Sunday, May 29, 2022

Drought, Temperatures and Electricity in Summer 2022

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC and the North American Energy Reliability Corporation, NERC, have released their annual their summer power reliability assessment. These two reports provide an assessment and evaluation of the electrical power generation and transmission system adequacy to meet projected summer peak demands. The news is not good. 

NERC forecasts that all regions will have sufficient power to meet demand during normal conditions, but all regions may face energy shortfalls (blackouts) during heat waves or low wind conditions. This is especially in the West and upper Midwest where  a nuclear plant was shut down on May 20th without adequately replacing the generation. 

The drought in the west reduces hydroelectric power generation and raises the risk of blackouts there.  The bottom line is the United States can no longer guarantee 24/7 electricity through high demand periods. In addition, the wholesale electric markets expect to see higher prices this summer because of hotter temperatures, slightly increased demand, and higher natural gas prices. This could play out as a failure of policies and planning in the highly regulated electric market.

With different emphasis both reports identify potential reliability issues especially in the western United States. Temperatures have a significant impact on demand for electricity, and higher than average temperatures are expected for the coming summer. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) forecasts for June 2022 through September 2022 suggest a 50% to 80% likelihood of higher-than-average temperatures.

Drought conditions also create heightened reliability risk for the summer. Drought exists or threatens wide areas of North America especially the west currently in the grips of an unpresented drought. Dry hydrological conditions threaten the availability of hydroelectricity for transfers throughout the Western Interconnection, and will reduce the availability of hydroelectric power in total. Hydroelectric power is the most reliable of the renewable options in the northwest and California plans for the availability to purchase that power when their own generation is inadequate. However, they do not purchase the rights to that power in advance of need.  
Drought Monitor May 24, 2022

Natural gas prices for summer 2022 are expected to rise across the U.S. The futures contract price at the Henry Hub is averaging $7.06 per million British thermal units (MMBtu) for June 2022 through September 2022, up 88% from last summer’s average price of $3.75/MMBtu. Furthermore, demand for natural gas is expected to increase 4.8% over summer 2021 levels to 89.8 billion cubic feet per day due to increases in Industrial, Residential/Commercial, power generation, and net export of natural gas.

This is summer demand when natural gas is not used for heating.

The western U.S. continues to face extreme drought conditions, increasing the likelihood of significant wildfires and reducing the amount of hydropower available. Another risk to the reliability of electrical power is the potential for wildfire. The risk of wildfires may require transmission operators to proactively shut down power in areas of active fires, or during extreme heat and wind conditions to reduce the likelihood of electric equipment sparking fires.

The low reservoir and snowpack levels indicate that the West will see less hydropower as less water is available to move through generators and as reservoir water levels fall below those necessary to operate generation equipment safely. As of May 11, 2022, after below-normal accumulations all winter, late spring storms have brought snowpack levels in the Pacific Northwest above normal, while California’s snowpack level stands at just 22% of normal for this time of year. Everything will have to go right for the electrical grid to function normally all summer. Let's hope.

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

The Wells of Prince William County 2022

Earlier this month the well owners who participated in the 2022 Prince William County Well Water Clinic received their results by email. Below you can see the summary of what was found in the 132 water analysis performed. What VA Tech 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. 

To determine if treatment is necessary, water test results should be compared to a standard-usually the U.S.EPA Safe Drinking Water Act (SDW) limits. Though private wells are not regulated by 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 does not mean it is safe to drink. The 2022 Prince William County water clinic found that 30.3% of the wells tested present for coliform bacteria. This is lower than some previous years, but near the average for the state. 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.

Four of those 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.

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 more with supply interruptions.

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 micro filtration or reverse osmosis system. Giardia or Cryptosporidium are 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. Chlorine can work against Giardia but not Cryptosporidium. Ultraviolet (UV) light works against both Giardia and Cryptosporidium so it is the preferred method.

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. One of the wells in our group of 81 samples had nitrate levels above the MCL. The regulatory limit for nitrate in public drinking water supplies, 10 mg/L,  was set to protect against infant methemoglobinemia, but other health effects were not considered and are emerging as problems.

