Sunday, February 28, 2021

Backyard Cows and other Changes

On February 2nd, the Prince William County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a zoning text amendment to allow those with two acres or more to own cattle within the domestic fowl overlay district. Residents in these areas will now be permitted to have one cattle per acre after the first acre. Prior to this decision, only those living on parcels of 10 acres or more could own cattle. The ownership of horses in these areas on parcels of 2 acres or more was already allowed.

This will apply to more than 4,000 semi-rural residential parcels in the Brentsville, Gainesville, Coles, Neabsco, and Occoquan, Districts will now be allowed to have cattle on their property if they so choose. The county’s planning office says the new rule “provides increased flexibility in allowing the keeping of cattle on agricultural zoned land in areas of the county that have already been recognized for their rural characteristics.” According to county staff, an existing or future HOA could prohibit cattle in their neighborhoods, just as they can prohibit other livestock.


Following the passing of the Cattle Zoning Text Amendment which will allow in certain parts of the county on two or more acres to own cattle, Supervisor Kenny Boddye issued a directive instructing county staff to look into the ‘environmental impacts’ of the Board’s decision. The recorded directive was:

DIR 21-09 Boddye :Environmental Impacts of ZTA #DPA2021-00005, Cattle

“Staff was directed to research the potential environmental impacts of the recent Zoning Text Amendment (ZTA) adopted by the Board on February 2, 2021, in relation to cattle. Where feasible, this analysis should include, but not be limited to, impacts on air, soil and water quality, potential surface and overland water runoff, impacts on native flora and fauna, impacts on septic systems, sewer systems, wells, and aquafers.”

As any regular reader probably knows I am most concerned about water quality impacts and how this will effect compliance with the Chesapeake Bay TMDL. Overstocking causes most of the water quality damage on small-scale livestock farms and hobby horse farms. It occurs when too many animals are kept on too few acres. Overstocking can strip areas of pasture, increasing polluted runoff. Good environmental stewardship of these properties can go a long way in making hobby agriculture sustainable.

Another Zoning Text Amendment adopted in February to establish the Agritourism and Arts Overlay District (AAOD). Eligible Properties are all properties in the Rural Area zoned A-1 with 2 or more Acres and all properties in the Development Area zoned A-1 with 20 Acres or more. The light green and darker green areas on the map below.


New Agritourism uses which will be allowed or no longer require a special use permit are:
  • Retail area for selling goods and related products
  • Weddings and events
  • Instructional teaching related to on site agricultural uses
  • Trail, Playgrounds, or equipment, such as slides, swings, climbing and bouncing apparatus
  • Wagon, sleigh, and hayrides
  • Arts related uses
All Arts related uses which include:
  • Art studio, gallery, and/or classes
  • Culinary classes
  • Pottery/ceramics studio
  • Jewelry-making
  • Flower shop
  • Bakery
  • Photographic studio
According to county staff, an existing or future HOA could prohibit these activities within their communities. 

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Polar Vortex Brings Water Main Breaks to WSSC


from WSSC

As the chart above shows, there is a direct connection between dropping water temperatures in the Potomac River and the rate of water main breaks. When the temperature drops the incidence of water main breaks rise. The river is the primary source of drinking water for 1.8 million WSSC Water customers in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. When a new low temperature is reached, the colder water can shock pipes, increasing the number of breaks and leaks a few days later.

On average, WSSC crews repair more than 1,800 water main breaks and leaks each year, with the vast majority of them, approximately 1,200, occurring between November and February. In the chart above you can see the increase number of breaks this past week. WSSC has been working hard to repair breaks. Fortunately, the number of water main breaks has stayed below the record of 2017.

Of the 5,700 miles of water mains in their distribution system, approximately 2,900 miles are cast iron pipe, which were used from 1916 to through 1976. These pipes are more prone to break in cold weather because cast iron is a brittle material and becomes more so after 60 years. Pipe age is a primary factor in the majority of breaks. Nearly 40% of WSSC water mains are more than 50 years old.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Perseverance Lands on Mars

The Perseverance rover safely landed on Mars around 4 pm eastern time on February 18th , 2012. The rover was set down in the Jezero Crater where it will spend around two earth years (one Martian year). Perseverance rover will seek signs of ancient life and collect rock and soil samples for possible return to Earth by 2031. By the time the NASA team had received confirmation of the beginning of the landing sequence, it as actually over. There is an 11 minute communication delay and the landing sequence is only 7 minutes long.

