Sunday, July 30, 2023

PFAS in 20% of Private Wells

The below summarizes and quotes the finding and results from the USGS study

from USGS

On March 14, 2023, EPA announced the proposed National Primary Drinking Water Regulation (NPDWR) for six Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) including perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS), perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA), hexafluoropropylene oxide dimer acid (HFPO-DA, commonly known as GenX Chemicals), perfluorohexane sulfonic acid (PFHxS), and perfluorobutane sulfonic acid (PFBS). EPA anticipates finalizing the regulation by the end of 2023.

PFAS do not occur in nature, they are an entirely synthetic substance. Yet, most people in the United States have been exposed to PFAS and have PFAS in their blood, especially perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). There are thousands of PFAS chemicals, and they are found in many different consumer, commercial, and industrial products. This category of chemical has been widely used for over 80 years mainly for their ability to repel oil, grease, water, and heat.

We have all been exposed to PFAS in everyday life. Stain-resistant carpeting, nonstick cookware, grease- and water-proof food packaging, fabric softeners, waterproof clothing, cosmetics, and through our diet and water. These forever chemicals are washed out of our clothing, carpeting, pans, skin and end up in our wastewater. There are numerous sources of exposure including: industrial emissions, PFAS-containing consumer products, contaminated drinking and surface water, house dust and food.

Though very water soluble, PFAS are resistant to degradation and simply flow through the wastewater treatment plant or septic leach field. PFAS remains in the biosolids and effluent. That is how it has spread throughout society and into our food supply. When the U.S. EPA was developing the regulations they utilized the Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR) program to collect data for contaminants suspected to be present in drinking water, but that do not yet have health-based standards set under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA).  

EPA had public water systems serving more than 10,000 people gather data on a handful of  PFASs. The EPA found 4% of the large US drinking-water treatment plants tested had detectable PFAS. However, this probably vastly underestimated the extent of contamination because of the high level of detection limits (10–90 ng/L depending on individual PFAS) used in the analysis in that testing and a limited number of PFAS tested for (Hu et al., 2016).

The national testing programs, the UCMR3 focused only on community water supplies serving ≥ 10,000 consumers, and did not include private-wells and information from rural communities (52 million people rely on small water supplies serving < 10,000).  Data on PFAS exposure and potential human-health effects is does not exist for over one-third of the US population- the 40 million on private wells and the 52 million who get their water from small community water systems. 

There is limited information is available on PFAS concentrations at the  point-of-use tap water for all users. Most of the drinking-water studies only looked at samples from the source waters (McMahon et al., 2022; Sims et al., 2022) or pre-distribution samples from community water supplies. The distribution system and plumbing materials contribution was largely ignored; and there was a lack of data available for private-wells across the US.  Now the U.S. Geological Survey has completed a multi-year sampling program and created a model to estimate the probable concentrations of 32 PFASs at point of use for  water systems and private wells.

 The study tested for 32 individual PFAS compounds using a method developed by the USGS National Water Quality Laboratory. The most frequently detected compounds in this study were PFBS, PFHxS and PFOA. The interim health advisories released by the EPA in 2022 for PFOS and PFOA were exceeded in every sample in which they were detected in this study because the level of detections was higher than the final regulatory limit. So, the probability model conservatively estimates the occurrence of those chemicals. 

Scientists collected tap water samples from 716 locations representing a range of low, medium and high human-impacted areas. The low category includes protected lands; medium includes residential and rural areas with no known PFAS sources; and high includes urban areas and locations with reported PFAS sources such as industry or waste sites.  

At least one PFAS was detected in 20% of private-well (55/269) and 40% of the public-supply (182/447) samples collected throughout the US. A similar pattern was reported in groundwater from the eastern US, in which 60% of the public-supply wells and 20% of monitoring wells contained at least one PFAS (McMahon et al., 2022). Median cumulative PFAS concentrations (estimated given the detection limits) were comparable between public-supply (median = 7.1 ng/L) and private–well point-of-use tap water (median = 8.2 ng/L ).