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

This year they found 5.3% of homes had 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 components in the well itself, but can also result from flaking of scale from brass fittings and well components. Corrosion control techniques such as adjusting pH or alkalinity that are commonly used to neutralize aggressive water will not work in to reduce lead being leached from well components. For most instances, though, a neutralizing filter and lead removing activated carbon filters can be used to remove lead leaching from plumbing pipes, solder and fixtures. 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. 3.8% of the wells tested exceed the iron standard and 3.8% 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 manganese 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 8.5. 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. 18.2% 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 15.2% of homes tested had very hard water. (It is to be noted that 47% of homes reported having a water softener.)

Two methods are commercially available (and certified) to treat hard water. A water softener and a water system 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-45.5% of the wells tested had elevated sodium.

None 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.


Sunday, May 22, 2022

Data Centers and Electricity Demand in Virginia

In 2020, electricity sales in Virginia were 115,585 GWh. According to the University of Virginia Energy Transformation Initiative, “Electricity demand in Virginia can be expected to grow fairly rapidly between now and 2035. It will likely continue to grow even more quickly between 2035 and 2050 as the state accelerates its efforts to eliminate carbon emissions from the economy. Most of the shorter-term growth comes from increased sales to data centers in Virginia. In the longer-run, electric vehicles will become an increasingly important contributor to growth in electricity sales.”

Most electricity use sectors in Virginia are not growing, nor is their electric demand. Commercial and industrial demand for electricity in Virginia have both been falling for several years, and the University of Virginia expects this trend to continue for some time. Residential electricity sales are growing very slowly due to slower population growth and improved energy efficiency in homes. The one growing sector of electricity demand in Virginia is data centers, and wow is that growing. Virginia is the data center capital of the nation resulting in electricity use growing faster here than in most other states.

In their forecasts, the University of Virginia’s mid-range estimate for electricity demand to increase 30% (32,800 GWh) by 2035. This forecasted increase does not include any increased electric vehicle sales but rather is entirely due to increased data center power usage. This level of energy demand requires the building of more electrical generation and transmission within the Commonwealth to supply the additional power to data centers. We do not have a spare 30% of the total power demand hanging around. The building of new power generation plants cost more per kilowatt hour than the power produced by the legacy generation we have and will result in our electric bills increasing. Ironically, data centers pay less per kilowatt hour than residential users. 

In Prince William County alone there will be a nine fold increase in data centers when those under development are completed and those proposed are built. Because of data centers in Northern Virginia, growth in electricity demand in Virginia will explode in the short term. Between 2035 and 2050 as the state accelerates its efforts to eliminate carbon emissions from the economy and electrifies the transportation sector demand for electricity will continue to grow. As we electrify everything, and decarbonize the grid, the reliability of the grid comes into question and a larger grid requires more storage to ensure reliability from renewable sources. Data centers require power 24/7 even when the wind does not blow or the sun does not shine. I know from my experience with my solar panels that the production of power varies from month to month and year to year.

Dominion Energy plans to build the 2,640- megawatt Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind (CVOW) commercial project, the largest planned offshore wind farm in the United States. The project will have 176 wind turbines. According to the news release the purchased turbines will be the world’s largest offshore wind turbines in operation — are set to be fully operational in late 2026 and produce up to 14.7 megawatts of power apiece, producing in total up to 2.6 Gigawatts of power.

As reported last week by Sarah Vogelsong in the Virginia Mercury news: “The project is both a key component of Dominion’s plans to decarbonize its fleet by midcentury in line with the Virginia Clean Economy Act and, with an estimated price tag of $9.65 billion, the most expensive endeavor the utility has undertaken to date. If approved by regulators, the average residential customer, defined as someone who uses 1,000 kilowatts of power every month, would see their monthly bill initially rise by $1.45. SCC staff have estimated that figure could rise to $14.21 by the time the project enters operation in2027.”

Though this project was intended as a key component in the plans to decarbonize our grid we can use the costs to look at what data centers cost us. Using the European Union estimates of power production, the Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project should produce around 5,300 GWh of power a year. It does seem a little low and could be more if the wind blows steady at a usable speed at the coastal Virginia location. If to be conservative  in cost estimates we increase that number to 10,000 GWh of power a year and use the SCC estimate of the monthly increase in electrical bills, then the data centers will cost the average Virginian residential customer an additional $42.63 per month (or $511/ year) on top of the costs we will have to pay to decarbonize our grid under the Virginia Clean Economy Act. The cost of more data centers is beginning to look to high. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

My Well Test Results

Last Tuesday the Virginia Tech Extension Virginia Household Water Quality Program emailed me the water test results from my water sample taken last month as part of their well water clinic. This is what I saw when I opened my attachment:

None of the chemicals or bacteriological indicators that they tested for were found to be in excess of the U.S. EPA safe drinking water recommended limits. All good. In addition to the 14 contaminants they normally report, their instrument that analyzes metals and elements returns data for 14 additional contaminants, many of which are rarely found in well water, that Virginia Tech screens for and provides a supplemental report to people only if found in levels higher than recommended for drinking water. None of those contaminants were found to be elevated in my water samples.

