Monday, November 29, 2010

Solar incentives and Other Market Distortions

The government in its wisdom has determined that solar, wind and geothermal sources of renewable energy are to be encouraged either to prevent global warming or for energy independence. Tax incentives and rebates targeted at end users were created to encourage the adoption of inefficient and costly technologies like solar panels. To purchase and install a 7.36 KW solar array consisting of 32 Sharp 230 watt solar panels, 32 Enphase micro-inverters and mounts was $57,040. The engineering and permits cost $1,500 for a grand total of $58,540 out of pocket. A rough estimate using the DOE model of my savings on electricity is $1,400 per year. That is an under 2.4% return on my investment each year. Not a very attractive investment. To encourage the solar voltaic industry, the federal and state government offered incentives.

The 7.36 KW are equivalent to 6.2 KW PTC. I managed to reserve 6 KW PTC Renewable Energy Rebates from Virginia and on completion of installation, inspection by the county, and sign-off by my power company, NOVC, I filed my paperwork with the state and received my renewable energy rebate of $12,000 from Virginia. This payment may or not be taxable income. When I file my federal tax returns at the end of the year, I will have to fill out a special form and maintain copies of all the documentation for my federal tax returns as well as evidence that Virginia paid my Renewable Energy Rebate to obtain my 30% tax credit of $17,562. Thus, from the original installation cost of $58,540 I subtract the Virginia Renewable Energy Rebate of $12,000 and the 30% tax credit of $17,562 and my total out of pocket cost for my solar system after the first year is $28,978. which ups my return on investment to almost 5% a year.

In addition, some state governments have required electricity distributors to take measures to reduce the amount of fossil fuel used to generate electricity and increase the amount of renewable energy used within their energy mix. This is called the Renewable Portfolio Standard and utilities can meet their requirements by either investing in renewable technology directly, or purchasing the renewable energy credits from others. Power generated by renewable energy sources (like my solar photovoltaic system) is tracked by a state created authority and given a certificate of production. Then, the Solar Renewable Energy Credit, SREC, can be traded on the open market to allow utilities to meet their Renewable Portfolio Standard, RPS, that are required to offset their carbon-emissions. A SREC is not electricity, it is a credit for energy produced and used elsewhere. SRECs have value only because RPSs require that a portion of energy produced by a utility be produced by renewable power.

Utilities in the state buy SRECs from solar installation producers. It is a way for states to ensure that the upfront cost of solar power is recovered from utility companies (and ultimately from the consumers). Some states, like New Jersey and Maryland, require their utilities to buy SRECs only from residents of their states creating a closed market where the price is kept high. Other states, like Virginia, have no current RPS requirement. Still other states, like Pennsylvania allow their utilities to buy their RPS from any resident within the PJM regional transmission organization. The power in the grid is purchased and sold on a regional basis, so I suppose there is some logic to a regional SREC market. This is a virtual market place where virtual commodities are sold by virtual companies. Only accounting entries change hands in this market.
In order to produce SRECs, a solar system must first be certified by state regulatory agencies, usually public service commissions or public utility commissions, and then registered with the state authorized registry that creates and tracks SRECs. Once a solar system is certified with the state agency and registered with a registry such as PJM GATS, SRECs can be issued using either an estimate table or actual meter readings depending upon state regulations and the type of meter used. My solar meter has to be manually read, and thought the power production of my panels can be monitored online; the PJM GATS uses estimated production for residential installations. In most cases, smaller installations are able to use estimates, while actual meter readings are required for large installations.

Within the PJM (where my house is located) I can currently sell my SRECs to utilities in Pennsylvania and Washington, DC. I can sell my SRECs on the spot market or I can shop for a long-term SREC contract. The discount for a long term contract is huge because the market is not well established and potentially risky. The value of SRECs will go up and down depending on the supply and demand as determined by the number of solar installations, states requiring RPS, and states allowing sale within the PJM regional transmission organizations. RPS requirements are currently set to increase over time, but regulations can change. SRECs in Pennsylvania have ranged from $200-$300 per megawatt hour. So after having my system qualified in Pennsylvania, I could earn an additional $2,000-$3,000 a year for 15 years or as long as the demand for RPS lasts which ever is less. Under the federal incentives (what my husband lovingly calls Al Gore funny money) I can sell SRECs for 15 years assuming that there remains a market for SRECs in the future. So my return on investment could double or triple depending on the value of the SRECs.

