Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Check List for Winter

There ten things that you should take care of in the waning days of fall to make sure that you spend the winter comfy and warm in your home.

  1. Have your heating system serviced and change your furnace and/ or heat pump filters. 
  2. Check that smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors are in working order and the batteries are good.
  3. If you have window units, remove air conditioners from windows and store away in the basement.
  4. Clear out your gutters. Also, Make sure downspouts extend away from the house by at least 5 feet 
  5. Cut back tree limbs or branches surrounding your home to at least 3 feet away from the house.
  6. Clean and cover patio furniture with a tarp. Store cushions inside or in a garden shed or garage. Though I will admit that my polywood furniture has wintered uncovered outside for 13 years and still looks like new.
  7. Flush the hot water heater. Check that your sump pump(s) is working.  
  8. Unscrew the hoses and turn off the water to your outside hoses
  9. To prevent frozen pipes have a plan to address the weak points on the coldest nights
  10. Check the roof for damage and get it repaired before winter.

I failed to complete my spring repair list and now is my chance to make sure the house is buttoned up for winter. All these items have to do with maintaining equipment, preventing water and ice problems and just staying warm and safe in the winter.  Your heating and air conditioning equipment should be serviced twice a year to make sure it is functioning properly. If you have a gas furnace, it is especially necessary to make sure that it is working properly. In addition, the system functions better when the air flow is not blocked by a dirty filter. Change them. If you have window air conditioning units now is the time to remove them and store them in the basement. This will eliminate a source of air leak to your home; and extend the life of the air conditioner.

Every home should have smoke alarms, and all homes with oil, natural gas or propane burning appliances such as a furnace, water heater, stove, cooktop or grill should have a carbon monoxide monitor. If you have an all-electric home you do not really need a carbon monoxide alarm unless you operate a generator during power outages. The U.S. Fire Administration for Homeland Security, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) and the Red Cross agree after working for 87,000 hours or 10 years in normal environmental conditions in the home it is time to replace your smoke alarms.

Next, on the list Is to clear out your gutters. Clogged gutters can accumulate water in the gutter and around the house. In my case a roofer’s glove clogged a gutter and water poured down from the overflowing gutter on top of a bay window that sprung a leak before I could clear out the gutter. That is the repair that did not get done over the summer.  In addition, a clogged gutter can contribute to creating ice dam. Coming from New England I worry about ice dams that form above the gutters at the edge of the roof. These dams of ice prevent melting snow from draining off the roof and instead may allow the water to back up behind the dam which can both leak into the home and lift the edge of the roof. Fortunately, in Northern Virginia we do not often have to worry about ice dams on the roof, instead it is torrential rain storms and wind that challenge us.

Freezing rain is also a problem. The ice glaze that forms can get quite heavy, and as it builds up on trees or shrubs, branches get weighed down and can snap under the weight.  These snapped branches can damage your home. It is best to cut back tress and large shrubs that overhang your home.

Turn 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, I found out the hard way that sometimes they are simply not installed right or leaving the hose connected that winter may have caused the problem. My frost free sillcock in the back of the house had the pipe in the inside wall split a few years back. I replaced both sillcocks in the spring and now turn off the water in the winter. This should prevent problems in the future.

Also, you need to prevent frozen pipes. Frozen pipes can happen in your supply line or other parts of the house. If your well supply line or the water main is not frozen, you may have water in part of the house, but frozen pipes elsewhere. There are some things you can do to prevent frozen pipes. A couple of ceramic electric heat cubes, thermocouple, electric blanket and a little strategy can prevent frozen pipes before they happen, or defrost a frozen pipe. The 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, garages, or kitchen cabinets. Pipes that run against exterior walls that have little or no insulation are also subject to freezing. 

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. Abnormally cold snaps can identify many a private well line that was not buried deep enough at its most vulnerable point where it connects to the foundation.

Because of the usually mild winters here in Virginia, bathrooms are often build above garages or have pipes run through a dormer. 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 when you turn off the hoses in late fall.

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 in the most extreme weather run an extra ceramic electric heater overnight keeping that bathroom toasty while the rest of the house is at an energy saving 62-65 degrees.

Letting the water run in very cold weather can work, but can also create other problems. While running water may prevent the water supply pipes from freezing, in the coldest weather the slowly running water might cause the drain pipe to the septic system to freeze and block the flow or even burst, and it can overwhelm a septic system. If you are on city water and sewer letting water trickle can prevent frozen pipes at a price.

Now is a good time to prepare for winter. Also, you might want to change your furnace and or heat pump filters so that the systems will work their best through the cold months ahead. Remember if we have snow to dig out your heat pump and make sure all furnace vents are clear and unblocked.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

The Well Went Dry.

