Monday, December 30, 2019

The Sustainable Level of Population

I am old so I recall when Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 best-seller “The Population Bomb” claimed that out-of-control population growth would deplete resources, bringing about widespread starvation. The book promised that “hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death.” The fear of over population was born. Instead, the 1970’s brought the “green revolution,” an extraordinary period of food crop productivity growth. Much of the developing world (with the exception of Sub-Sahara Africa) was able to eliminate their chronic food shortages.

Much of the success of the green revolution was created by the combination of high rates of investment in crop research, fertilizer, infrastructure, economic and market development and implementing policies to support agriculture. All these things were identified as producing the long-term consequences of rising greenhouse gas pollution, as well as ozone depletion by CFCs, and nitrogen oxides contamination from fertilizer in the U.N.'s 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, which named them as some of the primary threats to "civilization." One of the result of the “green revolution” was the formation of dead zones that form from excess nitrogen and phosphorus nutrient pollution.

Storm water runoff containing excess nutrient pollution combined with mild weather encourages the explosive growth of phytoplankton, which is a single-celled algae. While the phytoplankton produces oxygen during photosynthesis, when there is excessive growth of algae the light is chocked out and the algae die and fall to the bottom of the near shore estuaries. The phytoplankton is decomposed by bacteria, which consumes the already depleted oxygen, leaving dead fish and shell fish in their wake.

The excess nutrients that create the dead zones are washed from agricultural fields and animal feed lots as well as from waste water treatment plants and fertilized landscapes. In the 21st century some of these algae blooms became toxic. Not all algal blooms are toxic or hazardous. Only certain species of blue-green algae form the toxin, for reasons that aren't fully understood. Toxic bacteria were not a problem until the 21st century, though algae blooms have been a problem in many places for over half a century. Only algae that contains microcystine or cyanobacteria, a toxin produced by microcystis, a type of blue-green algae that spreads in the summer algae bloom are hazardous.

In the 21st century toxic or hazardous algal blooms have become a global concern in lakes, rivers and oceans. Hazardous algal blooms, the ones that contain microcystis a type of blue-green algae 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. We are killing the oceans. Toxic algae blooms and dead zones are just one impact on the planet from mankind.

For more than 100 years mankind has been burning ever increasing amounts of coal, oil, and natural gas to power their homes, factories, and vehicles. Burning these fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping gas, also called greenhouse gases, into the atmosphere. They exist naturally in the atmosphere, where they help keep the Earth warm enough for plants and animals to live. But people are adding extra greenhouse gases to the atmosphere which is the main reason why the climate is changing.

The anticipated impacts of climate change are arriving. Unfortunately, many scientists believe that we have passed the tipping point which a few years ago was set a 400 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere. We have decisively passed that CO2 level and it appears certain that atmospheric CO2 levels will continue higher. Many scientists say that once past the tipping point there will be drastic changes in earth’s climate even if we stop emitting CO2.

The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change created by the World Meteorological Organization) considers some additional warming of the planet to be irreversible. According to the IPPC, “Many aspects of climate change and associated impacts will continue for centuries, even if anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are stopped. The risks of abrupt or irreversible changes increase as the magnitude of the warming increases.” The expected impacts are continued warming of the planet, rainfall pattern changes and significant rising of sea level.

Surface water has throughout history served as the principal freshwater supply used by mankind. However, the importance of groundwater has increased in recent decades as mankind’s demand for water has surpassed surface water supplies and our ability to access groundwater has increased with technology. Regions of the earth have come to rely more heavily on groundwater as a dependable water supply source. Groundwater represents almost half of all drinking water worldwide, though a lesser proportion of irrigation water and is currently the primary source of freshwater for approximately two billion people [Famiglietti, 2015].

Although there is no measured basis, it is commonly accepted that groundwater comprises 30% of global freshwater. This percentage was estimated in a 1978 paper which assumed uniform groundwater supply across the entire global land area. This assumption is not likely to be accurate, but has been used to estimate groundwater supplies in critical regions. Nonetheless, groundwater is an essential portion of the water supply and ecology. For groundwater to remain available indefinitely there must be a balance between the volume of water that enters a groundwater system and the volume that leaves the system over time.

