Thursday, May 30, 2013

VDOT Public Hearing

From Piedmont Environmental Council
Last evening the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) held a public hearing at the VDOT District Office, Potomac Conference Center in Fairfax to hear comments about the “essential” projects identified in the state's working draft of the Fiscal Years 2014-2019 Six-Year Improvement Program. The program allocates $15.4 billion, a $4 billion increase, in funding to transportation improvements over the next six fiscal years beginning July 1, 2013. The draft report was released by VDOT on May 15th 2013 and suddenly projects that had just been talked about for the future became real with the list of projects selected by the CTB for Transportation Alternatives Program funding, including the roadway variously known as the Tri-County Parkway, Bi-County Parkway, Outer Beltway and North-South Corridor. The meeting was held in a packed meeting room attended by about 160. The CTB said that public comments will be considered before the CTB adopts its final program in June, but this narrow window was the only opportunity to have input in Northern Virginia, though Deputy Commissioner Charlie Kilpatrick kindly invited anyone who was interested to drive down to Roanoke and Hampton Roads with him for the next two meetings.

The meeting was well attended by our supervisors, delegates, NGO representatives and about 150 regular folk. Our elected officials talked about the concerns and needs of their communities. I intend to only focus on some of the comments about the North-South Corridor/ Bi-County Parkway which represented about two thirds of the comments made last night. The planned crescent shaped North South Corridor, limited access cargo and truck highway, (or Bi-County Parkway) is approximately 45 miles in length, and is essentially described by VDOT as a more direct route for cargo and truck traffic connecting I-95 to Dulles Airport and Route 7. The North South section is reported to cost over $1,000,000,000, run through Prince William County’s Rural Crescent potentially damaging our watershed and impacting our groundwater resources, eliminates one of three corridors in our green infrastructure and once the segment of the Tri-County Parkway between I-66 and VA 234 is complete, U.S. 29 and VA 234 through the Park are planned to be closed. As Delegate Hugo stated in his Bull Run news conference “this road will destroy the Rural Crescent, land that the Prince William Board of County Supervisors has pledged to protect.”

Why the Rural Crescent was formed is less important than understanding that the Rural Crescent provides a significant portion of our green infrastructure to our community. Green infrastructure connects the still intact habitat areas through a network of corridors that provide for wildlife movement and trails as well as pathways for pollinators. These green corridors maintain a tree canopy and control runoff to prevent stream bank erosion and water quality impairments and maintain adequate water flows through groundwater and surface recharge. These green corridors are vital to ensuring safe water supplies, water recreation and the ecological integrity of the region. In building out the county and highway system Fairfax County overdeveloped eliminating much of the county’s green corridors and is now dependent to a large extent on the regional green infrastructure from neighboring Loudoun and Prince William Counties. It’s important that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past.

Delegate Tim Hugo was the first to speak after Deputy Commissioner Kilpatrick’s introductory comments. Delegate Hugo was succinct in making his main points: The North-South Corridor is a misallocation of resources. The planned highway closes 234 and “traffic calms 29” through the park driving all the east/west traffic onto route 66 increasing congestion.

The Loudoun County Board in the person of Chairman York voiced their support for the North-South Corridor and the importance of such a route to their National Conference Center at its northern end. Mayor Kristen Umstattd of Leesburg voiced the town’s support for the many projects in her community and her support for the North South Corridor (which those in Loudoun apparently call the Battlefield Parkway).

Marty Nohe, the Coles District Supervisor for Prince William County and Chairman of the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA) apparently made his specific comments in writing, but when I grabbed him on his way out the door and asked him if he supported the current planned route for the North-South Corridor through the Rural Crescent and trough the Green Infrastructure Corridor of Significance as designated by the Northern Virginia Regional Commission, he replied that he supports the connectivity that it represents, but will not support any particular route until after the June 3, 2013 VDOT public meeting to discuss the project to be held at the Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas.