Launched on July 30, 2020 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida the Perseverance rover has spent 7 months traveling to Mars. The Perseverance rover is the fifth rover that NASA has landed on the planet. The first rover Sojourner, demonstrated in 1997 that a robot could rove on the Red Planet. NASA’s next Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, discovered evidence that the planet once had running water before becoming a frozen desert. The Curiosity rover which was the size of a car landed in 2012. Curiosity discovered that its landing site, Gale Crater, hosted a lake billions of years ago and an environment that could have supported microbial life. The Perseverance rover aims to take the next step, seeking to determine that there potential signs of past microbial life, or biosignatures on Mars.

The verification of ancient life on Mars carries an enormous burden of proof. Perseverance is the first rover to bring a sample caching system to Mars that will package promising samples for return to Earth by a future mission. Rather than pulverizing rock the way Curiosity’s drill does, Perseverance’s drill will cut intact rock cores that are about the size of a piece of chalk and will place them in sample tubes that it will store until the rover reaches an appropriate drop-off location on Mars. The rover could also potentially deliver the samples to a lander that is part of the planned Mars sample return campaign by NASA and ESA (the European Space Agency).

Once the samples are here on Earth we can examine them more precisely with instruments too large and complex to send to Mars, providing far more information about them than even the most sophisticated rover could.

Also carried to Mars on this mission is the helicopter, Ingenuity, a small, autonomous aircraft that was carried to the surface of the Red Planet attached to the belly of the Perseverance rover. The helicopter will be placed on the surface to if powered flight in the thin Martian air is possible. Its performance during these experimental test flights will help determine if small helicopters are possible for future Mars missions, where they could perform in a support role as robotic scouts, surveying terrain from above.

The video below was made by NASA. It incorporates the first update from the Perseverance rover was released on Monday.


Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Preparing for Winter Storms

It looks like an ice storm may be headed our way on Thursday. Weather projections call for significant ice accumulations and widespread power outages throughout central Virginia and into our counties. The forecast for our area is changing, but there is a distinct possibility of freezing rain which could mean power outages, so it is best to be prepared.   

Remember that pipes that run against exterior walls that have little or no insulation are susceptible to freezing along with pipes that run over garages or next to dormers. Prevent pipe freezing by opening the cabinet doors below sinks located on outside walls or against attic dormers, and keep the heat set over 60 degrees. Also, keep garage doors closed.

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

Before the storm arrives make sure you have an emergency kit prepared with flashlights, extra batteries, blankets, warm clothes, medications and nonperishable food. Make sure your batteries are new. In case the power goes out, you will need to make sure that your freezer and refrigerator will remain cold. If you do not have a generator fill your freezer with Ziplock bags of water and let it freeze now. The added ice will keep your freezer cold for a few days if you leave it closed. Some of the ice bags can be loaded into the refrigerator to keep the refrigerator cold.

My home is on well water and without electricity I have no water, no septic, no sump pumps, my freezer is full!  I had a Guardian 16 kilowatt automatic generator manufactured by Generac installed years ago. When the power to the house is cut, the generator automatically kicks in and can power most of the house in about 20 seconds. The generator runs on liquid propane from a tank buried in my yard that also powers my hot water heater, gas furnace, gas grill and fireplace (and the spare stove in the summer kitchen). The generator can supply the house for more than two weeks depending how full the propane tanks is.  The generator is under my deck (muffling the sound) and looking good as new even after more than 13 years of sitting outside. If the power goes out and you live in my neighborhood, I am happy to charge your phone. 

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

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

Sunday, February 14, 2021

New Age of Plastic Recycling is Coming

Even if you try to carefully recycle it, most plastic waste ends up in landfills as trash. Only two kinds of plastic are commonly recycled in the United States: PET (polyethylene terephthalate) and HDPE (high density polyethylene). These the plastics used to water and soft drink bottles and other bottles labeled with the triangle containing 1. HDPE is used in detergent and shampoo bottles, milk and juice bottles and is labeled with a triangle containing 2.  This is the only kind of plastic being accepted by Prince William County for recycling, all the rest should be put in the trash these days.

Worldwide the story is generally worse. Estimates are that of the 359 million tons of plastics are produced annually and  150–200 million tons end up in landfill or littering the natural environment and only about 9% is recycled. PET is the most common polyester plastic, with almost 70 million tons manufactured annually worldwide for use in textiles and packaging.

from Nature

In the past the only way to recycle PET was using thermomechanical means; however, melting down plastics to recycle them changes it consistency. PET from old bottles must be mixed with brand-new plastic to make a sturdy finished bottle that does not crack. Recycling HDPE of various colors makes a dark plastic good for only things like trash cans where color does not really matter.  Consequently, manufacturing from virgin material is preferred and PET waste continues to accumulate. The result has been that all recycled plastic is “down cycled” into lower quality items and could only be recycled once. In contrast, a new technology developed by Carbios enables both PET plastic and polyester textile fibers tobe “upcycled” into a high quality grade of PET suitable for the production ofclear bottles.

