Thursday, July 30, 2020

Low Pressure from the Well

A reduction in pressure from the well can have several causes:
  1. the well going dry,
  2. a leak or blockage in a pipe in or from the well
  3. a pump problem
  4. a pressure tank or pressure switch problem
  5. an electrical problem (pump is running on 120 instead of 240)
Failure of the well itself is rarely sudden; generally there is a slow deterioration. However, during a drought it can seem to happen suddenly when the storage in the well itself is used up in the normal course of the day. If you have water at normal pressure first thing in the morning or when you get home from work, but the pressure seems to fall or the water run out after a little while, then you may have a groundwater supply problem.

While many wells will last decades, over time the amount of water a well yields can decrease. That can be caused by the water table falling due to extended drought, increased use or increased ground cover with roads, driveways, patios and houses in the recharge area. Mineral encrustation and reducing bacteria (often called iron bacteria) buildup can also decrease well recharge by plugging of holes in the well screen, plugging the piping or the filling of openings in the geologic formation itself. According to Penn State Extension the fall in well yield over time can be caused by changes in the water well itself including:
  1. Encrustation by mineral deposits
  2. Bio-fouling by the growth of microorganisms
  3. Physical plugging of groundwater aquifer by sediment
  4. Well screen or casing corrosion
  5. Pump damage
To provide a reliable supply of water at an adequate pressure for extended use, a drilled well must recharge at a rate greater than the typical domestic demand of 3-5 gallons per minute or have enough storage in the well itself to supply the demand. Each foot of a typical six inch well, has almost a gallon and a half of storage so that a 100 foot of well has 147 gallons. The crudest test of the well itself is to see if you can run it dry. My well is only 150 feet deep, but the static water level has fallen over the years to 43 feet below grade so running the hose (which draw about 3 gallons per minute) should draw down the well in about an hour. I ran the hose for 16 hours back in the spring an never ran it dry. It recharges faster than I was drawing water.

Even on the deepest home wells it would only take 5-6 hours to know if your well is not recharging fast enough and you can run your well dry. If you have more than about 150 gallons available in well storage it is generally enough to supply small household needs till the well can recharge. At that point it is more likely an equipment or system problem. You can potentially repair an encrustation problem (see

Equipment problems are the most common well problems. The first step is to check the equipment. The components of a modern drilled well system likely to impact pressure are: a submersible pump, the piping which can develop a leak or become clogged, a pitless adaptor,  the pipe to the house and the interior water delivery system including the pressure tank and pressure switch.

If your water supply has lost pressure, and seems to be drizzling out of your faucet or showerhead at all times, your problem could simply be a loss of pressure in the pressure tank or damage to or a leak in the bladder in the pressure tank. So start in the basement. The components within the basement provide consistent water pressure at the fixtures in the house and the electrical switch that turns on the pump. The pump moves water to the basement water pressure tank, inside the tank is an air bladder that becomes compressed as water is pumped into the tank. (There are other types of pressure tanks that do not have a bladder and a constant pressure pump does not need a pressure tank, but those installations are not as common.)

The pressure in the tank moves the water through the house pipes so that the pump does not have to run every time you open a faucet. The pressure tank typically maintains the water pressure between 40-60 psi or 30-50 psi for smaller tanks. After the pressure drops below the cut in pressure (typically 30-40 psi), the electrical switch turns on the pump and the pressure in the tank increases as the tank fills. If however, the pump is not delivering water fast enough the pressure tank could fail to regain its head while the water is in use. The pressure switch could also be the problem; it could be cutting in at the wrong pressure.

The first two things to check are the pressure in the pressure tank and your circuit breakers to make sure that the problem is not electrical. You can check the pressure on most pressure tanks with a tire gauge and the valve on the top. (Be sure to cut the power to the system and open a faucet to drain the tank before you measure the pressure. While the water is running out of the tank check the pressure on the pressure gauge, to make sure it is dropping and the pressure gauge is working). After thatyou’re your tier gauge to checking to see that the pressure in the tank is a couple of psi below the cut-in pressure set on your pressure switch. (Most are set to 38 psi for the 40-60 psi tanks.) When you unscrew the cover over the valve if water leaks out, your pressure tank bladder has failed, and it’s time to buy a new one.

The electrical switch in front of the the pressure tank (grey box under the gauge) turns on the pump. It is probably working since you have water, but check it anyway. Check the voltage before and after the switch just to make sure. When the pressure in the pressure tank falls to 40 psi (30 for small tanks) the switch at the pressure tank turns on the pump. Also, you can get what is essentially a vapor lock and the tank may simply need to be drained, bleed and recharged. Before you do that check to make sure that the tubing to the valve is not clogged.

When you turn the pump back on make sure that both circuit breakers are flipped to the on position. If there is a short in the pump system it can blow a single circuit. The pump can operate this way, but not very well. So turn off and on the pump’s circuit breakers or change the fuses. Pumps generally have two circuits tied together because an immersion pump draws a lot of power (240 volts). Make sure both circuits are on- a small water drizzle is one sign of a 240 volt pump getting only 120 volts. (If you know how to do it check the amperage across the pump to make sure it is steady and within range see the chart below from Franklin Electric.) In most cases the pump operates near the maximum load.