Delegate Bob Marshall talked only about the North-South corridor. He stated that in both his research and Congressman Wolf’s, the planned road is not supported by the freight shippers who were described as being the beneficiaries of the road and its advocates. Delegate Marshall reiterated his point that alternatives to building the road had not been fully examined and that the main beneficiaries would be developers. Many large parcels of land bordering the planned route of the North-South Parkway have recently been acquired.

When the members of the public were allowed to speak the majority of speakers spoke about the North-South Corridor. Kenn Knarr from Catharpin spoke in favor of public transit strategies that would improve and increase public transit options in Prince William County instead of building the North-South Corridor. Page Snyder of Gainesville (and “Stop the Tri-County Parkway”) pointed out that Northern Virginia already has too many toll roads and the North-South Corridor will be a limited access/ HOT lane access/ toll road. That will do nothing to alleviate traffic in Prince William County. Philomena Hefter of Gainesville and “Stop the Tri-County Parkway” spoke in support of east/west traffic solutions that would alleviate the traffic congestion problems for commuters. Ms. Hefter also pointed out that over 100 property owners would be impacted and that the North-South Corridor Parkway is not consistent with the Prince William County Master Plan. Others spoke in defense of the Rural Crescent, and some spoke of concern for the environmental impact.

Then several people spoke out against the North-South Corridor in support of Sudley Methodist Church. This church is located on route 234 in the park and would lose their road front and access. Deb Angerman, the program director for the Church, spoke passionately about the church that was founded in 1822 and used as a military hospital during the Battles of Manassas. Sudley Methodist Church is a living church that serves it community and has a vibrant congregation. The church is not a historic relic. Ms. Angerman pointed out the lack of transparency and engagement with the community and stakeholders, and asked that this project be withdrawn until its full impact on the community and environment can be evaluated.

Many more Prince William County residents spoke out against the planned parkway. The President of the Western Prince William County Homeowners Alliance that represents 5,000 families living in their member HOAs stated that none of the Alliance’s priorities included a route north from route 66 to route 50. The Alliance’s concern is east-west movement which is the main commuter traffic patterns. The Alliance also had concerns about what the impact of the plan will be on local traffic. The Sierra Club voiced their opposition to the North-South Corridor and then moved on to other topics.

Bob Chase of the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority spoke in support of the Bi-County Parkway which he described as a very important road with flawed communication. He also thanked the CBT and the commissioners present for their hard work (something we should all remember to do). It seems apparent that NVTA is in support of the North-South Corridor Parkway.

If you did not attend the meeting, there will be a Public Information Meeting Monday, June 3, 2013, from 6 to 9 pm at the Hylton Performing Arts Center 10960 George Mason Circle, Manassas, VA 20110. Comments can also be sent by mail or email. For VDOT projects, the mailing address is Programming Director, Virginia Department of Transportation, 1401 East Broad St., Richmond, VA 23219 or email

Monday, May 27, 2013

Drug Resistant Bacteria Spreads to Our Waters

Drug resistant infections were first identified in 1960 in hospitals and called hospital-acquired MRSA (Methicillin-resistant S. aureus). MRSA causes difficult-to-treat and potentially fatal bacterial infections in hospital patients, and is sometimes referred to as a “superbug.”  However, in the late 1990s, MRSA infections began to appear outside the hospital setting in the greater community in otherwise healthy people who had not been in a hospital and had no other known risks for these kinds of infections. The incidence of these so called “community-acquired” MRSA infections has been increasing in the United States.

Peopled infected with MRSA shed the bacteria from the nose, feces, and skin; therefore, MRSA can end up in municipal wastewater streams after being washed down the drain or flushed down the toilet and spread in ways beyond direct contact.  Several scientists led by researchers at the University Of Maryland School Of Public Health, have performed a study that was published last November showing that it is possible that municipal waste­water could be a reservoir of this micro-­organism. The scientists tested water entering and leaving four unnamed waste water treatment plants, WWTPs. The mid Atlantic ones were probably Back River in Baltimore and possibly Sykesville based on their descriptions. 