SRECs are not physical entities, but merely a credit for having made power (I used all the power produced by the panels in my own home) their value depends entirely on regulation which can change over time. There is a certain risk that SRECs could become worthless at any time if regulations change because SRECs are nothing real. Of course they could become worth more. Meanwhile, I will continue selling SRECs on the spot market. After looking into creating an account for my SRECs in Pennsylvania and Washington DC, I ended up signing up with a service to manage my SRECs for 5% of the sale price. After investigating the market, I discovered that there are tremendous inefficiencies, a few young companies and not a lot of operating history. I ended up taking a bit of a flyer on SREC Trade, a small operation out of San Francisco after checking references with the state regulators. So far it is working out. I have successfully been registered in the Pennsylvania and Washington DC markets and have received three checks so far for the sale of my SRECs.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Local Stormwater Management in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed

Winter is coming and so the woods on the back seven acres of my land are easily accessible and I can walk to the stream behind my house. My intension was simply to collect the trash that accumulated in the area since spring, but I am bothered by the erosion I observe in the stream bank. It is not noticeably different from the spring, but certainly there has been some impact to the area and I can only guess it is from paving the road in my neighborhood. It is a private road about 2 miles long that is maintained by the 34 property owners who live in our neighborhood. During big storms it is clear that the stormwater runoff is inadequately controlled by the ditch that runs along side the road and terminates on the crest of the hill down to the stream. Yet, the challenge is to get a group of rugged individualists to spend money to address a problem only two homeowners see and care about.

It is my understanding the road was built by the developer of the lots in 2004. I bought my home from a bank in 2007 so I rely on information from my neighbors. Stormwater management for the development of the road and for the road itself was not regulated within the rural crescent (the area within Prince William County that requires 10 acres per home with some limitations and loopholes). On January 29, 2005 Virginia Soil & Water Conservation Board & Department of Conservation & Recreation responsible for municipal separate stormwater sewage systems, MS4s, and Construction General Permits for stormwater. The DCR did not issue regulations until December 9, 2009 when they adopted the Final Regulations Parts I, II, and III Virginia Stormwater Management Program (VSMP) Permit Regulations, but then just over a month later on January 14, 2010 the DCR suspended the regulations and convened hearings.

Though the DCR retains regulatory responsibility for the MS4 and Construction and General Permits for managing storm water, localities with MS4 permits and localities within the Chesapeake Bay Protected Area must adopt a local stormwater management programs to comply with the requirements of the Chesapeake Bay Act and the US EPA mandated TMDL. These elements will have to be incorporated in to the environmental chapter for the Prince William County comprehensive plan. Part of the challenge is to have the plan or requirements reach in a reasonable manner the stormwater management of our community and other communities like us. To meet the requirements of the EPA TMDL we need to reduce nutrient pollution from all existing sources, not just ban new development and increase regulation on point source polluters. Though I do not know if it will be reasonable, the obvious solution is to tie obtaining permits to maintain and repave the road with installing stormwater best management practices, BMPs, to ameliorate the excessive flow of water during storms.

Natural systems like our land and stream respond to runoff volumes, frequencies, durations and temperatures. Even though “pollutant” is defined broadly by the EPA in the Clean Water Act to include virtually every imaginable substance added to surface waters, including heat, it does not include water volume. A more straightforward way to regulate stormwater contributions to the Chesapeake Bay Watershed impairment would be to use flow or possibly something like impervious cover, as a measure of stormwater loading and then require BMPs based on the amount of pavement. Flow of stormwater is easier to monitor, model, and even approximate rather than the complicated modeling of the loadings of individual contaminants in stormwater effluent. Using BMPs to simply reduce stormwater flow will automatically achieve reductions in pollutant loading. Moreover, flow is itself responsible for erosion and sedimentation that is damaging our streams and rivers within the watershed.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Environmental Chapter of Prince William County Comprehensive Plan

Prince William County as well as all interested parties have submitted their comments to the US EPA on the Chesapeake Bay TMDL and that comment period is now closed. I was fortunate to hear a summary of the PWC’s concerns and comments by Prince William County Public Works representative Marc Aveni. The Chesapeake Bay TMDL could eventually mean more monitoring and reporting on the county level and more government control of our lives.

The TMDL proposes very strict standards on both point and non-point sources of pollution. Everything from construction site runoff to individual lawn fertilization could become a regulatory issue. The Chesapeake Bay TMDL allocates nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollutant reductions to both point and nonpoint sources to meet the Bay's water quality standards, EPA expects Virginia and the other five watershed states and the District of Columbia to provide EPA with documented "reasonable assurance" that nonpoint source loading reductions will be achieved as a condition for reflecting such reductions in the Bay TMDL.

The meaning of reasonable assurance could be a costly issue in Virginia. Ultimately, because permits under the Clean Water Act (CWA) include effluent limitations necessary to achieve the Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay TMDL water quality standards, if nonpoint sources do not accomplish the loading reductions identified to EPA’s satisfaction or “reasonable assurances” then, more stringent effluent limits will be applied to CWA permits for point sources. This could cost millions upon millions of dollars because the higher level reductions in nutrients simply requires more treatment steps at waste water treatment plants and storm water systems. I am not a big fan of command and control method of regulation for all non-point source pollution. Unfortunately, regulatory command and control of the littlest corners of our lives is the only form of “reasonable assurances” that the US EPA recognizes.
Though the comment period has closed EPA has not yet taken final action on the Chesapeake Bay TMDLs it is clear the new regulations will focus on short-term, two-year goals called milestones by the EPA. Virginia and the six other Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions will be required to meet the soon to be finalized TMDL and future milestones, and will be required to put in place all pollution control measures the EPA deems necessary for a restored Bay no later than 2025. The final TMDL are scheduled to be met by December 31, 2011 and according to comments submitted to the EPA by Prince William County everything from construction site runoff to individual lawn fertilization, limitations on backyard chickens, and horse ownership could be under the microscope in order to meet the new TMDL within the framework of the EPA Chesapeake Bay pollution models. The federal TMDL could eventually mean more monitoring, reporting and possibly even more staff at the county level, though Prince William County Public Works believes they can meet the demands by fully staffing the two vacant FTEs.