The climate of the planet has continually changed over the millennia and some groundwater aquifers are legacies of an earlier climate and are not being recharged. There are some groundwater systems that have no natural recharge; unless they are artificially recharged they have a limited life span. If the water from a groundwater basin is used faster than it is recharged, it is being used up and ultimately it will run out.

Mankind’s ecological impact on our planet is huge. The human population is currently estimated at about 7.8 billion people, but cannot continue to grow indefinitely. There are limits earth’s resources and how efficient we can be in using them. Scientists believe there is maximum number of a species an environment can support indefinitely. There is a carrying capacity for life on earth, but no agreement on what that number is. It is very difficult for ecologists to estimate what the human carrying capacity of earth is. We are a complex species and do not consume resources and interact with the environment in a uniform way. According to an article from the Australian Academy of Science, ‘An average middle-class American consumes 3.3 times the subsistence level of food and almost 250 times the subsistence level of clean water.” Thus, “if everyone on Earth lived like a middle class American, then the planet might have a carrying capacity of around 2 billion.” The lower the quality of life to subsistence consumption the more people earth can support.

In April 1973, a dystopian film called Soylent Green was released. In this film the omniscient Soylent Corporation is responsible for nearly all food production. Everyone eats wafers made from plankton called Soylent Green. In the course of investigating a death the protagonist a police officer discovers in the climactic scene that Soylent Green is being made from people. “Solent Green is people! The ocean's dying, the plankton's dying. It's people. Soylent green is made out of people.” The movie took place in the year 2022 in New York. I do not expect that dystopian vision of the future to occur, but I do expect that in a century or two the human population on earth will be smaller than it is now.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Christmas Air Quality

Air pollution in New Delhi has hit crisis levels. According to reports from the New York Times, on the worst air quality day last month, fine particulate levels in New Delhi reached over 900 µg/m3. This morning the level was 376 AQI . For comparison, Long Park along Route 15 in Haymarket, VA (really close to my house) had barely within the good  level at 49 AQI. You can see that overnight the level had been higher in the moderate air quality range.

This happens to be one of the higher levels I have seen at this monitoring station, though still within the U.S. EPA standard. In 2013 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced the reduction in the fine particle pollution, PM2.5, average annual allowed level to 12 micrograms per cubic meter (ug/m3) or an AQI of 39. The 24-hr standard was recently revised to a level of 35 ug/m3 (an AQI of 99) and in truth not all cities in the United States currently meet that standard. 

PM2.5 particles are a major contributing factor to lung disease. A study of children in Southern California showed lung damage associated with long-term particulate exposure, and a multi-city study found decreased lung function in children associated with long term particulate exposure. The United States particulate levels are a small fraction of the levels in the worst areas of the world-Beijing, New Delhi, Santiago (Chile), Mexico City, Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia), Cairo (Egypt), Chongqing (China), Guangzhou (China), Hong Kong, and Kabul (Afghanistan).

PM2.5 particles can be either directly emitted by burning fuel or formed via atmospheric reactions. Primary particles are emitted from cars, trucks, and heavy equipment, as well as residential wood combustion, forest fires, and agricultural waste burning as is still common in India. The main components of particulate pollution formed when pollutants like NOx and SO2 react in the atmosphere to form particles. These particles are emitted from coal fired power plants and other combustion engines. The increase in automobiles and coal fired power plants in both India and China and along the Chinese belt of influence where they have financed coal fired power plants has exacerbated this problem in India, China and other areas of the world because particulates can travel great distances.

The wild fires that burnt across California carried smoke and particulate pollution to the other parts of California and particaulat pollution reached “very unhealthy” levels (near 250 AQI more than 100 miles away), The “very unhealthy” range is when people are advised to limit outdoor activity.