They found that MRSA, as well as a related pathogen, methicillin-susceptible Staphylococcus aureus, MSSA, were present in the waste water inflow at all four WWTPs. MRSA was found to be present in 83% of the raw sewage samples taken at the plants. The percentage of MRSA and MSSA positive samples decreased as treatment within the WWTP progressed. Only one WWTP was found to have MRSA bacteria in the treated water leaving the plant, and this was at a plant that does not regularly use chlorination, a tertiary step in wastewater treatment.

In WWTPs Primary Treatment consists of sedimentation and screening of large debris using screens and large settling tanks. Until 1960’s primary treatment was the only form of sewage treatment in most sewage plants. Secondary treatments usually include biological and/or chemical treatment. One of the most common biological treatments is the activated sludge process; in which primary wastewater is mixed with bacteria that break down organic matter and cleans the water. Oxygen is pumped into the mixture. A clarifying tank allows sludge to settle to the bottom and then the treated wastewater moves on for tertiary treatment. Coagulation, filtration and disinfection take place in tertiary treatment. A coagulant is added, the commonly used high-lime process can reduce phosphorus to below 0.10 mg/L. This process also serves as a barrier to viruses, captures organics leaving secondary treatment, and precipitates heavy metals and other suspended particles. Coagulation is followed by filtration which removes organic matter, microorganisms, minerals and excess nutrients. The finalbarrier to pathogens is a chlorination and dechlorination process. 

As the University of Maryland scientists showed, plants that do not use the chlorination process could potentially be releasing disease causing bacteria into the environment.  As waste water is recycled more and more this raises concerns for the safety of the greater community being exposed to undertreated recycled water or bio solids. The odds of samples being MRSA-positive decreased as treatment progressed: 10 of 12 (83%) influent samples were MRSA-positive, while only one of 12 (8%) effluent samples was MRSA-positive. This study makes clear the need to upgrade all waste water treatment plants to advanced waste water treatment plants that use disinfection with chlorine and to eliminate the storm related untreated releases of dilute sewage by our older cities combined sewer systems. Not addressed in the study was the survival of MRSA in bio-solids, it can only be inferred to be a possibility. Our WWTPs must also be upgraded to advanced treatment of the residual sludge to Class A to ensure all bacteria is killed before the sludge is released to the greater environment and human exposure. Not all WWTP treat all their bio solids to that level, but it is possible and should be done. The city of Alexandria is an example of a plant that treats all Biosolids to Class A Exceptional Quality with even higher standards and is safe for use in community settings.

 It is possible to reuse and recycle waste water safely. Since 1978, the upper Occoquan Sewage Authority in Northern Virginia has been discharging recycled water into a stream above Occoquan Reservoir, one of the two potable water supply sources for Fairfax County, Virginia. Recycled water has been part of the Occoquan supply for 34 years and chances are if you are in Fairfax, parts of Prince William and Loudoun counties you have been regularly drinking recycled water. However, this water is always treated with tertiary treatment that includes chlorination and dechlorination before it is released back into the Occoquan and Fairfax Water fully treats and tests all water delivered as potable. The Occoquan Watershed Policy not only specified the type of waste treatment practices that would have to be adopted on a basin-wide scale, but provided for an on-going program of water quality monitoring to measure the success (or failure) of the waste water treatment. The Occoquan Watershed Laboratory (OWL), operated by the Virginia Polytechnic Institute Department of Civil Engineering conducts comprehensive studies of the Occoquan water quality, and effects of the waste water treatment effluents.