Time to look for problems outside. The pipe to the house or the pitless adaptor might have cracked. If like me your pipe runs under a portion of the driveway, this turns out to be a fairly expensive, but simple fix-excavating the pipe and replacing it. Look for signs that a pipe outside of the well is leaking, sinking ground, cracks in the driveway vegetation that looks a little too lush. If you end up replacing the pipe, make sure you slope it properly. If the horizontal well piping between well and building does not slope continually upwards or if it has a high spot, an air lock can form in the piping, so make sure if you end up replacing the pipe that it is properly slanted and not just a fixed depth below surface. The piping in the well itself can also develop leaks over time that can diminish flow.

If you do not see a leak from a pipe outside the well, you are going to have to look at the pump and equipment in the well. At this point, you are going to need help to identify the problem. It is more than a one man (or woman) job to pull a pump. Shallower pumps can be pulled by hand if you are a big, strong and young guy, but special equipment is necessary to pull a deeper pump even for a big guy in great shape. Call a well driller or a well repair company. The well drilling companies can generally replace, pumps and pressure tanks and other well components. In addition, they can diagnose an improper well design. Private well construction was not regulated in Virginia until the 1992 (though Prince William County had well regulations going back to 1979). I have seen some very odd well designs over the years. In Virginia a license is necessary to work on a well as a certified water well provider. Plumbers generally do not have this certification. Do not call a plumber for a well problem.

There are two types of pumps; a jet pump and a submersible pump. Most modern drilled wells are built with a submersible pumps. In older pump installations and dug wells, above ground jet pumps were often used, which can loose it prime. Both types of pump have a fitting called a foot valve. A foot valve is also used at the base of deep wells and is basically a check valve combined with an inlet strainer (older immersion pumps sometimes have what looks like a sock protecting the inlet). Both of these serve as a strainer to prevent picking up rocks or debris that could clog or jam the foot valve. They can get clogged and diminish flow.

Another possible problem is a leak or clog in the pitless adaptor. That is the fitting that allows the vertical well to connect to the horizontal pipe to the house below the frost line. Things like a leaky valve at the bottom of the well can result in a pump losing it prime after a power failure. The submersible pump is a long cylindrical unit that fits within the 6 inch diameter well casing. The bottom portion consists of the sealed pump motor connected to a series of impellers separated by a diffuser that drives the water up the pipe (which is black tubing in the picture) to the plumbing system through the pitless adaptor and a pipe that runs from the well beneath the ground to the basement.The piping or tubing within the well can fail or get clogged.

Finally your pump might be failing. According to the Water Systems Council a submersible pump should last 15 years or more, but silt, sand, iron bacteria and excessive mineral content can impact their life. A submersible pump operating high sediment water may fail in only a few years and a failing pump may appear as diminished pressure before complete failure.

If you need help with a well problem, the Wellcare® Hotline is staffed by the Water Systems Council (WSC), the only non-profit organization solely focused on private wells and small well-based drinking water systems. The Hotline operates Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Eastern Time, and can be reached at 888-395-1033. Also, if you are in Virginia you can call or email the Virginia Master Well Owner’s Network for help.

Monday, July 27, 2020

2018 World CO2 Emissions

Global CO2 emissions were stable from 2014 to 2016 but grew by 1.4% in 2017 and 2.1% in 2018 to 36.58 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalents. Despite some progress in expanding use of low carbon sources of energy, renewable fuels, and increased efficiency, growth in energy use from fossil fuel sources is still outpacing the rise of low-carbon sources and activities.(Jackson, R.B. 2019)
from Global Carbon Project
Global emissions of CO2 from fossil fuels and industry increased by 2.2% per year on average between 2005 and 2015 (Le Quere C 2018). In order to achieve the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement global emissions need to peak and decline rapidly to limit climate change to below 2 °C of warming.

Scientists once hoped that CO2 emissions could be held below the “tipping point,” now the plan is to quickly reach peak emissions and then reverse course reducing global net human-caused CO2 emissions by about 45 % from 2010 levels by 2030 and reaching ‘net zero’ emissions around 2050. (Forbes, 2019). Peak emissions will occur when improvements in the CO2 emitted per unit energy overcome the growth in global energy use. This requires that fossil fuels are replaced by low or no-carbon technologies and we further decouple global GDP from CO2 emissions.

The IPCC 2018 report tells us that climate change has arrived. Average global temperatures have already risen 1.1°C above preindustrial levels and, at current rates of warming, are projected to reach 1.5°C within two decades. A generally growing global economy (when not in Covid-19 shutdowns), insufficient emission reductions in developed countries, and a vast expansion in CO2 emitting energy use in developing countries where per capita emissions remain far below those of wealthier nations will continue to put upward pressure on CO2 emissions. The trajectory of growth in CO2 emission put the planet on a path of warming that is currently well beyond 1.5°C and, potentially, 2°C goals of the Paris Agreement.