I am one of the approximately 40 million people in the US that rely on private-wells for drinking-water and responsible for maintaining a safe water supply for my family. I plan to test my well as soon as a reliable test below the regulatory limit is commercially available and the labs have gotten more experience with the sample handling protocols. Don’t panic. If you feel you must do something, now. Then you could try testing your well yourself. Many laboratories and universities offer water quality testing services to homeowners. Most of these institutions will ship you a sampling kit and you return the samples to them for analysis. Four that I know of are: Cyclopure, Tap Score, Freshwater Future, and WaterCheck. The Virginia Tech water clinics do not yet test for PFASs. Also, the most effective removal system is reverse osmosis, but the disposal of any PFAS removed is problematic at this time.

Thursday, July 27, 2023

PJM issues a Energy Emergency Alert level One


from PJM

Last night PJM our regional grid operator and the largest grid operator in the nation issued a Maximum Generation Emergency/Load Management Alert and an Energy Emergency Alert level one (EEA1) for today. That means PJM is concerned about being able to maintain adequate power reserves today, July 27, 2023 when the heat wave hits almost the entire region and consumers and businesses turn up their air conditioners. PJM has ordered all power plants to be online and ready for the load and for consumers enrolled in demand-response programs to be ready to curtail their electricity usage to keep power supply stable.

Early this morning, the regional grid was looking like this:

At 5 am  the were 19, 960 MW of coal generation, 47,990 MW of gas generation, 32,356 MW of nuclear generation, and 1,828 MW of wind generation. The small amount of solar in the system was not yet on-line as it has to wait for the sun. During the day as the region heats up and the power demand grows, the share of gas generation will grow as the dispatchable generation is called on-line. 

Data center operations relies on the use of large amounts of electricity from the grid. Cooling their buildings is essential to maintain their servers though their power demand is mostly flat throughout the day.  When the DEQ was considering a variance for data centers to step off the grid to relieve the load, the Washington Post stated that : “Since 2020, three “Maximum Generation Emergency Load Alerts” have been issued — all of them last year, according to the PJM website.”  It appears that these types of emergencies will be more frequent.

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Heat Waves

The southwest is experiencing a heat wave. Here in northern Virginia we’ve only had summer with highs dancing in the upper eighties and low nineties, but our turn seems to be coming. Unusually hot days and heat waves are a natural part of the variation in weather. Though according to the U.S. EPA, as the Earth’s climate warms, hotter-than-usual days and nights are becoming more common and heat waves are expected to become more frequent and intense in the future.

The EPA backs this up with four charts of the frequency; the duration; the number of days between the first and last heat wave of the year (season length); and how hot the heat waves were, compared with the local temperature threshold for defining a heat wave (intensity). The data were analyzed were for 50 large metropolitan areas over the period of 1961-2021. 

from EPA

The 50 metropolitan areas were selected because they had a data set over the time period. Though the data may reflect other factors, like the urban heat island effect and the characteristics of a certain time period. As cities develop, vegetation is often lost, and more surfaces are paved or covered with buildings. This type of development can lead to higher temperatures—part of an effect called an urban heat island. Compared with surrounding rural areas, built-up areas have higher temperatures, especially at night.  Urban growth since 1961 may have contributed to part of the increase in heat waves seen for the 50 cities. This indicator focuses on the temperatures, regardless of whether the trends reflect a combination of climate change and other factors.

Longer-term records show that heat waves in the 1930s remain the most severe in recorded U.S. history. The spike in chart below reflects extreme, persistent heat waves in the Great Plains region during the 1930’s when poor land use practices and many years of intense drought contributed to these heat waves by depleting soil moisture and reducing the moderating effects of evaporation. This would suggest an impact from land use, water use on weather or climate- an interesting line of research.

from EPA

The chart also show a period in the 1960’s and 1970’s  that had a low frequency and coverage of heat waves. An extremely low incidence of heat waves followed by a return to a more normal pattern could be the reason the frequency of heat waves appears to have increased when they were simply returning to normal after a period of extremely low frequency.  In finance they call this data mining. 

Nonetheless, increases in extreme heat events for more people as we continue to urbanize can lead to more heat-related illnesses and deaths if people and communities are unable to take steps to adapt. Even small increases in extreme heat can result in increased deaths and illnesses. We need to focus our action on adapting to the future this planet will experience.