Cabios says they “can now produce transparent bottles from polyester textile waste or from post-consumer colored bottles. This works both ways...make a t-shirt from bottles or disposable food trays,”. Carbios has succeeded in producing PET fibers for textile applications with 100% rPTA, from enzymatically recycled PET plastic waste.

from Carbios 

This advance was achieved as part of the CE-PET (Circular Economy PET) research project, of which Carbios is the lead alongside its partner TWB (Toulouse White Biotechnology). This project was financed by ADEME (the French Environment and Energy Management Agency). Carbios’ process is an innovative enzymatic waste recycling technology. Their work was funded by the French Government because it is fully in line with European objectives of creating a circular economy and strengthening environmental protection. 

The circular economy is an economy where mankind uses resources sparingly and recycles endlessly. It is a sustainable way of life and is the way we should live. Unfortunately, we still have a long way to go. I hope to see this process scaled up to industrial use as well as changes in the design process to manufacture products that are designed to be recycled.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Occoquan Watershed

Recently, the Prince William County Board of Supervisors approved the development of the Preserve at Long Branch, rezoning a portion of the Rural Crescent. No analysis was done as to the potential impact of this development to the hydrology of the Occoquan Watershed.  There is no understanding what the impact this might have to the sustainability of the drinking water supply of adjacent property well owners and the quality of the Occoquan Reservoir itself. 

Occoquan Watershed

The Occoquan Reservoir is an important part of our drinking water supply. The Occoquan supplies about 40% of the clean drinking water for around 2 million people and, in an emergency, can supply all for a short period of time. The reservoir’s current storage capacity is estimated by ICPRB to be 8.3 billion gallons. Prince William land accounts for 40% of the Occoquan watershed which contains 1,300 stream miles, Lake Jackson and Lake Manassas as well as the Occoquan Reservoir.  Water from the Occoquan Reservoir is distributed to customers in Fairfax and Prince William Counties. This water is essential. 

Development impacts water quality. Minimizing impervious surface cover and maintaining the tree canopy is critical to the protection of the County’s streams which flow to the Occoquan and other reservoirs. There is a direct correlation between stream health and impervious surface cover and tree canopy. According to the Northern Virginia Regional Commission, watersheds with impervious surface cover of 10 to 15% show clear signs of degradation, while watersheds with impervious surface cover greater than 25% typically do not support a diverse stream ecology and are dying.

During development the primary impact is erosion and sediment that are carried by stormwater into the streams. The primary post-development impact is increased stormwater volume and velocity that is caused by the removal of tree canopy cover and the replacement of pervious surfaces of plants and grass with the impervious surfaces such as roads, parking lots, rooftops, driveways, patios, etc.

Development increases impervious surface area, and this has created in the past and will in the future create a host of concerns for managing the Occoquan Watershed. For instance, the physical condition of the Watershed's tributaries has been measured to fall with development. Increased stormwater runoff from impervious surfaces flows into streams and creeks at a higher volume and velocity. The result is increased erosion of stream banks that leaves a degraded ecosystem.

The Occoquan Watershed is more than just a source of water for the Reservoir. In addition to its role as an essential portion of the drinking water system for approximately 1.2 million Northern Virginians, the Reservoir and the Watershed also serves to improve water quality:

  • The Reservoir is an essential element in meeting the Chesapeake Bay TMDL by trapping sediments and nutrients. According to the Occoquan Watershed Monitoring Lab (OWML) the Reservoir captured 34% of total nitrogen, 56% of total phosphorus, and 83% of total sediment.
  • The downzoned portion of the Watershed within Fairfax and the Rural Crescent serve as a natural water treatment system and high quality ecological habitat.
  • The Reservoir is a regional recreational asset.

Prince William has ignored its responsibility to best manage the Occoquan watershed in conjunction with Fairfax County’s management of Occoquan Reservoir (and their side of the Watershed) maintaining the primary benefit of the Reservoir as an essential and reliable source of safe, clean drinking water for Prince William County and the importance of the Reservoir as an integrated ecological and hydrological system with multiple uses.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Septic Systems and Sea Level Rise

The Potomac Watershed Roundtable met virtually last Friday. The first meeting of the Roundtable in over a year. Though I miss the ability to chat with other attendees, it was still a good meeting. Dr. Molly Mitchell Research Assistant Professor with the Center for Coastal Research Management at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science spoke to the group about the research that she, Robert Isdell, Julie Herman and Christine Wilcox are engaged in: Prediction of Future Septic System Failure Site in coastal Virginia.

