Wednesday, June 28, 2023

The Dead Zone Forecast 2023

from VIMS

The “Dead Zone” of the Chesapeake Bay refers to a volume of hypoxic water that is characterized by dissolved oxygen concentrations less than 2 mg/L, which is too low for aquatic organisms such as fish and blue crabs to thrive. Within the hypoxic area life of the bay dies and a “Dead Zone” forms. The Chesapeake Bay experiences hypoxic conditions every year, with the severity varying from year to year, depending on nutrient and freshwater flows into the bay, wind, and temperature.

Last week researchers from the Chesapeake Bay Program, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, University of Michigan and U.S. Geological Survey announced that they are predicting the 2023 dead zone will 33% smaller than the historic average (from 1985-2022), which would be the smallest dead zone on record if the forecast proves accurate.

The significantly smaller than average size is forecast due in large part to a lack of rainfall and mild drought this past spring. Less rainfall means lower flows of the rivers, but also generally means there is a lower amount of nutrients being washed off the land and into the water.

Although different types of nutrients contribute to the annual dead zone, scientist say it is the amount of nitrogen that enters the Bay during spring that is a key driver in how hypoxic conditions can vary from year-to-year. The amount of nitrogen pollution entering the Bay during spring 2023 was 42% lower than the long-term average and included 74 million pounds of nitrogen recorded at nine river input monitoring stations and 5.2 million pounds from treated wastewater. There was 20% less water flowing into the Bay when compared to the long-term average. This is a decrease from last year when researchers noted 102 million pounds from monitoring stations and 5.7 million pounds from wastewater treatment plants.

Each year the Maryland Department of Natural Resources measures the actual dissolved oxygen in the Maryland portion of the Chesapeake Bay main stem and the size of the Dead Zone. While the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), Anchor QEA and collaborators at UMCES, operate a real-time three-dimensional hypoxia forecast model using measured inputs that predicts daily dissolved oxygen concentrations throughout the Bay ( using the National Weather Service wind monitoring data.

from VIMS actual 2022 report

While rainfall plays a major role in the size of the dead zone, efforts to limit nutrient pollution in the watershed under the Chesapeake Bay TMDL were also cited as a factor. Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware, West Virginia and Washington, D.C., have been implementing best management practices to reduce nutrient runoff that enters the Bay from sources such as wastewater, agriculture and suburban/urban stormwater. For the past three years, the Bay’s dead zone has been smaller than the long-term average, suggesting that progress is being made to manage nutrient pollution.

A model developed by the University of in 2007 and updated in 2020 is used to forecast the volume of summer hypoxia for the mainstem of the Chesapeake based on the amount of nitrogen pollution flowing into the Bay from nine river monitoring stations and the wastewater treatment plants that are located downstream of them. There are nine river input monitoring stations along the Appomattox, Choptank, James, Mattaponi, Pamunkey, Patuxent, Potomac, Rappahannock and Susquehanna rivers. Together, the U.S. Geological Survey, in partnership with Maryland and Virginia, monitor nitrogen pollution and other important pollutants, flowing into the Bay from 78% of the watershed. In the area not monitored by these stations, additional pollution reported from wastewater treatment plants are also included in the model.

The Chesapeake Bay Monitoring Program is a cooperative effort involving watershed jurisdictions, several federal agencies, 10 academic institutions and over 30 scientists. Among these institutions, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and Virginia Department of Environmental Quality conduct 8-10 cruises between May— October, depending on weather conditions, to track summer hypoxia in the Bay. The peak of oxygen depletion occurs in July or August when water temperatures are highest and the days are longest accelerating the growth of phytoplankton that ultimately consumes all the dissolved oxygen.

 The dead zone is typically gone by late fall. Cooler air temperatures at that time of year chill the surface waters, while the deeper water remains warm and allows more mixing of the layers during storms. Cooler water also will hold more oxygen. The size and shape of the dead zone is variable from month to month during the summer. At the end of the season the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), Anchor QEA and collaborators at UMCES compile all the collected data to report the actual results.

 The actual 2022 Chesapeake Bay Dead Zone report from VIMS says: “Cool and relatively windy conditions in the spring resulted in hypoxia in 2022 starting later in the year (June) than average, like the mild-hypoxia year of 2020. As summer arrived in 2022, moderate winds allowed hypoxia to increase through the beginning of August, resulting in a maximum size of the dead zone similar to the average historical size. This mid-summer peak is similar to what occurred in 2020 and 2021, but smaller than 2019, when hypoxia was quite severe. In 2022, hypoxia quickly decreased from the high in early-August and continued a downward trend until ending in late September to early October. The quick decrease in hypoxia resulted from cooler temperatures and stronger winds, both of which act to limit the amount of hypoxia in the Bay. Overall, the duration of hypoxia in summer 2022 was short and the total annual amount of hypoxia was relatively low, representing a relatively good year for hypoxic conditions in the Bay.”