Sunday, July 23, 2023

Potomac River Basin

 The below is summarized from the ICPRB Water Resource Plan

The Potomac River, its tributaries, reservoirs and the associated groundwater resources are the source of drinking water for the over 6,000,000 people in the Washington Metropolitan area. The Potomac River and the Occoquan Reservoir are the main supply of water for Fairfax Water which also supplies Prince William Service Authority and American Water. The Potomac River is also the water supply for WSSC and the Washington Aqueduct as well as the new direct supply for Loudoun Water.

Due to its sheer size, the Potomac basin is quite diverse – geographically, ecologically, hydrologically. The 383-mile long Potomac River and has a 14,670 square mile drainage area that includes portions of Virginia (5,723 sq mi), Maryland (3,818 sq mi), West Virginia (3,490 sq mi), and Pennsylvania (1,570 sq mi), and all of the District of Columbia (69 sq mi). There are approximately 16,450 miles of perennial streams in the Potomac basin. They range from fast moving mountain streams with frequent cascades, riffles, and pools to slow moving coastal streams. The river flows generally from west to east- high elevation to low. By either surface or groundwater the Potomac River is connected to 184,944 acres of freshwater and coastal wetlands.

The Potomac River starts at the Fairfax Stone in West Virginia as the North Branch Potomac River. It forms the boundary between Grant, Mineral, and Hampshire counties in West Virginia, and Garrett and Allegany counties in Maryland, for 104 miles before it joins the South Branch Potomac River just downstream from Green Spring, West Virginia. The first 19 miles of the South Branch Potomac River are located in Highland County, Virginia, flowing the remainder of its 139 miles in West Virginia.

After the confluence of the North and South branches, the Potomac River continues for 274 miles as the border between West Virginia and Virginia to the south and Maryland to the north. Ultimately, the Potomac River flows into the Chesapeake Bay at Point Lookout, Maryland. Major tributaries of the Potomac River are,: Cacapon River, Conococheague Creek, Antietam Creek, Shenandoah River, Catoctin Creeks (both of them), Monocacy River, Seneca Creek, Rock Creek, Anacostia River, Occoquan River, and Wicomico River. The river is an estuary for its last 113 miles of its existence. The estuary formed after the last ice age as sea level rose and drowned the river’s channel on the Coastal Plain.

The Potomac River and its tributaries are relatively unregulated compared to other major rivers in the Eastern U.S. That means the river flows mostly free with limited reservoirs. The largest reservoirs in the basin are Jennings Randolph, Occoquan, and Savage River, but there are plans for additional large reservoirs to meet the forecast shortfall in water supply. As the demand for water increases with growth in industrial and residential use and land use changes reduces the recharge of groundwater; the changing climate is forecast to change storm frequency and duration as well as increase the duration of droughts. All these factors will combine to change the demand for water and the flow of the river. The reservoirs that are part of the cooperative management of Potomac drinking water supplies will have to increase so that during times of drought they can be used to ensure adequate flow in the river to serve the population and the environment.

The Potomac basin intersects five major physiographic provinces including, from northwest to southeast, the Appalachian Plateau, Valley and Ridge, Blue Ridge, Piedmont, and the Coastal Plain. In the Coastal Plain Province, groundwater is contained in a confined aquifer system. Recharge of these aquifers primarily occurs by infiltration from overlying aquifers and through outcroppings near the Fall Line. Above the Fall Line, groundwater aquifers consist of fractured bedrock. Fractured bedrock aquifers consist of a thin layer of unconsolidated soil and weathered rock overlying the bedrock. These unconsolidated materials are far more porous than the bedrock and contain the largest volume of groundwater in the fractured rock aquifer. Groundwater is transmitted to wells and streams through the fracture system within the bedrock but there is relatively little storage in the fractures. 

The Potomac basin is heavily forested, with approximately 53 %  forest cover. Agriculture is also a major land use, particularly in the Great Valley and Piedmont regions, and covers 26% of the basin. Fourteen percent of the basin is developed and some regions of the basin, especially Prince William County, are experiencing rapid urbanization which impacts the river flow and water demand.