This year the appearance of lead in the first draw sample from the powder room sink at 0.005 mg/L gave me pause, it is a little higher than last year at the same sink. The flush sample did not find any lead, it was “non detect,” ND. The presence of lead in water that sits for several hours or overnight generally comes the pipes and fixtures and becomes a bigger problem the older the pipes and fixture become. Over time older pipes and fixtures corrode or simply wear away and the lead and other corrosion material (like rust) is carried to the drinking water. Time and water do cause corrosion, but this can be aggravated by the pH of the water or other changes in water chemistry. The amount of lead corroded from metal plumbing generally increases with water corrosiveness.

My water is neutral, I have plastic pipes in the house, yet I am seeing traces of lead and copper. This is possible because there is lead and copper in the well equipment, pressure tank fittings and faucets. Until 2014 when the 2011 Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act went into effect, almost all drinking water fixtures were made from brass containing up to 8% lead, even if they carried a plated veneer of chrome, nickel or brushed aluminum and were sold as "lead free." So even home built with PVC piping in the 2000's may have some lead in most of the faucets.

Also, before 2014 Prime Western grade “lead free” galvanized steel zinc coating was required to contain between 0.5%-1.4% lead. After 2014, “lead free” galvanized steel have less than 0.25% lead in the surface coatings. My galvanized steel well casing was installed in 2004. Over time, even under neutral condition, any lead used in coatings can be released to the water and pumped to the household tap or accumulate in scale layers on the pipe surface or well bottom where scale can accumulate and be released or picked up and pumped with the water. Since 2018 I have replaced all the faucets that we use for cooking or drinking. There is little I can do about the galvanized steel casing on the well.  The brass fittings on pressure tanks and pitless adaptors are now available with less then 0.25% lead, but the standard was not revised until 2017. My older well may have some older components, but the flush test at ND indicates that the faucet might be the source- it’s probably time to replace that faucet.

I test my drinking water every year (sometimes more than once) to make sure it is safe to drink.  When we bought our home I tested the well for all the primary and secondary contaminants in the Safe Drinking Water Act as well as a suite of metals and pesticides using a certified laboratory and having the laboratory personnel draw the samples. I wanted a comprehensive baseline. Still, I did not test for everything, nobody could afford to (I think there are 80,000 or more known chemicals).

I tested the well to make sure that the well was drawing from a groundwater aquifer that was not contaminated. While you can treat, you cannot really "fix" groundwater.  In addition, I wanted a well that was fine without any need for water treatment to address naturally occurring contaminants. I ended up testing for all the contaminants in the Safe Drinking Water Act and for a group of common pesticides because the home was on the site of a former farm.   

I tested for Bacteria (Total Coliform and E-Coli), 19 heavy metals and minerals including lead, iron, arsenic and copper (many which are naturally occurring, but can impact health); 6 other inorganic compounds including nitrates and nitrites (can indicate fertilizer residue or animal waste); 5 physical factors including pH, hardness, TDS, alkalinity; 4 Trihalomethanes (THMs) and 47 Volatile Organic Chemicals (VOCs) including Benzene, Methyl Tert-Butyl Ether (MTBE) and Trichloroethene (TCE). Organochlorine pesticides, herbicides and PCBs. Finally, I tasted the water.

I do not have any treatment equipment in the house, so I was able to do only one set of water tests. When you test your well, always test the raw water so that you know what you are buying, and test the water after any treatment to make sure the treatment equipment is working properly. What you can live with in terms of water treatment equipment is really a personal decision. I preferred to have water that did not need of any treatment and was a little hard because I like the taste of hard water. I was more willing to renovate the kitchen than treat the water. It took me 10 years to be able to renovate the kitchen, but that whole time I've remained happy with my water.