Noman M. Cole, Jr. Pollution Control Plant in Fairfax,Virginia is now engaged in a direct water recycling program, reusing treatedwastewater for landscape irrigation and industrial processes. The Noman Cole plant is engaged in the Water Reuse Project also known as the Purple Pipe Project, to directly reuse some of the water. (The pipes are colored purple to designate the water as non-potable, but have undergone chlorination to ensure water safety.) The Purple Pipe project has completed the first phase of the project and is delivering 1.4-1.6 million gallons of fully treated waste water to the Covanta Fairfax, Inc. Resource Recovery Plant and Laurel Hill Golf Course. 

The paper Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) Detected at Four U.S. Wastewater Treatment Plants was written by Rachel E. Rosenberg Goldstein, Shirley A. Micallef, Shawn G. Gibbs, Johnnie A. Davis,Xin He, Ashish George, Lara M. Kleinfelter,Nicole A. Schreiber, Sampa Mukherjee, Amir Sapkota,Sam W. Joseph, and Amy R. Sapkota and published in the November 2012 issue of Environmental Health Perspectives

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Leasing Solar Panels – No Free Lunch

It is not possible to lease solar photovoltaic panels in all locations. The solar leasing companies are profit making enterprises that excel at managing, government guarantee loans, rebates, incentives, tax credits and solar renewable energy certificates, SRECs, to maximize their profit while providing discounted electricity from renewable sources to homeowners with favorably oriented roofs in locations with adequate rebates. Due to a bit of luck, the dollar value of the solar power I generate from my solar panels is worth less than half the money I have sold my SRECs for over the past three plus years. However, there is no guarantee that my SRECs will be worth anything next year. However, many of the solar panel leasing companies have enough scale to negotiate multiple year deals with utilities to buy their SRECs reducing their financial risk and ensuring a better deal for them than I can get on my own.

Incentives and solar rebates have been reduced in many locations, but still exist. Some of the rebates are state wide, others are county incentives, there are rebates based on household income and many that are based on sales of SRECs which in turn are based on the power produced by the solar panels. A SREC is a credit for each megawatt hours of electricity that is produced, but used elsewhere. SRECs have value only because some states have solar set asides from their Renewable Portfolio Standards, RPS, which require that a portion of energy produced by a utility be produced by renewable power.

 You must live in a county or state where there are rebates and other incentive still available to make creative options like leasing solar panels possible. Even with the current lower cost of solar panels, without any rebates or incentives, the return on investment before depreciation for solar panels is about 6%. The return on investment after depreciation is about 2.5%. This return would not be acceptable to any investor and could not repay a loan taken out to build a solar photovoltaic array on a roof.

In this part of Virginia I buy my electricity from an electric cooperative that sells me power for $0.114 a kilowatt hour (this is slightly lower than it was five years ago), has no currently available incentives and there is no viable way to sell SRECs. Thus, there are no opportunities to lease solar panels at this time. Leasing arrangements depend on the solar leasing company obtaining enough incentives, rebates and other government incentives to produce a high double digit return for the leasing company that needs to borrow the money (with federal loan guarantees), pay their staffs of sales people, financial types that manage the lease contracts, others who navigate and manage the incentive market and profit for the subcontractors who install the solar panels.

In the typical leasing arrangement, the homeowner agrees to pay the leasing company a predetermined price for the electricity the system produces; the rate is pegged to be at least 10% lower than prevailing electricity prices in that area. Customers buy any additional power needed from the local utility at the going rate, but are locked into long-term electrical contacts from the leasing company which is in essence an unregulated, government subsidized profit making utility.

Lease arrangements are a rapidly growing part of the solar market, but the financial benefits to the homeowner are often limited. In states like California where the electricity prices increase steeply with increased usage, leased solar panels could keep the rest of the usage in a lower tier and increase the return. Leasing arrangements enable homeowners and businesses to get a reduction in electricity and the psychological benefit of having solar power without paying the full cost of the still expensive systems. The problems with leasing are two fold. The first the return to the leasing company is much higher than to the individual homeowner and practically all the return to the leasing company is based on incentives that are ultimately paid for by the taxpayer and electric rate payer. The contract with the leasing companies is written (by the leasing company’s lawyers) in the leasing company’s favor. Typically, all the obligations are on the homeowner with limited remedies.