So, if you want to take a look at real time particulate pollution levels you can see what the monitors nearest your home or any where else in the world are reporting at this link.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Drought and Man Made Water Crisis in Zimbabwe

Once considered the bread basket of Southern Africa, Zimbabwe is facing a hunger crisis with half of the population, 7.7 million people, food insecure, the World Food Programme (WFP) said in early December. The days of the large plantations is long gone, and the increasingly unreliable rainy season a result of climate change and shifting weather patterns affects subsistence farmers in particular. Maize is a very water-intensive crop and a staple of their diet.

On top of food insecurity and growing malnutrition, in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, has a water crisis. Over 2 million people there are suffering from acute water shortage at home after the main water treatment plant, the Morton Jaffray waterworks, was shut down on Sept 24, 2019. The plant was reopened briefly and shut down again. Currently Morton Jaffray waterworks uses nine chemicals to treat water which is heavily polluted with domestic and industrial effluent at a cost of US$3 million/month.

City authorities say the drinking water crisis is caused by a lack of foreign currency to pay for the water purification chemicals necessary to purify drinking water that is supplied by dam reservoirs. The hyper inflation (490%) that Zimbabwe has experienced has resulted in the need to pay for imported goods like the water treatment chemicals with foreign currency. Zimbabwe has little to export to get foreign currency. A drought is drying up nearby reservoirs, making the situation worse.

Morton Jaffray was constructed in the 1950’s to serve a then population of 300,000 people, now Harare has over 4 Million people. In addition, deferred maintenance has resulted in the deterioration of the water services infrastructure, which in turn has impacted on service delivery. Currently, the Harare city Government is attempting to purchase better water treatment technology solutions for the city. But this is Zimbabwe and the contract process has been fraught with corruption. Two Government ministers have been implicated in a massive scandal after they allegedly directed the local authority to award a multi-million dollar water treatment contract to two separate unqualified companies without following official bid procedures.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Madrid Climate Talks End in Disappointment

The UN climate conference, COP25 in Madrid, ran two extra days into Sunday, but failed to accomplished its goals. Matters including Article 6, reporting requirements for transparency and “common timeframes” for climate pledges failed to reach any agreement and were pushed into 2020. UN secretary general António Guterres tweeted “I am disappointed with the results of #COP25. The international community lost an important opportunity to show increased ambition on mitigation, adaptation & finance to tackle the climate crisis. But we must not give up, and I will not give up.”

This year’s talks were unable to reach consensus in many areas, pushing decisions into next year. The talks had aimed to finalize the “rulebook” of the Paris Agreement essentially creating the operating manual needed to set rules for carbon markets and other forms of international cooperation when the Paris Agreement goes into effect in 2020. Matters including Article 6, reporting requirements for transparency and “common timeframes” for climate pledges failed to reach any agreement and were pushed into 2020, when countries are also due to increase their pledges of reduction in CO2 equivalents. The meeting had been scheduled to wrap up on Friday, but dragged on two more days attempting to accomplish something.

So as not to end on a total downer, progress was made by the private sector, and by national, regional and local governments. The UN Global Compact, which works with the private sector, announced that 177 companies have now agreed to set science-based climate targets and will reach net-zero emissions by 2050. That is double the number of companies that signed up to the pledge at the Climate Action Summit, and is equivalent to the annual total CO2 emissions of France. In addition, the European Union committed to carbon neutrality by 2050, and 73 nations announced that they will submit an enhanced Nationally Determined Contribution. A groundswell of ambition for a cleaner economy was found on the regional and local level, with 14 regions, 398 cities, 786 businesses and 16 investors are working towards achieving net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050, California among them.

The chart below was in the Wall Street Journal on December 16th its source: Climate Action Tracker.  The chart shows the annual greenhouse gas emissions, historic and targets pledged under the Paris Accord. You can see that the current pledges are inadequate to prevent average global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees C.  India emission are tagged to their GDP and China plans to stop growing by 2030. The  U.S. target based on Obama administration Mid-Century Strategy, but while the US is pulling out of the accord (until the next administration puts us in) states are pledging carbon neutrality by 2050.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Clean Water Initiatives in the Governor's Budget

Last week our Governor, Ralph Northam, began releasing to committees the pertinent portions for each committee of his proposed 2020-2022 biennial budget which will be released on December 17th in an address to the Joint Money Committees of the state General Assembly.

