Thursday, March 15, 2018

California Decides to Copy Cape Town

California is subject to long droughts followed by torrential rains and flooding. Back in 2014 in the throes of the worst drought on record with almost all of the state in extreme drought conditions and mandatory water restrictions in place the California legislature, Governor and voters managed to pass a $7.5 billion water bond to expand the water storage within the state to withstand long droughts and improved flood control.

The water bond included:
  • $1.495 billion for ecosystem and watershed protection and restoration- repair and restore streams, wetlands and fish habitats. 
  • $ 810 million for projects to improve regional water self-reliance, security and adapt to the effects on water supply from climate change.
  • $725 million for grants or loans for water recycling for sewage and installation of advanced treatment technology projects for sewage treatment plants. 
  • $900 million for projects to restore or protect groundwater that serves as or has served as a drinking water supply.
  • $2.7 billion for water storage projects that improve the operation of the state water system, are cost effective, and provide a net improvement in ecosystem and water quality conditions as determined by the California Water Commission, a nine member board appointed by the Governor. Seven members of the Commission are chosen for their general expertise related to the control, storage, and beneficial use of water and two are chosen for their knowledge of the environment. 
There were several proposals for water storage projects, including Sites reservoir, an off-stream reservoir in the hills west of the Sacramento Valley; a new dam on the upper San Joaquin River at Temperance Flat; and raising Shasta Dam. Collectively, these projects were projected to store an additional 3.6 million acre feet of water under optimum (i.e., very wet) scenarios at a cost of almost $8 billion. However, it now appears unlikely that any of these water storage projects will be built.

Even as southern California has fallen into drought, with two years of strong rains having filled the reservoirs and the Sierra Nevada mountains with a snow pack of 6 feet, the California Water Commission has determined that 11 of the water storage projects would not provide public benefit as defined by the law as improvements in the ecosystem, water quality, flood control, emergency response and recreation. Unfortunately, water storage for the state to survive a much longer drought was not a consideration. All 11 projects identified to receive Investment Program money were predicted to receive less money than they requested, according to those initial reviews. Three of these projects were predicted to receive nothing. Based on comments to the Water Commission and protests in Sacramento, it appears that much of the resistance to the water project funding is the general resistance of Californian environmental groups to damns.

Meanwhile, the California State Water Resource Control Board another regulatory agency, recently proposed permanent restrictions on water use in the state. The proposal still under consideration would make California's drought water restrictions permanent under the state Constitution's prohibition on the "waste or unreasonable use" of water. This could allow the state to chip away at long-held water rights in an unprecedented grab of power and wealth in a state where water is money.

The water use restrictions will be punishable by a $500 fine for the first offense and include prohibitions on watering lawns, using a hose to wash down sidewalks or using a hose without an automatic shut-off nozzle to wash cars. Water officials expect neighbors to be responsible for detecting and reporting most of the wasteful water use, just like a Stasi police state. Holders of priority water rights are concerned that the expansion of the state Constitution's prohibition on the "waste or unreasonable use" of water would create a slippery slope, allowing the Water Resource Control Board to chip away at California's historic protection of water rights for landowners or invalidate them completely when the time was right.

Rather it is time for California to purchase or allow the sale of water rights and permanently retire some marginal farm land from production. Reducing irrigated land and instituting water saving irrigation technology are the biggest water savings that the state can adopt. That alone would allow California to reduce their annual use of water by more than 2 million acre feet just for retiring the marginal lands. A U.S. Department of Agriculture study in 2002 determined that about 5 million acres of the 9 million acres of the San Joaquin Valley in agricultural production are drainage-impaired land or otherwise marginal.