Prince William County is holding public hearings on the environmental chapter of the PWC Comprehensive Plan on December 7th at 7:30 pm at the PWC offices at the McCoart Building at One County Complex Ct., Woodbridge, VA. If you have an interest and are local you should be there. I am anxious to hear the concerns of citizens, businesses and developers and to see if these comments relate to the Chesapeake Bay TMDL. I am hoping to gain insight into how Prince William and the other localities within the watershed will manage to navigate the requirements of the TMDL. I do look forward to seeing a fully restored Chesapeake Bay some day.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Keeping Your Home Dry-Roof Maintenance and Moisture Problems

Too much moisture in a home can lead to mold, mildew, and other biological growth. The presence of these molds can lead to a variety of health problems including allergies, asthma and more serious respiratory problems. In addition to health problems, excess moisture can lead to problems such as rot, structural damage, and paint failure and create a hospitable environment for pests and mold. Correcting and preventing moisture problems is a first defense against termites, mold, and structural failure.

Every couple of months you should make a point of walking through you home looking up for water stains in the ceilings. Often this simple act can identify a problem before you have significant water damage. Water stains can be caused by roof leaks, or condensing moisture. There's a lot of moisture generated inside homes. Bathrooms without exhaust fans or fans not vented to the exterior, leaking dryer vents, damp basements, kitchens and crawlspaces and basements can be the source of moisture in the in the home or attic. Improper roof ventilation or uneven insulation can create "cold spots" where moisture condenses to the point of dripping onto the ceiling or wet areas on the underside of the roof sheathing. Air conditioning equipment or heat exchangers in the attic, can result in condensate dripping out of the system or off of the refrigerant lines or ducts.

Twice a year I like to check my attic for mold and leaks. Mold in the attic is generally caused by increased humidity and moisture, generally from improperly installed or inadequate attic vents, soffit vents, blocked soffit vents or a roof leak, or any other source of moisture. When I added insulation to my attic I made a point of checking the attic every six months for the first couple of year to make sure that the increased insulation did not impact the effectiveness of the attic ventilation against mold growth.

If excessive moisture builds up in an attic, over time the moisture will attract mold spores which germinate and form mold in the attic which can be seen as blackened areas in cellulose insulation, along rafters or across the roof sheeting. Black mold in your attic may be a variety of things. In most cases black mold on your roof rafters is not likely to contain Stachybotrys the toxic mold we have heard so much about. Wet cellulose (such as attic insulation) is reported to have a higher probability of being infested with Stachybotrys.

An interior drip that occurs when it rains is easy to identify as a roof leak. If you remember that water moves down the roof and look along the horizontal plane to identify the water flow. The easy way is to search the attic during a rain storm when the drip is occurring. A two day heavy rain storm in the fall or spring is the perfect time to locate the leak. Take a picture with your phone or digital camera or the leak and the general area so that the roofer can locate it on a dry day. A stain in the ceiling can be an indication of moisture buildup, dripping from an air conditioner or other difficult to identify problem. Photograph the stain after rain storms to see if it is growing. Otherwise, the source of the moisture will have to be identified.

Many roof leaks can be quickly and simply fixed by a roofing professional (certainly not me, I do not climb on roofs). Many of the most common include flashings, those architectural features designed to join roofing to the other parts of your home. Of course they may also be located within skylights, chimneys or ice dams. Identifying the location of the water infiltration will help a good roofer identify the source of the leaks.
Most roofs are not really water tight, they are pitched and designed to shed water. A newer roof is likely to leak in the valley where two roof planes intersect, at improperly flashed locations around chimneys, plumbing vents, furnace vent flashing, wall step flashing. An improperly installed roof may have left the old flashing in place and have used roof cement, that gooey black tar instead of properly reinstalling or replacing flashings they simply layer on the roof cement which is at best a temporary solution, because it breaks down when exposed to UV light. As your roof ages the roofing material- shingles, slate, shakes, whatever- may become damaged in areas, and need to be replaced. Cracked, damaged or missing shingles, slate, tiles or shakes can be replaced without replacing the entire roof. Possibly a nail has backed itself out of the roof sheathing allowing water entrance. Repairing small roof leaks can prevent larger problems. Pay attention to your home.

Monday, November 15, 2010

What Can A VAMWON Volunteer Do For You?