Sunday, June 25, 2023

Earning the Wrath of the People

I usually stay out of politics on these pages, but it appears that Tuesday’s primary in Prince William County was a referendum on unlimited growth and expansion of Data Centers in Western Prince William County and data centers appear to have lost. The lure of local investment, tax receipts, and locals jobs had ensured millions upon millions of square feet of data center proposals got the green light, they overplayed their hand.  A few data centers or a couple of dozen in the industrial overlay district are fine. No one worries about a single grasshopper,  we fear the plague of locust that covers the face of the ground and devours every tree that is growing in the fields. (Exodus)

The  scale and location of the newer data center projects created a wave of dedicated opposition. The PW Digital Gateway currently is applying for rezoning on 1,600 acres (of the 2,200 acres in the Comprehensive Plan Amendment) to build 28 to 34 data centers of up to 110 feet in height in the formerly protected rural crescent just north of Manassas National Battlefield Park. This area is the crucial watershed for the Occoquan Reservoir which supplies eastern Prince William County and a significant portion of Fairfax County. The environmental mitigations that were imposed by the Planning Department were removed by motion of Supervisor Angry around dawn after the all-night hearing for the Comprehensive Plan Amendment. The plan was audacious in its scope and any environmental mitigation were to be left up to the data center developers discretion- Stripping the community of any hope of a limited development.  A watershed impact study requested by Fairfax Water was not carried out nor funded.

In addition, the county's new comprehensive plan, eliminated the rural crescent where development had been limited to one home per 10 acres and extensions of the public sewer lines were largely prohibited. While this was going on, Loudoun County was building data centers along Route 50 adjacent to residential communities and all could see and hear what the future had to hold for Prince William. The population became aware of aesthetics and how a data center might impact its surroundings and views from homes looking at windowless facades right outside their windows, office park landscaping where woodlands once stood. This in addition to concerns about environmental issues such as noise, power usage, water usage, and emissions.

Near the end of July last summer, Dominion Energy informed data center companies and Loudoun County that power for some new data center facilities in Eastern Loudoun County would be delayed until 2026 due to inadequate transmission infrastructure. In 2022 Northern Virginia added 772 Megawatts (MW) of data centers. The grid in Northern Virginia has not kept pace with the massive data center growth in the region.  There are expected to be 965 MW of additional data centers coming online in 2023. This will bring the total northern Virginia regional load to more than 3,000 megawatts.

To give you some idea of what 3,000 megawatts means: Dominion Energy has four nuclear reactors at two sites. The two Hog Island in Surry County reactors can generate a total of 1,638 megawatts. Two nuclear reactors in Louisa County near Lake Anna can generate a total of 1,863 megawatts. Those four reactors have historically generated 30% of Virginia’s power. The total nuclear power is about 16% larger than the current power use by data centers, but Cushman and Wakefield estimate the demand for power from datacenters will more than surpass that total by 2024.

Dominion Energy’s latest IRP includes developing a demand response program like they have in California. In such a program Dominion would provide financial incentives for data centers to reduce demand on the grid by shifting to on-site generation. That means that Dominion would pay data centers to step off the grid and turn on their diesel run micro-grid. This is one of the dirtiest forms of power generation.  They are building these data centers next to schools and residences. Courtesy of the Canadian wildfires we have a glimpse of  what that will do to our air quality- days when it is too hazardous to go outside. Demand response programs are intended to manage the load and keep the grid operating when there is not enough power. Yet, the mismatch in power generation profile and demand profile is caused by data centers.

The growth in data center power demand is ensuring that there is simply no path for Virginia to successfully meet the requirements and timeline of the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA). The energy needs of the Commonwealth, its businesses and its families are changing – and growing at a breath taking rate. Virginia is already the data center capital of the world and the industry is exploding along with the demand of 24 hours a day 7 days a week power needed to run them.

Tell me why would the data center developers and operators push the populace until they angered so many. Data center companies and their developers used non-disclosure agreements and subsidiaries to hide their involvement in projects, flying under the radar until the project was unveiled full cloth and on short notice.  The community felt that there was no opportunity to influence the development. As a matter of fact, the data center companies pushed to have Supervisors eliminate the mitigations (thank you Supervisor Angry), raise height limits, wave environmental assessments, they pushed to have the buildings taller and bigger, they pushed for a four lane road and refused to proffer all the pretty promises made to the community. They pushed and took until they made people furious.  