How long will it take to refill?

A common question I get from people who think their well has gone dry is how long will it take to refill. Depending on why it went dry, the answer could be tomorrow, when the drought is over, or never. First, make sure that your well has gone dry. The  problem could be:
  1. Equipment failure,
  2. Well failure, or
  3. Diminished aquifer
Check the equipment and power first. Then actually measure the water level (a well service company can do it with a sonic sounder gun or electric probe) recharge rate  in your well should be done before you spend money replacing equipment or thinking of drilling a new well. The recharge can be estimated by water level recoveryafter pumping. It is best to use the recovery yield rates to compare to the rates from previous recovery tests since the recovery yield rate tends to decrease logarithmically as the water level rises because the decreasing difference in head between the well and the adjacent aquifer. However, in fractured rock aquifers as seen around here, the water-level recovery is a straight line in the early period because most of the inflow is from discrete exposed fractures discharging freely above the water level. The well yield may be estimated from this straight-line portion of the graph.

In a well, a diminished water supply can be caused by drop in water level in the well due to drought or over pumping of the aquifer, or the well itself could be failing in several other ways. Even if an aquifer is sound a well may go dry due to encrustation of fractures in a bedrock well or collapse in a well drilled in sandy soils.

I have occasionally gotten a call from someone new to well ownership who watered their lawn and did several loads of laundry and found the limit of their well supply when their well ran out of water. (A top loading washing machine uses about 51 gallons of water and a front loader uses 27 gallons.) What is happening is the well recharge is often less than the pumping rate and they simply kept pumping the water stored within the well bore itself to make up the difference...until the water level falls below the pump. If the well still has a healthy recharge it will only be a matter of hours before it refills. The well bore hole will fill overnight with as much water as it can still produce.  Depending on how much storage your well has (how deep it is) and how much water the well can still produce (if it is stable) it may be adequate with water conservation and demand management.   

This low flow to the well can be caused by drop in water level in the well due to drought (temporary) or over pumping of the aquifer, or the well could be failing due to a buildup of dirt, sediment and gravel reducing the flow to the well (these problems may be fixable). There are times that the steel casing that lines the first 40-60 feet of a well does not extend deep enough and the well walls crumble over time filling the well with dirt and gravel. One or more of these factors could be the cause of a well going dry.

Private wells draw their water from groundwater. Geology, climate, weather, land use and many other factors determine the quantity of groundwater that is available. The water level in your well depends on a number of things, such as the depth of the well, the type (confined or unconfined) of aquifer the well draws from, the amount of pumping that occurs in this aquifer, and the amount of recharge occurring.

Within Prince William County Virginia there are several distinct geologic provinces that will have different groundwater characteristics. The northwestern part of Prince William County down the hill from Bull Run Mountain, consists of sedimentary rocks of the Culpeper Basin. The predominant rock types are conglomerates, sandstones, siltstones, shales, and argillaceous limestones. This geology tends to have moderate to excellent water-bearing potential because it is a fractured rock system with very little overburden. The highest reported yields in the county are from wells in this geology. In other parts of the county there are deep wells in the diabase that tend to have reliable lower yields.

The water level in a groundwater wells naturally fluctuates during the year. Groundwater levels tend to be highest in the early spring after winter snowmelt and spring rainfall when the groundwater is recharged. Groundwater levels begin to fall in May and typically continue to decline during summer as plants and trees use the available shallow groundwater to grow and streamflow draws water. Natural groundwater levels usually reach their lowest point in late September or October when fall rains begin to recharge the groundwater again. If an aquifer is being used up, then despite the seasonal cycles the water level will continue to decrease and ultimately impact the well’s ability to supply water.

If your water loss seems to be from failure of the well itself, the first step is to call a well driller and measure the water level and recharge rate of the well. That information will tell you what you are dealing with and what choices you have to fix the problem. For the next steps

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

My Well Results

 After a delay because the lab was very busy and running behind on processing samples and prepping data, the Virginia Tech Extension Virginia Household Water Quality Program finally emailed the water test results from the water clinic.This is what I saw when I opened my attachment:

I was "Present" for Coliform bacteria, though everything else looked good. Oh my. The results meeting that evening listed the results for the 86 samples taken as:

I noticed in the electronic version of the presentation that the coliform PRESENT rate for Prince William County was nearly double what had been the previous four years. That in itself is suspicious, but not particularly meaningful since the distribution of households changes. However, my well tested positive with an MPN of 1.01/100 mg/L indicating that there is a very small amount of bacteria (about 1 per 100 ml of water).This could be an accidental cross contamination  or it could be in the source water, plumbing or on the faucet. I have no water treatment devices in my house so that was out. I wondered if the high percentage of homes with coliform PRESENT might be due to careless sampling because the instruction was virtual.