The risks: electric rates may fall due to lower cost natural gas or remain flat and the contracts tie the homeowner into a set schedule of payments that typically escalate over the life of the lease (usually 15 years which is the life not of the solar panels, but of the SRECs). Solar photovoltaic panel costs may continue to fall and the value of subsidies may increase down the road (which happened with the Washington DC SREC market increasing my return). Typically at the end of 15 years the homeowner has the option to have the panels removed, buy the panels (which usually only have a 25 year life) or renew the contract. It is very possible that a long-term lease is more expensive than buying solar panels outright in future years, or it may be a bargain because the incentives for solar panels will not be available in the future and the price will not be low enough.

If you choose to jump on a solar leasing deal, get at least three bids, check the installer’s references compare the quality of the solar panels installed and read all the contracts carefully. You need to understand your rights and obligations under the lease who is responsible for insurance, roof leaks, repairs, snow damage or lightning strikes as well as the economic risks of the agreement to make a sound choice. Just because the company is providing solar panels does not make them altruistic or your friend.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Solar Panels Buy Now or Wait

The answer to that question depends on where you live, your cost of electricity, the orientation of your roof, and if you have to borrow the money to install the solar panels. However, the economics of solar panels with just the federal tax credit now make sense even in locations like Prince William County Virginia where there are no rebates or other subsidies beyond the federal tax credit. Above is a comparison of the costs and benefits of my solar panels compared to what that system would cost today.

There are several components to the cost and return of a solar system. The first cost is the cost of the system. The market cost of solar panels and installation has been falling for years. When I signed the contract to purchase my roof mounted solar system in 2009 (though it was not installed until May 2010) the cost per kilowatt for the Sharp panels I bought was about $6,700 plus permits and installation. These days that cost is about $1,800. I could probably have the same system that cost me $58,540 installed for around $19,000.That reduction in price goes a long way to make solar a reasonable purchase. Back in 2009 I was able to obtain a state rebate of $12,000 which is no longer available in Virginia. I also used the 30% federal tax credit which is still available. The net cost of the solar system in 2010 after rebates and tax credits was $32,578 today it would be about $13,300 for the same 7.36 kilowatt system.

To calculate the return on a solar photovoltaic system you need to know how much power the solar panels actually make. Now this is really weird, but with three years of data my solar panels make more power than predicted by the PV Watts model and the maximum output exceeds their rated power production. Instead of the expected 9 megawatts of power each year my solar panels have produced an average of 10.8 megawatts each year. This “bonus” was a pleasant surprise. I do not know whether it is due to having a steep angle roof that faces dead-on south over-looking a 3 acre open field or if the sharp solar panels are more efficient than rated. The dry weather in the past year might also have contributed to the higher than anticipated power production. Nonetheless, my solar panels make more electricity than predicted and that production rate would translate into a 9% return on investment (before depreciation) for solar panels bought today. It is not a spectacular return, but respectable and would justify installing solar panels and helping to reduce the summer peak demand on the power grid.
Lifetime power produced by my panels

However, with only the power generated by solar panels my return would around 4% before depreciation. To take the risk of buying and installing the solar photovoltaic system a chance for additional return on my investment was necessary. Solar Renewable Energy Certificates or SREC are another incentive that was available to me in 2010, but is no longer available for Virginia residents.

