Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Since 1990 CO2 Emissions have Grown


from the Global Carbon Project

The 26th meeting of the Conference of the Parties, called COP-26 in Glasgow, Scotland in November 2021 closed on a disappointing note. The last minute change by China and India to "phase down" the use of carbon fuels rather than "phase out" coal deflated the high hopes of many of the other participants. COP26 ended with a global agreement to “accelerate action on climate this decade.” Technically this left the goal of limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius on the table, but made it achievement far more difficult. The recent COP 28 made no further progress.

At COP 26 in 2021 India signed an agreement to reduce coal and increase its renewable energy generating capacity to 500 gigawatts by 2030 with the goal of reaching net-zero CO2 equivalent emissions by 2070. While China is the top emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, India comes in at number three and is the third largest producer of coal. India and China need to play important roles in global mitigation of CO2 equivalent emissions. However, it is not to be. It seem their action on the climate is going to be to continue to significantly increase CO2 emissions.

India is one of the largest consumers of coal in the world. The country consumed 906.08 million metric tons  of coal in 2020–21, of which 79.03% was produced domestically. Coal is the main source of energy in India. Coal generated over 73% of electricity produced in India 2021. Still, the natural fuel value of Indian coal is poor. On average, the Indian power plants using India's coal supply consume about 0.7 kg of coal to generate a kWh. Poor quality coal emits more air pollution.

In November 2023 India approve a plan that roughly double coal production, reaching 1.5 billion tons by 2030 and included more than quadrupling its underground coal production by 2030.  Underground mines generally affect the landscape less than surface mines, but according to the US EIA, the ground above mine tunnels can collapse, and acidic water can drain from abandoned underground mines. Methane gas that occurs in coal deposits can explode if it concentrates in underground mines. This coalbed methane must be vented out of mines to make mines safer places to work and prevent explosions and fires. Expanding underground coal mining expands methane gas releases.

  • Burning coal is responsible for air pollution that knows no borders:
  • Sulfur dioxide (SO2), which contributes to acid rain and respiratory illnesses
  • Nitrogen oxides (NOx), which contribute to smog and respiratory illnesses
  • Particulates, which contribute to smog, haze, and lung disease
  • Carbon dioxide (CO2)- the primary greenhouse gas produced from burning fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas)
  • Mercury and other heavy metals, which have been linked to both neurological and developmental damage in humans and other animals
  • Coal ash, which are residues created when power plants burn coal

Meanwhile the news from China is no better. Last fall China announced that coal-fired power capacity would rise by more than 200 Gigawatts by 2030. That increase is equivalent to the entire energy production of Canada. Lets be honest here despite promises made year after year the CO2 emissions of the planet have grown at a compounded annual rate of 1.8% per year since 1990. Our situation is worse not better. 

from the Global Carbon Project

Sunday, January 28, 2024

Deer and Black Walnut my Challenges in the Garden

The past few years I have been planting trees on my property to replace the emerald ash losses, evergreen losses and a red oak that failed. I have had intermittent luck with garden specimens. This past summer’s drought was a challenge to the new trees I bought, but I was quite pleased with how well this bunch of  trees had done with their Gator bags through the hot and very dry summer we had here. I thought this new group of trees had made it.

Then the artic weather and snow of the last two weeks hit and the small herd of deer denuded the bottom half of my row of nellie steven’s hollies. Right now I have lollypop trees and I’m wondering if they can ever recover from the assault. Deer are not supposed to eat holly, so they must have been very hungry in the snow and cold. Two years ago, the deer denuded and killed my shrubbery on the other side of the house. So, I am a little heartbroken at the thought of loosing my formerly beautiful and thriving hollies. Though I have acres of woodland ending in a stream, my ornamental garden is seemingly a deer buffet.  I am constantly replanting and estimating deer desirability of plants.  

lower part stripped of leaves

the corner bush stripped of leaves
Deer are not my only challenge. My garden also has another significant challenge- juglone.  This substance is found in the vegetative buds, leaves, stems, nut hulls, and roots of black walnut and hickory trees (and a few others). Black walnut (Juglans nigra) and hickory are the primary culprits. I thought it quaint that our neighborhood was once called hickory grove. That is until I face the challenges of trying to garden around stands of black walnut and hickory trees.