A 2015 study by the Environmental Water Caucus based on data collected from recent state water plans, the Pacific Institute and the Planning and Conservation League, concluded that 2 million acre feet of water a year could be saved by retiring impaired agricultural lands. Other measures, including improving agricultural and urban use efficiency and recycling, could increase that up to 13 million acre feet. Agriculture uses about 80% of the water in California. You need to reduce and improve the agricultural irrigation to extend the water supply they have available.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Dominion Releases Possum Point Groundwater Monitoring Report

If you recall, Dominion Power has the Possum Point Power Station in Prince William County. The Possum Point Power Station currently has four active power generating units that use natural gas and/or oil. Two of these operating units were converted from coal to natural gas in 2003. Historically, Possum Point stored the Coal Combustion Residuals (coal ash) in five surface impoundments. All the coal ash has been moved and placed in Pond D.

Dominion Power has been moving forward with a plan to “close in place” the 3.7 million cubic yards of coal ash now in Pond D under the finalized U.S. EPA Coal Ash regulation. The plan for Possum Point was to dewater the coal ash, the cap Pond D with an impermeable membrane to prevent future infiltration of rain and “dispose” of the coal ash by leaving it on the Possum Point site.

In 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) promulgated rules for handling coal ash, which were then adopted in Virginia by the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) in the Virginia Solid Waste Management Regulations. This rule addresses the risks from structural failures of coal ash surface impoundments like Pond D, and includes location restrictions, design and operating criteria, groundwater monitoring and (if needed) corrective action, closure requirements and post‐closure care, and recordkeeping, and public disclosure.

Dominion Power was required to complete an initial annual groundwater monitoring and corrective action report by January 31, 2018, and annually thereafter. Dominion Power has just release the results of their first year of monitoring. This report identifies groundwater conditions at Pond D. Groundwater monitoring wells were installed around the pond, both upgradient (wells that should reflect background conditions) and downgradient (wells that that indicate if groundwater was impacted by the pond). There are two upgradient wells ED-24 and ED-1612 and six downgradient monitoring wells (ED-1D, ED-9R, ED-1605, ED-1606, SD-1603, and SD-1604). These wells are shallow and monitor the uppermost aquifer beneath the coal ash pond.
from Dominion Power

Possum Point and surrounding area are located entirely within the Coastal Plain physiographic province of Virginia. The geology is characterized by unconsolidated sediments that generally form broad terraces that slope towards the east. The terraces are transected by natural surface drainage channels, some of which were filled in. The unconsolidated sediments consist of clays, silts, sands, and gravel that exist as interbedded, discontinuous, horizontal layers across the site. The thickness of the sedimentary sequence ranges up to 600 feet as determined by well logs for the surrounding area.

The Potomac Confining Unit is considered to be a confining unit for the underlying Potomac Aquifer. It has always been assumed that the two aquifers are physically and hydrologically separated by the Potomac Confining Unit, but in recent years there has been observed some limited interchange between the uppermost aquifer which is within the overlaying sediments and the lower Potomac Aquifer and contaminants within the uppermost aquifer may be able to migrate into the drinking water supply in the lower aquifer.

The first groundwater monitoring report found occasional instances where tests of downgradient wells showed elevated levels of heavy metals associated with coal ash. The sampling found traces of arsenic, boron, cadmium, calcium, chloride, cobalt, hardness, iron, lithium, manganese, nickel, phenol, sodium, sulfate, total dissolved solids (TDS), and zinc down gradient of coal ash Pond D; however, the concentrations found were below the federal Safe Drinking Water Standards for those substances that have them (lithium does not have a drinking water standard).

Dominion Power pointed out that “The data in the 2017 Annual Groundwater Report do not indicate that groundwater from Pond D is impacting public drinking water supplies or presenting an environmental risk.” However, they only tested the quality of the groundwater around the edges of the coal ash Pond D which is not a drinking water supply. They only looked at the shallow aquifer upgradient and downgradient of Pond D, not in the area of any drinking water wells.