Normally, if my well had tested positive for coliform bacteria I would simply jump right to fixing the problem: methodically shock chlorinate the well (according to the procedure from VA Tech), repack the soil around the well pipe to flow away from the well and check and disinfect the well cap and replace as necessary. That is a lot of work for contamination that may have happened in taking or processing the sample. Standard protocol if a well tests PRESENT for coliform is:

  1. Retest using proper sampling procedure and verify that E coli is tested for.
  2. If the sample still tests positive for total coliform then treat the system with chlorine
  3. Retest the water after the chlorine has left the system in about two to three weeks (make sure that the water tests negative for chlorine).
  4. If your well water still tests positive for total coliform: Carefully check the well and water system for points of contamination. Make sure you have a sound and secure sanitary well cap and that the soil around the well is packed to drain water away from the well.
  5. Then treat the well and plumbing system again making sure to disinfect any treatment equipment, replace filters, with chlorine for 12-24 hours to disinfect system (the 12-24 hours is essential). Then flush the chlorine from the system- not to your septic system. Make sure that this is done correctly.
  6. Retest the water after the chlorine has left the system in about two weeks. If coliform bacteria is “ABSENT” you’re done. If not, then it is time to install a long term disinfection system. (UV light or continuous chlorination)

Usually, if the MPN is above 50-100 I would skip retesting.  However, a few months ago I had replaced the well pump, the wiring, the pressure tank, pressure switch and gauge and the well cap. This was a preplanned replacement and in two and a half hours the new pump was in the well with a couple of cups of high-test calcium hypochlorite to disinfect it, and new well cap in place. After that I waited for 24 hours for the well to settle and the chlorine to disinfect the well and then spent several days flushing the well. About three weeks later I had done a bacteria test to make sure that the well was free of bacteria and had even done a second confirmation testing in the middle of July after a series of rain storms. Both times my well tested absent of Coliform bacteria. So, this test result was very unexpected. Though I hate to think that I was the source of human error, taking a sample at 5:30 am I certainly could have been. The lab, too, could have been the source of cross contamination.

There could be other sources of minor Coliform contamination. From Penn State Extension we also know “Time of year and weather conditions can affect the occurrence and amount of coliform bacteria in wells. ....Since coliform bacteria like to live near the surface of the earth and prefer warm temperatures, it is reasonable that bacteria would be more likely to occur in groundwater wells during warmer, wetter weather conditions when surface water is recharging groundwater aquifers. Thus, the highest number of bacteria will be found by testing your well shortly after several weeks of rainy weather, while the fewest bacteria will be found when testing during dry, cold conditions in the winter. These variations in bacteria with season and weather conditions need to be considered when testing your water supply for bacteria.”

This failed test had been taken during a week that we had a several days of rain at the beginning of September. Our geology is fractured rock with very little overburden...still 1.01 MPN spoke more of accidental cross contamination. Since it had rained about two inches in the previous 48 hours, I went out and got a sample bottle from a certified laboratory and carefully took another sample.

The next day I had my results. Absent with MPN < 1. Still I was not happy, though I had chlorinated my well after the equipment was installed I had not disinfected the inside of the well cap and that nagged at me. Just to be sure,  after the next rain when the unseasonably cold of the past couple of weeks had passed, I took one more sample. Once more Absent with MPN < 1. I’m done. The well is fine and it only cost me $240 in testing in the past few months to know and accept that.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Prince William County Wells in 2020

Last week all who participated in the 2020 Prince William County Well Water Clinic received their results by email. Above you can see the summary of what was found in the 86 wells tested. What we tested for were mostly the naturally occurring contaminants and common sources of contamination: a poorly sealed well or a nearby leaking septic system, or indications of plumbing system corrosion. These are the most common contaminants that effect drinking water wells.

In order to determine if treatment is necessary, water test results should be compared to a standard. The standard used was the U.S.EPA Safe Drinking Water Act (SDW) limits. Though private wells do not fall under the regulatory authority of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or the Safe Drinking Water Act, the SDW act has primary and secondary drinking water standards that we use for comparison. Primary standards are ones that can impact health and from the tested substances include: coliform bacteria, E. coli bacteria, nitrate, lead, and arsenic. Secondary standards impact taste or the perceived quality of the water.

Just because your water appears clear doesn’t necessarily mean it is safe to drink. The 2020 Prince William County water clinic found that almost 48% of the wells tested present for coliform bacteria. This is more than double what was found last year. Coliform bacteria are not a health threat itself, it is used to indicate other bacteria that may be present and identify that a well is not properly sealed from surface bacteria. The federal standard for coliform bacteria is zero, but the federal standard allows that up to 5% of samples can test positive for coliform during a month.