It is counter productive to their goals to have worked against the community and made them their enemy rather than court the community as their partner. When Barack Obama became president in 2009, Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate. During a meeting with Republicans, President Obama reminded them “elections have consequences and I won.” So, we’ll see what it means in Prince William that Ann Wheeler richly funded by data centers and developers was defeated by Deshundra Jefferson funded by the people. There is still plenty of time left in their terms for the current Board of Supervisors to do to mischief and permanently damage the watershed.  

Thursday, June 22, 2023

Drought Has a Toe Hold in the DMV

So far it has been a dry year for our area in Prince William County (and all of Northern Virginia). Calendar year to date my monitoring station is experiencing a rain deficit of 4.8 inches as of May 31st and June has been extraordinarily dry.  We have had less than an inch of rain in a month where the historical average is 4.4 inches. As you can see below parts of Northern Virginia is in a moderate drought.

from US Drought Monitor 6-23

The drought is not just in Prince William County. The U.S. Drought Monitor map shows the existence of abnormally dry (D0) and moderate drought (D1) conditions with short- and long-term effects in the Potomac River basin. The abnormal dryness (D0) has expanded across Delaware, Maryland, and West Virginia, while moderate drought (D1) has intensified in Maryland and eastern Pennsylvania due to a significant lack of rainfall over the past 90 days.

Last week, the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin (ICPRB) began daily monitoring of the flow of the Potomac River at Point of Rocks. Their operating agreement requires them to begin daily monitoring of flow in the Potomac River when the U.S. Geological Survey gage at Little Falls dam drops below the total metropolitan area daily withdrawals plus the 100 million gallons per day flow-by, or when forecasts indicate that there is a significant chance that releases from Jennings Randolph and/or Little Seneca reservoirs will be needed within the next ten days.

Last week this monitoring was triggered. The ICPRB Analysis of historical records at Point of Rocks indicates that since1985, there have been 16 years when flow of the Potomac River hit this  low level, and among them, only 8 of those years had 5 or more days with a flow below the 2,000 cfs threshold for drought monitoring. Though what is hopefully the beginning of the rains was enough to increase flow above that point after six days. Let’s hope that the rain forecast over the next few days arrives in full. The rains will also serve to cleanse the wildfire particulates from the air and restore our air quality at least for a while.

from ICPRB

The NOAA is promising significant rain this week- a couple of inches forecast to fall in Prince William County. 

Writing about drought is my way to nudge the rain. Lets hope it works. I have 5 new trees I have to keep watered.  Otherwise the region will be looking to its reservoirs to meet the shortfall and I will be filling treegator bags until December. 

Sunday, June 18, 2023

Iron Problems with your Well

Iron and manganese are often found together and can give water an unpleasant taste, odor and color. Iron causes reddish-brown stain on laundry, porcelain, dishes, utensils, glassware, sinks, fixtures and concrete. Manganese causes brownish-black stains on the same items. This staining does not wash out with detergent, and chlorine bleach may even make the staining worse.

Iron and manganese deposits can build up in pipelines, pressure tanks, water heater and water softening equipment. These deposits restrict the flow of water and reduce water pressure. More energy is required to pump water through clogged pipes and heat water if the hot water tank’s heating rods are coated with minerals deposits. In addition, water contaminated with iron and manganese often contains reducing bacteria (often called iron bacteria) which feed on the minerals. These bacteria do not cause health problems, but can form a reddish brown or brownish black slime in toilet tanks, hot water heaters, water softeners and in filters.

At t levels naturally present in groundwater iron and manganese do not present a health hazard. Iron and manganese are considered secondary contaminants under the U.S. EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Act. Secondary contaminants are substances in water that cause offensive taste, odor, color, corrosion, foaming, or staining but have no direct impact on health. 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 are easily detected by taste, smell or appearance. In addition, a persistent bacteria/ biofouling problem may be caused by iron bacteria.

Iron and manganese exist in several different chemical forms. The presence of a given form of iron or manganese in geologic materials or water depends on many different environmental factors. Dissolved iron and manganese are easily oxidized to a solid form by mixing with air. Groundwater tends to be an oxygen poor environment; typically, the deeper the aquifer the less dissolved oxygen is present. Iron and manganese carbonates in an oxygen poor environment are relatively soluble and can cause high levels of dissolved iron and manganese to be carried from a deep well. If sulfur is present in the water then the iron can form iron sulfide rather than iron carbonate and the water may have the familiar and unpleasant rotten egg smell. When the iron and manganese are oxidized reddish brown or black particles form and settle out as water stands. These particles are often found trapped in washing machine filters, water treatment equipment, and in plumbing fixtures. I often find the little black manganese granules clogging faucet aerators.