Groundwater impacts were observed. As Dominion Points out no impact to human health or the environment was found, but it was not looked for. It is clear by the presence of contaminants in the surrounding aquifer that the coal ash ponds at Possum Point were not adequately lined or had a functioning barrier (there is some question if there was a slurry wall installed to prevent impact to the groundwater in 1988) there is clearly hydraulic communication between Pond D and the surrounding groundwater. The coal ash has been impacting groundwater for decades. Pond D does not appear to be and adequate containment for the coal ash to be permanently disposed in. Additional groundwater monitoring is needed to determine what corrective measures are needed to safely dispose of the coal ash in this way, though consideration should also be given to removal and recycling of the coal ash into concrete and road base.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Still Time to Register for the Prince William County 2018 Well Water Clinic

The Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) Office will be holding its annual drinking water clinic for well owners in Prince William County on March 28th 2018. To avoid  long lines and having too many people show up on the day of the clinic, this year you must register and prepay before the clinic. Sample kits are $55 each. Pre-payment can be made in person or by mail at the VCE office at 8033 Ashton Avenue, Suite 105, Manassas VA 20109. 
Make checks out to “Treasurer, Virginia Tech”. To register for this class, or to ask questions about the program, please call 703-792-7747 or

The Prince William Drinking Water Clinic has 3 parts:
1. The Kick-Off Meeting on March 26th from 7-8:30 pm at PWC Board Chambers in the McCoart Building, 1 County Complex, Woodbridge, VA 22192 introduces water quality concerns in our area and hands out the water sampling kits.

2. The Sample Drop Off on March 28th from 6:30am-10am ONLY at the VCE Office, 8033 Ashton Ave., Manassas 20109
3. The Results Interpretation Meeting on May 9th from 7-9 pm at PWC Board Chambers in the McCoart Building, 1 County Complex, Woodbridge, VA 22192 will explain the report, include a discussion and answer questions on dealing with water problems.

Water Samples must be dropped off on Wednesday March 28, between the hours of 6:30am and 10am at the VCE - Prince William Office, 8033 Ashton, Suite 105, Manassas, 20109. THERE WILL BE NO EXCEPTIONS for sample drop off. However, if you are unable to attend the kick off or results meetings arrangements can be made to pick up a test kit or your results at another time, please call 703-792-7747 or for assistance.

The samples will be analyzed for 14 chemical and bacteriological contaminants at the laboratory at Virginia Tech. Comparable analysis at a private commercial lab would cost $150-$200. Samples will be analyzed for: iron, manganese, nitrate, lead, arsenic, fluoride, sulfate, pH, total dissolved solids, hardness, sodium, copper, total coliform bacteria and E. Coli bacteria.

Participants will receive their confidential water test results. A presentation will be given that shows the findings for the county and  explains what the numbers on the test report mean and what possible options participants may consider to deal with any water problems. Experts will be on hand to answer any specific questions you may have about your water and water system. I will be one of volunteers present to help with the program. Come join us.

Just because your water appears clear doesn’t necessarily mean it is safe to drink. All drinking water wells should be tested at least annually for at least Coliform bacteria and E Coli. Testing is the only way to detect contamination in your water. Testing is not mandatory, but should be done to ensure your family’s safety. Maintenance and ensuring that water is safe to drink is the responsibility of the owner. If there is a pregnant woman or infant in the home the water should be tested. If there is any change in the taste, appearance, odor of water or your system is serviced or repaired then water should be tested to confirm that no contaminants were introduced.