A SREC is a credit for each megawatt hours of electricity that is produced (and used by me). SRECs have value only because some states have solar set asides from their Renewable Portfolio Standards, RPS, which require that a portion of energy produced by a utility be produced by renewable power. Utilities in those states 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 rate paying consumers). Most states at this point require their utilities to buy SRECs only from residents of their own states creating a closed market where the prices typically start off high until supply responds to that price. Other states, like Virginia, have no current solar RPS requirement and their RPS is voluntary. There are a couple of states, like Pennsylvania allow their utilities to buy their RPS from any resident within the PJM regional transmission organization. The Pennsylvania SREC price collapsed in early 2011 due essentially to oversupply and a method of calculating the penalty fee, the Solar Alternative Compliance Payment, SACP. It is to be noted that my electricity provider, NOVEC, would buy my SRECs for $15 each which is exactly what they pay for other forms of renewable energy they buy.

Within the PJM, a regional electricity transmission organization in 13 eastern states and the District of Columbia, I can sell my SRECs to utilities in Pennsylvania and Washington, DC (because I registered my system before the market was closed to outside systems). I had my solar system certified by both Pennsylvania and Washington though at the time only Pennsylvania was a viable SREC market. Today the Pennsylvania market has collapsed and in Washington DC my SRECs are worth around $400 for the moment. It will not last, all SREC markets get overbuilt in response to a high SREC value, but Washington DC has significant land constraints limiting large commercial solar arrays. So the SREC market may remain viable for a couple of years, I hope so, but I am not depending on it.

I had the choice to sell my solar renewable energy credits by estimate on the spot market or I can shop for a long-term SREC contract. The discount for a long term contract is huge and I refused to allow the company to put a lean on my house. A second option was a “guaranteed” price contract. In that case the fine print indicates that if the market collapses I might not have a viable guarantor of the payments. I would be giving up the upside without a true guarantee of price. 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 and markets change. SRECs in Pennsylvania have ranged from $200-$300 per megawatt hour in 2010 and then collapsed and fell to $13 as the market remained open and became hugely overbuilt. Washington DC is currently undersupplied to meet the mandate so the SRECS have passed $400 each. The market will respond (I only hope not too quickly or too much). There was a time that New Jersey SRECS topped $670, they fell to $65 and are currently $140.

So while it lasts, the revenue from the sale of SRECs is higher than the value of the electricity the solar panels make. Today’s pricing make the return on investment in a solar photovoltaic system simpler to calculate here in Prince William County. There are other locations where various rebates and incentives and higher electricity rates make the return rich enough to support a market in financing alternatives, but it takes time and some level of expertise to optimize the solar incentives markets. Also, the incentives need to be paid for with either tax dollars (Department of Energy loan guarantees, grants and other incentives) or higher electricity rates- the renewable energy to fulfill the RPS and solar carve outs costs more than energy produced from other sources and results in higher electricity rates.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Groundwater Drought in Western Prince William

USGS monitoring well 49V1
It seemed that all of last week we had rain here in western Prince William County, my garden blooms and I am getting my garden in shape. As I was considering planting three trees that would need to be watered until they became established, I checked the water level in the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) groundwater monitoring well up the road and was shocked at the water level. The median groundwater level for May based on 39 years of data is 9 feet below grade. The monitoring well’s groundwater level had fallen to just about 14 feet below grade. This was the lowest level of groundwater recorded for that well during May over the entire 39 years of data that had been recorded. The USGS maintains a group of 20 groundwater monitoring wells in Virginia that measure groundwater conditions daily and can be viewed online. One of the Virginia wells, 49V1 is just up the road from me in the same groundwater basin and serves as the proxy of the condition of my well.

The water level in a well usually fluctuates naturally during the year. Groundwater levels tend to be highest in the early spring in response to winter snowmelt and spring rainfall when the groundwater is recharged. Groundwater levels begin to fall in May and typically continue to decline during summer as plants and trees use the available shallow groundwater to grow and streamflow draws water. Natural groundwater levels usually reach their lowest point in late September or October when fall rains begin to recharge the groundwater again, though the lowest level ever recorded at the monitoring well up the road was in July 2011 at 15.38 feet below land surface. If the groundwater level in May is already this low, I am very worried about July and the general health of the aquifer. The natural fluctuations of groundwater levels are most pronounced in shallower wells like mine that are the most susceptible to drought.