The production of juglone is a protective response by the black walnut and hickory to assure their survival and reproduction by inhibiting nearby competition. The most common symptoms of juglone sensitivity in garden plants is the yellowing and wilting of leaves, especially during the hot dry periods of the growing season, ultimately resulting in wilting and death of the plant.

the black walnuts all over the yard

Early wilting can often be reduced with additional watering, but trust me, this will not work for long. Later in the season wilting does not respond to additional water, leaves start to brown, and the plant dies. Basically, black walnut and hickory kill off the competition. Worse yet, as neighboring trees grow larger and their roots spread towards the black walnut, they go into decline. Coming to Virginia from California 17 years ago I had no clue. It cost me several thousands of dollars in dead plants to send me to the extension office and finally be educated in juglone. According to the extension office, juglone inhibits plant respiration, depriving sensitive plants of needed energy and cell division as well as water and nutrient uptake.

Various sources of information have published lists of plants that are tolerant to juglone. They are based on observation under various settings, but few plants have been experimentally tested for sensitivity to juglone. It turns out that many factors affect sensitivity, including level of contact, health of the plant, soil environment, and the overall site conditions. My most challenging area is the east side of my house which abuts a black walnut stand. I have replanted the beds along that area several times. Any stress seems to exacerbate the problem.

Right now, I have the nellie stevens, green giant, cryptomeria, forsythia, lilac (that is struggling), and hydrangea. I hear that nine bark might work. Various source have lists of plants that will survive- I have not had success with many of them, and some of them are totally deer candy for example the Hosta. Nonetheless, I recommend checking out the lists from Virginia Tech and Penn State Extension as you, too, test your garden by trial and error.  

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Cold Snap increased Water Main Breaks at WSSC

from WSSC

The artic temperature arrived in our region about two weeks ago and stayed long enough to impact us. The Potomac River temperature dropped about 13 degrees over the weekend from 46 to 33 degrees, triggering a significant increase in the number of water main breaks/leaks according to a news release from WSSC Water. They have experienced more than166 water main breaks/leaks in the past 12 days – with 82 over the weekend alone.

As you can see below, there is a direct connection between dropping water temperatures in the Potomac River and the increase in water main breaks. Water main breaks tend to increase a few days after the river temperature hits a new low because the colder water takes time to travel through approximately 5,900 miles of water distribution mains.

from WSSC

The aging infrastructure is a critical factor in breaks and leaks. The older pipes are more brittle and “shocked” by the colder water, causing them to break. Much of the WSSC’s service areas was built out in the building boom of 1960s and continuing through the late 1980s. Older pipes typically break at a higher rate than newer pipes. Though age alone is not the only factor that determines the likelihood of a pipe breaking it is a big one. Approximately 40 % of the water mains in WSSC Water’s systems are more than 50 years old despite an ongoing pipe replacement program.

WSSC Water spends approximately $17 million each year for emergency water main repairs alone, with about $10 million spent November through February. During a typical year, WSSC Water crews repair more than 1,800 water main breaks and leaks, approximately 65 % of which (1,152) occur between November and February.

Responding to these emergencies has slowed WSSC’s ability to replace the older water mains and WSSC continues to work to update the system. WSSC serves 1.9 million customers in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, with approximately 5,900 miles of water mains covering a 1,000-square-mile area. With such an extensive, aging distribution system spanning the two counties it is hard to keep up and very difficult to move forward to reduce the age of the system of pipes.

WSSC Water encourages customers to report water main breaks and leaks as quickly as possible. Do not assume that someone else has reported the break. There are three ways to report a break:

The “Report a Problem” feature on WSSC Water’s mobile app allows customers to easily snap a picture of a water or sewer problem and send it directly to the Emergency Call Center. The mobile app uses GPS to pinpoint the image’s location, allowing dispatchers to send an inspector to the location.