Most of the water quality issues with private wells are from naturally occurring contamination or impurities. While many natural contaminants such as iron, sulfate, and manganese are not considered serious health hazards, they can give drinking water an unpleasant taste, odor, or color and be annoying and persistent problems and EPA has established secondary standards that can be used as guidance. Excessive levels of sodium, total dissolved solids, harness, can be an annoyance and impact appliances. Several of the naturally occurring contaminants that commonly appear in well water are primary contaminants under the Safe Drinking Water Act and can be a health hazard- nitrate, lead, arsenic, floride, and copper. The VCE Drinking Water Clinic will test for these.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Destruction of an Oasis

The Hamouns were once a wetland oasis on the Iran-Afghanistan border and consisting of three lakes: Hamoun-e Hirmand, which is entirely in Iran; Hamoun-e Sabari on the border; and Hamoun-e Puzak, almost entirely inside Afghanistan. The three lakes were linked and fed by water mainly from Afghanistan’s Helmand River. This area is a poor border region where dwindling water resources have left the area struggling for survival and beset by drug smugglers.

Twenty years ago, most of the area was green with a wide variety plants and animals living in the wetlands and lake area. The area was an oasis and way station for flamingos and other migratory birds, and a home for otter, deer and leopards. The delta would expand and contract seasonally. The lake teemed with fish and it was reported that the annual catch used to exceed 12,000 tons. The Hamouns once covered 500,000 hectares of land. Based on satellite images taken in spring 2005, 2009 and 2013, the Hamouns have all but disappeared.
From UNDP from Right Hamouns in 2005, 2009 and 2013
Now 70% of the southeastern Hamouns in Sistan-Baluchestan Province are drying up. Iran attributes this to Afghanistan's construction of dams on its tributaries. However, that was decades ago. The Kajaki Dam was built on the Helmand river in the mid 20th century upstream of Kandahar. The flow of the Helmand to the Hamouns was reduced but the oasis held until after Afghanistan dug irrigation canals in the 1990’s. Afgan officials place the blame on Iran’s water management and water diversions from the Helmand to supply four reservoirs built in the 1990’s and 2000’s to supply Zahedan and other towns.

According to the United Nations Development Program that has tried to intermediate between Afgan and Iran, the truth is a combination of factors. more water abstraction from rivers and water resources;
  • Mismanagement of water resources in the basin; 
  • Expansion of agricultural lands and irrigation;
  • Reduced precipitation in the region apparently because of long-term climate change; 
  • Using traditional irrigation systems and low water efficiency; 
  • Using inappropriate cropping pattern; 
  • Water control in Afghanistan; 
  • Introduction of non-native species of aquatic plants; 
  • Over exploitation of pastures. 
The wetlands have faced intense pressure during the last decade and are currently in a state of ecological crisis. Because the wetland is mostly dried out during the year, dust and sandstorms have increased as fierce winds blow for half the year. The sandstorms carry the highest level fine particulates, so called PM2.5. According to the World Health Organization nearby towns had the highest mean concentration of PM2.5 of any city on earth exceeding New Delhi and Beijing. This has resulted in an increase in various diseases such as heart, respiratory, optic and cancer. Out migration and changing living patterns away from agriculture and increasing drug smuggling and drug addiction are have impacted both sides of the Iran/ Afgan border. Now communities are dependent on water from other areas, and there are increasing local conflicts for water.

The United Nations Development Program is trying to negotiate and implement a restoration plan with Afgan and Iran. Negotiating the details and funding are of course the problems. We live on a planet with limited water resources and changing climate while our water needs continue to grow.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

The Climate will Change-Virginia will have water

Equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS) is the global warming that would occur if the atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration were instantly doubled and the climate were then brought to equilibrium with that new level of CO2. The actual warming that would occur remains one of the most important unknowns in climate change science. The current concentration of CO2 can be measured and the likely future concentrations of CO2 have been modeled, but the actual response of the planet to CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere has remained uncertain.

The ‘likely’ range of ECS assumed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has remained at 1.5–4.5 degrees Celsius for more than 25 years. Last month a group of scientists at Exerter University and the U.K.’s Center for Ecology and hydrology lead by Peter Cox published a paper where, using a new methodology, they have narrowed the probable temperature range: 2.2 Celsius to 3.4C, with a best estimate of 2.8C with 66 % confidence limits (equivalent to the IPCC ‘likely’ range. Good news for mankind.