The USGS has been using long-term groundwater monitoring data, combined with groundwater models, to improve our understanding of the storage and flow of groundwater. Whenever you pump water from a well it has to be balanced by a loss of water from storage in the groundwater aquifer. Groundwater is recharged from rain and surface infiltration from things like septic. If too much water is pumped, water tables can drop in unconfined aquifer like the one here in the Piedmont region of Virginia. The growing population and the effects of recent droughts have made the need for an updated status on the availability of the groundwater necessary and the USGS has been expanding their groundwater studies nationally.  I called the USGS Virginia Water Science Center in Richmond, Virginia and spoke to David Nelms the groundwater specialist. I happen to catch him right after the Drought Taskforce Meeting and so he was able to give me a well-considered opinion of what might be causing the low groundwater levels.

Mr. Nelms confirmed that this is the lowest groundwater level recorded in this region in May in 39 years. Though the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, DEQ, has listed the groundwater conditions for Northern Virginia (including Prince William County) as normal, according to the USGS there is a small area in the Piedmont that just did not get enough rain last fall and over the winter to overcome the soil moisture deficit from the drought of 2012. According to Mr. Nelms this area of the Piedmont did not catch enough rainfall during the rains last fall even with Hurricane Sandy passing through. Though the water levels in the past couple of years have fallen to levels lower than recorded over the previous 39 years, the USGS did not think that anything other than a lack of rainfall was causing the low water levels. Mr. Nelms noted that the seasonal variation in groundwater levels seemed to be more extreme in recent years, and that the ownership of the property where the monitoring well is located had changed hands and could indicate a change in use could have impacted the apparent static pumping level by increasing the cone of depression if for instance the well had been used for irrigation or a sprinkler system. The USGS was not aware of any change in water use. As Mr. Nelms pointed the water level needs to be watched because it impacts not only the wells in western Prince William (including the Evergreen public water supply system), but also the surface water tributaries to the public water supply systems drawing from the Occoquan Reservoir and the Potomac River. Potomac River flow was also low for this time of year. Data from the National Weather Service’s Middle Atlantic River Forecast Center shows that the Potomac basin upstream of Washington, D.C. had a precipitation total which for the year to date is 1.5 inches below normal. We need to keep an eye on the water level and rainfall this summer.
USGS Data for 49V1

Monday, May 13, 2013

The 17 Year Cicadas are About to Arrive in Virginia

Many people know periodical cicadas by the name "17-year locusts" or "13-year locusts", but they are not the locusts of biblical note, which are a type of migrating grasshopper. However, if you live in the area if this year’s emergence, when the 17 year cicadas arrive in the next several days it may indeed feel like a plague. In Virginia there are seventeen broods of the 17-year cicada and thirteen broods of the 13-year cicada. Every year they will emerge somewhere in the state, but this is one of the largest in this region and coincides with the emergence up though Connecticut.

Some counties in Virginia have several broods that impact all or part of the county. The 2004 emergence impacted Loudoun, Prince William, Fairfax and Fauquier all of which will be impacted by the Magicicada Brood II that is emerging this year. The 17 year periodical cicadas or Magicicada adults have black bodies, red eyes and orange wing veins, with a black "W" near the tips of the forewings. The annual Cicada or dog day cicada as it is also called are related to the periodical cicada and appear every summer during the long, hot dog days of July and August. These cicadas have two- to five-year life cycles, but their broods overlap and some appear every summer. That is not the Cicadas that are now emerging from the ground.
17 Year Periodical Cicadas
Right now mature nymphs are emerging from the soil and climbing onto nearby vegetation and other vertical surfaces. They then molt to the winged adult stage. The emergence is tightly synchronized, with most adults appearing within a few nights. Adult cicadas live for only two to four weeks. When the 17 year periodical cicadas emerge the density can be shocking and noisy. It is common to have tens to hundreds of thousands of periodical cicadas per acre, but there are records of up to a million and a half periodical cicadas. This is far beyond the density of most other cicada species and half of the cicadas are “singing.” Male cicadas sing quite loudly by vibrating membranes on the sides of their abdominal segment. Male songs and choruses are a courtship ritual to attract females for mating. The males’ choruses have been known to drive people to distraction-stay inside with the windows closed and if need be use a fan for white noise. After mating, females lay their eggs in narrow young twigs slicing into the wood and depositing up to 400 eggs in total for each female in 40 to 50 locations each.