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

If your well is contaminated with coliform but not fecal coliform or E. coli, then you have a nuisance bacteria problem and the source may be infiltration from the surface from rain or snow melt. Typical causes are improperly sealed well cap, well repairs performed without disinfecting or adequately disinfecting the well, failed grouting or surface drainage to the well. Very low levels of coliform (1-5 MPN) may present during extremely wet periods. A recent study at Penn State showed that there were significantly more positive bacteria tests during wet periods with lots of rain.  It seems when the water table is very high, or up to the surface, there is more opportunity for bacteria to move up and down in the water as it saturates the earth..

If your well had coliform bacteria present you should shock chlorinate the well (according to the procedure from VA Tech), repack the soil around the well pipe to flow away from the well and replace the well cap. Then after at least two weeks and the next big rainstorm retest the well for coliform. If coliform bacteria is still present then a long-term treatment should be implemented: using UV light, ozonation, or chlorine for continuous disinfection. These systems can cost up to $2,000 installed.

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

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

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

This year they found 1.2% of homes have first draw lead levels above the SDWA maximum contaminant level of 0.015 Mg/L. After the flushing the tap for at least one minute no homes had lead levels above the 0.15 mg/L level; however, many scientists do not believe that any level of lead is safe to drink over an extended period of time. Often homes that have elevated lead in the first draw, have lower pH values.

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

Iron and manganese are naturally occurring elements commonly found in groundwater in this part of the country. 1.2% of the wells tested exceed the iron standard and 3.5% exceeded the manganese standard. At naturally occurring levels iron and manganese do not present a health hazard. However, their presence in well water can cause unpleasant taste, staining and accumulation of mineral solids that can clog water treatment equipment and plumbing and discolored water. The standard Secondary Maximum Contaminant Level (SMCL) for iron is 0.3 milligrams per liter (mg/L or ppm) and 0.05 mg/L for manganese. This level of iron and manganese can be detected by taste, smell or appearance. In addition, some types of bacteria react with soluble forms of iron and manganese and form persistent bacterial contamination in a well, water system and any treatment systems. These organisms change the iron and manganese from a soluble form into a less soluble form, thus causing precipitation and accumulation of black or reddish brown gelatinous material (slime). Masses of mucous, iron, and/or manganese can clog plumbing and water treatment equipment.

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

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

The pH of water is a measure of the acidity or alkalinity. The pH is a logarithmic scale from 0 – 14 with 1 being very acidic and 14 very alkaline. Drinking water should be between 6.5 and 7.5. For reference and to put this into perspective, coffee has a pH of around 5 and salt water has a pH of around 9. Corrosive water, sometimes also called aggressive water is typically water with a low pH. (Alkaline water can also be corrosive.) Low pH water can corrode metal plumbing fixtures causing lead and copper to leach into the water and causing pitting and leaks in the plumbing system. The presence of lead or copper in water is most commonly leaching from the plumbing system or well rather than the groundwater. Acidic water is easily treated using an acid neutralizing filter. Typically these neutralizing filters use a granular marble, calcium carbonate or lime. If the water is very acidic a mixing tank using soda ash, sodium carbonate or sodium hydroxide can be used. The acid neutralizing filters will increase the hardness of the water because of the addition of calcium carbonate. 4.7% of the wells tested were found to have acidic water this year.

Water that contains high levels of dissolved minerals is commonly referred to as hard. Groundwater very slowly wears away at the rocks and minerals picking up small amounts of calcium and magnesium ions. Water containing approximately 125 mg/L can begin to have a noticeable impact and is considered hard. Concentrations above 180 mg/L are considered very hard. Hard water can be just a minor annoyance with spotting and the buildup of lime scale, but once water reaches the very hard level 180 mg/L or 10.5 grains per gallon, it can become problematic. Overall 20.9% of homes tested had hard water.

Two methods are commercially available (and certified) to treat hard water. A water softener and a water that work through a process called template assisted crystallization (TAC), have been certified by DVGW-W512 and are available in whole house units. In template assisted crystallization, water flows through a tank of TAC media. When the hard water comes into contact with the media, the magnesium and calcium ions are caught by the nucleation sites. As more calcium and magnesium ions build up within the sites, small micro-crystals form and flow through your plumbing. They do not attach themselves to your water pipes as scale.

