Monday, September 25, 2017

SepticSmart

Kimberly Clark, the manufacturer of several brands of personal wipes that they call "flushable" is suing Washington DC over a new city law regulating when a wipe can be labeled "flush-able." The law was passed after DC Water and public utilities found that these wipes were clogging the sewage pipes and treatment plants. They also clog septic systems and reminded me that last week was the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) fifth annual SepticSmart Week.

 SepticSmart is a program the EPA uses to encourage the more than 26 million homeowners with septic systems to properly maintain their septic systems; and update homeowners on the latest in best management practices for their home systems.

When homeowners flush and don’t think about their home’s septic system, it can lead to system back-ups and overflows, surfacing sewage in your yard which can be expensive to fix, polluted local waterways, and risks to public health and the environment. Yet, Virginia like many states has struggled to get homeowners to consistently maintain their septic systems. A well maintained septic system can last 30 years.

Homeowners fail to see or simply ignore signs that their septic systems may be failing, do not pump their tanks often enough and do not comply with inspection and maintenance regulation for alternative systems. The EPA launched the annual SepticSmart Week, to encourage homeowners to get “SepticSmart”-understand how to properly operate and maintain their septic systems.

The United States has made tremendous advances in the past 35 years to clean up our rivers and streams under the Clean Water Act by controlling pollution from industry and sewage treatment plants. In order to continue to make progress in cleaning up our water resources EPA has turned their focus to controlling pollution from diffuse, or non-point, sources. Things like stormwater runoff and septic systems. According to EPA, these non-point source pollution are the largest remaining source of water quality problems. However, these are the most difficult sources of pollution to address, because eliminating them involves changing the behavior of millions of people. We did not do enough to control these small pollution sources from our homes and daily lives. The maintenance and care of their septic systems is the responsibility of homeowners, but failure to maintain their system can impact their neighbors drinking water.

The average household septic system should be inspected at least every three years by a septic service professional. Household septic tanks are typically pumped every three to five years. Alternative systems with electrical float switches, pumps, or mechanical components should be inspected more often, generally once a year. A service contract is important since alternative systems have mechanized parts.

Taking the steps recommended by the EPA for SepticSmart Week would be a great start at reducing nonpoint pollution of our waters. Homeowners can do their part by following these SepticSmart tips:

1. Protect It and Inspect It: In general, homeowners should have their traditional septic system inspected every three years and their alternative system inspected annually by a licensed contractor and have their tank pumped when necessary, generally every three to five years.
2. Think at the Sink: Avoid pouring fats, grease, and solids down the drain, which can clog a system’s pipes and drainfield.
3. Don’t Overload the Commode: Only put things in the drain or toilet that belong there. For example, coffee grounds, dental floss, disposable diapers and wipes, feminine hygiene products, cigarette butts, and cat litter can all clog and potentially damage septic systems. Flushable wipes are not flushable and do not break down in a septic tank; also they can clog the piping.
4. Don’t Strain Your Drain: Be water efficient and spread out water use. Fix plumbing leaks, install faucet aerators and water-efficient products, and spread out laundry and dishwasher loads throughout the day and week. Too much water at once can overload a system if it hasn’t been pumped recently.
5. Shield Your Field: Remind guests not to park or drive on a system’s drainfield, where the vehicle’s weight could damage buried pipes or disrupt underground flow.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Cost of Water in the Washington DC Metro Region

Water bills will be increasing. There is no true “cost” of water, the price charged for water, often does not reflect its value or true cost. WSSC commissioners have been holding a series of meetings open to the public about adopting a new rate structure. WSSC needs to raise rates and increase revenue even as water usage per person fall. WSSC is engaged in a decades long plan repair and restore their water and sewer distribution system. They are currently engaged in a 10 year program to replace over 2,000 miles of water pipe and similar amount or sewer pipes. WSSC needs to fund both ongoing operations and the billions of dollars in capital needed to rehabilitate, upgrade and replace water and wastewater infrastructure.