Sunday, January 21, 2024

January is National Radon Action Month

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has named January as national Radon Action Month, in hopes of getting as many people as possible to test their homes for radon. The Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas produced by the breakdown of uranium, thorium, radium, and other radioactive elements that naturally occur in granites as well as some metamorphic and sedimentary rocks in soil, rock, and water and is widespread in the United States.

Radon is an odorless, clear radioactive gas that can cause cancer. Most people only test their home at purchase, but the It is a good idea to retest your home if you make any changes to the structure and every few years to be sure radon levels remain low. In addition, if your home has a radon mitigation system, it is important to monitor the system and retest at least every two years to make sure the system is functioning.

According to the EPA about 21,000 people die each year from lung cancer caused by long term exposure to elevated levels of radon in their homes. Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the general population, and is the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers. As radon gas is released from bedrock, it migrates upward through the soil and can seep into the basements of houses and other buildings through dirt floors, cracks in concrete, and floor drains. Radon has a tendency to accumulate in enclosed spaces such as buildings. Air pressure inside your home is usually lower than pressure in the soil around your home's foundation. Because of this difference in pressure, your home acts like a vacuum, drawing radon in through foundation cracks and other openings. 

Radon from soil is the main cause of radon problems in homes, but sometimes radon enters the home through well water. You cannot see, taste or smell radon. The only way to detect radon is to test. Short term radon testing kits consist of a container of granular activated charcoal. The charcoal absorbs the radon gas entering the canister from the surrounding air. At the end of the radon gas test period, typically 3-7 days the canister is sealed and sent to the laboratory in the pre-paid mailer for analysis. There are also 90 day test kits.

Radon in air is ubiquitous- found in outdoor air and in the indoor air of buildings of all kinds.  The average indoor radon concentration for America’s homes is about 1.3 pCi/L. It is upon this national average indoor level that EPA based its estimate of 21,000 radon-related lung cancers a year. The average concentration of radon in outdoor air is .4 pCi/L or 1/10th of EPA's 4 pCi/L action level.

EPA recommends homes be fixed if the radon level is 4 pCi/L (picocuries per liter) or more. However, there is no known safe level of exposure to radon so, EPA also recommends that we consider fixing our home for radon levels between 2 pCi/L and 4 pCi/L.

According to the EPA, radon levels in most homes can be reduced to 2 pCi/L or below using standard mitigation techniques.  Radon mitigation takes one of two approaches either preventing the radon from entering the home or reducing the radon levels by dilution after the radon has entered the home. There are several techniques that can be used depending on the type of foundation the home has. It is better to prevent radon from entering the home in the first place so I will discuss the preferred methods of prevention. The type of foundation, construction materials and condition will determine the kind of radon reduction system that will work best. Homes are built with some kind of foundation- a basement, slab-on-grade, a crawlspace, or a combination of the three. It is common to have a basement under part of the home and to have a slab-on-grade or crawlspace under the rest of the home. In these situations a combination of radon reduction techniques may be needed to reduce radon levels to below 4 pCi/L, which is the EPA regulated level. However, be aware that there is a synergistic risk from active smoking and radon exposure that increases the risk of getting lung cancer.

Soil suction techniques are the preferred method of mitigation and prevents radon from entering your home by drawing the radon from below the home and venting it through a pipe(s) to the air above the home or outside the house where it is diluted by the ambient air. An effective method to reduce radon levels homes with crawl spaces is covering the dirt floor of the crawl space with a high-density plastic sheet. A vent pipe and fan are then installed and used to draw the radon from under the sheet and vent it outdoors. This is called sub-membrane suction, and according to the EPA when properly installed is the most effective way to reduce radon levels home with crawlspaces.