As mentioned above some types of bacteria react with soluble forms of iron and manganese and form a harmless, but persistent bacterial contamination in a water system. These organisms are usually found in waters that have high levels of iron and manganese in solution. The reaction changes 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). Iron bacteria often produce unpleasant tastes and odors commonly reported as: "swampy," "oily or petroleum," "cucumber," "sewage," "rotten vegetation," or "musty." The taste or odor may be more noticeable after the water has not been used for some time. Recently, the VA DEQ has been examining wells in Fauquier County and according to Brad White of the DEQ Groundwater Characterization Program, he found iron bacteria in every well examined.

The recommended strategy is to treat the well with a 500-800 parts per million chlorine and then dilute the remaining water in the well. Chemical treatment with chlorine is inexpensive, but may require repeated treatments. Effective treatment requires sufficient chlorine strength and time in contact with the bacteria, and is often improved with agitation. Be warned that too high a concentration can make the well to alkaline and reduce effectiveness. In addition high concentrations of chlorine may affect water conditioning equipment, appliances such as dishwashers, and septic systems, so it is important to not draw the chlorinated water into the house until it has been diluted. This can be accomplished by allowing a significant amount of the water to runoff to a safe disposal location using hoses until the water runs clear, and allow the well to refill and dilute the concentration then introduce the water into the house water system to disinfect the household treatment units, appliances and piping with lower concentrations circulated through the water system. Always check with the equipment manufacturer before you treat any equipment with chlorine. Also, use chlorine test strips to ensure that the concentration of chlorine remaining in the well is around 200 ppm.

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 also called an iron filter is recommended. These filters convert dissolved iron, manganese, or hydrogen sulfide into a solid form and then filters the solid particles from water. The device uses the same casing as other products by a manufacturer, but the media in the oxidizing filter is typically a manganese-treated greensand or manufactured silica gel zeolite coated with manganese dioxide, plastic resin beads, or other trade named media. Maintenance typically involves periodically recharging the greensand media with an oxidizing agent or simply backwashing the newer filters. The potassium permanganate (used to recharge greensand) forms a coating that reacts with the dissolved iron, manganese, or hydrogen sulfide to form solid particles that are then trapped in the filter media. The backwashing and recharging frequency depends on the type and amount of impurities. Iron filters need to be selected to match the pH of the water. If pH is not in the range of any of the iron filters, then it is best to use chemical oxidation.

Newer iron filters also come with several options like aeration, chlorine drip, or peroxide injection to allow the iron filters to address higher concentrations of iron and manganese.
Aeration and filtration systems are not effective on water with iron/ manganese bacteria, but is very effective soluble iron and manganese. In this system an aspirator valve pulls air into the water stream to oxidize the iron and manganese to the carbonate form. The air saturated water then enters a precipitator vessel to allow the iron and manganese time to precipitate out and then is passed through a filter. Backwashing the filter is very important to maintain the filter’s function. This system of removal does not involve any chemical additives.

Chemical oxidation alone can be used to remove high levels of dissolved or oxidized iron and manganese as well as reduce the presence of iron/manganese 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 often through a sand filter with aluminum sulfate added to improve filtration. The oxidizing agent is used is chlorine, potassium permanganate or hydrogen peroxide. If chlorine is used, an activated carbon filter is often used to finish the water and remove the chlorine taste. The chemical feed has to be properly calibrated for the specific water chemistry. Chlorine oxidation requires a pH of 7 +/- 0.5. Potassium permanganate is more effective on water with a pH above 7.5, but is poisonous and a skin irritant and requires very careful calibration, maintenance and monitoring. Hydrogen peroxide is less pH sensitive. 
It is not really recommended to try to use a chlorine drip to treat iron bacteria- it is questionable whether it will work and it does not treat the well which will eventually be clogged with the gunk. Iron bacteria is best treated in the well every few years after one or two initial treatments. 

Low levels of iron and manganese can technically be removed by a water softener. Water softeners are expensive pieces of equipment and using a softener to remove iron or manganese will reduce the softening capacity of the unit. Water softeners can become clogged when levels of iron or manganese in the water exceed manufacturer recommendations. In addition the softening may result in lower pH, and therefore slightly more corrosive water. Additionally, a sodium-based ion exchange system will increase the level of sodium in the treated water and should never be used for cooking or drinking. Since iron and manganese are often a taste issue additional treatments would be necessary and it is usually, best to use other methods of iron and manganese removal. In addition, the salt wash water and high sodium water are all released out into the groundwater and contribute to the inland salinization that is impacting much of our area.

Next, we will address how to solve iron problems. 

Wednesday, June 14, 2023

The PW Watershed Improvement Program

At last Tuesday’s Board of County Supervisors meeting the Ben Eib a Senior Environmental Program Manager in the Stormwater Branch of the County government gave an update on the Watershed Improvement Program as it pertains to the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, TMDL.