WSSC will also need to address their water quality. Since the beginning of August, people in the western area of Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) water system have noticed brown or yellow discolored water. Though, WSSC says that the water is safe to drink, they advise that the discolored water should not be used to wash laundry. WSSC says that excessive organic matter required them to make adjustments to their water treatment to hold a primary drinking water standard within EPA limits. This has continued for significantly longer than a month and shows no sign of abatement.

Last winter WSSC experienced discolored water reportedly caused by excessive road salt. No amount of explanation will make it all right that WSSC cannot consistently deliver water that is safe, clean, clear, and good tasting water twelve months a year. Nonetheless, to even approach that goal they need years of increasing water rates.

Recently, Fairfax Water announced its intention to raise their water rates next spring. There will be a public hearing on Thursday, December 14, 2017, on the proposed rate increase held at Fairfax Water’s main office at 8570 Executive Park Avenue in Fairfax. This rate increase is part of their ongoing program to ensure that the water infrastructure in Fairfax County is maintained. The proposed rate increase will go into effect April 1. 2018.

The need for infrastructure replacement is an issue that has caused significant service problems and rate increases in other parts of the Washington Metropolitan region. Fairfax Water Board of Directors have dedicated funding to infrastructure maintenance and replacement for many years, and has forecast future capital needs for replacing water mains in the system. In addition, Fairfax Water is planning for additional water storage within their system by developing the Vulcan Quarry as a reservoir.

As they do every time they propose to raise water rates, Fairfax Water performed a comparison of the water costs throughout the Washington Metropolitan region. This comparison is based on rates as of April 1, 2017 and on 18,000 gallons of residential water use for an established account over a three month period. As you can see below Even with this increase, Fairfax Water’s commodity rates will remain among the lowest in the Washington metropolitan region.


Once more, Manassas Park has the highest water rates in the region. Manassas Park is a small utility system with fewer than 5,000 customers. In addition, tucked into that overhead is debt service for the city’s Enterprise Fund. Manassas Park is responsible for paying City utility bonds, and also to make the annual principal and interest payments on the bonds sold to build the City Schools, Police Station, and Fire Station & Community Center. While diverting water funds to other city needs, Manassas Park failed to properly maintain their water distribution system. Manassas Park distribution system’s water loss is around 25%, of the water purchased.

Monday, September 18, 2017

PA Finally Making Progress on TMDL

The EPA mandated a contamination limit called the TMDL (total maximum daily load for nutrient contamination and sediment) to all the states in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed and Washington DC. The pollution limits were then partitioned to the various states and river basins based on the Chesapeake Bay computer modeling tools and monitoring data.

The Chesapeake Bay states and Washington DC together known as the Bay jurisdictions agreed to create state-specific plans to implement 60 percent of their Bay cleanup practices by 2017 and 100% by 2025. These plans are called Watershed Implementation Plans or WIPs and were designed to help restore the Bay and improve the health of local waterways.

Though EPA approved Pennsylvania's "Phase I" WIP in 2011, EPA cited several deficiencies in Pennsylvania's plan that resulted in EPA imposing "backstops" to assure pollutant reductions in the plan would be achieved. Backstops can range from withholding federal funds to imposing regulations on smaller farm animal operations or tightening discharge limits for wastewater treatment plants. The EPA annually reviews each of the six Bay watershed states’ efforts to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution. If any state fails to meet its milestones and hasn’t done enough to get on track, agency officials take some “backstop” actions to force the state to meet their goals.

As you can see below Pennsylvania had not meet their goals. In an attempt to get there (and meet EPA requirements), the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) announced its “Strategy to Enhance Pennsylvania’s Chesapeake Bay Restoration Effort”, pledging renewed commitment to nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment reductions. Because agriculture dominates much of the landscape of the Chesapeake watershed in Pennsylvania, it was the focus of the new strategy.


