescent, reducing its size.

The tree Supervisors present at the meeting, Lawson, Candland and Principal appeared willing to stop the further development of the Rural Crescent; however, it takes five Supervisors to stop this. It is not clear if there are five votes to stop the Planning Office Proposal from moving forward. Supervisor Principi is not on the ballot in the fall and it is unknown what a future Board of Supervisors might do.

Monday, September 16, 2019

SepticSmart Week

This week, September 16-22, 2019 is SepticSmart Week, an annual event focused on educating homeowners and communities on the proper care and maintenance of their septic systems. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the 25 million Americans with septic systems generate more than 4 billion gallons of wastewater each day. This waste water is dispersed below the ground’s surface every day by the various types of drainfields.

Household wastewater contains disease causing bacteria and viruses and high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus as well as everything else your household flushes down the toilet or pours down a drain. If a septic system is well-maintained and working properly, it will remove most bacteria, viruses, phosphorus and nitrogen. However, if your septic system is not working properly, insufficiently treated sewage can cause groundwater contamination, which can spread disease in humans and animals. All water in a watershed is connected. Improperly treated sewage poses the risk of contaminating nearby surface waters, too. Malfunctioning septic systems release bacteria, viruses, and chemicals toxic to local waterways. When these pollutants are released into the ground, they eventually enter streams, rivers, lakes, and harm local ecosystems by killing native plants, fish, and shellfish.

One of the biggest things you can do for the environment is to properly maintain you septic system. EPA’s SepticSmart initiative is a nation-wide public education effort to get us to learn how to properly operate and maintain our septic systems. When properly designed, maintained and operated a septic or alternative septic system effectively and efficiently treats domestic sewage to protect water quality and support local water supplies. The wastewater from septic systems stays in the local watershed as it returns to the drain field, dispersing into the underlying soil and eventually recharging groundwater and/or reentering the local watershed.

However, your need to have the right system for your household and for your soils and geology. Advanced septic systems can achieve treatment levels comparable to centralized wastewater treatment plants, minimizing the level of phosphates and nitrogen entering the ground water. Discharging to the soil can further remove contaminants, by acting as a final filter. Septic systems can be an important part of a sustainable water system; and your environmental stewardship should begin at home.
Septic Inspection
The EPA's SepticSmart web site has many useful tips and printouts. You may want to look over the offerings. EPA's Tips for septic systems:
  • Regularly inspect your system and pump your tank. In general, homeowners should have their traditional septic system inspected every three years and their alternative system inspected annually by a licensed contractor and have their tank pumped when necessary, generally every two to five years.
  • Use water efficiently. The less water that flows into a septic system the longer it will last. Spread out water use especially laundry and dishwasher loads throughout the day and week. Too much water at once can overload a system .
  • Don’t dispose of household hazardous wastes in sinks and toilets.  Only to put things in the drain or toilet that belong there. For example, coffee grounds, dental floss, disposable diapers and wipes, feminine hygiene products, cigarette butts, and cat litter can all clog and potentially damage septic systems. Flushable wipes are not flushable and do not break down in a septic tank.
  • Plant only grass over and near your septic system. Roots from nearby trees or shrubs might clog and damage the drainfield.
  • Don’t drive or park vehicles on any part of your septic system. Doing so can compact the soil in your drainfield or damage the pipes, tank, or other septic system components. 

Thursday, September 12, 2019

The Basics of Septic

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) 25% of Americans rely on septic systems for treating household waste. That really means that a large portion of the non-urban population relies on septic systems; and if you are buying a home you need to understand on a most basic level how these systems work and have a the system inspected by a licensed professional before purchasing a home. According to the EPA the average lifespan of a septic system is 15 to 40 years. Though  it can last longer if properly maintained, these are very expensive systems to replace and the condition of a septic system should be carefully examined before buying a home.

All the information below is from the EPA’s Septic Smartprogram, the Rural Community Assistance Partnership, the Illinois State Water Survey, and Private Well and is presented here in an edited form.

Conventional septic systems rely on natural degradation of organic material (human waste, skin, soap, etc.) by bacteria to reduce household wastewater so that it can be allowed to flow into the drainfield and harmlessly infiltrate into the groundwater. The image below appeared in presentations of all the above listed organizations. I believe that the citing on the label is the correct one.