In homes with concrete slab foundations or basements, sub-slab depressurization is the most reliable radon reduction method. One or more suction pipes are inserted through the floor slab into the crushed rock or soil underneath the home and a fan is used to draw the radon from under the slab or basement floor to a roof or wall vent. It is possible, and in many cases preferable, to install the suction pipe under the slab by running the pipe on the outside of the house. Another variation is to use the drain tiles or perforated pipe that are installed in modern homes to keep basements dry. Suction on these tiles or pipes can be effective in reducing radon levels. This system is most effective if the drain tiles are on the inside of the footer, sealed beneath the floor and form a complete loop around the foundation of the building. In homes that have sump pumps the sump can be capped so that it can continue to drain water and serve as the location for a radon suction pipe. There are kits that can be purchased for capping the sump pump. It is important that the sump cover lid is readily removable for service of the sump pump. Be aware that over time the perforated pipe can become clogged with silt.

There are several other techniques such as sealing cracks and passive methods that are often installed in new construction that are not as effective as active depressurization of the slab, basement or crawl space. As a temporary measure ventilation will reduce the radon levels by introducing more outside air, but it will increase your heating and cooling bills. After a mitigation system is installed do confirmation testing of radon levels before you make the last payment to the contractor to ensure that the mitigation system works. For more information of mitigation approaches and techniques see the EPA’s Consumer's Guide to Radon Reduction .

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Solar Farms in Virginia

Scott Cameron, Vice-Chair of the NVSWCD Board of Directors, spoke to the Potomac Watershed Roundtable at our most recent meeting. His topic was the Environmental Considerations of Utility Scale Solar  “Farms.” The article below is a summary of his talk.

Virginia’s utility scale solar development was stimulated initially (as intended) by the statutory requirement of the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA).  The 2020 VCEA is the state’s law outlining a path to decarbonize the electric grid by 2050. VCEA requires the Commonwealth to retire its natural gas power plants by 2045 (Dominion) and 2050 (Appalachian Power). It also requires utilities to develop more than 16,000MW of renewable energy by 2035. 

However, the demand for renewable energy grew exponentially due to the demands from data centers located primarily in Northern Virginia in the Potomac River Basin. In the stampede to build utility scale solar a series of issues have arisen. The developers of these utility scale solar came to Virginia from desert locations where the land was open and unused. In Virginia solar developers are cutting down forests and converting prime farmland. These lands had provided green infrastructure to manage stormwater, allowed groundwater to be recharged, provided water quality benefits, and fish and wildlife habitat.

According to Mr. Cameron, the acreage permitted for utility scale solar developments in Virginia is growing at an average of 77% per year based on a regression model. In real life it takes 5-12 acres to create 1 megawatt of solar generating capacity. So that under the VCEA that would 317,000 acres would be converted to solar by 2045. However, those solar farms only generate power when the sun shines and data centers, the driving force of the entire power structure in Virginia these days, operate a flat demand 24/7. Today, data centers represent 21% of Dominion Energy’s Virginia power demand and are forecast to be 40% by 2030.

To power data centers with renewable power, batter storage will have to be built to power the data centers at night and when it is overcast (remember it rains an average of 44 inches a year in Virginia). The charge the batteries additional solar developments will have to be built. According to an analysis by the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC) the data center demand for power drives a loss of about 1,500,000 acres by 2050, assuming no additional nuclear or natural gas to keep the data centers operating after dark.

According to VCU, about 61% of the roughly 30,000 acres of agriculture land that has be used so far for solar projects is “highly suitable cropland.” In addition, as of 2023, more than 10,000 acres of forest land have already been lost to the utility scale solar. However, under the Chesapeake Bay Agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the other Chesapeake Bay states, Virginia owes the region 48,000 acres of new forest by 2025, but have only planted 6,600 acres of trees. On net,  we are 3,400 acres further from Virginia’s tree planting goal than we were in 2017. We are going backward in our environmental progress.

In addition, as rain storms intensify due to the changing climate, and green infrastructure of forests,  and open land are removed; storm water flooding and sediment flushing into streams, rivers and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay increases. This is all compounded by the fact that utility scale solar developers came to Virginia from the dessert with no experience handling stormwater. Our wet (and getting wetter) environment requires Virginia to have stormwater regulations. However,  according to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) 69% of existing solar facilities had regulatory “issues” with stormwater and erosion control as of April 2023. Solar stormwater pollution undercuts the urban investment Virginia has made. Last year NOVA invested $135 million in stormwater management. Over the next five years Virginia is budgeted to spend a billion dollars on stormwater management.