From VDH 2019 presentation-M. Mitchell

Sea level is rising very quickly in Virginia. It has already risen eight inches since 1970’s and is anticipated to rise an additional foot and a half by 2050. Higher temperatures are causing seas to rise as glacial ice melts and the volume of water in the oceans expands. In addition, Virginia is sinking- the land has been subsiding for 10,000 years. The combined impact is the most significant effective sea level rise on the eastern seaboard. 

Climate change and subsidence threatens to alter the depth of the water table in the coastal regions. Conventional and AOSS septic systems require the soil to finish the treatment of the septic effluent. This requires that the soil be dry and unsaturated and there be a minimum of three feet between the bottom of the septic drainfield and the water table. When there is not, the system cannot remove bacterial contamination. 

Septic systems are estimated by the Chesapeake Bay model to contribute 6% of the nitrogen contamination to the Bay, but there is data to indicate that when soils become flooded they flush excess nitrogen. The increased nitrogen has been observed, but the source and mechanism is not understood. In the Chesapeake Bay region, many localities are already allocating significant resources to measures to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus contamination as part of the Chesapeake Bay TMDL. Rising sea levels will increase the expense.  

Using the limited data available from the Virginia Department of Health Dr. Mitchell and the other scientists attempted to identify correlations that might be predictive of future system failures. Using the permits for repair of septic systems and the changing depth to groundwater. They found that structural and geologic factors- the age and type of septic system and the rising water table did correlate with system failure. Additional sources of septic system data possibly maintained on a local level will be necessary to advance the work to a predictive model. However, it is clear that as sea level continues to rise, Coastal communities will need to decide how to treat sewage waste from these areas currently serviced by individual septic systems as coastal flooding renders these systems ineffective. Future development has to consider the impact of rising sea levels, the demands of the Chesapeake Bay TMDL and costs to the community.  

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

2021 Prince William Well Clinic

Prince William County Extension will be having a well water clinic in March to comply with the Governor’s “modified stay at home order” and good social distancing practices. The kit pick-up and drop off with be a drive by at the Extension Office. Introduction and sampling instructions will be presented by an online video and results and interpretation will be by Zoom meeting.

Water samples will be tested for: iron, manganese, nitrate, lead, arsenic, fluoride, sulfate, pH, total dissolved solids, hardness, sodium, copper, total coliform bacteria and E. Coli bacteria. Sample kits will be $65  this year. Registration and pre-payment must be online by going to before March 22nd. I had no trouble following the link and prepaying. Be aware they will send multiple email confirmations- a receipt and confirmation of registration from  the VCEPrograms email and a payment receipt from the Bursar at Va Tech.

The Prince William Drinking Water Clinic has 4 parts:

1. Watch Kick-Off Meeting PowerPoint & How to Collect Water Sample using links below:

Kickoff Meeting PowerPoint and How to Collect Water Sample

2. Sample Kit Pickup- on Saturday, March 27th from 9:00am-12:00pm (noon) at the VCE Office, 8033 Ashton Ave, Manassas 20109. This is a drive-through pick up (remain in your car, masks are required. There will be a VCE tent and signs with directions in the parking lot)

3. The Sample Drop Off on Wednesday, March 31st from 6:30am-10am ONLY at the VCE Office, 8033 Ashton Ave., Manassas 20109. (Physical distancing measures will be in place and masks are required). THeVCE tent and signs with directions will be in the parking lot)

4. Results Interpretation Meeting (Zoom)-on Monday, May 10th, 7:00pm-9:00pm, there will be a live Zoom interpretation meeting which will explain the report, include a discussion, and answer questions on dealing with water problems. Zoom link and details will be emailed to everyone who registers.

Household water quality is driven by geology, well construction and condition, nearby sources of groundwater contamination, and any water treatment devices and the condition and materials of construction of the household plumbing. To ensure safe drinking water it is important to maintain your well, test it regularly and understand your system and geology. If you have water treatment equipment in your home you might want to get two test kits to test the water before and after the treatment equipment to make sure you have the right equipment for your water and that it is working properly.

The chart below shows what we found in the 101 private wells tested in the first round of testing we did in Prince William County in