The TMDL sets a total Chesapeake Bay watershed limit for the six states and Washington DC of daily releases of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment per year. The Virginia TMDL translates into a 25% reduction of nitrogen and sediment and a 24% reduction in phosphorus and a 20% reduction in sediment from 2009 the base year. The Virginia TMDL is further broken down into the 39 segments of the river basins that are in Virginia and EPA established a specific TMDL for each segment that must be met.

Virginia developed Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs) for the Commonwealth that identified the MS4 General Permit as one of the key mechanism for enforcing load reductions in urbanized areas. In the latest MS4 General Permit Virginia added special conditions to the permit to address the reductions required by the TMDL for the pollutants of concern- nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment. The WIPs intended the reductions to be achieved over the course of three 5-year permit cycles, with the first cycle (2013 – 2018) requiring 5% of the reductions be achieved. Reduction requirements for the second and third permit cycles are anticipated to increase substantially, requiring an additional 35% (2018 – 2023) and 60% (2024 – 2029) of the reductions be achieved.

So, as Prince William moves forward to renewal of our permit in December 2023 Mr. Eib updated the Board of County Supervisors on how we are doing, what actions are planned and what some of are projects look like.

These are Prince William County’s TMDL pollution reduction goals:


pounds per year reduction needed

Here is how we are doing against our goals:

As you can see we are ahead of plan for phosphorus and sediment, but behind plan for nitrogen. Mr. Eibe is confident that Prince William will meet their 2029 target.

The tools Prince William uses to meet these goals is:

Stream restoration

This is after the first year of the Powell's Creek stream restoration phase 1

Stormwater retrofits/ conversion of dry ponds to constructed wetland


It will be decades before the trees actually grow to be a forest

Sunday, June 11, 2023

Guide to Chlorinating Your Well

If you are a well owner someday you will want to disinfect or chlorinate your well. The most common reason is because coliform bacteria was found in the well water. But there are other reasons:

  • the well is new
  • the well has been repaired
  • the well has been flooded
  • the well exposed to bacterial contamination in another manner, such as a crack in the well cap  

Chlorination properly done can not only disinfect, but also rehabilitate the well. As a water well ages, the rate at which water can be pumped (commonly referred to as the well yield) tends to fall. This can be caused by:

  • Incrustation from mineral deposits (including iron and manganese) or 
  • Bio-fouling by iron bacteria

You disinfect a well and plumbing system by circulating a concentrated chlorine solution throughout the system. The level of chlorine to use is between 100 ppm and 600 ppm (parts per million) depending on your intended purpose and which University extension office is asked. To disinfect a well, I use 200 ppm as recommended by the Virginia Cooperative Extension. On my own well I typically use about 400 ppm or more, about twice what is recommended by the Extension because I am always pushing back the iron bacteria problem in which case a much higher concentration of chlorine is necessary. Be aware that too concentrated a solution or too weak a solution will not be effective.

There are no drinking water standards for iron bacteria so water is very rarely tested for it. Confirmation is usually based on visual symptoms in the water, including the slimy brown/red appearance (often most noticeable in the toilet tank) and an unpleasant musty odor. Over time as iron bacteria takes over the system the perceived quality of the well water declines as iron bacteria produce unpleasant tastes and odors commonly reported as: "swampy," "oily or petroleum," "cucumber," "sewage," "rotten vegetation," or "musty."

The iron bacteria usually discolor the water causing a slight yellow, orange, red or brown tint to the water. The standard protocol for treating iron bacteria is to chlorine shock the well at a recommended chlorine concentration of 500-1,000 parts per million unless the well is already fouled then the pumping equipment in the well must be removed and cleaned, which is usually a job for a well contractor or pump installer.

I have had iron bacteria problems and coliform bacteria in the past. I chlorine shock my well every few years simply to maintain water quality and knock back the iron bacteria. This practice was until recently fairly radical in the private well sector, but is common in small public supply wells and is currently recommended by the Pennsylvania extension and Canadian Provinces.

Two weeks ago I chlorine shocked my well to push back the iron bacteria that was starting to build up in the toilet tank.  Given my arthritic hands I am fairly useless with a wrench, but I borrowed my husband’s ratchet set . Here is how you do it:

First you need to know how deep your well is to calculate how much chlorine to use. Also, the flow rate on the well will give you an idea on how long it will take to clear the well of chlorine. Get a copy of the Well Completion Report from the county. They will make a copy for you, but if you ask nicely they will just email it to you saving you a trip to the department of Health.

Depth of well tells you how much water is stored in the well boring. The typical 6 inch diameter well stores 1.47 gallons per foot, so you multiply your well depth by 1.47 and then add about 110 gallons for the hot water heater and household plumbing . You will need about 3 pints of chlorine per 100 gallons. If you have a very large hot water heater and lots of treatment equipment you will need to add another half a gallon of chlorine. Buy extra- you might need it.