The ubiquitous water softening system is an ion exchange system consisting of a mineral tank and a brine tank. The mineral tank holds small beads of resin that have a negative electrical charge. The calcium and magnesium ions (along with small amounts of other minerals) are positively charged and are attracted to the negatively charged beads. This attraction makes the minerals stick to the beads as the hard water passes through the mineral tank. Sodium from salt is used to charge the resin beads. The brine tank is flushed out when the resin beads are recharged carrying the salty solution to the environment. The salinity of surface waters and groundwater is an emerging environmental concern. Research has shown that salinization has affected over a third of the drainage area of the contiguous United States even in areas without road salt. At the present time the EPA guidance level for sodium in drinking water is 20 mg/L. Given the number of homes with elevated sodium and our local geology, it is probably a reflection of the number of homes with water softeners-48.8% of the wells tested had elevated sodium.

1.2% of wells were found that had arsenic exceeding the EPA MCL for drinking water of 10 ppm. While arsenic is a naturally occurring element found in soil and groundwater it is not typically found at significantly elevated levels in this geology. Arsenic is best removed by water treatment methods such as reverse osmosis, ultra-filtration, distillation, or as a last choice ion exchange (water softeners). Typically these methods are used to treat water at only one faucet. Though anionic exchange systems (water softeners) are whole house systems, they may not be the best choice.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

The Community Farm at Roundabout Meadows

Roundabout Meadows is the 140-acres of land that is bisected by Howser’s Branch Drive. The triangle of land that became stranded by the installation of the Route 50 traffic circles and the building of Howser’s Branch Drive contains the Community Farm at Roundabout Meadows; the address is 39990 Howsers Branch Dr. Aldie, VA 20105. In June, the Community Farm at Roundabout Meadows welcomed volunteers of all ages back out to the farm in a socially distant manner. They report that with the help of over 300 volunteers as of early September, they have surpassed our goal and donated more than 22,000 pounds of fresh produce to Loudoun Hunger Relief, including tomatoes, tomatillos, melons, and more. There is still lots more to harvest and the weather has turned fine to be outdoors. Everyone is welcome at the farm. You can visit, volunteer or donate.

The Piedmont Environmental Council was given the140-acres at the southeast quadrant of US Route 50 and US Route 15 known around here as Gilberts Corner by a citizen group led by Scott Kasprowicz, a former member of the PEC Board of Directors. The group, Roundabout Partners, raised the funds and purchased the property to prevent a planned development. After purchasing the land they then donated the 140 acres to the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC) for conservation purposes. 

Now, the farm is being incorporated into a larger vision at Gilberts Corner that includes the establishment of the 155-acre Gilbert’s Corner Regional Park on the north side of Route 50, and the creation of the Journey Through Hallowed Ground National Heritage Area. In 2016 work began to restore the farm with a controlled or prescribed burn.  For more than a decade, the land had been left fallow and the open pasture was invaded by red cedar and non-native invasive species such as Japanese honeysuckle, multiflora rose, and autumn olive.

The Community Farm at Roundabout Meadows launched in early 2019 with Dana Melby as the Farm Manager. Dana is a native of Frederick County and earned a bachelor’s in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of Colorado and a Masters in International Agriculture at Oklahoma State University. While at Oklahoma State she worked with a local food bank to develop a garden and production plan to supplement their programs. Dana worked in a variety of roles in agriculture, from greenhouse production to orchard. Most recently she worked for Virginia Tech as a Field Research Specialist where she managed peach, apple, and cherry orchards as well as vineyards. She brings incredible expertise and enthusiasm to the Community Farm.

In its first season, the farm produced almost 5,000 pounds of fresh fruits and veggies including potatoes, tomatoes, squash, and melons. They plan to expand their production. All the food grown is donated with Loudoun Hunger Relief as the primary partner. In addition to growing food the farm hosted a variety of educational programs and events, including Family Day at the Community Farm. Dana says that a big part of their mission is engaging volunteers. Without the help of the volunteers the farm would not have had such a successful first season. Volunteers provide 544 hours of their time to the farm in 2019! You can help make this second year a huge success despite a pandemic!

So what's up with the rest of the land? Approximately 80 acres of the property, on the south side of Howsers Branch, is being managed for livestock grazing. In 2017, livestock exclusion fencing, hardened crossings and alternative drinking water were installed. You can see the cow watering station on the right as you drive from Route 15 down Howser’s Branch Drive to Route 50 (it is best if you are the passenger if you want to see). These improvement will protect the property’s streams and water resources. In addition, some areas are being converted to native warm-season grasses. The PEC reports that there has been a noticeable increases over the past two years in the warm-season grasses. In 2018, the lease for the pastures was modified to encourage rotational grazing.