According to the U.S. Census, the ten Potomac basin locations with the largest increase in impervious cover between 2006 and 2011 are (from highest to lowest): Harrisonburg, Virginia; Manassas Park, Virginia; Winchester, Virginia; Manassas, Virginia; Prince William County, Virginia; Waynesboro, Virginia; Staunton, Virginia; City of Alexandria, Virginia; Prince George's County, Maryland; and Stafford County, Virginia. Changing land use impacts the quality of the Potomac River and the flow. The variability of streamflows in the Potomac basin is primarily a function of temperature, precipitation, evapotranspiration, feed from groundwater, and the relatively free-flowing (unimpounded) nature of the surface waters, but as the river basin changes from open land to developed areas, and the intensity and frequency of precipitation changes with the climate. The river itself and its flow could change.

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Human Fertility and Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals

The endocrine system found in all mammals, birds and fish is made up of glands, hormones and receptors in various organs, and is the system that regulates all hormonal activity in animals. Disruption of the endocrine system can occur in several ways. Some chemicals can mimic a natural hormone, causing the body to over react to the hormone or responding at inappropriate times. Endocrine disrupting chemicals can block the effects of a hormone or can directly stimulate or inhibit the endocrine system, causing overproduction or underproduction of hormones. Certain drugs are used to intentionally cause some of these effects, such as birth control pills. However, in many situations involving environmental chemicals, an endocrine effect can disrupt the proper functioning and development of the animal.

In recent years, it has been proposed that some trace, environmentally persistent chemicals might be disrupting the endocrine systems of humans and wildlife. A variety of chemicals have been found to disrupt the endocrine systems of animals in laboratory studies, and compelling evidence shows that endocrine systems of certain fish and wildlife have been effected by chemical contaminants, resulting in developmental and reproductive problems (Blazer et al, 2004). However, the relationship of human diseases of the endocrine system and exposure to environmental contaminants is poorly understood and still scientifically controversial.

Nonetheless, Shanna H. Swan, Ph.D., a reproductive epidemiologists and a professor of environmental medicine and public health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City whose work examines the impact of environmental exposures, to phthalates and Bisphenol A, on men’s and women’s reproductive health and the neurodevelopment of children has been sounding the alarm of what she believes is happening to humanity.

 Count Down” written by Dr. Swan and  science journalist Stacey Colino, chronicles rising human infertility and warns of the potential dire consequences for mankind if this trend does not stop. In the book, Dr. Swan explains that the growing exposure to “endocrine disrupting chemicals” that are found in everything from plastics, flame retardants, electronics, food packaging and pesticides to personal care products and cosmetics may be causing this rising infertility.

Dr. Swan outlines the dangers in both the book and the video below. These substances interfere with normal hormonal function, including testosterone and estrogen. Even in small doses, they pose particular danger to unborn babies and young children whose bodies are growing rapidly. These endocrine disrupting chemicals, which can enter the placenta, have the ability to alter the anatomical development of girls and boys, change brain function and impair the immune system.

Sunday, July 16, 2023

Our Water Supply and Fairfax Water

Fairfax Water is the largest drinking water provider in the Commonwealth of Virginia and one of the largest in the nation. They supply drinking water to 2 million residents (1.13 million retail customers and 988,000 people through their wholesale customers - Prince William Service Authority, American Water and Loudoun Water). Fairfax Water owns and operates the two largest water treatment facilities in Virginia with an average daily water production of 167 million gallons and a combined maximum capacity of 376 million gallons per day. The James J. Corbalis Jr. treatment plant is at the northern tip of Fairfax County and the Frederick P. Griffith Jr. treatment plant is on the northern edge of the Occoquan Reservoir in the southeast part of Fairfax County.