Despite the President’s talking points to coal miners and the rollback of several environmental regulations over the past three years, the U.S. CO2 emissions have continued to fall as natural gas has replace coal as the primary fuel in electric supply. In 2019 CO2 emissions declined by about 1.7% after growing 2.8% in 2018, the Global Carbon Project finds that on average U.S. CO2 emissions have decreased about 1% each year for the last 15 years. During that same period China’s CO2 emissions have more than doubled

The above is a summary of the latest report of the Global Carbon Project and its contributors:

Jackson RB, Le Quéré C, Andrew RM , Canadell JG, Korsbakken JI , Liu Z, Peters GP , Zheng B, Friedlingstein P (2019) Global Energy Growth Is Outpacing Decarbonization. A special report for the United Nations Climate Action Summit September 2019. Global Carbon Project, International Project Office, Canberra Australia

Graphs and Data for my pie charts are from:

Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2017) - "CO₂ and Greenhouse Gas Emissions". Published online at

Thursday, July 23, 2020

10 Years with Solar Panels

I had imagined that solar panels without any moving parts would make free energy from the sun without any problems. However, that has not been my experience. Starting in the second year of ownership I have had an ongoing series of failures of micro inverters, panels or wiring and in the past few years a series of roof leaks as the Black Jack used to seal the racks dried out and failed.

To make matters worse, problems with the system have been hard to address because of the difficulty of finding a capable and willing repair company. Companies are much happier to install systems than repair them, and the cause has not always been obvious to whoever was trying to repair the system. There has been a continual stream of problems that all come down to installation (the roof leaks), wiring, and Enphase micro inverters. The micro inverters seemed to be failing with increasing regularly. During the first five years of ownership, the original installer worked with me to honor his 5 year warranty. He paid for the repairs from a series of fledging installers, but I had no control over the process nor the solutions he chose to implement.

Nothing seemed to solve the increasing number of problems. At the end of year five, the original installer bid me farewell and I was left to my own devises to try and solve my solar issues. Between years five and ten (this past May) I paid a total of $12,782 for repairs though all the Enphase modules were still covered under warrantee.

Concentric (and its predecessor firm) had been doing the solar repairs for me for the last few years and I was happy with their abilities. However, last summer when I had two panels not reporting, they were too busy with new installations to deal with a repair. After several attempt to try and schedule a repair, I decided to call back in the new year when the Tax credit stepped down. By January I had four failed Enphase Micro Inverters. Concentric was finally able to find the time to come out to replace them. The micro inverters were still under warrantee, but the labor to install them was not. Within two weeks of the replacement of the four, I had two other micro inverters not reporting. The lack of reliability has made the Enphase micro inverters very disappointing.

Apparently, Enphase knew this and offered all first generation purchasers (including me) a discount on the newest generation Enphase Modules. I pulled out my records of Enphase module failure and associated expense of replacing the failed modules. I discovered that in the previous four years I had paid $4,040 in labor alone to replace the failed modules which is by the way nearly what the value of the electricity the solar PV system produced over those four years. After several conversations Enphase decided to simply give me 32 micro inverters and a new Envoy unit to tie it all together for free, which was really nice. I paid NOVA Solar, a local installer with good references and at this point over a decade of experience, $5,000 to install the replacement parts. That was four weeks ago yesterday. 
For the first time in years I have all 32 solar panels reporting and functioning normally for the entire four weeks. I am hopeful that the system will be more reliable in the future, but I am weary of getting my hope too high and being disappointed again. Honestly, as troublesome and annoying as they’ve been, my solar panels still make financial sense. My system is just over 10 years old. When I signed the contract to purchase my roof mounted solar system in late 2009 the cost per kilowatt for the Sharp panels I bought was about $6,700 plus permits and installation. However, back in 2009 I was able to obtain a state rebate of $12,000. I also used the 30% federal tax credit which was recently stepped down. The net cost of the solar system in 2010 after rebates and tax credits was $32,578.

In addition, I obtained a property tax exemption in Prince William County (and most counties in Virginia). The exemption is based on the Energy Efficient Buildings Tax Exemption (Code of VA §58.1-3221.2) which allows any county, city, or town to exempt or partially exempt energy efficient buildings from local property taxes. In Prince William County the amount of the exemption is based on the installed cost of solar array. That translated to a savings of $656.82 a year for 5 years. I have one more year of the tax credit.

The largest portion of the return is from something called a SREC, a solar renewable energy credit. A SREC is a credit for each megawatt hours of electricity that is produced, but used elsewhere. SRECs have value only because some states have solar set asides from their Renewable Portfolio Standards, RPS, which require that a portion of energy produced by a utility be produced by renewable power. There are currently no RPS solar requirements in Virginia, thus no value to SRECs in Virginia today beyond the $10-$15 that a RPS credit is worth, though that may change under the new Clean Energy Virginia laws.

When I installed my solar panels, my system was eligible to sell SRECs in Pennsylvania and Washington DC and I registered my system in both markets. The Pennsylvania market has since collapsed, but the District of Columbia passed a law in 2011 which made the SRECs quite valuable. The law prevents out-of-state systems from registering after January 31st 2011, but my system was grandfathered. DC is currently the only under-supplied SREC market in the nation There ae no large commercial solar farms, no large industrial installations. Thanks to the Washington DC SREC market my solar panels have earned $33,329.29 (after fees but before taxes), dwarfing the $11,800 in free energy they have produced. Even with a total of $12,782 I have paid out of pocket in repairs (more than the total value of the electricity produced), the system has paid for itself and I am more than $2,000 cash positive on the project so far with everything working.