A few days before disinfecting your well you need to purchase all your supplies. You will need:

  • a plastic tarp or several green trash bags, 
  • 3 -5 gallons of plain unscented Clorox bleach (you need 3 pints for every 100 gallons of water with standard bleach to reach 200 ppm), 
  • an 8” diameter funnel, 
  • rubber gloves
  • a relatively new scrub brush 
  • a white 3 gallon bucket (I can’t easily lift a 5 gallon filled with water and chlorine and trying to is how I ruined several pair of pants over the years), 
  • lots of chlorine test strips sold for swimming pools 
  • a clean and relatively new hose or hoses at least long enough to reach the well from the spigot
  • a pair of safety glasses or goggles or sun glasses (don’t want any of those chlorine splashes in your eyes)

In addition, you will want to purchase 10 gallons (or more) of bottled water (to carry you while we have no water to use and make sure that your coffee and tea do not have any chlorine residue to spoil the taste), new refrigerator filters, and coliform home test kits for use in a couple of weeks.

When you are ready to disinfect your well, you need to have about 24-30 hours when you will not be able to use the water. Shock chlorinating a water supply system can potentially damage  pressure tanks, water softeners, filters and filter media, and other treatment devices, but the only way to kill the bacteria is to run the chlorinated water into the components and let it sit in the system. Virginia Cooperative Extension always recommends that you check with component manufacturers before shock chlorinating your water supply system to determine how to bypass or protect this equipment if necessary. With my components I consider this wear and tear. 

Before I begin, I put on old clothes and grab my cheap sun glasses, fill a couple of bathtubs with water that I will use to flush the toilets, then I fill my bucket with some water and chlorine leaving them outside by the well and go into the basement and turn off the power to the well. Then turn off the power or gas to the hot water heater and drain it, and close the water intake valve. (Note, that you need to open a faucet to burp the hot water heater to drain it.) Once the well is fully chlorinated you will refill the hot water heater, but keep it cold (and turned off) during the hold time. Hot chlorinated water is dangerous. Don’t do it.

Now it is time to unbolt and remove the well cap. Examine the well cap to make sure it is in good condition and the screen on the base is sound. Next take your brush and clean off the well cap using the chlorinated water from your bucket. Once the well cap is good and clean place it on the plastic tarp or wrap it in a clean plastic bag. Next scrub the edge of the well casing to remove any dirt and take a rag dipped in chlorine water and wipe down the wires in the well examining them for any damage. Get the wiring nice and clean and push them aside.

  • Run your nice new hoses from the house to the well and place on the tarp
  • Fill bucket with half water and half chlorine. 
  • Turn off power to the well
  • Drain the hot water tank and turn off power and close the valve.
  • Remove well cap
  • Clean well cap with chlorine and water solution and place in clean plastic bag
  • Clean well casing top and well cap base using brush dipped in chlorine water
  • Pull wires in the well aside if they are blocking the top of the well and clean them with a rag dipped in chlorine water mixture. Make sure there are no nicks or cuts in the wires. 
  • Put the funnel in the well top and pour in the chlorine and water mixture
  • Now pour in the rest of the chlorine SLOWLY to minimize splashing
  • Go back to the basement and turn the power to the well back on (the well is still open).
  • Turn on the hose and put it in the well 
  • Sit down and wait for a couple of hours

recirculating the water to mix the chlorine- just put the hose in the well

What you are doing is recirculating the water. It is running from the bottom of the well to the pressure tank to the hose into the top of the well and back again. This effectively is mixing the chlorine into the well water. The deeper your well the longer this takes. Also, if you have any treatment tanks installed ahead of the pressure tank they are also being included in this cycle. After a couple of hours the water should look orange and test strongly for chlorine. 

when the chlorine is mixed you will see brown water 

 Special note: If you have an older well and you have never chlorinated it, the mixing of the chlorine and water is going to not only turn orange or brown, but also bring up all the gunk that had accumulated in your well. During well disinfection, free chlorine is introduced into the well water; an adequate amount of chlorine will flush the mineral build up, iron in solution in the water and reducing bacteria out of the well. There could be a lot more than a gentle brown tinge and you might want to consider running off the water for a couple of hours and adding more chlorine then recirculating again. I did that the first time I chlorinated my well. I did not want all that orange gunk in my plumbing. Also, the oxidizing all that gunk consumes the chlorine, so make sure that your final concentration of chlorine is 200 ppm and before you seal up the well: 

  • Use the hose to wash down the inside of the well casing
  • Turn off the hose
  • Carefully bolt the well cap back in place
  • Fill your hot water heater with water (keep it turned off)
  • Draw water to every faucet in the house until it tests positive for chlorine then flush all your toilets. Turn off your ice maker. 
  • Then it is no water for 12-24 hours 
  • Set up your hoses to run to a gravel area or non-sensitive drainage area. The chlorine will damage plants.