from Fairfax Water

Within Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun Counties are a number of residents who still obtain their water from private wells tapping the groundwater. However, most residents are served by pubic water and that water comes from two sources: the Potomac River and the Occoquan Reservoir. The Occoquan Reservoir is fed by the Occoquan River which receives up to 30 million gallons a day of the treated discharge of the Upper Occoquan Sewage Authority treatment plant. The Upper Occoquan Sewage Authority treatment plant is located south of Centreville and west of Route 123 with its discharge pipe upstream of the Occoquan Reservoir so, a significant portion of the flow (especially during dry periods) into the reservoir is recycled sewage. This treated wastewater is from areas supplied by the Corbalis plant or lake Manassas. In addition, the reservoir receives stormwater runoff, precipitation from the Occoquan Watershed which covers portions of Loudoun, Fairfax, Fauquier, and Prince William counties and feeds the streams and creeks that feed Bull Run and the Occoquan River.

from Fairfax Water

Fairfax Water provides most of their customers with water treated at either the Corbalis or the Griffith Treatment Plants, but a small area receives water from the Dalecarlia and McMillan Treatment Plants, part of the Washington Aqueduct.  The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers owns and operates those plans and provides water to the City of Falls Church. The Corbalis Treatment Plant and the Dalecarlia and McMillan Treatment Plants treat water from the Potomac River. The Frederick P. Griffith Jr. Treatment Plant treats water from the Occoquan Reservoir. Most of the county is served by the Fairfax Water owned water treatment plants-as you can see by the extent of the blue area in the map below. 

from Fairfax Water

After World War II Fairfax County had over 20 small water systems that primarily operated water distribution systems. In 1957, the county supervisors created the Fairfax County Water Authority (now called Fairfax Water), to centralize the water supply, but the county did not yet have a reliable water supply and distribution system. The City of Falls Church was supplied water by the Washington Aqueduct and an independent water system.

Over the years as the county grew Fairfax Water expanded its infrastructure. They built the James J. Corbalis Jr. and the Frederick P. Griffith Jr. Treatment Plants and expanded their distribution system. Falls Church which had remained independent, buying its treated water from the Washington Aqueduct, was acquired by Fairfax Water in 2013.

The result is that now Fairfax Water provides water to county residents from their two water treatment plants and buys water from the Washington Aqueduct to supply residents in and around the City of Falls Church. They did not build new water mains to supply the city. The newer developments around Merrifield and the Dunn Loring Metro Station are supplied water from the Fairfax Water owned plants.

from Fairfax Water

The most important things Fairfax Water does is to treat the raw water of the Potomac and Occoquan to make sure it is safe to drink, make sure the water supply is adequate and then deliver safe drinking water to the homes and businesses whenever they want it.   In order to ensure that tap water is safe to drink, the EPA limits the amount of certain contaminants (a list of more than 90 contaminants) that can be in the water provided by public water systems under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Last March the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced its long awaited proposal for the national drinking water standard for six per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) . The comment period closed on May 30th 2023 and the EPA intends to have a final rule in place by year end.

  • EPA is proposing to regulate PFOA and PFOS at 4 parts per trillion.
  • EPA is also proposing a regulation to limit any mixture containing one or more of PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS, and/or GenX Chemicals. For these PFAS, water systems would use a hazard index calculation, defined in the proposed rule, to determine if the combined levels of these PFAS pose a potential risk.

Fairfax Water found PFAS above the proposed limit

As you can see above, independent testing by Fairfax Water found PFOA and PFOS above the proposed regulatory limit. As EPA finalizes this rule, Fairfax Water is looking for a solution because the test results for the Occoquan Reservoir for PFOS and PFOA were above the new proposed regulatory limit. Nanofiltration or reverse osmosis have been found to be extremely effective at removing PFAS because these technologies depends on membrane permeability and at this time look like the main options for removal. Reverse osmosis membranes are tighter than nanofiltration membranes. A standard difference between the two is that a nanofiltration membrane will reject hardness to a high degree, but pass salts; whereas reverse osmosis membrane will reject hardness and salts to a high degree (which is why it’s used for desalinization) and could aid in the inland salinization that has increasingly impacted the raw water sources.  

Reverse osmosis, the more effective method, has a high capital cost (estimated to be $3 billion when all the other fixed assets of Fairfax Water are $2 billion) and is very energy intensive (has a high operating cost in the form of energy necessary to push the water through the membranes). In addition, about 20-25% of water would be lost as a waste stream. That would be up to 55 million gallons a day in a future where water supply needs to be augmented to meet projected demand. In addition, the waste stream containing the PFAS would have to be disposed of in a way that does not contribute to the problem. 