Solar Project from ESE

Mr. Cameron suggests that Virginia needs to change the incentives in the state law. Virginia needs to implement disincentives in siting utility scale solar developments in forests and prime farmland. Promote “agro-voltaics” which are spacing the solar panels further apart and higher to allow sheep grazing and crop cultivation. (funny note in experiments with grazing only sheep were successful, the cows knocked down the solar panels and the goats climbed on them.)  Mr. Cameron went on to suggest that we need to incentive solar siting on brownfields, residential and commercial structures, an parking lots. Delegate Paul Krizek has bills in this legislative session: HB 197. HB 198, and HB 199.   

DEQ is also working on the problem. DEQ’s stormwater Guidance Memo 22-2012 issued in November 2022 goes into effect at the end of this year and requires more stringent stormwater controls for utility scale solar that has not yet been connected to the grid by 12/31/2024. In addition, DEQ established a work group as required by  HB 206 to assist with developing regulations under its small renewable energy permit-by-rule (PBR) program, addressing ways to avoid, minimize, and/or mitigate damage to prime agricultural soil and forest caused by the construction and operation of renewable energy solar projects. DEQ must promulgate these regulations no later than the end of 2024. Make sure to comment on the regulations.

Solar carports at METRO

Dominion Solar Development


Sunday, January 14, 2024

Area 2 Farms- Vertical Farming in Arlington

On Friday, Andrew Borocco, Head of Plant Breeding at Area 2Farms spoke to the Potomac Watershed Roundtable virtually. Though after hearing his talk, I’m convinced that the trip to Shirlington to see their operation would be fun.

First, let me tell you a little bit about Area 2 Farms. First of all, right now there is only one farm. It is in the Shirlington neighborhood or Arlington, VA and it is a start up. The concept is that food should be grown within 10 miles of the people who consume it and that it should all be fresh and seasonal. Since most people live in urban areas, the way to accomplish this using a vertical method. In this way the footprint of food could be reduced. Though, truthfully I always thought the carbon footprint of food was due to the energy consumed in moving the inputs- seeds, fertilizer (not in this case), etc. Land clearing is also has a climate impact. 

Vertical farming is seen as another avenue for technological advancement that can spur improvements in yield/ reduction in land need, cropping intensity (the number of crop harvests per year), and protection from pests and pathogens, while reducing nutrient and water usage. Vertical farms either uses  hydroponics or aeroponics systems. “Studies have shown that soil-grown plants exhibit a more diverse and robust microbial community, which plays a crucial role in enhancing plant growth, health, and resilience against pests and diseases” 1.

Vertical farming system can vary in the extent to which the growing environment is controlled. The form of vertical farming practiced by Area 2 Farms is indoors in specifically created soil. That lets them grow without pesticides and herbicides and to control the environment to produce the most nutritious plants.  Area 2 Farms is certified USDA organic; a hydroponic system could not be. Andrew has a Master’s Degree in Plant Breeding and his job is doing just that. He is responsible for plant breeding to optimize the plants to taste good and grow in the shallow bins that Area 2 Farms stacks about a foot apart.

from Area 2 Farms

The soil and it’s structure is an important element of the plant health and taste. The soil created by using coconut husks, Area 2 makes compost from stems and roots that is added to the coconut husks soaked and rinsed in water several times to remove the natural salt, then organic fertilizer is added along with selected bacteria to create a proprietary soil biome. The soil continues to develop with addition over time of inhouse compost created by inhouse worms, stems and roots of the produce.  As soil develops, the plants toughen up and are less delicate.

hybrid sweet potatoes

Andrew makes cross breeding and creation of successful hybrids sound fascinating. He obviously loves his work. I have been a byer of hybrids for my garden, but I had given little thought to the process of creating one. One example he told us about was creating a sweet an delicious pea that would be short enough to fit the stacked totes by combining the tom thumb and royal snap pea. Another example was creating a dwarf tomato hybrid using the delicious green zebra tomato. I also learned that due to heterosis  hybrids tend to be larger, so that it is often necessary to keep planting the F1 generation.