The Virginia Cooperative Extension obtained a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Cooperative Research Education and Extension Service (USDA-CSREES) to restart the Virginia Household Water Quality Program (VAHWQP) originally launched in 1989. and establish the Virginia Master Well Owner Network (VAMWON). Not exactly an acronym that rolls off the tongue, but VAMWON volunteers can help simplify understanding the components of a well and private drinking water system. VAMWON trained VCE agents organize and conduct county-based drinking water clinics and serve as a local resource for clientele with household water quality concerns.

VAMWON volunteers and agents provide education to rural residents about private water system management. To help protect families who obtain their drinking water from private wells, Virginia now licenses water-well installers and has a series of regulations for private wells to make sure that new wells are properly constructed. In addition, the Health Department permits the wells. In Virginia private well regulations date back to 1990 and the Department of Health expanded the regulations in 1993. Prior to that only public water supply wells and private wells constructed during the installation of a new or repaired septic system were regulated by the Department of Health. However, the vast majority of the private wells in Virginia were constructed before the regulations and there is no requirement that these older private wells comply with safe drinking water standards.

Current regulations ensure that a well is built properly, but does nothing to verify that it continues to work properly and the water remains healthy to drink. That is the job of the well owner, and it takes some work and some knowledge which the VAMWON volunteers and agents can provide. Unlike public water systems, private systems are entirely unregulated; consequently, the well location, construction, testing, and treatment are the voluntary responsibility of the homeowner. As a result, many individual water wells have never been tested, and their owners are generally uninformed about water quality issues. The VAMWON volunteers and agents can provide information and resource links for private well owners and inform Virginians dependent on private water systems about water testing, water treatment, and system maintenance.

Poorly constructed and unmanaged water wells are a potential risk to groundwater aquifers that supply wells and the homeowners, farmers, and businesses that access them. Pollution of entire ground water aquifers may occur from failing septic systems, manure and fertilizer applications, mining, or other land uses. Individual water supplies may also be contaminated around the exposed well casing (wellhead) from surface water flowing along the well casing and/or from a loose fitting or absent well cap that allow insects, animals or surface water to directly enter the well. VVAMWON volunteers and agents are available to provide information on how to inspect a well , respond to questions from neighbors, present information at local HOA or township meetings, and hosting a booths at a county fairs. In addition, volunteers also educate neighbors through various media sources (i.e., internet, newspaper, and township newsletter articles). You can find your VAMWON volunteer neighbor through this link by entering your county in the search box.

A VAMWON volunteer or agent can provide guidance for you to verify that your well is properly constructed, functioning properly and your water is potable and of good quality. The VAMWON volunteer or agent can help identify problems with the water system and provide information on suggested treatments. They can provide information on the limitions of various water treatment options and other solutions. Finally, the VAMON volunteers and Agents has information on household water conservation and managing your well during a drought. Consulting with your VAMWON volunteer and agent should be your first step in understanding and managing your private water supply.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Drinking Water Problems with Your Private Well Part 2

Contamination from human and animal waste and chemicals can be real health hazards and should be addressed immediately. However, most of the water quality issues with private wells are from naturally occurring contamination. These are contaminants that are produced from the underlying soil and rock geology and wildlife. From the underlying rocks radionuclides and heavy metals can enter the groundwater. There are areas with natural occurring arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, selenium and fluoride. While some of the symptoms of mineral contamination are obvious, never buy a treatment system until you have tested your water and identified the correct solution. Other contaminants may be present that need to be addressed. 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.

The WaterCheck with Pesticides is an informational test packages targeted to be an affordable option for consumers. The WaterCheck with Pesticide covers 15 heavy metals, 5 inorganic chemicals, 5 physical factors, 4 trihalo methanes, 43 volatile organic chemicals (solvents), and 20 pesticides, herbicides and PCB’s. The Minimum Detection Levels, which are the lowest levels at which the laboratory detects that contaminant are below the levels established by the Safe Drinking Water Act so this affordable (relatively) test will serve as a broad screen of drinking water.

A lot of the well water in Virginia is hard water (though there are areas where soft water occurs naturally.) Hard water contains minerals, such as calcium, magnesium, and iron. Water containing approximately 125 milligrams of calcium, magnesium and iron per liter of water can reduce the cleaning action of soaps and detergents and can form a scale (lime scale) in cookware, hot water pipes, and water heaters. There are a number of simple things you can do to reduce the effects of hard water in your home, without having to resort to treating your water, so called softening. My water has elevated levels of calcium and magnesium. My iron content is very low. High iron content can begin to stain your teeth at 0.3 parts per million (ppm), you may also notice brown/orange stains on tubs, inside dishwashers, sinks and laundry. There are simple things to do to address hard water, but with excessive iron you might consider additional treatments.

Choose a detergent based laundry product. Some laundry detergents/soaps do not produce as many suds in hard water, these are likely to be soap-based products and do not work as well in hard-water as detergent based products. These days, there are laundering powders and liquids available for a wide range of water hardness. Also, manufacturers often recommend using slightly more detergent to compensate for the hard water. Check the package.