Right now when untreated water enters the treatment plants, coagulants are added to cause small particles to adhere to one another and settle in a sedimentation basin. The water is then filtered through activated carbon and sand to remove remaining fine particles. This produces water with extremely low turbidity and provides an excellent barrier against pathogens such as Cryptosporidium and Giardia. Next, the water is disinfected with chlorine to kill harmful bacteria and viruses. A corrosion inhibitor is added to help prevent leaching of lead and copper that might be in household plumbing or service laterals. Fluoride is added to protect teeth. Powdered activated carbon and potassium permanganate may also be added to the treatment process to remove taste or odor-causing compounds. In addition to these treatment steps, the Corbalis and Griffith plants use ozone to further reduce odors and organic material.

The water quality report released in June 2023 found that there were no violations of the current U.S. EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Act. You can view the report at this link. Fairfax Water states that they will continue to evaluate their treatment processes and options before the US EPA's finalizes the regulation.  Fairfax Water is also working with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and other agencies to identify possible sources of PFAS in the Occoquan watershed to eliminate PFAS from the source water. Fairfax Water does not produce or manufacture PFAS.  Instead, these chemicals are present in source waters that are treated to produce drinking water.  However, if they need to dispose of PFAS removed from water they could be responsible for future contamination, so it is always preferable to eliminate the source of the PFAS. 

Keeping PFAS out of the source water is the real challenge when PFAS is in our diet and wastewater is reused in our drinking water supplies. Source water protection will have to part of the solution. With that in mind Fairfax Water has developed an analytic framework which provides information about PFAS across the environment.  


Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Still Dry in the DMV

The Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin (ICPRB), through its Section for Cooperative Water Supply Operations on the Potomac (CO-OP), coordinates water supply operations during times of drought and recommends releases of stored water. This operation is to ensure adequate water supplies for Washington metropolitan area water users and for environmental flow levels. As the ICPRB has reported in the July water supply outlook:

The Potomac basin has experienced unusual dryness, despite recent heavy rains bringing some relief and improving stream flows. Low stream flows and low soil moisture content persist. In June, the Potomac basin received 3.4 inches of rain, slightly below the normal amount for the region, but an improvement from the previous month's deficit of 2.4 inches. However, the cumulative deficit over the past 12 months is 6.1 inches. Groundwater levels in monitoring wells remain below average, with ongoing decline in many wells. The ICPRB staff will continue to closely monitor water supply conditions in the basin, focusing on USGS Gage stream flows at Point of Rocks, Maryland, which has a daily water supply monitoring threshold in the cooperative agreement.

from ICPRB

Currently, the water flow in the Potomac River meets the water demands of the Washington metropolitan area, eliminating the need for releases from the reservoirs at this time. The regional reservoirs are in good condition with the Jennings Randolph, Occoquan and  Little Seneca full.

Based on data from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the depth to groundwater level (measured in feet) for ten wells used in the ICPRB water supply outlook probability of low flows indicate below normal depths, as can be seen in the comparison plot (graph shown below) of current values and estimated monthly means for June.

yet m
One of the wells in the ICPRB water supply outlook is VA 49V just up the road from my well. It continues its general trend of decline with the annual peak slowly declining, but it has not made a new low for the year yet. That typically happens later in the water year.

Sunday, July 9, 2023

Wasted Investment

In 2022 Congress passed and the President signed a $1.2 trillion Bipartisan infrastructure bill into law. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal (officially called the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act) was intended to be a once-in-a-generation investment in our nation’s infrastructure and competitiveness. Among other provisions, this bill provides new funding for infrastructure projects, including :

  • roads, bridges, and major projects;
  • passenger and freight rail;
  • highway and pedestrian safety;
  • public transit;
  • broadband;
  • ports and waterways;
  • airports;
  • water infrastructure;
  • power and grid reliability and resiliency;
  • resiliency, including coastal resiliency, ecosystem restoration, and weatherization;
  • carbon free school buses and ferries;
  • electric vehicle charging;
  • cleaning up Brownfield and Superfund sites and reclaiming abandoned mines; and
  • Western Water Infrastructure.