Another 20 acres in the southeast corner is being managed to demonstrate wildlife habitat restoration. Along with the Old Carolina Road roadbed, this area will be accessible for education and passive recreation by a trail being designed in collaboration with Oak Spring Foundation, the Fauquier Loudoun Garden Club, and NOVAParks. Roundabout Meadows was a gift to the whole community even those of us across the county line in Prince William County. 

Sunday, October 11, 2020

The Potomac River May Run Out of Water

 This is a summary of the ICPRB report published September 2020:

The Washington, DC, metropolitan area (WMA) with over three million workers many of whom serve or support the federal government  is also home to almost five million residents. The region’s water suppliers have an important responsibility beyond supplying the needs or the residents: to provide 24/7 water that ensures the federal government, including Congress, the Pentagon, and key agencies can function.  

The water suppliers share the Potomac River as the major regional water resource, and so 35 years ago and came together to form the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin (ICPRB) and a cooperative agreement (Co-Op)  of funding and using the water resources available regionally. One of the requirements of the agreement is that every five years a study be conducted to evaluate whether available resources will be able to meet forecasted water demands. The seventh in the series of such studies has just been released.  This time the ICPRB found that if droughts become much more severe as predicted in the climate forecast, even with the addition of the Vulcan Quarry, Milston Quarry, Travilah Quarry and Luck Stone Quarry B as reservoirs (adding over 13 billion gallons of water storage) and using water restrictions and demand management the WMA water supply may be unable to meet combined water supply needs and the environmental flow-by at Little Falls. In other words according to the forecast by 2050 we run out of water for periods under more than one third of the forecast scenarios. It is to be noted that without the addition of the 7.8 billion gallon Travilah Quarry as additional storage the WMA water systems experience failures by 2040 in the forecasts.

The new ICPRB study forecasts of water demands for the WMA through, 2050, taking into account projected demographic and societal changes that may affect future water use,  forecasts of water availability, considering the potential impact of changes in climate and upstream water use on system resources, and  an evaluation of the ability of current and planned system resources to meet the forecasted demands. Using various scenarios the  current study also assesses the effectiveness of several options for enhancing the current regional water supply system that were recommended in a special study conducted in 2017 (Schultz et al., 2017). This special study evaluated and compared the ability of 10 proposed changes and additions to the WMA water supply system to meet the challenges of growing regional demand for water with a supply that does not grow and the potential impacts of climate change when the region expects to have more intense wet years and longer droughts.

The Potomac River supplies, on average, just over three quarters of the WMA’s surface water needs. The rest of the water supply comes from Occoquan River, the Patuxent River and regional groundwater supplies an estimated 27% of end use demand. The Co-Op members provided the funding for three upstream reservoirs: Jennings Randolph, Little Seneca, and Savage. Water in these reservoirs is released during drought to augment natural river flow. In addition, Fairfax Water and WSSC Water rely daily on reservoirs outside of the drainage area of the Potomac River, on the Occoquan River (7.85 billion gallons) and the Patuxent River (10.4 billion gallons), respectively. Two additional reservoirs are planned to be in place within the next 20 years: Loudoun Water’s Milestone Reservoir(1.25 billion gallons)  , scheduled for completion in 2024, and Fairfax Water’s Vulcan Quarry Phase 1 (1.7 billion gallons), planned to be in place by 2040 to augment their Occoquan supply.

Due to continuing improvements in efficiencies of household water fixtures and appliances and consumer behavior, water use in the WMA has remained remarkably steady for almost three decades despite continuing population growth. Water demand averaged 453 million gallons per day (MGD) for the CO-OP suppliers during the most recent period for which data is available (2014-2018). This does not count the water use from groundwater nor the water use by smaller water supply utilities that have their own water supply. Forecasts of average annual water demand were developed using average per person and household use and a forecast that population in the WMA in 2050 will be 6.1 million, a 27% increase from 2018 levels. The ICPRB projects that average annual  water demand will increase to 501 MGD (10%) by 2040 and to 528 MGD (16%) by 2050. The estimated uncertainties (one standard error) in 2040 and 2050 are ±9.7% and ±10.4%, respectively.

While the demand for water increases, the climate projections indicate that the mid-Atlantic states, on average, are becoming and will continue to get “wetter.” Climate scientists also warn; however,  that extreme conditions, that is, floods and droughts, will become more severe.  Our water infrastructure will have to include more water storage to meet a larger demand during longer droughts.

The ICPRB used nine scenarios to represent ranges of uncertainties in the impact of climate change on water availability in the Potomac basin and in future WMA water demand. For each scenario, Potomac Reservoir and River Simulation Model (PRRISM) simulations were done in  four different configurations of the WMA system: a system with current and planned resources, and a system that has been enhanced with  operation controls using water restrictions,  the current system with operating controls and the Travilah Quarry and finally the current system with operation controls the Travilah Quarry and Luck Stone Quarry B added storage.