After 16 hours turn on the hoses leave them to run for the next 12-24 hours unless your recharge rate is low enough to run your well dry. In that case let the well recharge for hours between flushings. The time is dependent on the depth of the well and the recharge rate. Deeper wells with a faster recharge rate take a long time because you cannot run your well dry-it recharges faster than I can pump so the chlorine just keeps diluting.

After about 12 hours of running the hoses begin testing the water coming out of the hose for chlorine. Keep running the hose and testing the chlorine until the water runs clear and chlorine tests below about 10 ppm.

  • Now it is time to drain the hot water heater again, refill it and turn it back on
  • Open each faucet in the house (one at a time) and let run it until the water tested free of chlorine. Be aware the hot water will sputter- big time- until all the air is out of the system. Flush all the toilets
  • Dump all your ice and turn your ice maker back on. * I do not change my refrigerator filter for at least another week. I use the filter to remove any traces of chlorine left in there water. There will be some.
  • You are done. 

There are a few twists and turns that can come up, remember that you have merely poured an oxidizing agent into the well. Ultimately, it will flush out along with all the iron, mineral buildup, reducing bacteria gunk, etc.  If you have treatment tanks in your basement, you also want to drain them after the chlorine has been flushed out of the system. Do not drain them into your septic system. Good luck.

Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Canadian Wildfires Impact Our Air Quality

There are currently 413 active wildfires, with 249 are deemed out of control burning across both eastern and western Canada. Wildfires are burning in nearly all Canadian provinces and territories with no end in site. The Canadian government officials said their modeling shows increased wildfire risk in most of Canada through August. For days I have had a sore throat, my entire household is has been coughing and last nigh  the sunset was a red ball of fire.  I called up the air monitor in Long Park down the road from me and saw that our air quality on Thursday morning was:


This is the worst air quality I have ever seen at that monitoring station.  It would be a good idea to keep your kids inside. The wind is coming from the northwest and made all the worse by summer weather. They are predicting that it might ameliorate in the next day or two. In the meantime, don't let the kids play outside and rethink that golf game. 

Poor air quality can hurt the very young, the elderly and the sick. When particulate pollution is high it is best to stay indoors. On hot summer days even in areas without wildfires, air quality can be impacted. Before you drive your kids out to soccer practice or a game, check the air quality. Long term exposure to particulate pollution can cause premature death in people with pre-existing cardiac or respiratory disease, but it is simply not healthy to send the kids out to exert themselves on poor air quality days.

Air pollution in the form of fine particles with diameters smaller than 2.5 microns, called PM 2.5, lodge in the lungs which can aggravate other conditions both immediately and long term –cutting months off of lives. This fine particulate matter can have immediate health impacts: itchy, watery eyes, increased respiratory symptoms such as irritation of the airways, coughing or difficulty breathing and aggravated asthma. Long term health effects can result from both short-term and long-term exposure to particulate pollution. Two major studies one called the "Harvard Six Cities" and the other the American Cancer Society study, both outlined the connections between human health and exposure to fine particles.

PM 2.5 is either directly emitted or formed in the atmosphere. Directly-emitted particles come from a variety of sources such as cars, trucks, buses, industrial facilities, power plants, construction sites, tilled fields, unpaved roads, stone crushing, and burning of wood and the vast fires burning in Canada now. Other particles are formed indirectly when gases produced by fossil fuel combustion react with sunlight and water vapor. Combustion from motor vehicles, diesel generators, power plants, and refineries emit particles directly and emit precursor pollutants that form secondary particulates. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, requires states to monitor air quality and ensure that it meets minimum air quality standards. The US EPA has established both annual and 24-hour PM2.5 air quality standards (as well as standards for other pollutants). The annual standard is now 12 ug/m3 (an AQI of 39). The 24-hr standard is 35 ug/m3 (an AQI of 99). 

Sunday, June 4, 2023

Chlorinating My Well

The weekend before last I finally got around to chlorinating my well. There are so many things that regular chlorination will solve or prevent that you might want to consider it a regular part of home maintenance. I do it to knock back the iron bacteria and keep my water tasting good.

Iron bacteria, while not a health hazard, are an incredibly common nuisance in water wells, and once you have it you will always have it. Iron bacteria are a type of reducing bacteria that uses dissolved iron in the water as an energy source and leave slimy deposits of red iron hydrate as a by-product. Reducing bacteria can also thrive on sulfur and/or manganese. Elevated levels of iron, manganese and sulfate in groundwater are an ideal media for iron bacteria to grow. Iron bacteria are present in soils and surface water in this area of Virginia and in many other parts of the country. Iron bacteria can be introduced into a well during drilling or repair. There are tests that can look for these micro-biologicals.