Area 2 Farms sells CSA shares to people who live within 10 miles of their farm building. The shares are 5 items weekly for 10 weeks that are a mix of green, micro greens and shoots, herbs , roots (sweet potatoes etc.) and fruits. You should check them out.

  1. Chiaranunt P, White JF. Plant Beneficial Bacteria and Their Potential Applications in Vertical Farming Systems. Plants (Basel). 2023 Jan 15;12(2):400. doi: 10.3390/plants12020400. PMID: 36679113; PMCID: PMC9861093.

Wednesday, January 10, 2024

Spontaneous Combustion of Floor Staining applicators takes House

From a Loundoun County Fire and Rescue press release:

At 4:32 a.m. on Saturday, the Loudoun County Emergency Communications Center received a 911 call for a reported structure fire on Orrison Road in Lovettsville. Fire Investigators say that oil-soaked construction materials spontaneously combusted, sparking a Saturday morning fire consumed a Loudoun County home. 

Loudoun County Fire and Rescue units from Lovettsville, Lucketts, and Purcellville, as well as Frederick County, Maryland were dispatched to the scene. When they arrived, the crews found a two-story single-family home with fire pushing through the second story and roof. The floor refinisher’s van was still in the driveway with a flat tire.

The Loudoun County Fire and Rescue Fire Marshal’s Office investigation classified the fire as accidental, caused by the spontaneous combustion of the oil soaked staining applicators consisting of rollers and brushes, the release said.

The house is a total loss. Fortunately, no one was injured since the home owner had moved before Christmas and the house was being updated for sale. There were no reported civilian or firefighter injuries. 

I report this for two reasons. First the homeowner is a dear friend of mine and the loss of her home of more than 25 years was devastating, though she was in the process of downsizing and had all her chosen treasures in the new house. Second, as a reminder that oil and solvent soaked materials are combustible. No used rages, open materials or applicators should be stored or left in an enclosed area. After using stain applicators, they should be placed in a safe location outside, away from the structure to dry before discarding. Never pile rags, brushes, or rollers together, rather lay them flat on an exterior surface and allow them to completely dry. My father was obsessive on this topic and he was completely right.

Sunday, January 7, 2024

Tracking Water Use in Virginia

The Commonwealth of Virginia is a water rich state, but water is not unlimited. After the statewide drought of 1999-2002 Virginia has been required to look at water use to sustainably use our available water resources most effectively. This reporting is still developing but allows us to see and begin to understand our water use, identify trends and to try to keep the Commonwealth on a sustainable water path.

The Water Supply Planning (WSP) program was created after the 1999-2002 drought and requires all localities in Virginia to submit a water supply plan, either individually, or as part of a regional planning unit that was amended in 2020 and now requires that a locality report as part of 26 regional planning units. Information reported is what are the water sources and how much water they currently use. This planning includes both surface water and groundwater. However, the categories of water use are limited.

DEQ compiles the information included in each Plan, as well as the water reported water withdrawals collected through the Annual Withdrawal Reporting from Water Withdrawal Permitting Programs to create a model used to evaluate the sustainability of our water resources.  The results of this collective analysis are published in the State Water Resources Plan. The most recent completed plan was published in late 2022 using the data from the previous year and much of the comments below are paraphrased from the report.

In calendar year 2021 total reported water withdrawals were approximately 5.66 billion gallons per day (BGD), including the cooling water withdrawals at nuclear and fossil fuel power generation facilities, which were 77% of water used. Excluding power generation, 2021 reported withdrawals totaled 1.27 BGD, a 2.9% increase compared to the five-year average and an 8% increase over 2020- a year impacted by the pandemic. I had not realized how much public water use was impacted by the first year of the pandemic and look forward to seeing the data in the next few years. The 2021 total is the highest within the last five years and the curve (excluding 2020) seems steeper. 

from DEQ

This increase in water withdrawals over the last five years is largely driven by increased volume from public water supply facilities. Deliveries of water from public supply to specific users are not reported to DEQ; therefore, the reported withdrawals for public water supply do not differentiate between the categories of end users. There is no way to see what accounts for that growth (or for that matter the sharp fall in 2020), though it seems unlikely that in a period of decreasing personal water use that increase is just a reflection of population growth since Virginia’s population grew less than ½% over the five year period. In 2021 public water supply withdrawals increased by 3.8% (from the 5 year average) to 803 million gallons per day (MGD). Despite reductions in per capita water use, reported public water supply withdrawals have steadily increased.