You can see the edge of the house in the left hand corner. The wastewater flows from the toilets, sinks, tubs/showers and drains into the septic tank. Once in the tank, the solids separate from the liquid by gravity and sinks to the bottom. Once on the bottom the bacteria have time to do their job of breaking down the organic waste material. Liquids leave through a pipe near the top of the tank and are transported by pump or gravity to a drainfield where the wastewater is allowed to seep into the ground by perforated piping that makes up the underground portion of the drainfield.

It is important that scum from the top layer in the tank and solids from the bottom of the tank are not carried out to the drainfield where they will clog the holes in the perforated pipes. The solids must stay below the intake to the exit pipe (as shown in the picture) and the scum layer of grease must stay above the intake. If the tank is not pumped frequently enough (or is too small for the household use) the solids and scum get pulled out into the drainfield. 

Septic system regulation is relatively new. Most septic regulation date only from about 25-30 years ago and were strengthened in the past 10-15 years. Thus, many relatively new homes can have problematic septic systems. Properly designed, sized and maintained septic systems can last for decades; however, a system that was adequate for a small home when it was built may be entirely undersized for the home after it has been enlarged or a garbage disposal added, sump pumps or water treatment systems discharging to the septic system, or adding a whirlpool.

The EPA lists the  signs of a septic system malfunction in their “NewHomebuyer’s Guide to Septic Systems. The biggest signs that a septic system is failing is:
  • Wastewater backing up or gurgling into household drains (especially when a toilet if flushed).
  •  A strong odor around the septic tank or drainfield.
  •  Bright green, spongy grass appearing on the drainfield.

Don't depend on just your observations when purchasing a home.   The septic system is expensive to repair or replace so you want it to be in good condition when you buy the home. Have the system inspected by a professional, in Virginia that is a DPOR licensed septic professional to inspect the septic system before you purchase a home. Virginia is a buyer beware state. (States like Massachusetts require a Title 5 septic inspection to sell a home.)The inspector should check for the following:
  • Pumping and maintenance records;
  • The age of the septic system;
  • Sludge levels and scum thickness in the tank;
  • Signs of leakage, such as low water levels in the tank;
  • Signs of backup, such as staining in the tank above the outlet pipe;
  • Integrity of the tank, inlet, and outlet pipes;
  • The drainfield, for signs of system failure like standing water;
  • The distribution box, to make sure drain lines are receiving equal flow; and
  • Examine available records from the town or local Health Department, to ensure the system complies with local regulations.
A typical septic system should be inspected every three years by a septic system service provider. The tank should be pumped as recommended by the service provider or as required by your town, county, or state. In Prince William County (and Fairfax and Loudoun) it is required to pump septic tanks at least every 5 years. Alternative septic systems must be inspected every year in Virginia and many states. Here in Virginia the inspection records should be filed with the Health Department along with the record of septic tank pump outs.  

Being careful of what you put down the drain and flush down the toilet (only waste water, and human waste and toilet paper NOT wipes) and pumping your septic tank every couple-three years is the cheapest way to extend the life of you septic system.  Simple maintenance, making sure that excess scum, waste and trash is not thrown into the toilet or down the drain and carried out to clog the perforated pipe will extend the life of your system for a few hundred dollars.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Dead Zone Update

Earlier this summer the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), United States Geological Survey (USGS), University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) and University of Michigan scientists predicted a large hypoxic volume for the Chesapeake Bay in 2019 due to higher river flows last fall and this spring. That prediction has come to fruition. 

River flow volume is linked to increased size of the dead zone because the heavy rains and snow melt that create the river flow carry excess nutrients of nitrogen and phosphorus from agriculture, septic systems, overflows from sewage treatment plants and runoff from lawns, gardens and paved surfaces. These nutrients fuel the out of control grow of the phytoplankton that overwhelms the natural system. The decomposing phytoplankton, combined with higher water temperatures, can cause large areas of the deepest parts of the Chesapeake Bay's deep channel which is the ancient Susquehanna riverbed to have little or no oxygen to support marine life.
from VIMS

At various times each summer the Maryland Department of Natural Resources measures the dissolved oxygen in the Maryland portion of the Chesapeake Bay main stem and the size of the Dead Zone. While the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), Anchor QEA and collaborators at UMCES, operate a real-time three-dimensional hypoxia forecast model using input of that predicts daily dissolved oxygen concentrations throughout the Bay ( using the National Weather Service wind monitoring data.