Sunday, May 15, 2022

CO2 Levels in the Atmosphere

Last week atmospheric carbon dioxide as measured at NOAA’s Mauna Loa Atmospheric Baseline Observatory reached 420 parts per million (ppm), the highest level since accurate measurements began 64 years ago according to scientists from NOAA and Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego. According to NOAA, mankind is adding roughly 40 billion metric tons of CO2 pollution to the atmosphere per year - mostly because of the fossil fuels that people are burning for energy. 

Each year we put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than natural processes can remove, which means the net global amount of carbon dioxide rises. As long as emissions continue, global temperature will continue to rise. Given the long life of CO2, the temperature level already observed will persist for decades even if emissions are cut to net zero. Alongside rising temperatures, scientists predict more weather extremes including intense heat and rainfall, ice melt, sea-level rise and ocean acidification. Despite promises made by the nations the CO2 level in the atmosphere has risen every year since measurements began.

The highest monthly mean CO2 value of the year occurs in May, just before plants in the northern hemisphere start to remove large amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere during the growing season. In the northern fall, winter, and early spring, plants and soils give off CO2, causing levels to rise through May.

CO2 pollution is generated by emissions from carbon-based fossil fuels used for transportation and electrical generation, by cement manufacturing, deforestation, agriculture, and many other practices. Along with the other greenhouse gases, CO2 traps outgoing heat from the planet’s surface that would otherwise escape into space, causing the planet’s atmosphere to warm steadily.

As the concentrations of CO2 and the other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere increase the warming produced by the greenhouse gas effect is strengthened. CO2, methane, nitrous oxide and water vapor are the major greenhouse gases.  Computer modeling of the climate predicts that there will be feedbacks that significantly increase the impact from the increasing CO2. Mankind produces carbon dioxide from power plants, transportation (cars, trucks, planes, trains, and ships), heating, cement manufacture, deforestation, and breathing. Methane is produced from agriculture, livestock, mining, gas pipeline leaks and well heads, landfills, and sewage plants. Nitrous oxide is produced by fertilizers, fossil fuel combustion, animal waste, polluted waters, and chemical processes.

The climate models show that there is nothing that we can do at this point to prevent global warming and climate change even if the concentration of CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere did not continue to rise. Global warming and sea level rising will continue for decades because of the time scales associated with climate and planetary feedback loops.

In reality, the global emissions of CO2 will probably continue to rise for at least a generation possibly more. What is going to happen will happen. I will leave it to others to argue the case for the accuracy of climate models and the time scale to achieve net zero; however, both mankind and the earth itself will respond to changes in CO2 concentrations and temperature, but not before it becomes the pressing concern of the currently rapidly growing and emerging nations. Though the nation constantly argue, discuss and meet, the promises made by nations are not adequate to reverse the climate trend.

We need to face some tough realities. We have not been able to even stabilize the world CO2 emissions. As each region or county industrializes the world CO2 emissions have grown. Even in the United States and European Union the decarbonization of the electric grid is going to take much longer than we hoped. The technology is just not there yet. It is unreasonable to expect that climate goals can be met without rationing power use.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

The Rules for Buying a Home with a Well

Virginia is a "buyer beware" state. Any well or groundwater problems not detected by the buyer during the sale process become the  buyer's problem upon closing the sale. There is no legal recourse back to the seller. These are the rules for buying house with a well to help you to avoid properties that are potential big problems before you close on a house.

  1. The house must have 2-3 acres of land.
  2. There must be a well completion report on file with the county health department that shows:
    1. The well stabilized yield should be greater than or equal to 6 gallons/minute
    2. The well should be drilled and more than 100 feet below grade (deep)
  3. The well should be a 6 inch diameter pipe with a bolted cap sticking at least a foot out of the ground
  4. Do not buy a home with a shared well
  5. The well was drilled after April 1, 1992 (under the current regulations).
  6. The well head must be at least 100 feet from the nearest edge of the septic drainfield and at least 50 feet from the nearest corner of the house.
  7. Health Department records show regular septic pump outs at least every 5 years. Annual inspections for alternative septic systems should be on file.
  8. Don’t buy a house with a well in Karst terrain.
  9. Test the well water for all the primary and secondary contaminants regulated under the safe drinking water act as well as pesticides. At the very least test the well water for Total coliform, E. coli, nitrate, lead, iron, pH, hardness, and residual chlorine.
    1. Don’t buy a house with a well that found E. Coli is present in the water or nitrate at more than three times background levels (of 2mg/L).
    2. Don’t buy a house that found lead present in a flushed sample.
    3. The well water must have a pH > 6.0
  10. Draw a glass of water from the cold tap in a bathroom sink and taste it. Don't buy a house with water you don't like. 