The Costs of My Solar

Monday, July 20, 2020

Methane in the Atmosphere Rises

R B Jackson, M Saunois, P Bousquet , J G Canadell, B Poulter, A R Stavert , P Bergamaschi, Y Niwa , A Segers and A Tsuruta: Increasing anthropogenic methane emissions arise equally from agricultural and fossil fuel sources, Environ. Res. Lett. 15 (2020) 071002

As you have probably heard or read the lock downs associated with the Covid-19 pandemic has reduced global carbon emissions, albeit temporarily. However, Scientists at the Stanford’s School of Earth Energy and Environmental Sciences believe it is unlikely that methane levels in the environment have seen the same reduction because many of the sources of methane have continued unabated. The paper cited above tells the story or rising methane levels. Methane levels in the atmosphere have risen since 2000. We care about methane because climate scientists estimate that the gas is responsible for about one quarter of the global warming that has happened since industrialization.

According to the paper cited above the amount of methane in Earth’s atmosphere continues to rise. Concentrations of methane now exceed 1875 parts per billion, about 2.5 times as much as was in the atmosphere in the 1850s. The researchers synthesized all known data about methane from the US EPA’s emissions inventories, atmospheric measurements, and models to assemble a global “methane budget” that details which processes add the gas to the atmosphere and which remove it.

from the Global Carbon Project
According to their study, wetlands contributed 30% of global methane emissions, with oil, gas, and coal activities accounting for 20%. Agriculture, including enteric fermentation (cow belching), manure management, and rice cultivation, made up 24% of emissions, and landfill gas contributed 11%. Sixty-four percent of methane emissions came from the tropical regions of South America, Asia, and Africa, with temperate regions accounting for 32% and the Arctic contributing 4%.

Methane emissions rose most sharply in Africa and the Middle East; China; and South Asia and Oceania. Each of these three regions increased emissions by an estimated 10 to 15 million tons per year during the study period. The United States followed behind, increasing methane emissions by 4.5 million tons, mostly due to more natural gas drilling, distribution and consumption.Europe was the only region where methane emissions decreased over the study period, attributed to reductions chemical manufacturing and growing food more efficiently with better management of manure and landfills. 

According to Dr. Jackson and his colleagues, curbing methane emissions will require reducing fossil fuel use and controlling fugitive emissions such as leaks from pipelines and wells, as well as changes to the way we feed cattle, grow rice and eat. “We’ll need to eat less meat and reduce emissions associated with cattle and rice farming,” Dr. Jackson said, “and replace oil and natural gas in our cars and homes.”

Rob Jackson is Stanford’s Michelle and Kevin Douglas Provostial Professor. Dr. Jackson and his lab examine the many ways people affect the Earth.  They're currently examining the effects of climate change and droughts on forest and grassland ecosystems. They are also working to measure and reduce greenhouse gas emissions through the Global Carbon Project (, which Jackson chairs; examples of new research Rob leads include establishing a global network of methane tower measurements at more than 80 sites worldwide and measuring and reducing methane emissions from oil and gas wells, city streets, and homes and buildings.

Their work has real practical applications for reducing the emission of greenhouse gases, though he admits Human driven emissions are in many ways easier to pin down than those from natural sources.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Clean Energy Virginia

Last week Governor Ralph Northam officially launched Clean Energy Virginia,  to direct investment to renewable energy and energy efficiency and help meet the Commonwealth’s goals for clean energy production, which include powering "100 % of Virginia’s electricity from carbon-free sources" by 2045.

“Virginia has a unique opportunity to fundamentally transform the state’s electric grid in ... our COVID-19 economic recovery and drive down harmful carbon pollution,” said Governor Northam. This initiative follows on the recent enactment of the Virginia Clean Economy Act and related solar, wind, and energy efficiency legislation passed in the last legislative session. These clean energy policies require most carbon emitting sources of electricity to be discontinued by 2045, and replacing them with new investments in solar, onshore wind, offshore wind, energy efficiency to reduce overall demand, and battery storage to smooth out energy production by solar and wind versus need timing mismatch.

The Virginia Clean Economy Act accomplishes the following broad goals:
  • Establishes renewable portfolio standards.
  • Establishes energy efficiency standards. The Act sets an energy efficiency resource standard, requiring third party review of whether energy companies meet savings goals; and creates a new program to reduce the energy burden for low-income customers.
  • Advances offshore wind. The Act requires Dominion Energy Virginia to generate 5,200 megawatts of offshore wind generation and prioritize hiring local workers from historically disadvantaged communities.
  • Advances solar and distributed generation. The Act targets generating 16,100 megawatts of solar and onshore wind power. The Act requires Virginia’s two largest energy companies to construct or acquire more than 3,100 megawatts of energy storage capacity.
According to U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) Natural gas fueled more than half of Virginia's electricity net generation in 2018. The state's two nuclear power plants supplied about 30% of Virginia's generation. Coal provided most of the rest, but biomass, hydropower, petroleum, solar photovoltaic (PV), and other energy sources also generate some electricity.