With funding provided by the Chesapeake Bay Program and the state, Conservation District and DEP staff visited 1,125 farms from October 2016 through March 2017. Though this was still an inspection rate below what is needed to achieve the annual goal of visiting 10% of farms each year it was a start; and the pace of inspections has quickened now that the process is established.

Most of the farms visited had not previously worked with Conservation Districts, so they were less likely to have conservation plans and nutrient management plans in place than the general farm population. Of farms required to have plans, 70% had manure management plans, and 68% had erosion and sediment control plans. The inspections, however, only assessed whether the required plans exist, not whether they were properly implemented and actually address water-quality concerns—a major shortfall of state efforts to date.

Farmers received a notice before the inspector visited, and noncompliant farms were given time to write their plans and become compliant before enforcement actions were taken. Historically, progress on implementation of the WIP was based on reported data regarding conservation practices established with assistance from public agencies. Many farmers, however, adopt practices on their farms independent of public financing. A recent Penn State survey documented a high volume of previously uncounted conservation practices, including several hundred thousand acres under nutrient management, and nearly 6,000 acres of forested streamside buffers that were previously undocumented. These inspections will serve to inform and engage farmers in conservation practices and document compliance.

In Virginia the Soil and Water Conservation Districts design the plans for our farmers and the state shares in the cost of implementation. We review the plans every few years and verify implementation and functioning of the mitigation.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Hurricanes, the Atlantic Oscillation and Climate Change

When Harvey made landfall along the Middle Texas Coast it was the first major hurricane to make landfall in the United States since 2005 and the first hurricane to make landfall in that area since Celia in 1970. Harvey was epic in the amount of rain that fell on Houston, because the storm stalled over the city. Hurricane Harvey was followed by Irma a hurricane that reached Category 5 storm status before it crashed through the Caribbean. The islands of Barbuda, St. Martin, St Barthelemy (St Barts), Anguilla were crushed by the storm and others like Puerto Rico were impacted before Irma arrived in Florida with storm surge that knocked out power to 15 million people.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had predicted that 2017 would be an above –average year for Atlantic storms and I’m a believer. One of the reasons that NOAA made this prediction is that since 1990 we have been in the warm phase of the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO). The AMO is an series of long-duration changes in the sea surface temperature that have been observed in the North Atlantic Ocean, with a difference of about 1°F between the cool and warm phases that may last for 20-40 years at a time.

These temperature changes in the cycle are natural. Scientists first detected the AMO in 1994 using the ocean temperature measurement from the last 150 years; however, studies of paleoclimate proxies, such as tree rings and ice cores, have shown that oscillations similar to those observed have been occurring for at least the last millennium. This is clearly longer than modern man has been affecting climate, so the AMO is probably a natural climate oscillation.

In the 20th century, the climate swings of the AMO have alternately camouflaged and exaggerated the effects of changing climate, and made attribution of global warming more difficult to ascertain. Nonetheless we know that during the warm phase of the AMO, the numbers of tropical storms that mature into severe hurricanes is at least twice the rate than during the cool phase. Since the AMO switched to its warm phase around 1995, severe hurricanes have become much more frequent.

Scientists do not know enough to predict exactly when the AMO will switch to the cooler phase. Computer models are far from being able to do this and the climate models are useless here. What is possible to do at present is to calculate the probability that a change in the AMO will occur within a given future time frame. The AMO affects rainfall in Europe, drought in the Amazon, and Atlantic hurricanes. The warm phase fuels storms by warming the tropical Atlantic and intensifying the West African monsoon. The monsoon spins up low-pressure systems that enter the tropical Atlantic and allows the storms that form there to develop rotation and gain energy.

Reporters have invariably attributed the recent storms to climate change. However, most of the impacts predicted by scientists for climate change are still out in the future and of a much bigger scale. So far, scientists tell us that over the past century the oceans have risen over 7 inches which has caused an increase in the frequency of flooding, but may not have had any other effect. According to some ocean researchers the AMO is now close to neutral or about to switch. However, other scientists believe that factors outside the ocean may also trigger changes in the AMO. Studies of paleoclimate proxies indicate that volcanic eruptions and small changes in the sun’s output may have warmed and cooled the ocean and triggered AMO reversals.