You need to make sure that the well is constructed properly and that the groundwater that is drawn into the home is safe to drink. Though there are many treatment options to fix contaminated water, you might not want to buy problematic water and some water problems can create a cascade of issues, so I have eliminated them. If you are buying a house, you need to make sure that you will have an adequate and safe water supply. This is not the same thing as strategies to live with diminished well yield or fixing your existing water quality problems. This is your one chance to make sure the water supply to the home is acceptable before you buy the home. There is no recourse after you buy the home.

Virginia Tech recommends that buyers should engage a licensed well contractor to assess the well and any treatment. As part of the assessment, the home buyer should obtain a copy and review with the licensed well professional the "Water Well Completion Report" and the septic system (or AOSS) repair/permit history and the history of septic tank pump-outs. This information is on file at the local health department. 

If you see more equipment than a blue pressure tank in the basement you need to know what water treatment equipment is being used, why it was installed and if it is working properly. It is not always obvious what a particular piece of equipment is just by looking at it because manufacturers tend to use the same casing style for all their products. You will need to test the water before the treatment equipment and after the equipment and determine if you can or want to live with the findings. There is a limit to the life cycle of any equipment and wells themselves. How old the equipment is can determine how effective it is and how long it will continue working.

For purchase I would recommend a broad stroke water test that looks at all the primary and secondary contaminants regulated under the safe drinking water act as well as pesticides. These kinds of tests exist. An example is the WaterCheck Deluxe plus pesticides test kit from National Testing Laboratories which is an EPA certified laboratory would work. There are others. Buying a package reduces the cost though the drawback is these packages are performed at a lower sensitivity level and WaterCheck was the most economical test I found. All the packages compare their results to the  US EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Act limits for the primary and secondary contaminants. Since there are no regulation for private well water, that is a reasonable standard to compare the water test results to. Be alert to anything that should not be in groundwater. The presence of low levels of man made contaminants may be an indication of a bigger problem.

There are no national standards for construction of private water wells, thought in recent decades more and more states have developed standards at least for construction. Wells are typically managed and regulated by the State or Local Health Districts, state departments of the environment or ecology. You need to know what the regulations are in your local area and when they were implemented. In Virginia the regulations went into effect in 1992. You want a well built to the current standards, but the truth is that the well may not last more than 30-40 years. Geology matters in how a well ages. Check water level and yield in an old well yield diminishes over time.

Most states require a permit to drill a well and well drillers to be licensed. Make sure you know what that means in your location. In Virginia that is a decent standard, but in Pennsylvania anyone with $60 can get a well driller license, there are no minimum training or knowledge required there. There are still a few locations where a shallow dug well does not require a permit or license. Know these things when you go looking for a house with a well.

Sunday, May 8, 2022

Oysters in Virginia

Oysters are the Chesapeake Bay's best natural filters. A single adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day. Oysters also provide essential habitat for fish and other Bay creatures. The eastern oyster is one of the most iconic species in the Chesapeake Bay. For more than a century, oysters  made up one of the region’s most valuable commercial fisheries, and the oysters which are filter-feeders continues to clean our waters and offer food and habitat to other animals.

In the 1850s, more than 150 million oysters were harvested from the Bay each year; three decades later, this number jumped to 2,000 million. At the turn of the twentieth century, the Bay’s oyster fishery was one of the most important in the United States. However over-harvesting led to the demise of the Bay’s healthy reefs. Over the decades the reefs were scraped away by dredging, oyster beds were reduced to flat, thin layers of dead shell and live oysters spread over the Bay’s bottom. These damaged habitats offer less surface area for reef-dwelling oysters to inhabit, and can be easily buried by sediment. The result has been that many wild populations of oysters are now considered “functionally extinct” because of severe habitat losses.

There is good news. The University of Virginia researchers, in partnership with The Nature Conservancy, have just published a 15-year study that demonstrates that restored reefs can match natural reef oyster populations in about six years and continue to hold strong thereafter. Oyster reefs in nature are built by the hinge-shelled mollusks. The reefs form along sand bars and muddy tidal flats, molding to contours at water’s edge and serving as a bulwark against erosion. As sea levels rise, so do the reefs – if they are healthy.