The EIA reports that renewable resources generated less than 7% of Virginia's electricity in 2018. Unfortunately, not all renewable energy is carbon free. Biomass fuels generated the largest share of renewable electricity, followed by hydroelectric power. In 2018, biomass fueled more than 4% of the state's total electricity net generation and hydropower supplied under 2%. Municipal solid waste and landfill gas are common forms of biomass used for electricity generation in Virginia, but the largest share of generating capacity is at facilities that use wood and wood waste (paper plant and forestry product waste). All these renewable biomass sources emit carbon, though the Act does not eliminate them. It appears that the language of what qualifies as renewable energy under the Act includes solar, wind hydropower, landfill gas-fired generation and a limited amount of biomass.

The largest share of solar PV generation in Virginia is provided by utility-scale facilities built in the last several years. Although solar PV to Virginia's net generation is very small (less than 1%), it doubled in 2018. Virginia does not have any wind-powered utility-scale electricity generation, yet . A test project, Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind, is to come on line this year in federal waters 27 miles off Virginia Beach.

As the Washington Post pointed out the Act defines “ total electric energy to mean the electric energy sold by Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power in the previous calendar year, excluding nuclear power generated by plants in service in 2020, and excluding carbon-free (but not renewable) electrical power sources established after July 1, 2030.” This definition allows Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power the flexibility to ensure that they can provide reliable power 24/7 to a future that includes the needs of data centers, and envisioned to have increased demand from the electrification of cars and other portions of the transportation sector as well as electrification of space heating. The nuclear power that provides over 30% of Virginia’s needs will stay in the mix and provide the base power.

Under Virginia’s electricity regulations, utilities are allowed to recover the costs they invest in the grid as well as a “fair rate of return” on equity to customer bills to pay for particular projects. Dominion and Appalachian Power will be permitted to pass along the costs of their new solar, wind and storage projects to the customer base; and sunk costs of any abandoned infrastructure or closed plants can continued to be recovered in full. The State Corporation Commission has estimated ratepayers could see at least a $23 per month increase on their bills by 2027-2030 this includes cost savings from energy efficiency.

Electricity consumption in Virginia is greater than electricity generation within Virginia. The additional power we need is purchased from the regional grid managed by the PJM Interconnection. All but four counties in southwest Virginia are within the PJM Interconnection, a regional transmission organization that coordinates the movement of electricity in all or parts of 13 Mid-Atlantic and Midwestern states plus the District of Columbia. The four counties in southwestern Virginia that are not served by PJM are supplied by the Tennessee Valley Authority. Under the Act at least 75% of all of the energy that counts towards the renewable goal have to come from facilities in Virginia. There did not appear to be hard limits on power supplied from outside the Commonwealth to ensure uninterrupted supply of electricity.

Virginia is offering a Clean Energy Virginia Five-Part Webinar Series hosted by Governor Ralph Northam’s Office and the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME). The focus of the webinar series is on the recent legislation. You can sign up for at this link and see what it's about.  The snap shot of Virginia electricity generation by fuel type for March 2020 from the EIA shows the basic challenge ahead. 

Monday, July 13, 2020

Fairfax Water Annual Water Quality Report

Every year public water suppliers are required to issue an annual drinking water quality report to their customers before July first of the following year. In June Fairfax Water released their report which can be found in its entirety at this link. Fairfax Water owns and operates the James J. Corbalis Jr. and the Frederick P. Griffith Jr. treatment plants. These plants are the primary source of water for most of Fairfax County and portions of Loudoun county and Prince William County. Fairfax Water acquired the City of Falls Church water distribution system (the green areas) as well as a tiny area (orange area) that serve approximately 120,000 people and obtain their water from the Dalecarlia and McMillan treatment plants, part of the Washington Aqueduct which is owned and operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The result is that now Fairfax Water provides water to county residents from their two water treatment plants and buy water from the Washington Aqueduct to supply residents in and around the City of Falls Church. These were historic systems that were once town owned. The newer developments around Merrifield and the Dunn Loring Metro Station are supplied water from the Fairfax Water owned plants. Thus, they are required to report on the water quality of all these sources. 

Both the Washington Aqueduct and Fairfax Water run excellent water treatment plants. All four plants use advanced technologies and practices in drinking-water treatment, which is the process of cleaning raw water to make it safe to drink. Fairfax Water reports that their water consistently surpasses all federal (US EPA Safe Drinking Water Act) and state standards. Of the 182 compounds that are required to be tested for, very few were found in the finished drinking water. Those found were in concentrations well below the EPA’s maximum contaminant levels under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Fairfax Water’s state-certified Water Quality Laboratory performs or manages the testing required by federal and state regulations. The Washington Aqueduct does the testing for the water they supply. 

Over the years as the county grew Fairfax Water expanded its infrastructure. They built the Frederick P. Griffith Jr. Treatment Plant first and then the James J. Corbalis Jr. plant and expanded their distribution system which today serves over 1.7 million people with the lowest water rates in the region.