In the last few decades of our planet’s history, humans have added their own influences, such as particulates from burning coal, which reflect sunlight thereby having a cooling effect on the ocean. Some scientists attribute particulates from burning coal in the second half of the 20th century as the primary cause of the most recent cold phase of the AMO, which lasted from 1970 to 1994. Still others propose that increased greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere and declining air pollution might prolong the current warm period of the AMO. We don’t know. We are still learning about our planet even as it changes.

We do know that in the past half century our cities have continue to build and expand into historic flood zones while sea level was rising. This trend has been encouraged by government policy decisions. Since the 1960’s the United Stated government has provide cheap, subsidized flood insurance that has encouraged development in areas of high flood risk that has often resulted in the elimination of the flood plain buffers zones.

It is simply not feasible to protect all of the coastal lands from rising oceans and storm surges or to continually rebuild properties that repeatedly flood. Before Harvey the flood insurance program was already $24 billion in debt. Sooner or later areas of the coast will have to be abandoned, because we will be unable to stop the impacts of a changing climate.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Types of Water Wells- Bored Wells

From Royal Pump and Well VA
There are two main types of modern wells, they can  often be distinguished by the diameter of the bore hole. The two types are bored wells and drilled wells. There has been a shift towards well regulations and drilled wells in the past couple of decades, but in areas of the Appalachian Plateau and other locations where clean low yielding groundwater sources are found relatively close to the surface- usually under 100 feet below grade.


Bored wells get their name from the way they are constructed. Bored wells are constructed using a rotary bucket auger. They are usually completed by installing a perforated casing (also called cribbing) or using a sand screen with continuous slot. One advantage of bored wells is the large diameter of the casing, from 18-36 inched. It provides a water storage reservoir for use during peak demand periods. A disadvantage of utilizing a shallow groundwater aquifer is that it generally relies on annual precipitation for recharge. So these systems are often installed with an additional cistern to ride out water shortages may occur following long dry periods in summer and extended freeze up during winter months. It can also be more susceptible to contamination from surface land-use activities.


As opposed to the 6 inch diameter drilled wells, bored wells are generally used where the groundwater aquifers are both shallow and low-yielding. Typically, I see bored wells with between 0.5-1.0 gallon per minute yield. Though, I have heard of bored wells in Goochland with up to 5 gallons a minute. A well that yields only 0.5 gallon per minute will provide 720 gallons per day which is more than enough for a household. Bored wells range in depth from 30 feet to 100 feet. To compensate for the low-yield of the aquifer, large diameter bored wells serve as storage reservoirs to provide water during periods of high demand. A bored well with a diameter of 3 feet provides 53 gallons of water storage per foot of depth.

Because they are shallow, bored wells are susceptible to both contamination and drought. This is why they are falling out of favor. A large protected land area and proper location of the well reduces the possibility of contamination. A well should be higher than the surrounding ground surface for good drainage. All possible sources of contamination should be at a lower elevation than the well, and the distances to those contamination sources must comply with local Water Well Construction Codes but should be 100 feet from septic tanks and leach fields to be safe. Tests performed in the past have shown that bacterial contamination is usually eliminated after water has filtered through 10 feet of normal soil. Therefore, the well must be constructed to ensure that at least the top 10 feet of casing is watertight.