The Governor has proposed $400 million in clean water funding to be used to actually follow through with the third Phase of the Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP III) to meet the 2025 nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution reduction goals for the Chesapeake Bay mandated by the U.S. Environmental Protection.

In 2010 the EPA set a limit for release of nutrients into the Chesapeake Bay watershed. This limit is called a TMDL and was about a 25% reduction in nitrogen, 24% reduction in phosphorus and 20 % reduction in sediment from the 2011 levels that was to be achieved by 2025. The pollution limits were then partitioned to the various states and river basins based on the Chesapeake Bay computer modeling tools and monitoring data. The WIPs are the road maps on how to get to that level that each state was required to submit to and be approved by the EPA. These days in a rebranding, the WIPs are being referred to as "the clean water blueprint" for the Bay.

Nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution can be from either a point source or a non-point source. Point source pollution is from an identifiable source, such as a waste water treatment plant. Non-point source pollution is more diffuse and harder to track, as runoff from lawns, farmlands and paved surfaces carry pollutants into streams draining to the Chesapeake Bay. A growing human population and increased development adds to pollution and stresses the forests and natural areas, which function as filtration and surface and groundwater recharge areas.

The Governor’s budget will have $400 million for clean water divided between better storm water management, continued improvements in waste water treatment in the Commonwealth, and continued reduction in agricultural runoff. The new WIP III targets more areas of non-point source pollution that the Governor did not address in his budget talk. The WIPs identifies dozens of small reductions in sediment, nitrogen and phosphorus released from our homes and communities that each of us will have to make and keep making every years as well as reductions from our communities, schools, public buildings, parks, roads that will all need local action.

The Governor’s budget targets :
  • Better storm water management especially from the unregulated urbanized lands. To that end the Governor’s budget will increase DEQ’s Stormwater Local Assistance Fund (SLAF) and fully fund DEQ.
  • The Governor’s budget and additional legislation proposed by the Governor will require all farmers to participate. All farmers will be required by law to sign up for Nutrient Management Plans on their land and all animal operations to sign up for stream exclusion fencing. The Governor stated in his speech that implementation of these programs would take place as funds became available to the cost share program, though not all costs are paid by the cost share program, the farmers will cover the other costs. The Governor is proposing to fund the cost share programs with $150 million in this budget.
With control of the legislature and the governor’s mansion it is expected that all these plans will be implemented. Your can listen to the Governor's comments on his Facebook page. It is open to even nonmember like me. 

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Curbside Recycling in Prince William 2019

Markets for recyclable materials have drastically changed over the past year. Many of the items accepted in the past for recycling are no longer accepted. Last Spring Prince William County changed the rules for curbside recycling. Recycling creates jobs, saves energy, reduces water and air pollution, and conserves landfill space. It is easy and something we can all make part of our everyday lives. In addition, though it is rarely enforced, recycling is mandatory for residents and businesses in Prince William County. Currently, we recycle 34.6% of our waste.

Remember, if you put items that do not meet the new strict standards for recycling the entire truck load will have to be disposed of as trash. So, do it right. Now seems like a good time to review the changes so that you can fill your bin properly.

In Prince William County you CANNOT recycle glass. You can only recycle:
  • Plastic bottles and jugs with a triangle with the number 1 or 2 on the bottom
  • Aluminum and steel food and drink cans
  • Newspapers and mixed paper
  • Cardboard and paperboard boxes (cereal boxes, tissue boxes etc. )

 That’s it.
Remember to rinse out all bottles and cans. DO NOT recycle bottles that previously contained hazardous materials (such as oil, flammable materials, chemicals, etc.). Newspaper and mixed paper  white/colored paper, magazines, catalogs, books, junk mail (even envelopes with clear windows) and paperboard boxes (e.g. cereal tissue etc.), paper towel and toilet tissue cores. Flattened cardboard and paperboard up to 2 ft. X 2 ft. in size. Do not include cardboard with food residue or plastic liners. 