In order to ensure that tap water is safe to drink, the EPA limits the amount of certain contaminants (a list of more than 90 contaminants) that can be in the water provided by public water systems under the Safe Drinking Water Act. When untreated water enters the treatment plants, coagulants are added to cause small particles to adhere to one another and settle in a sedimentation basin. The water is then filtered through activated carbon and sand to remove remaining fine particles. This produces water with extremely low turbidity and provides excellent barrier against pathogens such as Cryptosporidium and Giardia. 

Next, the water is disinfected with chlorine to kill harmful bacteria and viruses. A corrosion inhibitor is added to help prevent leaching of lead and copper that might be in household plumbing (Fairfax Water reports that all lead containing service laterals were removed from the system). Fluoride is added to protect teeth. Powdered activated carbon and potassium permanganate may also be added to the treatment process to remove taste or odor-causing compounds. In addition to these treatment steps, the Corbalis and Griffith plants use ozone to further reduce odors and organic material. Fairfax Water’s state-certified Water Quality Laboratory performs or manages the testing required by federal and state regulations. The Washington Aqueduct does the testing for the water they supply.

Fairfax Water and the Washington Aqueduct continually monitor and test the water during the treatment process and the finished drinking water as it leaves the plant and in customer homes a part of the Lead and Copper Rule testing. The Virginia Department of Health performs, source-water assessments for the watersheds. The assessment consists of maps of the evaluated watershed area, an inventory of known land-use activities, and documentation of any known source-water contamination within the last five years. Based on the criteria developed by the VDH, the Potomac River and the Occoquan Reservoir were determined to be of high susceptibility to contamination.

Nonetheless, the quality of the finished drinking water being produced at Washington Aqueduct and Fairfax Water is excellent. It meets or exceeds all United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) standards and requirements. The water quality report released in June covers the sampling done during calendar year 2019. There were no violations of the U.S. EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Act. The full report is at this link

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Oil and Gas Pipelines have a Hard Week

Last Sunday Dominion Energy and Duke Energy cancelled the Atlantic Coast Pipeline announced that they have cancelled the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, despite last month’s victory where the Supreme Court upheld the easement to cross the Appalachian Trail granted by the Forest Service. Nonetheless, after spending an estimated $3.4 billion, the Atlantic Coast still faced legal challenges.

Thomas F. Farrell, II, Dominion Energy chairman, president, and chief executive officer, and Lynn J. Good, Duke Energy chair, president, and chief executive officer, released the following joint statement:
We regret that we will be unable to complete the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. For almost six years we have worked diligently and invested billions of dollars to complete the project and deliver the much-needed infrastructure to our customers and communities. Throughout we have engaged extensively with and incorporated feedback from local communities, labor and industrial leaders, government and permitting agencies, environmental interests and social justice organizations. We express sincere appreciation for the tireless efforts and important contributions made by all who were involved in this essential project. This announcement reflects the increasing legal uncertainty that overhangs large-scale energy and industrial infrastructure development in the United States. Until these issues are resolved, the ability to satisfy the country’s energy needs will be significantly challenged.

The next day to emphasize the challenges and legal uncertainty faced by large infrastructure projects the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, cancelled a federal permit that had allowed the Dakota Access Pipeline to operate while the United States Army Corps of Engineers, which had granted the permits for the pipeline, conducted an extensive environmental impact review. The Court ordered the pipeline that runs from North Dakota to Illinois to shut down pending an environmental review and be emptied of oil by August 5, 2020.

The same day the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a federal judge’s rejection of Nationwide Permit 12, is a key requirement for oil and gas pipelines in the U.S. It allows them to be built across waterways. The court’s order upheld a Montana judge’s April ruling that federal officials violated the Endangered Species Act by issuing the permit to Keystone XL without properly assessing the impact on it could have on wildlife.

Keystone XL is a project of TC Energy (formerly TransCanada). There is currently a pipeline Keystone I that runs east from Hardesty Saskatchewan to Manitoba and then south through the Dakotas to Steel City, Nebraska. It is a less direct route and is a lower volume pipeline than the proposed Keystone XL. The Keystone XL would replace Keystone I with a a new and better pipeline. Keystone I is old and this would be an upgrade to the oil transport infrastructure. The existing Keystone II runs from Steel City to Cushing, Oklahoma at the Oklahoma storage facilities. Keystone III running from the Cushing Oklahoma to the Nederland, Texas began delivering crude oil from Cushing, OK, to the oil refineries in Texas in the beginning of 2014.

The Keystone XL Pipeline has been very controversial. At first most of the environmental controversy focused on the porous soils of the Sandhills and fears of a possible oil leak into one of the nation's most important agricultural aquifers. Moving the pipeline away from the aquifer should have mitigate that concern, but the controversy grew. Many who oppose the Keystone XL pipeline want to prevent the development of the oil sands resources in Canada to prevent the acceleration of global warming. The Canadian oil sands have been known for decades, but until oil prices rose and technology improved these oil deposits were too expensive to exploit beyond the limited scope of surface mining. Advances in technology in both oil sand extraction and refining techniques and rising oil prices altered the economics and have made the extraction of oil sand possible, but the oil cost more in energy use to mine and process. Now this controversy has expanded on climate grounds to oppose all pipeline infrastructure.