There is more than one approach to boring a well and several design variations. Bored wells can be completed with either jet or submersible pumps. They can also be completed with a technique called buried slab. With this method, there is a smaller upper well casing that is 4-8 inches in diameter and may or may not be exposed. This smaller well casing extends 10 feet or more feet below the ground surface and is embedded in a hole that is formed when the reinforced concrete buried slab is manufactured, or connected to a pipe cast in the concrete slab. This type of well can be confused with a drilled well. In other designs the concrete casing that ranges in diameter from 18 inches to 3 feet extends to the surface and the lining is sealed with grouting to at least 10 feet below grade and the pitless adapter is below that as seen above.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Legionnaire’s Disease Risk in Texas

All the stagnant water in Houston is a breeding ground for bacteria warns the Texas Department of State Health Services. Flood waters may contain Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria and Shigella, which both can cause diarrhea, vomiting, fever, stomach pain and dehydration; however, the bigger risk is Legionnaires’ disease. The disease is caused by Legionella, bacteria found in in freshwater that easily spreads easily o municipal, business and home water systems during floods. Exposure to the bacteria occurs through inhalation of airborne moisture droplets.

Legionnaires’ disease causes pneumonia and can be lethal. Legionnaires’ disease is contracted by inhaling airborne water droplets containing viable Legionella bacteria. Such droplets can be created, by the spray from hot and cold water taps; atomisers; wet air conditioning systems, showers; and whirlpool or hydrotherapy baths. Anyone can develop Legionnaires’ disease, but the elderly, smokers, alcoholics and those with cancer, diabetes or chronic respiratory or kidney disease are at more risk.

Recent research has found that Legionella bacteria not only thrive in stagnant water, but also thrive on rust from water pipes and corroding taps and plumbing components. Though most reported cases of Legionnaires’ Disease come from cooling towers and large buildings such as hotels and hospitals, studies have shown that about 20% of the patients with Legionnaires’ disease contacted the legionella bacteria in their homes.

The risk Legionnaire disease of is particularly high when water is restored after a flood. To reduce the risk you should flush out plumbing systems that have not been used for some time, (including showerheads and taps), clean and de-scale shower heads and hoses. Cold-water storage tanks should be cleaned and disinfected and water should be drained from hot water heaters, the tanks refilled and heater to 140 degrees Fahrenheit the and to check for debris or signs of corrosion. Cold water should be stored below 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Legionella bacteria thrives between 68-115 degrees Fahrenheit and cannot survive above 140 degrees.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Your Septic Systems needs Time to Recover after the Storm

Septic systems should not be used immediately after floods. Drain fields will not work until underground water has receded. Septic lines may have broken during the flood. Whenever the water table is high or your septic drain field has been flooded, there is a risk that sewage will back up into your home. The only way to prevent this backup is to relieve pressure on the system by using it less- so not pump your tank until the soils dry out. Basically, there is nothing you can do but wait, do not use the system if the soil is saturated and flooded. The wastewater will not be treated and will become a source of pollution, if it does not back up into your house, it will bubble up into your yard. Conserve water as much as possible while the system restores itself and the water table fails.

Do not return to your home until flood waters have receded. If there was significant flooding in your yard, water will have flooded into your septic tank through the top. The tops of septic tanks are not water tight. Flood waters entering the septic tank will have lifted the floating crust of fats and grease in the septic tank. Some of this scum may have floated and/or partially plugged the outlet tee. If the septic system backs up into the house check the tank first for outlet blockage. Remember, that septic tanks can be dangerous, methane from the bacterial digestion of waste and lack of oxygen can overwhelm you. Hire someone with the right tools to clear your outlet tee.

Do not pump the septic tank while the soil is still saturated. Furthermore, pumping out a tank that is in saturated soil may cause it to “pop out” of the ground. (Likewise, recently installed systems may “pop out” of the ground more readily than older systems because the soil has not had enough time to settle and compact.) Call a septic service company (not just a tank pumping company) and schedule an appointment in a few days. Do not use the septic system for a few days (I know) have the service company clear any outlet blockage, or blockage to the drain field, check pumps and valves and partially pump down the tank if your soils are not dry enough or fully pump the tank if the soil has drained enough. The available volume in the tank will give you several days of plumbing use if you conserve water to allow your drain field to recover. Go easy the septic system operates on the principals of settling, bacterial digestion, and soil filtration all gentle and slow natural processes that have been battered by the storm.