Reduce the temperature of your hot water heater. When water temperature increases, more mineral deposits will appear in your dishwasher, hot water tank and pipes. By reducing the temperature, you will save money and will reduce the amount of mineral build-up in your pipes and tank. Use rinse agents to remove mineral deposits. There are low pH (acidic) products available to remove mineral deposits from pots and pans and dishwasher. Alternatively, you can use plain white vinegar by using the dishwasher dispenser or placing a cup of vinegar on the dishwasher rack. Boil some white vinegar in your kettle to remove hard water deposits. Drain and rinse your hot water heater annually.

In days past, at the first sign of hard water, domestic water supplies were commonly softened by using a tank containing an ion-exchange material, which takes up the calcium, magnesium and small amounts of dissolved iron from water in exchange for sodium. Conditioning the home water supply with sodium is pleasing to some. The amount of sodium in water conditioning systems is a real problem and may increase the corrosively of the water. Personally, I do not care to add all that sodium to my diet while removing calcium carbonate and magnesium (something that is also sold in pill form for stronger bones). Household water treatment services are very profitable because of the monthly bills. Conditioning the water supply may include water softening, iron removal, neutralization of acid water, reverse osmosis, turbidity control, removal of objectionable tastes and odors, and aeration. Water softening and filtering are the most common methods of conditioning well water.

Dissolved iron in the water that is oxidized by air to form iron oxide, causes reddish-brown stains in sinks, toilets, tubs, dishwashers, and dishes. Other symptoms of excessive iron are reddish-brown stains or yellowing of laundry, especially after using chlorine bleach. The iron can cause the water to taste metallic. Brown sediment in standing water would be another symptom. With these indications, the water should be tested for iron to verify the problem and determining type and amount of iron problem, select appropriate iron removal equipment such as chlorinator or and sand filter, high capacity water softener or manganese greensand filter. The correct choice of treatment for iron problems can be complex, depending on the level of iron in the water and the presence of other impurities; do not skip a full water test.

Sometimes iron bacteria are mistaken for iron mineral. Iron bacteria forms a reddish slime on walls of toilet flush tank and reduced water flow. Slimy material suspended in clear water. Iron bacteria, which live on iron in the water and have hardened into scale, can be mistaken by a water treatment sales person for iron. The solution for iron bacteria is to address the bacteria problem. Installing a chlorinator to feed into the well near the pump intake and an activated carbon filter to remove excess chlorine and other objectionable tastes or odors will address iron bacteria. Black stains on sinks, tubs, and laundry are often attributed to iron, but actually that is cause by manganese. Water with high manganese may feel greasy. Manganese (often appears with iron). Iron removal treatments also remove manganese.

Low pH, commonly called acid water; or corrosive water is most common in coal county and areas underlain by Triassic shales or limestone and can often caused by a high concentration of carbon dioxide. Water softeners may increase the corrosiveness of acid water making the situation worse. Low pH water can corrode water pipes. Water dripping from corroded iron or galvanized pipe has a rusty color. Corroded copper or brass pipes cause blue-green stains on plumbing fixtures. Laundry may have red, reddish-brown, or blue-green stains. The water may also have a metallic taste. The acidity level will determine the appropriate treatment such as aeration, soda ash feeder, or neutralizing filter.

Hydrogen sulfide, sulfate reducing bacteria, or sulfur bacteria can cause a rotten egg odor. Copper and silver turn black in the water. Iron, steel, or copper parts of pumps, pipes, and fixtures corroded. Black stains on laundry and porcelain. Black particles in water are indications of this problem. (Note that manganese may also cause black staining on porcelain fixtures.) Compounds such as iron sulfide, calcium sulfide, and sodium sulfide can interfere with hydrogen sulfide removal so multiple treatments may be required test your water to select the appropriate treatment system. Appropriate treatments may include chlorination or aeration followed by filtration through a sand filter.

Objectionable taste or odor other than hydrogen sulfide can be caused by decaying organic matter, pollution from surface drainage, insufficient chlorine being used to disinfect water. Also, there are people who simply do not care for a high mineral content. Install activated carbon filter or automatic chlorinator followed by activated carbon filter. Turbid, cloudy or dirty water, dingy laundry or other similar problem can be caused by silt, sediment, small organisms or organic matter, suspended in the water. These do not need to be addressed unless they are a nuisance. Installing a whole house fiber or a sand filter will address those problem, but will introduce a potential area for creation of other problems if not properly maintained. Coliform bacteria can persist within slime formed by naturally occurring ground water microorganisms. The slime (or biofilm) clings to the well screen, casing, drop pipe, and pump and may even invade filter systems. The pros and cons of each water treatment system should be carefully evaluated before choosing to treat water or selecting a treatment system for you home.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Drinking Water Problems with Your Private Well Part 1

First of all let me say that according to the US EPA actual events of groundwater contamination have historically been rare and typically do not occur at levels likely to pose health concerns. This fact is the basis of the EPA and state health departments’ absolute acceptance of private and unmonitored use of groundwater for drinking water purposes for a significant portion of the United States. In Virginia 34% of the population is estimated to obtain their drinking water from private groundwater wells. However, as development in our modern society increases, there are a growing number of activities that can contaminate our drinking water and increased density brings more opportunities to impact groundwater. As an environmental engineer I tended to see a lot of contaminated sites, so I tend to focus on threats to the groundwater and worry about my groundwater quality more than most.