Other drivers of increased reported withdrawals in 2021 were increases in agricultural irrigation and manufacturing, which were 17.6% (3.4 MGD by volume) and 1.1% (3.9 MGD by volume) higher than the five year average respectively. Both 2020 and 2021 featured periods of the growing season of drier than normal conditions which may be contributing to the increase in irrigation compared to the average.

The DEQ identifies new, continuing, and future priorities, challenges, or other topics important to water resources management and notes that in 2021, Commissioners of the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin (ICPRB) passed a Resolution on Enhancing Water Supply Resilience for the Washington Metropolitan Area and the major water companies in Northern Virginia. This is the first step in updating the Low Flow Allocation Agreement (LFAA) of 1978 and the Water Supply Coordination Agreement (WSCA) of 1982 both are the foundational agreements of the ICPRB. DEQ presented data indicating that water supply withdrawals may reduce mean monthly flow of the Potomac River and tributaries by as much as 40% during moderate and extreme drought flows. This is significant since research literature indicates that species impacts can be seen with a 20% reduction in river flow. Drought response may have to change to protect the native species.

To forecast the potential for climate change to impact streamflow, DEQ developed a series of climate change scenarios that simulate how streamflow during a drought may change using the best available global climate models. These scenarios represent the initial effort by DEQ to address climate uncertainty and surface water resources within the Commonwealth. While the models suggest an overall increase in precipitation, they also identified the potential for more severe periods of drought.

The ability to provide a predictable and reliable water supply under any climatic condition is critical to Virginia’s economic well-being. Therefore, developing a process for incorporating the evaluation of climate change into water withdrawal permitting and water supply planning and review, is an important element of resiliency planning.

Annual water withdrawal reporting is one of the most important data sources for DEQ. Reporting of water withdrawals allows for informed modeling and planning decisions related to the Commonwealth’s future water demands and availability. However, addressing impacts from water users that are exempt from the requirement to obtain a VWP surface water or groundwater withdrawal permit, or otherwise are unpermitted, is a challenge in managing both surface water and groundwater to provide certainty that this water will be available for future growth over the long term under all conditions. Only 21% of surface water withdrawals are subject to permitting requirements. A process to incorporate the users who are exempt from permits into the reporting needs to be developed to assure the sustainability of our water resources.

The proportion of groundwater use that is exempt from permitting, or otherwise unpermitted, although smaller in absolute terms than exempt surface water demands, is more difficult to estimate since much of it comes from domestic or private wells with no requirement to report withdrawals or parts of the state that are not part of a groundwater management area. In a groundwater management area there are few exemptions from the requirement to obtain a permit for groundwater withdrawals, but in the rest of the Commonwealth, the monitoring of groundwater use is limited. Information is essential to planning for a sustainable Virginia.

Water withdrawals that are reported to DEQ are then linked into the surface water model, which enables DEQ to prepare up-to-date and accurate water budgets and conduct cumulative impact analyses in f permit decisions and water supply planning efforts. Withdrawal data is also used by other programs within DEQ, other agencies, counties and the public. The effectiveness of the Commonwealth’s water resource management depends on the comprehensiveness and accuracy of this self-reported withdrawal information.

In Virginia the Water Withdrawal Reporting Regulation requires the annual reporting of monthly water withdrawals (surface water and groundwater) of volumes greater than an average of 10,000 gallons per day (GPD) during any month, or one million gallons per month for crop irrigation. The regulation allows the submission of metered and estimated water withdrawal information. DEQ maintains withdrawal data as far back as 1982, but there has been limited work to determine what is the supply of water available to the Commonwealth. We are coming to the point where we need to know that.