Monday, December 9, 2019

Some States Require the Testing of Private Wells

According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) report “Estimated Use of Water in the United States in 2015,” which is the latest data available from the USGS, approximately 42.5 million people (more than 13 % of the U.S. population) obtain their drinking water from private wells. This is an estimate. private well water use is rarely reported.

The quality and safety of water from private wells are not regulated by the Federal Safe Drinking Water Act or, in most cases, by state laws. Instead, individual homeowners are responsible for maintaining their domestic well systems and for monitoring water quality. However, there are three states and several health districts within the 10 “home-rule” states have some sort of regulation requiring private well testing. 

Public health and environmental experts seem to agree that engaging private well owners about testing is the first step and key to building a relationship with well owners. Outreach and education though difficult are necessary for building trust within a community and to support effective well testing initiatives. Barriers to engagement identified included the costs of testing and treatment, general mistrust of government, and perceptions that well water is “natural” and therefore believed to be healthy. 

However, testing has found that groundwater is becoming impacted by the actions of man. The Safe Drinking Water Act (Public Law 93-523) that empowered the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set national health-based, enforceable standards for natural or man-made contaminants in drinking water excludes private wells serving fewer than 25 people. In absence of federal standards it is up to the private water well owners themselves to request and pay for the tests and to implement any necessary remediation.

New Jersey, Rhode Island and Oregon have enacted legislation that requires private well testing at the point of a real estate transaction. New Jersey was he first state to require well testing and requires the most analysis. Rhode Island regulations also require the broad testing of wells at the time of a sale, but also suggest annual testing with different substances testing suggested at different frequency. In “home-rule” states many health districts can have unique requirements that might be of concern in the local area. Other states like Virginia and Pennsylvania utilize water clinics to facilitate the testing and understanding of test results.   

The New Jersey Private Well Testing Act (PWTA) is the oldest of the laws. Its regulations became effective in September 2002. The PWTA is a consumer information law that requires sellers (or buyers) of property with a potable private well in New Jersey to test the untreated groundwater for a variety of water quality parameters, including up to 32 human health concern, and to review the test results prior to closing of title. Landlords are also required to test their well water once every five years and to provide each tenant with a copy of the test results.

Under the PWTA all wells must be tested for: total coliform bacteria, iron, manganese, pH, all volatile organic compounds (VOCs) with established Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs), nitrate, arsenic, 48-hour rapid gross alpha particle activity, lead, 1,2,3-trichloropropane, ethylene dibromide, and 1,2-dibromo-3-chloropropane If total coliform bacteria are detected, a test must also be conducted for E. coli. Private wells located in certain counties will also have to test for uranium and mercury. However, the law only requires that both the buyer and seller have received and reviewed a copy of the water test results, and have signed a paper certifying that they have received and reviewed a copy of the results before closing.

There is no requirement that the water be “safe.” The law does not prohibit the sale of property if the water fails one or more drinking water standards. The law mainly ensures that all parties to the real estate transaction know the facts about the well water so that they can make well-informed decisions. The test data is also submitted electronically by the test laboratories to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection for retention, notifying health department of water quality issues, and statewide analysis of groundwater quality. To date New Jersey has collected more than 220,000 data points and expanded the analysis.

In Oregon well owners are not required by law to test their wells unless you plan to sell the property (ORS 448.271). When a purchase offer is accepted, the seller must have the well tested for arsenic, nitrates and total coliform bacteria. This is a very limited look at water quality.

The Rhode Island Department of Health now requires water testing on any Real Estate Transaction and on any newly drilled well. It is required that the well be tested for: total coliform, alkalinity, hardness, chloride, fluoride, iron, lead, manganese, nitrate/nitrite, pH, specific conductance, sulfate, TDS, turbidity, VOC (w/MTBE).

Annual testing of well water is recommended by the  Rhode Island Department of Health. Substances you should test for each year, including Nitrate, Nitrite, Color, Turbidity, and Coliform Bacteria. In addition, the Department of Health recommends that every 3-5 years a well be tested for: fluoride, iron, lead, manganese, sulfate, pH, alkalinity, Total Dissolved Solids, hardness, and specific conductance. Then every 5-10 years a well should also be tested for VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) and MtBE.