The most common sources of pollution to groundwater supplies come from two categories; naturally occurring ones and those cause by human activities. Naturally occurring contamination are those that are produced from the underlying soil and rock geology and wildlife. Microorganisms in the soil and from wildlife can travel into groundwater supplies through cracks, fissures, other pathways of opportunity or even through sedimentary and basaltic rocks that are highly fractured and overlain by a thin cover of overburden. Nitrates and nitrites from the nitrogen compounds in the soil can also enter the groundwater. From the underlying rocks radionuclides and heavy metals can enter the groundwater. There are areas with natural occurring arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, selenium and fluoride.

Human activities can also introduce contaminants into the groundwater. Bacteria and nitrates can be caused by human and animal waste. In our own neighborhoods septic systems, horses, backyard poultry can cause these problems. On a regional level small lots and dense population of septic systems or large animal or fertilized farm operations can cause problems. Heavy local use of pesticides for ornamental gardens (those small suburban lots again), heavy metals from mining operations, industrial products from manufacturing and industrial operations, leaks from underground storage tanks, solvents from automotive and airplane maintenance or dry cleaning operations. Landfills and household waste can introduce solvents, motor oil, and paint, paint thinner, water treatment chemicals and others.

It is cost prohibitive to test for every potential contaminant. To know what type of contaminants might be impacting your well a simple rule of thumb is to look out from your property. What you can see is likely to be the source of human contaminants to your drinking water well. Though some will see large farming operations, factories, military and industrial operations, gas stations, mining operations, most private well owners will see neighbors. Your and your neighbors septic systems, a few horses or dogs, maybe backyard poultry, lawns that have been fertilized (or over fertilized) and houses that may have been sprayed for termites.

You can not taste bacterial contamination from human and animal waste and you can not taste nitrate nitrite contamination. You can even grow accustomed to low levels of bacterial contamination, so that it is only house guests who develop intestinal disorders. Since bacterial contamination cannot be detected by taste, smell, or sight, all drinking water wells should be tested at least annually for Coliform bacteria and E Coli. Due to the extra cost (under $20) most health departments only recommend total coliform testing. Total coliform counts give a general indication of the sanitary condition of a water supply. Total coliform includes bacteria that are found in the soil, in water that has been influenced by surface water, and in human or animal waste. Fecal coliform is the group of the total coliform that is considered to be present specifically in the gut and feces of warm-blooded animals. E. coli is considered to be the species of coliform bacteria that is the best indicator of fecal pollution and the possible presence of pathogens.

Most state’s well construction code requires all new, repaired, or reconditioned wells to be disinfected with chlorine to kill bacteria that may have been introduced during construction. Testing is required initially to demonstrate that the water is free of Coliform bacteria before the well is put into service. Bacteria can be introduced into a new well during construction and can remain if the water system is not thoroughly disinfected and flushed. Well construction defects such as insufficient well casing depth, improper sealing of the space between the well casing and the borehole, corroded or cracked well casings, and poor well seals or caps can allow sewage, surface water, or insects to carry coliform bacteria into the well. Unplugged abandoned wells can also carry coliform bacteria into deeper aquifers. In an existing well system that formerly was bacteria free look for defects. All wells should be Coliform free when initially put into service. However, be aware that and unscrupulous well driller (or home seller) could test immediately after shocking the system with chlorine and in that way obtain a bacterial free sample of a well.

If the bacterial contamination is only Coliform bacteria and not E. coli, be sure to inspect the well for defects, check the grouting, casing, and clean the water delivery system and filter of slime and flush the system fully. Then retest. If the system passes let a few weeks go by and retest again. If repairing and cleaning the system does not solve the problem then one of the long-term solutions will have to be implemented. This includes continuous disinfection and replacing the well. Be aware that whole house filters, water softening systems for hard water do not remove bacteria or nitrate/nitrite from water. A reverse osmosis system can remove nitrate/nitrite from water.

If you do have a bacterial problem, fix it. There are four types of water treatment that can be easily and inexpensively used to remove bacteria
. They are chlorination, ozonation, ultraviolet light, and heat. Chlorination is the most commonly used means of disinfection in private water systems. High chlorine concentrations can have objectionable tastes and odors, and even low chlorine concentrations react with some organic compounds to produce strong, unpleasant tastes and odors. To eliminate the excessive amounts of chlorine, the water is then dechlorinated. Activated carbon filters are the most common devices used to dechlorinate water, remove objectionable chlorine tastes, and reduce corrosion of plumbing systems. In addition to removing taste and odor problems, granular activated carbon absorption is a good method to remove other impurities including some pesticide residues, and radon. Boiling water will kill bacteria, but be aware if bacterial contamination is being caused by leaking septic or animal waste, you might also have a nitrate/nitrite problem (which can be lethal to infants) and boiling water concentrates the nitrate/nitrite. Also chlorine and UV light water treatment systems do not remove nitrate/nitrite.