States use sometimes mandate the use of government precipitation models when designing infrastructure projects to inform the engineering design for roads and bridges, by predicting rainfall and flooding. The government’s precipitation expectation model from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, is called Atlas 14. Unfortunately, Atlas 14 is old and uses a historical data set (going back to the 1960’s) to provide rainfall expectations. In the current Atlas model there is no adjustment for climate change expectations and the increased rainfall of recent decades is not integrated into the mode.

Over the past 20 years, NOAA’s rain gauges have recorded 30 locations that have experienced multiple 1-in-100 year rain and flooding events, and 13 locations that have reported 1-in-500 year events, based on the Atlas 14 classification. This understanding of flood risk has proven to be outdated due to changes in extreme precipitation estimates. The problems with the current precipitation model is compounded by the use of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Special Flood Hazard Area designation as the current authoritative flood risk information standard in the United States. The FEMA Special Flood Hazard Area does not account for precipitation in its analysis of flood risk.

Historically, NOAA precipitation studies have been funded by states and other users for individual subsets of the U.S. However, under the Bipartisan Infrastructure act deal, NOAA received its first-ever direct Federal funding to (1) update the NOAA Atlas 14 precipitation frequency standard while accounting for climate change, and (2) develop precipitation frequency estimates for the entire U.S. and its territories. The new model will be calledAtlas 15 and while NOAA works to develop Atlas 15, states already designing and building expensive roads and bridges under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act and potentially wasting vast amounts of money, building infrastructure that will not be suitable for the future climate that we will actually face.

Without accurate rainfall data, the design of the projects paid for under the bipartisan infrastructure act, will all be based on inaccurate data and result in a reduced useful life and wasted taxpayer dollars. First Street Foundation (FSF) has been addressing climate, flood, and heat risk for seven years now. Their analysis of 795 NOAA Surface Observing Station weather stations’ data across the US was used to estimate the likely rainfall characteristics in the current year. In addition, First Street Foundation’s addresses future facing risks to account for a continuously changing environment that infrastructure and planning must take into account in order to build to the right standard for infrastructure’s useful life.

The First Street analysis found that over 51% of the population of the United States live in a county where stormwater system failure is likely to occur today, as those areas are now at least twice as likely to experience severe flooding (associated with the previously thought of 1-in-100 year events) from rainfall each year. Of that group, 13.3% of the population are over 5 times more likely to experience that same level of severe flooding. The depths of water associated with severe flooding that was previously considered a rare 1-in-100-year storm in Atlas 14 will now be experienced every 20 years on average by those Americans.

Check out this video from First Street Foundation.

Wednesday, July 5, 2023

A Look at the CO2 Problem

Despite promises made under the 2016 Paris Agreement, CO2 emissions from fuel have continued to grow year after year with the exceptions of a brief respite during the global financial crisis and the Covid-19 lockdowns. 

from the Global Carbon Project

China's CO2 emissions are now more than 230% of the United States and growing rapidly. India's emissions is almost equal to the 27 members of the European Union. Neither nation has any plans to reduce emissions. Under the Paris Agreement, the United States has set a goal to reach 100 % carbon pollution-free electricity by 2035 and net zero emissions throughout the economy by 2050. The President also pledged an interim goal of a 50-52% reduction from 2005 levels in economy-wide net greenhouse gas pollution by 2030. The EIA is forecasting that we will not achieve that goal.  Despite the fact that the carbon emissions have been generally trending down since 2005 there is no pathway to reach the 2030 goal. 

Here at home the energy needs of the Commonwealth, its businesses and its families are changing – and growing. 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. The demand for electricity in Virginia is growing at 7% a year to power the data centers. At the same time Virginia has been on a short timeline to decarbonize the grid and electrify transportation and heating.