In a 2009 study from the National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) assessed the water-quality for about 2,100 domestic wells. The sampled wells are were located in 48 states and up to 219 properties and contaminants, including pH, nutrients, trace elements, radon, pesticides, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), were measured. The large number of contaminants assessed and the broad geographic coverage of the study provided the beginning of an understanding of the quality of water from the major aquifers tapped by domestic supply wells in the United States.

The USGS found that 23% of private wells had at least one contaminant present at concentrations exceeding federal drinking water standards or other health-based levels of concern ,and numerous emerging contaminants that lacked health-based standards were detected in groundwater nation-wide (DeSimone, L.A., Hamilton, P.A., Gilliom, R.J., 2009, Quality of water from domestic wells in principal aquifers of the United States, 1991–2004—Overview of major findings: U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1332, 48 p.) 

Not only should you test the raw well water before purchasing a home with a well, it is also important to verify that any treatment is doing its job correctly and that water remains safe each year. It remains to be seen if mandated testing programs are the way to achieve safer private well drinking water.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Preventing Frozen Pipes

Because of the usually mild winters here in Virginia, we do not often think of frozen pipes until an artic frost is forecast or when it’s too late and the pipes are already frozen. Now is a good time to prepare to avoid frozen pipes. The typical advice on very cold nights is to let a small stream of water run in the bathroom furthest from the water main entry. Do not do this if you have a septic system, it will overload the septic system. If you are on public water and sewer this can work, but will increase our water cost for the month.

In Virginia bathrooms are often build above garages or have pipes that run through dormers. If you have a bathroom above a garage keep a small ceramic electric heater ($40) connected to a thermocouple that turns it on when the temperature in the garage falls below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Turn on the heating cube in the garage and check it functioning. It goes without saying that the garage door should be closed on cold days.

After garages and dormers the most likely pipes to freeze are against exterior walls of the home, or are exposed to the cold, like outdoor hose bibs, and water supply pipes in unheated interior areas like basements and crawl spaces, attics, or kitchen cabinets. Pipes that run against exterior walls that have little or no insulation are also subject to freezing. When the weather is forecast to fall into the single digits or lower open the cabinet doors below sinks located on outside walls or against attic dormers, and keep the heat set over 60 degrees.

By this time of year you should have turned off the water to your outside hoses, there should be a valve for each in the basement next to the main water line. In older homes this is not always true. Next, unscrew the hoses. Most modern homes have frost-free sillcocks (hose bibs) installed, and if they are properly installed with a correct angel to drain the water back they should be fine all winter; however, sometimes they are simply not installed right.

If you have a well, your well supply line can freeze. In sub-zero weather wells with and without separate well houses can freeze. Keeping the temperature in a well house above freezing or your well pipe insulated can prevent this. It used to be that an inefficient 100 watt incandescent bulb gave off enough heat to do the job, but now with more efficient bulbs insulation and other sources of heat have to be used. An electric blanket can do the job. Deep wells are unlikely to freeze, it’s usually a supply line that was not buried deep enough, but the turn at the pitless adaptor can freeze.

When there is a thick layer of snow on the ground the snow actually helps to insulate the water well line and the septic system and keep them from freezing. Unfortunately, the rare artic freeze we get in Virginia does not always come with a thick snow cover. Dropping temperatures without snow cover can allow the pipes in septic systems to freeze and/or can identify a well line that was not buried deep enough.

The typical advice on very cold nights is to let a small stream of water run in the bathroom furthest from the water main entry, but this will overload your septic system. However, do use the water especially hot water if you are worried your system is starting to freeze. This would be an excellent night to run a load of hot water laundry before bed followed up by the dishwasher.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Testing the Well Before Purchase

If you are thinking about buying a home with a private water well you need to understand at a minimum the basics about the well and groundwater, and know the quality and quantity of water available from the well. In many locations private wells are not regulated or only minimally regulated. Virginia now has well drilling regulations and standards, but those only apply to wells drilled after 1992. If you buy a home with an existing well- buyer beware. Any well, groundwater or septic problems not detected by the buyer during the sale process become the home buyer's problem upon closing the sale. There is no legal recourse back to the seller. It would be a real shame to discover after closing on home that the drinking water well does not supply enough water for you to do laundry in the summer, goes dry in a drought or that the water is contaminated or has an unpleasant taste or smell.