The scientists used what they describe as an ensemble of climate models to define an emergent relationship between CO2 concentration and temperature. Possibility not taken into consideration by their new model is the possibility of rapid shifts in climate brought on by the planet itself. As Dr. Cox points out in a press release there is evidence in history that the planet climate system can undergo abrupt changes. Even with this good news, the plant is going to respond to the current and projected future CO2 concentrations.

The United States and other governments have worked to document the CO2 in the atmosphere, temperatures and climate patterns. Unfortunately, the uncertainty surrounding climate sensitivity to CO2 remains and how climate change will impact water availability. Unlike climate change water problems are shorter term. Without water we die, not in 2100, but in under a week. When water supplies are short as in Cape Town, South Africa, people work to find solutions; reduce water use, change behavior, find new sources of water- find solutions in real time. Nonetheless, water problems are very difficult to solve once they become a crisis.

The more than 6 million residents of the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area rely on the Potomac River to supply approximately three-quarters of its water the rest comes from groundwater sources and the Occoquan River, a tributary of the Potomac River formed by the confluence of Broad Run and Cedar Run and joining with Bull Run before it meets the Potomac.

Regionally, there is a cooperative system of water supply management for the Potomac and Occoquan to share the water among the diverse users, all depending on the Potomac River, its tributaries, and associated land and groundwater resources. Sustainable management of the water resources across the multi-jurisdictional basin requires bridging social, political, and environmental differences. This can only be achieved through regional cooperation and encouragement of comprehensive planning to include providing adequate, quality and sustainable surface water and groundwater –together source water for public and private water supplies.

The Virginia Legislature has just passed SB 211ER- Comprehensive plans; groundwater and surface water. This law authorizes a locality to include in their comprehensive plan their long-range recommendations for groundwater and surface water availability, quality, and sustainability. The bill requires the local planning commission to survey and study groundwater and surface water availability, quality, and sustainability in the preparation of a comprehensive plan. In other words, Virginia will plan to provide adequate water for all.

Cox, Peter M., Huntingford, Chris, Williamson, Mark S.; “Emergent constraint on equilibrium climate sensitivity from global temperature variability” Journal Nature, 2018/01/17/ Volume 553.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Drought in Virginia

In their weekly report last week the U.S. Drought Monitor produced by the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the United States Department of Agriculture, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. reported that the precipitation that fell in the previous week, but dry conditions continued in the Southeast. Moderate drought coverage in south-central Virginia was reduced because of increasing streamflow and lessening mid-range precipitation deficits. At this time over 12% of Virginia was in drought and almost 60% of the Commonwealth was experiencing abnormally dry conditions. Continued light rains over the weekend may begin to alleviate this as happened last year. 

Rainfall and snow melt are the water that flows to the rivers and streams of the watershed, but also percolates into the ground and recharges the groundwater. Private drinking water wells draw their water from groundwater and over 20% of Virginians depend on private wells for their drinking water. Geology, climate, weather, land use and many other factors determine the quality and quantity of the groundwater, so I keep my eye on the precipitation. Prince William is unique in having four distinct geologic provinces that come together in the County: (1) the Blue Ridge, (2) the Culpeper Basin, (3) the Piedmont, and (4) the Coastal Plain. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) monitoring well up the road from my home in the Culpeper Basin geology has been showing a worrying trend over the past decade. 

It is concerning that the seasonal lows are getting lower. This is a sign that the present groundwater use may not be sustainable. No studies have been done that attempt to quantify what the total available water is within the county or any of the geologic provinces where residents depend on groundwater for drinking water supply. Thus, it is impossible to know if the overuse or diminished recharge of the aquifer is critical yet. According to last data set from the Hydrological Sciences Branch of NASA using the now dead GRACE-2 satellite to perform real world groundwater monitoring, Virginia’s aquifers are under stress. That means that we are using up the groundwater faster than it is recharging. Most of Prince William County in drought (except for my neighborhood), but once more a wet spring could alleviate the drought.