Last month Dominion Energy filed its 2023 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) with the State Corporation Commission(SCC).  In that submission, Dominion details how it plans to meet electricity needs and demands over the next 15 years. The picture they paint is that Dominion cannot both meet the power demand of the exploding number of data centers in Virginia and the mandates of the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA). The time for magical thinking is done.   You cannot plan to more than double electricity demand in 10 years (all of it 24/7 flat demand profile) while eliminating generation capacity. It has never been done, and Dominion admits that they need to not only keep all their fossil fuel power generation in operation, but they need build more dispatchable fossil fuel generation to meet this forecast demand.

Global Carbon Project

Though China has far surpassed the current CO2 emissions of the United States, our per capita carbon footprint is still the highest in the world followed by Russia. Cumulatively, the industrial history of Europe and the United States is very large and China with some justification does not feel they need take any action to interfere with their rise as the premier global superpower. 


Sunday, July 2, 2023

Wetlands in Virginia

On May 25, 2023, the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency (Sackett). With this case the Court determined that the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act "extends only to those wetlands with a continuous surface connection to bodies that are waters of the United States in their own right, such that they are indistinguishable from those waters."

Mike and Chantell Sackett had challenged whether the EPA's interpretation of Waters of the United States under the Clean Water Act covers wetlands with an “ecologically significant nexus” to traditional navigable waters. The EPA had classified the wetlands on the Sacketts' lot as "waters of the United States" because they were near a ditch that fed into a creek, which fed into Priest Lake, a navigable, intrastate lake. The EPA argued that the wetlands on the Sackett property were "adjacent" to an "unnamed tributary" on the other side of a 30-foot road. To establish a significant nexus, the EPA combined the Sacketts' lot together with the Kalispell Bay Fen, a large nearby wetland complex that the Agency regarded as "similarly situated."

Their argument did not sway a single justice. The Supreme Court found that the EPA had overstepped its authority in asserting jurisdiction over the Sacketts' property. The opinion identified what wetlands are protected by the Clean Water Act, excluding smaller waterbodies, such as intermittent streams and tributaries of traditionally navigable waters, from Clean Water Act authority.

The proper way to protect the wetlands, groundwater and seasonal streams that we now understand are so essential to a balanced ecology and healthy rivers and streams may be regulations for the application of fill material, land use, non-point source pollution and other local issues. These are not issues addressed under the Clean Water Act which addresses point source pollution. These issues need to be addressed on the state and local level.

Virginia has a very broad and comprehensive statutory definition of state waters. Since at least 1968, state waters have been defined to include “all water, on the surface and under the ground, wholly or partially within or bordering the [Commonwealth] or within its jurisdiction.” This definition was expanded in 2000 to include “all water, on the surface and under the ground, wholly or partially within or bordering the Commonwealth or within its jurisdiction, including wetlands.” Virginia law prohibits excavating, filling, draining, or other activities that cause significant alteration or degradation of existing wetland acreage or functions without a permit.

Since 2001, Virginia has regulated activities in wetlands and streams through the Virginia Water Protection Permit (VWPP) program. These permits require avoidance and minimization of wetland impacts to the maximum extent practicable and compensation for any unavoidable loss of wetland functions. Neither the State law nor the VWPP regulation was affected by the Sackett decision.

Virginia regulations (9VAC25-210-80(B)(1)(h)(5)) require a delineation map depicting all surface waters, including wetlands, identified on the project site using accepted Corps methodologies (9VAC25-210-45) for an application to be complete. This could have been a problem on moving projects forward while the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers revise their regulations; but the projects can move forward under an alternate pathway.

The Virginia State Water Control Law (62.1-44.15:21(C)) allows DEQ to make its own State Surface Water Determinations (SSWDs) using accepted Corps field methods, or DEQ may accept a Corps confirmation. In many cases, the Corps' boundary confirmation will suffice for DEQ's permitting activities. DEQ has just issued guidance on the new process and confirmed their intention to meet all the permit requests in as timely a fashion as possible.  

In addition, the Sackett decision does not affect the definition of Resource Protection Areas (RPAs) and Resource Management Areas (RMAs) as defined in the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act and associated regulations. The Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act’s implementing regulations provide that some wetlands are components of the RPA and some are components of the RMA. The geographic extents of these wetland components are independent of federal jurisdictional determinations and will remain under state jurisdiction unchanged.