About 21% of homes in Virginia get their drinking water from a private well, and homes with wells have septic systems. Wells in Virginia are the owner's responsibility. Regulations from the Virginia Department of Health only address the constructions of wells; there are no regulations for the maintenance or testing of wells. Though there are no Virginia regulations to test well water before a sale, mortgage lenders typically require testing for bacteria for a mortgage to be approved. Testing a well for coliform bacteria and E. coli are not enough to make sure that you have a good source of drinking water for a home. Quite frankly, it is fairly easy to cheat the bacteria test.

When you are considering buying a home with a well, you need to understand the water and make sure that it is acceptable to you. As a matter of fact, water test results acceptable to me was one of the two contingencies for my house. For purchase I would recommend a broad stroke water test that looks at all the primary and secondary contaminants regulated under the safe drinking water act as well as pesticides.

These kinds of tests exist. An example is the WaterCheck Deluxe plus pesticides test kit from National Testing Laboratories which is an EPA certified laboratory would work. Buying a package reduces the cost though the drawback is these packages are performed at a lower sensitivity level and this was the most economical test I found. (I paid around 8 times the cost of their WaterCheck with pesticides to test my water before we bought the house.) It comes with sampling bottles, an ice pack that needs to be frozen and a cooler to use when you FedEx the water samples back. Time is of the essence when dealing with bacteria samples. If the home has any water treatment or filters it is important to test both the raw water coming from the well and the water after treatment. This allows you evaluate the appropriateness and effectiveness of any treatment. You will need two water test packages.

The WaterCheck Deluxe with pesticides is a broad stroke test, testing the water for 103 items including Bacteria (Total Coliform and E-Coli), 19 heavy metals and minerals including lead, iron, arsenic and copper (many which are naturally occurring, but can impact health); 6 other inorganic compounds including nitrates and nitrites (can indicate fertilizer residue or animal waste); 5 physical factors including pH, hardness, alkalinity; 4 Trihalomethanes (THMs) and 47 Volatile Organic Chemicals (VOCs) including Benzene, Methyl Tert-Butyl Ether (MTBE) and Trichloroethene (TCE). The pesticide option adds 20 pesticides, herbicides and PCBs. The package costs $229.99. You will also have to pay overnight shipping cost ($40-$70) to return the package. You may also have to purchase a local Bacteria test if there was a delay in the shipping.

The WaterCheck package compares their results to the The US EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Act limits for the primary and secondary contaminants are a good standard to compare water to when testing a well. Since there are no regulation for private well water, that is a reasonable standard to compare the water test results to. However, be alert to anything that should not be in groundwater. The presence of low levels of man made contaminants may be an indication of a bigger problem. Also, make sure you check for residual levels of chlorine. The presence of residual levels of chlorine could indicate that someone had recently chlorinated the well or had tried to cheat the bacteria test- not nice. So, be alert when you review your results.

Not all of the impurities and contaminants in groundwater are bad, some make water taste good. However, any traces of solvents or hydrocarbons or contaminants that are not naturally occurring would be concerning. Penn State Extension has an online tool to compare testing results to EPA Safe Drinking Water Standards and offers some suggestions. Once you have the information the question is when is water acceptable. The water should also taste good. While most contaminates can be addressed using water treatment systems that are properly designed, installed and maintained, but there are tradeoffs that you might not want to make. When I purchased my home, it was important to me to have water that was safe and entirely acceptable to me without any treatment. I particularly dislike water softeners so I needed that my water not be too hard.

The levels of nitrate in groundwater tends 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). However in recent studies scientists have found a relationship between drinking water with elevated nitrate concentrations and 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.

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. This is why in 10 Rules for Buying a Home with a Well and Septic System, is state not to buy a home without at least 2-3 acres of land if it depends on a well and septic system.

In most locations you can get some help in interpreting water test results from the department of health.