My well draws water from an unconfined aquifer. A water-table, or unconfined, aquifer is an aquifer whose upper surface is the water table, and is at atmospheric pressure. The water table rises and falls with moisture content that is contained in the soil, and right now the area is in drought and the water table level is falling. Water-table aquifers are usually shallower than confined aquifers and because they are shallow, they are impacted by drought conditions much sooner than confined aquifers.

The southeast corner of the county in the Coastal Plain and the northwestern corner of Prince William County down the hill from Bull Run Mountain are the only areas in the county not currently in drought. The geology near Bull Run Mountain consists of conglomerates, sandstones, siltstones, shales, and argillaceous limestones. When there is rain and snow melt, this geology tends to have wonderful water-bearing potential because it is a fractured rock system with very little overburden. The highest reported yields in the county are from wells in this geology. The downside is that this area is susceptible to contamination- the fractures that carry water can easily spread a contaminant and without adequate overburden spills could flow to depth through a fracture; and there is limited water storage within the fractured rock system. An extended drought could significantly impact my well and the other wells in this area. So I keep my eyes on drought.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Another Sewage Release for WSSC

February is a tough month for Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC). This year excessive rain caused problems. The heavy rains that hit our region 9 days ago caused the sanitary sewer system in Prince George’s County to overflow. The troubles began on February 11th a little before 8 am at the Broad Creek Wastewater Pumping Station at 10315 Livingston Road, Ft Washington, Md. The overflow continued for 5 and a half hours and WSSC estimated that 520,000 gallons of untreated sewage entered a drainage ditch, which flows into Broad Creek.

On the same day, a second sanitary sewer overflow occurred at 14300 Indian Head Highway, near the Piscataway Wastewater Treatment Plant. The Piscataway Plant treats about 24 million gallons of wastewater per day. Due to the heavy rainfall, WSSC reports that extremely high wastewater flows came into the plant. Beginning just after 9:30 on Sunday morning, February 11th, a manhole just off the plant’s grounds began to overflow. WSSC estimated that 951,000 gallons of untreated sewage flowed into Piscataway Creek over a four hour period.

WSSC notified the Maryland Department of the Environment and the Prince George’s County Health Department. Signs were posted to warn people to avoid the area until WSSC was able to clean up the impacted area. This has been a warm February. The coldest days of this winter were earlier- in the first weeks of January.

WSSC has more than 5,500 miles of sewer mains throughout its service area. In January there was an overflow of 117,000 gallons of untreated sewage at the Broad Creek Wastewater Pumping Station in Ft Washington. It was a brief overflow that also impacted Broad Creek. No reason for that overflow was given. That same weekend WSSC crews had to install a temporary bypass to end the Sanitary Sewer Overflow located in Rockville. The overflow discharged an estimated 42,000 gallons of untreated wastewater into Rock Creek before crews were able to bypass the flow. WSSC could give no cause for that overflow.

Though both last February and this year WSSC has had to deal with significant releases of untreated sewage at the Piscataway Plant, winter is usually the time for water main breaks. WSSC crews repair nearly 1,800 water main breaks each year, with most, 1,200, occurring between November and February. Nearly 40% of WSSC water mains are more than 50 years old. In cold weather more pipes fail. There is a relationship between water temperature and pipe breaks. A sudden temperature drop provides a kind of shock to the pipes especially when the pipes are older. Water temperature below 40 degrees Fahrenheit can also cause pipes to become more brittle, and break. That leads to increased pipe breaks in the winter. For the last decade WSSC pipe replacement program has had more unscheduled emergency repairs in winter. Customers are encouraged to report water main breaks and sewage leaks as quickly as possible.

Remember WSSC’s water and wastewater systems are separate. This overflow did NOT affect WSSC’s drinking water.