Excessive levels of these nitrogen compounds in drinking water have caused serious illness and sometimes death in infants less than six months of age. This condition results when nitrate is converted to nitrite in the infant’s body. Nitrite then interferes with the oxygen carrying capacity of the blood. Symptoms include shortness of breath and blueness of the skin (methemoglobinemia). This is an acute disease in which symptoms can develop rapidly in infants from very minor exposure. So, if you well water contains bacteria, before you decide on a treatment option, test for nitrate/nitrite. If there is excessive nitrogen compounds it is important that you install a reverse osmosis system on the drinking water tap used to mix baby formula or make up bottles (and make coffee and food preparation for that matter). Under counter reverse osmosis systems generate 3-5 gallons of waste water for each gallon of treated water depending on the system.

Sometimes the installation of a new well may produce water with less nitrate and nitrite and bacteria, but is best to determine the source of contamination before a new well is installed. The new well would need to draw water from a different geologic horizon in order for it to have a reasonable chance of avoiding or lowering the contamination. To help determine whether a new well could produce better quality water the sampling of similar wells in the immediate neighborhood could assist in measuring the extent of the contamination present.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Groundwater in Virginia

According to George Harlow at the US Geological Survey (USGS) in Richmond, VA about 34% of all drinking water in Virginia is supplied by groundwater and there are 1.7 million Virginians whose drinking water is sourced from groundwater and supplied by their own private wells. The information below is from a talk Mr. Harlow gave and the Private Water Supply Handbook.

The geology-the underlying types of soil and rocks of an area determines the characteristic and availability of groundwater. To survive over time, a population must live within the carrying capacity of its ecosystem, the most important element of the ecosystem is potable water. Without water there can be no life. Water is needed for drinking, bathing, to support irrigated agriculture and industry. In Virginia, our rainfall is usually adequate and there is limited need to irrigate. Precipitation and soil type determines how much the shallower groundwater is recharged annually. However the volume of water that can be stored is controlled by the reservoir characteristics of the subsurface rocks. Groundwater may be present today that was precipitation months, years or eons ago. Using more groundwater than is recharged through precipitation is unsustainable over the long run.

The nature of the soils and rocks varies across Virginia by physiographic province. The geological regions of Virginia are (from east to west) the Coastal Plain, the Piedmont, the Blue Ridge, the Valley and Ridge and the (Cumberland) Plateau. There is also a limited areas of Mesozoic Lowlands within the Piedmont that is not a geographic region but is a physiographic province and is groundwater rich. I happen to live within the Mesozoic Lowlands. The natural occurrence and availability of groundwater depends on the geological conditions.

The Costal Plain of Virginia is composed mostly of unconsolidated geologic deposits and extends from the Atlantic coast to the “fall zone” a geological line that runs north-south through Fairfax, Fredericksburg, Richmond, and Petersburg. At its widest portion the Costal Plain is over 100 miles wide. Costal Plain deposits consist of alternating layers of unconsolidated sand, gravel, silt, shell strata and clay and slopes generally southeast. There are two groundwater systems, an unconfined aquifer and a lower artesian aquifer both flow in the general direction of the topography slope towards the ocean. In unconsolidated sediments well casings must reach to the water table and the well must be screened in the saturated zone, but just about anywhere you drill a well, you will find groundwater. Water tends to be of good quality for the most part, but there are areas where over pumping has resulted in salt water intrusion and areas where iron and hydrogen sulfide occur. It is very possible with little more population growth that during drought years Fairfax and the Norfolk-Virginia Beach area will have inadequate water.

The Piedmont is bordered by the “fall zone” on the east and the Blue Ridge Mountains on the west. The Piedmont is the largest geological region in Virginia and has a diverse geology largely dominated by igneous and metamorphic rocks, with some areas of sedimentary rocks. The area has limited overburden and the fractures and fault lines formed in the rocks store and transmit groundwater. The size and number of water bearing fractures decrease with depth so significant supplies of water are generally located in the first few hundred feet. There is a wide variation in groundwater quality and yield ranging from under 1 gallon to over 50 gallons a minute. The largest yields are obtained where fracture and fault system are extensive along the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains. In other areas of the Piedmont, disintegration of the granite bedrock forms a zone of granular material with slow recharge and relatively high and annoying amounts of iron and sulfur. To be productive a well must be located within a fracture. Water tends to be hard and in many areas contains high levels of iron, sulfur, and can be acidic.

The Mesozoic Lowlands are within the Piedmont region. These areas consists of an interbedded sequence of sedimentary and basaltic rocks. The rocks of the lowlands are highly fractured and overlain by a thin cover of overburden. The lack of overburden limits natural protection to the aquifer. The sedimentary rocks are productive aquifers. The soils are described by the USGS as Balls Bluff Siltstone with a gravel, sand and clay type bedding plane. In the siltstone bedding plane, the fractures within the rock run predominately north south. Thus while ground water flows generally speaking west to east, water or a contaminant that catches a fracture will carry the contaminant to depth in a north south pattern. Contaminants can enter the groundwater at these fractures spread easily. Groundwater is easy to locate and tends to be hard.