The researchers at University of Virginia found that at 16 sites in coastal Virginia, composed of 70 reefs, the researchers studied the Crassostrea virginica variety of oyster. This species better known as the Eastern oyster or the Atlantic oyster is vitally important to the seafood economy found on the Eastern Seaboard. 

Where the reefs were spared or have recovered, waters are clearer and cleaner. The oysters and bivalve mollusks, suck in surrounding water, consuming plankton and any silt and debris, then eject the water back out, free of impurities. The scientists note the oysters ability to mitigate the impact of fertilizer seepage. Oyster reefs also provide habitat for crabs and fish, supporting coastal fisheries. The study also found that these ecosystem benefits that restored reefs provide can catch up with the natural reefs within a decade—meaning cleaner and clearer water as well as habitat that supports coastal fisheries.

 Our study shows that restoration can catalyze rapidrecovery of an imperiled coastal habitat and help reverse decades ofdegradation,” said the study’s lead author, Rachel Smith, a postdoctoralresearcher in the Department of Environmental Sciences at UVA.

Now, the Nature Conservancy and scientis are working to manage harvests, establish sanctuaries, overcome the effects of disease and restore reefs with aquaculture -hatchery-raised seed in an effort to bring back the oyster. In 2010, Maryland and Virginia embarked on a tributary-based restoration strategy that will build, seed and monitor reefs in several Maryland and Virginia waterways. This commitment was incorporated into the Chesapeake Bay TMDL restoration plan. By 2015, six Chesapeake Ba tributaries had been selected for oyster restoration: Harris Creek and the Little Choptank and Tred Avon rivers in Maryland, and the Lafayette, Lynnhaven and Piankatank rivers in Virginia. Read more about thisprogram here.

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Lake Mead falls below First Water Intake


photo from SNWA 

The Southern Nevada Water Authority announced late last week that after 22 years of drought within the basin, the level of Lake Mead fell below 1,050 feet above sea level. Lake Mead drinking water Intake #1, the topmost pumping station is now above the surface level of the Colorado River reservoir behind Hoover Dam. The intake is the uppermost of three in the lake formed behind the Hoover Dam that provides Las Vegas with 90% of its drinking water supply. 

from Bureau of Reclamation

In their announcement the Southern Nevada Water Authority pointed out that its Low Lake Level Pumping Station #3 installed in anticipation of this happening is operational. Southern Nevada Water Authority constructed the third drinking water intake capable of drawing Colorado River water at lake Mead at elevations below 1,000 feet. Intake #3 ensures Southern Nevada’s access to its primary water supply as lake levels continue to decline due to the drought conditions. The problem is the level of lake Mead keeps falling and despite significant conservation efforts there is no longer enough water to supply the region. There is a time limit on how much longer there will be water.

There has been a drought in the Colorado River Basin for the past 22 years. This combined with higher temperatures has led to what some are calling aridification of the region. Lake Mead has seen more than 130-foot drop in the water level since the turn of the century. The annual flow of the Colorado River is estimated to have fallen about 20% in the 21st Century compared to the 20th Century due to both rising temperatures and drought. The region is in trouble.

from SNWA

The 1922 Colorado River Compact, negotiated by the seven basin states (Colorado, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming, Arizona, California) divided the Colorado River basin into upper and lower portions, allotted the Colorado River’s water on the basis of territory. The allocation of water rights based on territory allowed development to proceed in the lower basin (essentially California) while safeguarding supplies for the upper basin. Then, as now, California's growth and demand for water was viewed with concern by her neighbors.

The problem now is that the allocations promised under the Colorado Compact was based on an expectation that the river's average flow was 16.4 million acre feet per year  and ignored the needs of nature and the tribes. Subsequent studies: however, have concluded that the long-term average water flow of the Colorado is less. In addition, according to the University of Arizona, records going back to paleolithic times (more than 10,000 years ago) indicates periods of mega-droughts in the distant past. 

Now with more than twenty dry years, the reservoirs have dwindled to their lowest levels recorded. Allotted shares of water in the basin exceeds the average long-term (1906 through 2018) historical natural flow of under 16.0 million acre-feet. To date, the imbalance has been managed, and demands largely met by slowly using up the considerable amount of reservoir storage capacity in the Colorado River system-  Lake Powell and Lake Mead that once held approximately 60 million acre-feet (nearly 4 years of average natural flow of the river). It was assumed that drought years would be followed by wet year to refill the reservoirs. That has not happened recently, the last time the reservoirs filled was 1983. The basin is in its 22nd year of drought and the true existential crisis for Las Vegas looms just over the horizon. For without water there is no life.