In a wedge estuary such as Chesapeake Bay where the layers of fresh and salt water are not well mixed. The most important source of oxygen is the atmosphere. At sea level, air contains about 21% oxygen, while the Bay’s waters contain only a small fraction of a percent. This large difference between the amount of oxygen results in oxygen naturally dissolving into the water. This process is further enhanced by the wind, which mixes the surface of the water which is why Virginia Institure of Marine Science uses the wind monitoring data to predict the oxygen; and why storms reduce the size of the Dead Zone.

The peak of oxygen depletion typically occurs in July or August. Water temperatures are highest during these months and the days are longest accelerating the growth of phytoplankton that ultimately consumes all the dissolved oxygen. The dead zone is typically gone by late fall. Cooler air temperatures at that time of year chill the surface waters, while the deeper water remains warm and allows more mixing of the layers during storms. Cooler water also will hold more oxygen. The size and shape of the dead zone is variable from month to month during the summer.
forcast for today VIMS
The Maryland DNR monitoring data “showed that dissolved oxygen conditions in the Maryland portion of the Chesapeake Bay main stem were larger than average in early August. The hypoxic water volume (areas with less than 2 mg/l oxygen) was 1.77 cubic miles in early August, down from the 2.01 cubic miles seen in late July, but significantly higher than the 1985-2018 early August average of 1.19 cubic miles.” 
VIMS Daily Snapshot
These snap shots of the condition of the Chesapeake Bay are difficult to interpret. The severity of the Dead Zone is affected by both the size of the hypoxic zone and the duration. The Virginia Institute of Marine Science model also creates a total hypoxic area (size times duration) for the summer. As you can see below this summer total Dead Zone volume is larger than the last several years. Though it is anticipate that the winds and cooler air associated with Tropical Storm Dorian as it reached the Virginia coast broke up the Dead Zone; nonetheless, the total Dead Zone for the year broke recent records. 
from VIMS

Thursday, September 5, 2019

A Dry Summer Here

From US Drought Monitor 8/27/19

In their weekly report last week the U.S. Drought Monitor published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Department of Agriculture reported that 17.4% of Virginia was categorized as D0, abnormally Dry. This means that short-term dryness will be slowing the growth of crops (impacting my CSA Farm Share), some lingering water deficits and our lawn and pasture are downright crispy and brown.

Though we saw lots of lightening and dark skies, it felt like all the rainstorms just passed us by over the spring and summer. When I reviewed my rain log I found that my perception was not exactly true-we have had more than 4.5 inches of rain over the past 30 days. When I checked the USGS monitoring well just up the road and the water level was down, but not bad at all for this time of year.

Groundwater is water beneath the surface of the earth. It is one of our nation's most important natural resources and is often taken for granted. According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) 24.7% of the domestic water supply in Virginia comes from groundwater- 195 million gallons a day. Groundwater is the sole source of drinking water for the population large segments of Virginia even those connected to city or community water systems.

The water level in the aquifer that supplies a well does not always stay the same. Droughts, seasonal variations in rainfall, and pumping affect the level of the water table. If a well is pumped at a faster rate than the aquifer around it is recharged by precipitation or other underground flow, then water levels in the well begins to fall. This is what happens during the summer, in times of drought and in depleted aquifers.

Rainfall and pumping are not the only forces that impact wells. Land use changes that significantly increase impervious cover and stormwater velocity can prevent water from soaking into the earth and reduce recharge of the groundwater making existing wells more susceptible to drought and overtime reducing the amount of groundwater. Significant increases in groundwater use for irrigation of crops or playing fields, or commercial purposes can overtax and aquifer and dry out neighboring wells. Unless there is an earthquake or other geological event groundwater changes are not abrupt and problems with water supply tend to happen slowly as demand increases with construction and recharge is impacted by adding paved roads, driveways, houses and other impervious surfaces.

The water level in a groundwater wells naturally fluctuates during the year and between wet and dry years. This variation tends to mask a slowly decreasing aquifer or falling groundwater level. Since 2000 the longest drought on record in Virginia was 103 weeks from May 2007 to April 2009 (about the time I started this blog). The most intense drought was in August 2002 when almost a third of Virginia was in severe drought (D4).
from US Drought Portal
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 so it is hard to see a slow and gradual loss of an aquifer unless the groundwater level falls below the pump level it is typically unnoticed. 

It is essential for the long term sustainability of our communities that the long term impact to the aquifer be assessed before the surrounding land use is changed or developments are approved. The above are the same well over two different time periods. Even with the incredibly wet year last year the long term impact on the well seems to have a negative trend. Judge for yourself. 