On average, precipitation in the Potomac River watershed in 2040 and 2050 is projected to increase by 8% and 10%, respectively, and temperature is projected to increase by 2.16 °C (3.9 °F) and 2.5 °C (4.5 °F), respectively. There is tremendous uncertainty about how climate change will affect streamflows. This study relies on a simple climate response function, based on a least squares multiple regression analysis, to predict mean annual natural Potomac River flow from mean annual precipitation, mean annual temperature, and the previous year’s mean flow.

Four summary statistics are used as key performance metrics are listed in the colored boxes below:

  • Percent years with no Potomac flow deficits: the percentage of years in the simulation period in which flow in the Potomac River at Little Falls is above 100 MGD (the Little Falls flow-by) on every day of the year, that is, in which combined WMA Potomac water supply needs and the environmental flow-by at Little Falls is always met.
  • Percent years with emergency restrictions: the percentage of years over the simulation period in which emergency water use restrictions are implemented on one or more days of the year. In this study, emergency restrictions are assumed to be implemented when combined water supply storage in Jennings Randolph and Little Seneca reservoirs is below 5% of the combined capacity.
  • Maximum 1-day Potomac flow deficit (MGD): the maximum shortfall in meeting combined WMA Potomac water supply needs and the Little Falls environmental flow-by on any single day of the simulation period.
  • Minimum Travilah Quarry storage (BG): the minimum storage in Travilah experienced over the course of the simulation period.

The last statistic, minimum Travilah Quarry storage, is of interest because of the dual role that Travilah is expected to play in the WMA water supply system: as a backup supply in case of an emergency spill and as a resource to mitigate drought. Reductions in Travilah storage during drought reduce or eliminate this reservoir’s ability to serve as a backup supply in case of a spill. Results of the study indicate that if droughts become much more severe as climate models forecast, the WMA system may be unable to meet combined water supply needs and the environmental flow-by at Little Falls even if all of the recommended options of the 2017 alternatives study are implemented, including Travilah Quarry and Luck Stone Quarry B. 

The Charts show: Percent years with no Potomac River deficits, Percent years with emergency restrictions, Maximum 1-day Potomac River flow deficit, Minimum Travilah Quarry storage top to bottom in each box.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

H.L. Mooney Facility Earns Platinum


The H.L. Mooney Advanced Water Reclamation Facility in Woodbridge has earned a Platinum11 Peak Performance Award from the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA). Mooney is one of only five member facilities to be 100% compliant with its state regulations for 11 years in a row. Each year, NACWA recognizes the commitment, innovation and achievements of individuals and public agencies in the clean water community through their Award Programs. The NACWA will present the 2019 Awards to this year’s winners during a virtual awards ceremony on October 28, 2020.

The H. L. Mooney  is located in eastern Prince William County near the Potomac River. The facility treats wastewater from homes and businesses customers located in the eastern half of the County. HL Mooney Advanced Water Reclamation Facility was originally in 1979, expanded in the 1990’s to 18 million gallons a day and again expanded to 24million gallons a day 2010 to accommodate continuing growth in the County’s population.  In addition, the effectiveness of the nitrogen removal was improved in the latest plant upgrade to meet the requirements of the Chesapeake Bay TMDL. The latest upgrade cost $131.7 million paid for by the system customers.

Mooney also removes approximately 140 tons per year of phosphorous and 730 tons per year of nitrogen from the water before it is discharged into Neabsco Creek, a tributary of the Potomac River. Nitrogen and phosphorous are nutrients that boost the growth of aquatic algae that create the annual Dead Zone. The Chesapeake Bay TMDL limits the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment that can be released into the Bay. 

Sunday, October 4, 2020

EVs Could Make a Renewable Grid Work

In December 2018 the California Air Resources Board approved a regulation that sets a statewide goal for all public transit agencies to transition to 100 % zero-emission bus fleets by 2040. In June of 2020 the California Air Resources Board approved a regulation requiring more than half of all trucks sold in the state to be zero-emissions by 2035. Finally, in September of 2020 Governor Gavin Newsom issued an executive order requiring sales of all new passenger vehicles to be zero-emission by 2035 and additional measures to eliminate harmful emissions from the transportation sector.