Sunday, May 1, 2022

Water and the Future of Prince William

There was a Town Hall meeting held at Battlefield High School on Thursday, April 28th 2022 about the changes planned in land us in the Comprehensive Plan Update and Amendments and what the impact will be on Prince William County. Below is my talk. 

image from PW Conservation Alliance

The Changes in land use proposed in the PW Digital Gateway CPA , and the 2040 Comprehensive Plan Update will effectively remove over 10,000 acres from forested, open and agricultural use and convert them to:  

  • Higher density Residential: 2,400 acres  
  • Village and Hamlet residential and commercial mixed: 1,500 acres
  • Data center/ industrial 4,200 acres
  • The remainder of the rural area will be up-zoned.

This massive rezoning will bring great wealth to the landowners- land that is worth $25,000-$50,000 would magically be worth up to $1,000,000 an acre (in the case of data centers), but these windfall profits threatens the drinking water supply for all of Prince William County and the entire Occoquan Watershed.


The Occoquan Watershed is the source of the groundwater that not only feeds the private and public water wells in Prince William, but also supports the rivers and streams that provide drinking water for much of northern Virginia.

The Occoquan Reservoir contains 8.5 billion gallons of water that provides 40% of the daily water supply for Fairfax Water which in turn supplies Prince William Service Authority and 350,000 residents of Prince William.

The Occoquan Watershed is 590 square miles that covers two thirds of Prince William County including the all-important headwaters of the Occoquan and Bull Run. The water in the reservoir is a reflection of its watershed, and the Occoquan watershed is the most urban watershed in the nation with Prince William planning to make it even more so.  


from U.S. EPA

Development in the Rural Crescent threatens the health of the Occoquan watershed and the very sustainability and affordability of the drinking water supply for Northern Virginia. When generally open rural area is developed stormwater runoff increases in quantity and velocity washing away stream banks, flooding roads and buildings carrying fertilizers, oil and grease, and road salt to the Occoquan Reservoir.

Increased development in the Bull Run and Occoquan watershed as outlined in the PW Digital Gateway CPA, the 2040 Comprehensive Plan Update will increase paved and compacted surfaces and runoff and decreased forested and agricultural land. The result will decrease groundwater recharge and increase salinity and chemical and sediment contamination in the watershed.


The salinity in the reservoir has been rising over time and is reaching a critical stage.  Increased population, industry and paved surfaces that need to be salted will only make it worse. The only way to remove salt from the drinking water supply is to invest billions of dollars (by increasing your water rates) in building and installing desalination equipment in the region’s water treatment plants which are not currently capable of removing salt from the source water. There is no other source of water to supply our area. The costs to add treatment lines at Fairfax Water and UOSA (because it supplies up to 40 million gallons of reclaimed water a day to the Occoquan Reservoir) to keep the Occoquan Potable is estimated to cost between $1 and $2 billion. This is a cost that will be borne by the water rate payers including the residents in Prince William County.


from ICPRB top sodium sources wet weather on top

Development in the watershed triggers a number of problems with storm water runoff as the primary driver, though wastewater from UOSA and septic sources also contribute to the deterioration of the water quality. The rising salt in the reservoir is primarily from watershed runoff during wet weather and reclaimed water from UOSA during dry weather.


Sodium concentration in the reclaimed water is higher than in outflow from the two watersheds right now and has increased. As you can see in the slide from the Occoquan Watershed Lab more than half the salt in the 40 million gallons of water a day from UOSA is of unknown source- it is suspected that blowdown from data centers’ cooling may be a significant source since that water is typically softened to protect the heat exchangers.


Prince William County did not even consider the impact of the proposed changes to the quality, availability and sustainability water supply as they are required to do under the Comprehensive Plan law. Before we do irreversible harm to the ecology and our regional drinking water supply, we need to look at what the impacts of planned changes will be to the water supply.

Fairfax Water has taken the unusual step to ask that Prince William County convene the Occoquan Basin Policy Board and oversee a Comprehensive Study of the proposed PW Digital Gateway CPA and the 2040 Comprehensive Plan Update to evaluate their impact on water quality and quantity in the Occoquan Reservoir before any action is taken. The cost to restore the basin and treat the water is in the billions of dollars that will be borne by us, the residents who remain- not those who get the windfall from the sale of their land and dash off with their millions.