Monday, September 2, 2019

Continuing to Improve My Energy Footprint

Over the years I have been systematically making small and large changes to my home to reduce my energy consumption. It is constant road to improvement as products change. I started with the easiest steps; lowering the thermostat in the winter and raising the temperature in summer, purchasing energy star appliances and in 2008 choosing an LCD TV over a plasma (an LED TV is even more energy efficient, but was not available at the time). The next simple step was to install solar films on the windows and patio door and drapes and curtains on all the windows. We then changed all the incandescent light bulbs for florescent bulbs.

Since that time most of our light fixtures have been converted to LED and we purchased 2 new LED TV’s. (Though we still have the old LCD TV we bought more than a decade ago, it’s on the list of thing to be replaced. Last year all of our kitchen appliances were once more replaced and updated. I moved from propane gas stove to an induction cook top and electric ovens and once more bought energy star refrigerators. Reportedly, the induction cooktop are more energy efficient because they use a magnetic field to heat the pot. In addition, the induction cooktop is really easy to cleanup. However, the induction cooktop only lasts about 8 year. These were small steps, but I’ve learned over the years that small steps do add up.

Using the Building Envelop Research of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory for guidance we updated our insulation and ducting. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory performs their Building Envelop Research for the US Department of Energy, DOE. Following their recommendations the attic, crawl spaces, eves, ductwork, underside of a large portion of the main level floor were insulated with cellulose. The pipes, wall end caps, knee walls, sump pumps and all identified areas were sealed, the garage ceiling was insulated and an insulated garage door installed, back when I widened the opening. Improving the insulation was both the most cost effective project I have done, and also the most satisfying with the improved comfort in the master bedroom and bath.

According to the DOE heating and cooling account for 56% of the energy use in a typical U.S. home, making it the largest energy expense for most homes. So that is where I looked for my next project. A wide variety of technologies are available for heating and cooling your home, and they achieve a wide range of efficiencies in converting their energy sources into useful heat or cool air for your home. Heat pump systems provide both heating and cooling and offer the benefit of delivering more useful energy than they consume. Unfortunately, their effectiveness at heating on the coldest days is limited and they have inefficient backup electric heat. For climates with moderate heating and cooling needs, heat pumps offer an energy-efficient alternative to furnaces and air conditioners.

Higher energy efficiencies are achieved with geothermal (ground-source or water-source) heat pumps, which transfer heat between your house and the ground or a nearby water source. Although they cost more to install, geothermal heat pumps have low operating costs because they take advantage of relatively constant ground or water temperatures. However, the installation is expensive because of the need to bury coils horizontally or vertically to deliver constant temperature fluid or install a groundwater pump and injection well to supply constant temperature water to the system. Ground-source or water-source heat pumps can be used in more extreme climatic conditions than air-source heat pumps, and are more effective at cooling and heating at the extremes. Geothermal it turned out, was not a cost effective retrofit for this house.

One of the selection criteria for my home was the large southern roof span, perfect for solar panels. After saving up money, my next project I was able to snag some of the limited funds of the 2009-2020 Virginia Renewable Energy Rebate Program before all the money was gone and combining this incentive with the federal tax credit of 30% and I lucked into getting grandfathered into the Washington DC solar renewable energy credits, SREC’s, market so the rebates have paid for the system and all its repairs in a bit under 9 years. The solar panels themselves save us approximately $1,300 per year on our electric bill. That is about twice the savings we achieved by insulating the house; however, the cost (before rebates and incentives) was more than ten times the cost of the insulation project. The solar panels have had a series of problems and roof leaks and overall have been as much an annoyance as boon. It is my plan that when the SRECs expire, I will remove the PV solar array from the roof, replace the roof and look into installing ground mounted solar panels. At this time it looks as if the SRECS could pay me almost $20,000 during the remainder of their life. This will go a long way to paying for a new easier to maintain ground mounted system. Live and learn.

I’m still considering an electric vehicle, but since I drive less than 6,000 miles a year (including vacations), I want to get the full life out of my existing vehicle before I consider buying a new one. After studying the carbon footprint calculators I have realized that traveling by jet may be some of the biggest contributors to our carbon footprint. Since retiring, we have vastly reduced our traveling. These days we fly less than one round trip a year-weddings, funerals and visits seem to be the only things that take us from home these days.