The Blue Ridge province lies to the west of the Piedmont and is a narrow zone (4-25 miles wide) of mountains that runs from North Carolina to Maryland with the highest elevations in Virginia. The bedrock is near the surface and relatively impervious and contains limited amounts of water in joints, fractures and fault zones. Igneous and metamorphic rocks are most common on the eastern slope (and into the Piedmont) and sedimentary rocks are common on the western slope. Water yields are low and limited and typically very high in iron. Water containing fractures can be few and far between and it is very possible not to find water on a home site or to have a well run dry regularly.

The Valley and Ridge region is to the west of the Blue Ridge Mountains and is underlain by consolidated sedimentary rocks of limestone, dolomite, shale and conglomerate. Limestone and dolomite occur beneath lowlands, such as the Shenandoah Valley (also within the lowlands between the Potomac and the Catoctin Mountains) these deposits consistently form productive aquifers. Karst features such as sinkholes, caves, and large springs are found in the Valley and Ridge province. The ridges in the upland area are typically underlain by sandstone and shale with limited groundwater yield. Limestone frequently contains underground channels that store and transmit groundwater. Rapid movement of water in the limestone area makes the pollution potential high. Aquifers are often recharged directly by streams crossing fault zones giving wells in these areas the highest yields. This direct surface water to groundwater recharge can create serious water quality problems. The groundwater in these zones bypasses any natural filtration the soil might have provided. The quality of the groundwater would reflect the quality of the seasonal streams and surface water and tends to be acidic.

The smallest geological region of Virginia is the Cumberland Plateau also called the Appalachian Plateau which includes the southwester tip of Virginia. This region is underlain by sedimentary rocks, primarily sandstone, shale and the coal. It is the presence of coal that has most determined the fate of this region. The groundwater travels in the coal veins. The gentle folding of these formations has created domes and basins and faulting has occurred. Groundwater quality is generally best in the bedrock above the stream level. The groundwater in the stream level contains high concentrations of sulfate, sulfite, nitrate, iron and carbon dioxide. The water improves at 150-300 feet below this area. Groundwater is generally used for small domestic purposes and processing coal. The shallow nature of the groundwater allows for relatively easy contamination.

The quality and minerals in the groundwater are determined to a large extent by the local geology. Virginia is rich in water our actions will determine if we remain so. The process by which water from rainfall, snowmelt, streams and rivers flows into water bearing geologic formation is the groundwater recharge process. The climate change models (as limited and faulty as they may be) predict that Virginia will become a bit wetter and warmer (think North Carolina). A failure of the water supply in Virginia will be due to our own actions and decision. The land surface through which groundwater is recharged must remain open and uncontaminated to maintain the quality and quantity of groundwater of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Virginia Master Well Owner

While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates public water systems, the responsibility for ensuring the safety and consistent supply of water from the estimated more than 1.7 million private wells in Virginia belongs to the well owner. Owners of private wells are responsible for all aspects of water system management. These responsibilities include knowing the well’s history, testing the water quality annually (or more often as needed), and having the well system and its components inspected regularly by a well driller licensed or certified by the Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation, DPOR, and ensuring the maintenance and repair of the system.

The Virginia Cooperative Extension obtained a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Cooperative Research Education and Extension Service (USDA-CSREES) to restart the Virginia Household Water Quality Program (VAHWQP) originally launched in 1989. The program centers around household drinking water clinics, which include confidential water sample analysis followed by a meeting where citizens learn how to interpret their sample analysis report and how to care for their water system and address any potential problems. The water clinics were restarted and the Virginia Master Well Owner Network (VAMWON) was established, patterned after very successful master well owner volunteer network established in Pennsylvania.

I spend this past Saturday at all day training in Charlottesville, Virginia to become a Virginia Master Well Owner volunteer. The Virginia Master Well Owner Network, VAMWON, consists of Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) agents and qualified volunteers trained in the proper design, management, and maintenance of private water supply systems (springs, wells, and cisterns). The day included training on a variety of topics pertinent to developing a unified understanding of private water systems, including groundwater hydrology in Virginia, water testing, routine system maintenance, and dealing with water problems.

Like many of others, my professional experience gave me insight into understanding the private water supplies, and the resource materials from the program (all available on-line) which I studied in advance well prepared me for the training. The opportunity to ask questions of experts and listen to other’s questions, see equipment and demonstrations was a great way to reinforce everything I learned. The best place for all homeowners with private drinking wells to start is to review the brochure “Ten Tips for Managing Your Private Well Water Supply.”

As a VAMWON trained volunteer I am expected to reach out to private water system owners in a variety of ways, ranging from speaking to local community groups and HOAs to informal discussions with friends and neighbors. We can provide information and guidance of where to seek the appropriate help and services to address a water/well problem. We are here to help you can find a VAMWON trained volunteer or extension agent on-line or through you local extension office.