Combined these are huge goals that will require the remaking of much of the infrastructure and the economy of California. Though there is a long time lag between banning the sale of new internal combustion passenger vehicles and having every car and bus and a large portion of the truck fleet transition to zero emissions, still there is tremendous amount of work that needs to be done. According to the U.S Energy Information Administration,  California has the fifth-largest share of U.S. crude oil reserves and is the seventh-largest producer of crude oil in the nation. California ranks third in the nation in petroleum refining capacity, after Texas and Louisiana, and the state accounts for one-tenth of the total U.S. refining capacity.  A network of crude oil pipelines connects California's oil production to the state's refining centers, which are located primarily in the Central Valley, the Los Angeles area, and the San Francisco Bay area. California also refines imported oil and gas.

The goal is to transition every vehicle in California to zero emissions would require more electricity, a re-imagined  and modernized grid, charging stations and probably hydrogen fuel cell charging stations.  Eliminate all the oil and gas related portions of the economy and infrastructure and transition to zero emissions vehicles. Will California maintain gas and diesel fueling stations for out of state vehicles? Also, be aware that existing electric vehicle batteries are not without environmental consequences and require rare earth metals only mined in China.  

As U.S. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler pointed out  in his letter of response to the Governor ;” The truth is that if the state were driving 100% electric vehicles today, the state would be dealing with even worse power shortages than the ones that have already caused a series of otherwise preventable environmental and public health consequences. For example, in August, after the East Bay Municipal Utility District wastewater treatment plant experienced a power outage for nearly two hours, a pump station failure caused 50,000 gallons of raw sewage to be spilled into California’s Oakland Estuary. Also, just this month, the inability to maintain a reliable energy system led the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) to seek an emergency exemption from federal air quality standards in an attempt to maintain power...”

California has struggled to keep the lights on even before the wildfires. As California has clearly demonstrated in their recent failures to maintain adequate power during the heat wave, solar and wind sources of electricity cannot be ramped up when needed. As a matter of fact, solar output in California actually begins falling off at peak demand time. Adequate energy storage is an essential part of planning for a grid that relies significantly on solar and wind. California would need tremendous amounts of storage to best use the wind and solar excess power when it is generated, and there would have to be planned and stored excess. The wind does not always blow and the sun does not always shine when it is needed . This is a fundamental shift from the way most of the system is managed today.

Currently, solar and wind supply about of a third of California’s power. Despite still having gas turbines that can supply power at peak demand, California was not able to meet the full demand even with conservation orders in effect. In part this was because California relies heavily on its neighbors- it is a net importer of electricity and the nearby states were also experiencing higher than usual demand.

More energy storage seems to be the answer. Ninety-eight percent of existing energy storage in California is pumped hydro. The state has seven existing pumped storage facilities with a total capacity of 3,967 MW, including projects at Lake Hodges, Castaic Lake, Helms, San Luis Reservoir, O’Neill Forebay, Big Creek, and Oroville. Nonetheless it was not enough to cover the recent shortfall in power or even close to what is necessary to manage a grid entirely dependent on renewable power.

Governor Newsome’s turn to emissions free vehicles where a significant number of personal vehicles might be electric vehicles (EV) brings up the  idea of a vehicle-to-grid power transfer and control system that has been knocking around engineering circles for a decade. In a  2017 study by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory predicted the current power problems saying: “we forecast the significant grid challenges that arise as more renewables are deployed (for power generation), specifically the increasing daytime over-generation, increasing evening peaks (in demand), and increasing up-ramp and down-ramp.”  However, the study finds “evening peaks, down-ramping, and up-ramping, all get slightly worse (with EV’s). EVs with uncontrolled charging will do little to mitigate the daytime over-generation problems and evening shortfalls in power generation.  So, Administrator Wheeler has a point.

The solution according to the researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is grid controlled charging of vehicles and utilizing the stored energy. “When comparing against uncontrolled charging, it is clear there is a substantial lost opportunity if vehicles are not integrated with the grid.” In other words, the California power storage needs can be met “ through the ZEV (zero emissions vehicle) Mandate provided that controlled charging is also widely deployed. The capital investment for stationary storage can instead be redirected to further accelerate the deployment of clean vehicles and vehicle-grid integration, and could even be used to pay EV owners when their vehicles are grid-connected with controlled charging. In this manner, not only are clean vehicles an enabler for a clean electricity grid at substantially lower capital investment, but the avoided costs of supporting renewables with stationary storage can be used to further accelerate the deployment of clean vehicles.

So, the solution to the reliable power challenge may be electric vehicles. The challenge is integrating electric vehicles into the grid in a way that is effective and accounts for human behavior in using their vehicles and remembering to plug them in. There would also need to be some method of assure that a vehicle would have and adequate charge when it was needed. Drawing down EV batteries during the evening and night to recharge during the day when solar excess peaks could leave little range for vehicles in the morning for longer trips or car service. Imagine if every EV power reserves were drawn down when the evacuation order was issued.