At the same time as the Keystone XL decision this week, the Supreme Court cleared the use of the Nationwide Permit 12 for some 70 other pipelines, allowing their construction to continue as well as the protests. Protest and litigation have become weaponized. Billions of dollars have be spent for nothing and wasted, when there are real human needs and needs for maintaining our infrastructure. We must stop this waste and be honest about what the questions and issues are.

To some, possibly many, protesting and litigating to stop the pipelines, the issue is simply to stop the use of all fossil fuels. At this moment in time that is unreasonable and unworkable. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the major energy sources in the United States are petroleum-gas and oil (37%), natural gas (32%), coal (11%), nuclear (8%), and renewable energy primarily biomass and hydro power generation (11%). Though renewable energy has been growing at an amazing pace, at 11% of the energy use it will not be able to supply our needs for energy in the short run.

Natural gas is the source of 32% of the energy consumed in the United States and in 2019 was used almost equally for industry, electrical generations and residential and commercial heating. The natural gas consumed in the United States is produced in the United States and moves by pipeline, train and truck. Electrical forms of heat are not as efficient as a gas furnace. Petroleum at 37% is used mostly for transportation (cars, trucks, trains, planes and ships).

Transporting gas can be dangerous. Pipelines are the most reliable and safe way, IF the pipelines are properly maintained, and that is a big if. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does not regulate pipelines; the regulations for secondary containment and spill prevention are inadequate. In addition, there are no regulations that limit the maximum life that equipment can continue to be used. Though the occurrences of pipeline failures are rare, the consequences are significant and more investment should be made in preventing a failure from existing infrastructure and improving existing pipelines and storage and delivery systems.

Most companies would rather pay penalties and fines than the costs of capital expenditures and operation and maintenance expense necessary to absolutely control spills. Pipelines are the safest form of transportation for crude oil and gas. We need to ensure that our pipeline are the safest they can be. Our biggest problem is not new pipelines, it is old pipelines.

The abundance of shale natural gas and oil coming from fracking has pushed the price for natural gas and oil very low and has created a glut in natural gas in this country keeping the cost of energy low and ensuring virtually everyone can have 24/7 power in essentially unlimited amounts, a competitive advantage if we do not destroy ourselves in litigation and protest. In Pennsylvania and Ohio where there is an abundance of available and cheap natural gas power companies are building new generation gas fired power plants to replace coal fired plants which are being regulated out of existence.

The new plants use a gas and steam turbine together to produce more electricity per gas BTU. Coal plant generate about twice the CO2 per megawatt of power and have higher particulate pollution than gas fired electrical power plants and the new hybrids are even more efficient. Electric demand is not growing overall nationally, but the pattern of use is changing as the end use changes. We are using more power in the evenings. In addition the closing of aging coal fired power plants has left sections of the grid short of power. There are many things we need to do now:
  • Installing energy efficiency measures in buildings, and requiring increased efficiency in industry and transportation.
  • Retiring coal-fired power plants. Continuing to increasing the share of power generation from renewable sources and from natural gas.
  • Reducing methane released from the processing and distribution of oil and gas by replacing aging infrastructure and improving technology implementation.

Monday, July 6, 2020

Be Counted in Prince William

Prince William County and the Board of County Supervisors has begun the 2021-2024 Strategic Planning process. The Strategic Plan Development Team consists of Board appointees and County staff members. Part of the process requires community input and feedback that will help ensure resources are targeted to the most important and critical needs of Prince William County. Just by filling out the quick survey (linked below) from the Planning Department your opinion will be counted and your voice heard.

However, the survey has entirely overlooked sustainable water. Prince William County is planning for a future where they do not guarantee that all residents have an adequate, good quality and sustainable water supply. Sustainability of groundwater is hyper-local. Little is known about the sustainability of our groundwater basins in Prince William County, but potential problems are still at a manageable stage. We need to know if the current and planned use of our groundwater is sustainable even in drought years. We need to understand how ground cover by roads, parking lots and buildings will impact groundwater recharge and what level of groundwater withdrawals are sustainable on site to determine if a proposed change in land use or additional use of groundwater is sustainable before it is granted. We need to understand our groundwater and plan for sustainable water.

When I replaced my pump last spring, I took the opportunity to have my static water level measured. The measured level was 43 feet below grade. Sixteen years ago when the well was installed the static water level was 30 feet below grade. Though the recharge is still good it appears that the groundwater table is falling- 13 feet in 16 years. My neighborhood of 10 acre homes was built about 16 years ago. Groundwater levels can be affected by how many other wells draw from the aquifer, how much groundwater is being used in the surrounding area for agricultural, private or public supply, or how much groundwater is being recharged.

Development of an area can impact groundwater recharge. Land use changes that increases impervious cover from roads, pavement and buildings does two things. It reduces the open area for rain and snow to seep into the ground and percolate into the groundwater and the impervious surfaces cause stormwater velocity to increase preventing water from having enough time to percolate into the earth, increasing storm flooding and preventing recharge of groundwater from occurring. Slowly, over time, this can reduce groundwater supply and the water table falls.