Wednesday, January 3, 2024

Getting a Handle on Water use and Supply

At the beginning of October last fall I took a look at the online USGS stream gauge on the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg VA. My intention was to get a typical flow number to make a quick calculation on what the impact of the recently approved data centers in that area might have on river flow. However, the flow on that day was at 11% of normal. That stopped me in my tracks. I did a little digging and I discovered that in September the Rappahannock River had hit the lowest flow in a century.

We are not in a statewide drought, yet. As of last week, about 50% of the Commonwealth is in drought.  This past year has been a dry year with low flow in many streams, but the last big drought in Virginia was a three year drought at the turn of this century. The drought from 1999 to 2002 led to Virginia first requiring local water supply planning. 

Step by step, Virginia has been moving towards the goal of planning for sustainable water; though, we are still far from that goal. The first step began before that drought. It was the Virginia Ground Water Management Act of 1992.  That Act mandates the regulation of large groundwater withdrawals in certain portions of the Commonwealth designated as Groundwater Management Areas to prevent adverse impacts due to over utilization of the resource. 

The Groundwater Management Act requires “all persons” who withdraw more than 300,000 gallons of groundwater in any month within a designated groundwater management areas must obtain a groundwater withdrawal permit. The Groundwater Management Areas were expanded effective 2014 to include the Counties of Caroline, King and Queen, Gloucester, Mathews, Middlesex, Essex, King George, Westmoreland, Richmond, Lancaster and Northumberland; and the parts of Spotsylvania, Stafford, Prince William, Fairfax and Arlington Counties east of Interstate 95; and the City of Alexandria. The Eastern Shore Groundwater Management Area includes Accomack and Northampton counties.

DEQ manages groundwater withdrawal permits within the Eastern Virginia Groundwater Management Area and Eastern Shore Groundwater Management Area as well as surface water withdrawal permits statewide. The rest of the groundwater in the Commonwealth is not managed, yet. Groundwater management areas will be added in the future to include other groundwater basins that experience over withdrawal. The groundwater study in Fauquier County seems to be teeing up the Culpeper Basin as the next groundwater management area.

The Water Supply Planning (WSP) program was created after the 1999-2002 drought and requires all localities in Virginia to submit a water supply plan, either individually, or as part of a regional planning unit. Plans include key information on what water sources and how much water they currently use. The Plans include projections for when future water will be needed and how much will be needed for a variety of categories of water uses. This planning includes both surface water and groundwater.

DEQ compiles the information included in each Plan, as well as the water reported water withdrawals collected through the Annual Withdrawal Reporting from Water Withdrawal Permitting Programs to create a model used to evaluate the sustainability of our water resources.  The results of this collective analysis are published in the State Water Resources Plan.

The State Water Resources Plan is published at five-year intervals. The first State Plan was published in 2015 and the second plan was delayed due to the pandemic shutdowns and was published in 2022. Now, DEQ has amended the regulations to require the consolidation of the 48 water plans into 26 to give more meaningful information about connected watersheds . Prince William, Loudoun and Fairfax whose water supplies are interconnected are required to report on a consolidated basis.  

In addition, in 2018, the Virginia Legislature passed SB 211 which was signed into law by the Governor. This bill amends the enabling legislation for comprehensive planning to emphasize availability, quality and sustainability of groundwater and surface water resources on a County level as part of the comprehensive plan.

Comprehensive planning was already required and is not new. Groundwater and surface water are protected under current legislation and are reported and forecast under the water supply planning. This law made one change: in preparation of a comprehensive plan, the local planning commission must consider not only groundwater and surface water; but groundwater and surface water availability, quality and sustainability.  Water resources can only be managed in conjunction with land use decisions on a local level. Thus, water sustainability must be considered with all land use changes which changes the demand for and the availability of water.

The Commonwealth once thought it had an endless supply of water. It does not. As the DEQ consolidates the information and broadens their reach to ensure a sustainable water supply. When Prince William County prepared the most recent version of the Comprehensive Plan, availability, quality and sustainability of water was not included.