I test my well water each year during the annual water clinic the Prince William Extension Office hosts and every few years for all primary and secondary pollutants under the safe drinking water act but, iron bacteria is not part of those suite of tests. The standard bacteria tests test for coliform and fecal bacteria and do not test for iron bacteria. However, about 15 years ago I tested my well water for iron/reducing bacteria and found a significant level. There had appeared a number of symptoms that suggested its presence, so I looked. National Testing Laboratories sells a mail in test for $150 plus shipping if you want to test your well. That is what I used.

Now, I just monitor the iron bacteria by checking my toilet tanks. The slime from iron bacteria builds up in toilet tanks and can be felt on the flapper. Also, the iron bacteria makes it look orangie in the tank. Interestingly enough I’ve noticed that he slime builds up at different rates in different bathrooms, I’ve not figured out why that is, maybe use. 

Iron bacteria once introduced into the well will not get better. Instead, it continues to get worse ultimately binding up your pump and fouling the well. Iron bacteria can grow on pump intakes and screens openings reducing the yield and efficiency of the well. In addition, the bacteria will make the water smell and taste vaguely unpleasant. Iron bacteria also causes a foam to form in the ATU tank of some kinds of alternative septic systems. A much earlier symptom is the slime on the toilet tank flipper. 

It is common practice to regularly treat public supply wells to prevent biofilm buildup from reducing bacteria and mineral encrustation. Preventive maintenance is to chemically treat and flush the production well.  However, this has not been the practice in private water well, though now several state health departments and Canadian Provinces are recommending the regular chlorination of private wells to push back the iron bacteria. While discussing his research in the Piedmont region of Virginia, Brad White a groundwater geologist from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality Office of Ground Water Characterization happened to mention that in every well he put a camera down he had observed iron bacteria.

From Penn State Extension: “As a water well ages, the rate at which water may be pumped tends to decrease.” Penn State attributes this decrease in performance of a well to incrustations and biofouling (with reducing bacteria) of well screens and rock fractures or borehole, saying: “In severe cases, the obstruction to flowing water can render the well useless. Major forms of incrustations can occur from build-up of calcium and magnesium salts, iron and manganese compounds, or plugging caused by slime producing iron bacteria or other similar organisms (bio-fouling).”

Private well owners typically try to treat the symptoms rather than the cause of the problem. Elimination of iron bacteria once a well is heavily infested can be difficult. Iron bacteria cannot be eliminated by most common water filtration methods or water softeners. Iron bacteria will foul that equipment.  However, though it is difficult to eliminate, it is actually very easy to control – just oxidize the heck out of the well. This is accomplished by chlorine shocking of the well with adequate chlorine concentration and several hours of mixing accomplished by recirculation.  

Personally, I chlorinate my own well every few years or so to prevent the buildup of a biofilm in my well and plumbing system and maintain the aesthetic quality of my water. I drain and flush the hot water heater annually to protect it from biofilm and mineral buildup and keep the temperature above 145 degrees to prevent the growth of reducing bacteria.  If you have treatment equipment like a water softener, you might want to consider chlorinating your well annually and treating your media to prevent a bio mat from forming in the media tanks.

There are so many things that regular chlorination will solve or prevent that you might want to consider it a regular part of home maintenance. The first couple of times I chlorinated my well, a large amount of reddish brown mucus like gunk came out that after recirculating the well for three hours I ran the water off for three hours. Then upped the chlorine concentration and recirculated it again before I pulled the water into the house and sealed the well. 

These days when I chlorinate I only get reddish brown tinged water after a few hours of recirculating the chlorine water mixture.  At this point seen below, I seal up the well  and don't use any water. Once the well has sat for 12-14 hours with the chlorine mixture, I run the hoses to a non-sensitive area for at least an additional 14 hours till it runs clear and the chlorine level drops towards non-detect. Though it can take an additional  week to clear a well of every trace of chlorine under normal use. 

By the time the chlorine is fully mixed, the water turns brown

Even if you do not chlorinate your well regularly, you should chlorinate your well when:

  • the well is new
  • the well has been repaired
  • the well has been flooded
  • the well exposed to bacterial contamination in another manner, such as a crack in the well cap  

In addition, you should test your well at a minimum for coliform bacteria each year, usually in the spring (or the wet season), and if there is any change in the taste, color or odor of your drinking water. A confirmed positive test for coliform bacteria requires disinfection at the least. I did not chlorinate my well until after I reviewed the results of my recent well testing. The approach I would take to disinfect the well and plumbing systems is a little more involved (and inconvenient) than what I would do for iron bacteria alone. So, I waited to make sure I only needed to treat for iron bacteria.