The U.S. Geological Survey, USGS, maintains a group of groundwater monitoring wells in Virginia that measure groundwater conditions daily and can be viewed online. Only one of wells is a few miles northwest of here just west of Route 15. The land use around that well has not changed in decades. Daily monitoring data available from that well go back to 2004 (other records exist covering 39 years 1975-2014, but are no longer available on line). What can be seen in the graph below is the slow decline in the water level despite not experiencing any significant droughts since 2008 and having the wettest year on record in 2018. The decline is modest over this period compared to my well, but will continue and get worse over time especially if demand for groundwater is increased and impervious surfaces continue to grow, reducing recharge.

We need to plan for sustainable groundwater for private use and the public supply wells that still draw on groundwater. Please fill out the survey and WRITE IN SUSTAINABLE GROUNDWATER and Adequate and Sustainable Water. 

from USGS
The County says that they are compiling demographic data because they would like responses from a broad cross-section of the community. They assure us all responses are anonymous. Here is the link for the survey and please share it with your neighbors and have all our voices counted.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Know Your Flood Risk

If you have ever bought a house you should have some idea of what a flood zone is. If the house you bought is within the “100 year flood zone” which is really a 1% annual risk of flooding. It is said to be in Special Flood Hazard Area, SFHA; and requires flood insurance. Moderate flood hazard areas, are the areas between the limits of the base flood and the 0.2% annual chance of flooding (or 500-year) flood. The areas of minimal flood hazard, which are the areas outside the SFHA and higher than the elevation of the 0.2-percent-annual-chance flood, are labeled Zone C or Zone X (unshaded). However, according to FEMA, more than 20% of flood claims come from homes located outside of a high-risk flood zone. Floods can happen anywhere, flood zones just have a higher probability.

FEMA has worked in recent years to update its flood maps, especially in coastal zones, but FEMA’s flood maps are intended for flood plain management, not for mitigation of flood damage for homeowners. The FEMA's maps align with First Street's analysis of current and future flood risk in many areas. However, there are some areas, parts of South Florida and much of the Mid-Atlantic coast, that face higher flood risk than FEMA's maps currently indicate, partly because seas are rising and ocean water is growing warmer, the perfect conditions for more severe storms and hurricanes.

First Street Foundation is a non-profit research and technology group committed to defining America’s flood risk. They have developed a model to evaluate flood risk from multiple sources while also including current and future environmental considerations that may change storm intensity. They have identified this risk on a 1 to 10 scale at the individual property level. This combination of high-resolution scale and national scope brings to homeowners and the public in general a more exhaustive and comprehensive flood risk. According to First Street, FEMA, has undercounted nearly 8 million homes and businesses that face substantial risk of flooding, placing more Americans in jeopardy from coastal storms, rising rivers and flash flooding..

First Street’s Flood Factor model was produced in partnership with researchers and hydrologists from First Street Foundation; Columbia University; Fathom; George Mason University; Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Rhodium Group; Rutgers University; The University of California, Berkeley; and University of Bristol. According to First Street this collaboration makes use of open government data and builds upon decades of research, modeling, and expertise, brought together to develop a high-resolution, property-specific flood risk information at a national scale.

The top five states showing the greatest proportion of properties currently with substantial flood risk* include:
  • West Virginia (24.4%),
  • Louisiana (21.1%),
  • Florida (20.5%),
  • Idaho (14.8%) and
  • Montana (14.2%),

The states with the lowest proportions of properties that currently have substantial risk are:
  • Arizona (3.7%),
  • Nevada (3.7%),
  • Washington D.C. (5.3%),
  • Colorado (5.7%), and
  • Maryland (6.2%).

When adjusting for future environmental changes, by 2050 the number of properties with substantial risk across the country will increase by 10.9% to 16.2 million. Louisiana (69.7%), Delaware (21%), New Jersey (19.1%), Florida (18.6%), and South Carolina (16.7%) will see the greatest proportional increase of properties with significant flooding risk over the next 30 years.

The Foundation provides this information for every property in the contiguous U.S., in a format that is publicly and freely accessible via Flood Factor™, (, all you have to do click the link and type in your address or the address of any property you are interested in and the model gives you the flood risk. The tool presents past, present and future flood risk with particular attention paid to recent and projected climate changes that contribute to flood risk. Also, remember that homeowners insurance does not cover damage from flooding, that is a separate flood policy.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Virginia Enters Phase Three

As many know, the Phase Three of the Forward Virginia plan went into effect at midnight on July 1. On Tuesday, Governor Ralph Northam  announced that bar seating will remain prohibited in restaurants as the Commonwealth. Learning from the experience of other states as they have opened and to reduce the likelihood of patrons gathering in bar areas without observing social distancing guidelines, bar seating and congregating areas of restaurants will remain closed except for those passing through. Restaurants may use non-bar seating in the bar area, as long as a minimum of six feet between tables is provided.

Governor Northam also continues to remind Virginians that they are safer at home, especially if they are high-risk or vulnerable. All Virginians must continue to comply with the statewide face covering requirement in indoor public spaces, and Virginians are strongly encouraged to:

·     continue teleworking if possible
·     wash hands regularly
·     maintain six feet of physical distance when outside of home
get tested immediately if you have COVID-19 symptoms

You can see more details here.