It is the egg laying that does most of the damage associated with periodical cicadas. Cicada eggs remain in the twigs for six to ten weeks before hatching. The nymphs do not feed on the twigs. The newly hatched, ant-like nymphs fall to the ground where they burrow 6 to 18 inches underground to feed on roots. Mature trees and shrubs usually survive even dense emergences of cicadas without long term damage, but in the summer of a large emergence many deciduous trees turn brown due to the breakage and death of peripheral twigs caused by the females laying their eggs and the emergence of the nymphs. Nonetheless, only young trees are usually permanently damaged and that is because so much of these trees are small twigs and branches. Newly planted trees need to be protected from periodical cicadas. Newly planted trees can be covered with a fine netting to keep the cicadas from reaching the small tender twigs. Secure the netting around the trunk to stop them from climbing up into the tree.Fruit trees need to be protected from the cicadas if they are to fruit this year.

Apparently because of their long life cycles and the synchronization of their emergence, periodical cicadas do not have natural population control by predators, even though everything from birds to spiders to snakes to dogs eats them opportunistically when they do appear. The massive emergence is believed to overwhelm predators and most of the periodical cicadas survive to mate and reproduce. Which is the whole point of the emergence. Cicadas are not poisonous and do not have a stinger. Their survival and expansion strategy is based purely on numbers.
The brown tips are the damage from Cicadas 

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Tri-County Parkway Public Hearing

If you have strong feelings about the Tri-County Parkway or you simply care about road development you need to attend the VDOT public hearing in Northern Virginia on May 29, 2013, 6 PM. The meeting will be held at the VDOT District Office, Potomac Conference Center 4975 Alliance Drive, Suite 1N201 in Fairfax, VA 22030.

The hearing is intended to solicit public comments on the draft Six-Year Improvement Program that is being released by the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) ) on May 15, 2013 in in VDOT’s Central Office Auditorium located at 1201 E Broad St., Richmond, VA, and will be available online at on May 15th after the meeting.

As a result of the transportation funding plan passed by the General Assembly and signed into law by Governor McDonnell this year, funding is available for highway, road and bridge projects as well as rail, transit, bicycle, pedestrian and other transportation projects. The projects planned for the next six fiscal years beginning July 1, 2013 will be finalized in the next 45 days.

CTB will hold four public hearings to solicit comments about these “essential” projects identified in the draft report. In addition, the tentative list of projects selected by the CTB for Transportation Alternatives Program funding will be available on May 15th . The CTB states that public comments will be considered before the CTB adopts its final program in June.

If you cannot attend the meeting , comments can be sent by mail or email. For VDOT projects, the mailing address is Programming Director, Virginia Department of Transportation, 1401 East Broad St., Richmond, VA 23219 or email

Opposition to the planned route of the Tri-County Parkway is building on the county level. On May 2nd Delegate Hugo, Delegate Marshall and Supervisor Candland participated in a well attended community meeting organized by “Say No to the Tri-County Parkway” at Bull Run Middle School. Then during Citizen’s Time at the Prince William County Board of Supervisors regular meeting on May 7th  several people associated with "Say No to the Tri-County Parkway” spoke out against the planned route of the Tri-County Parkway and the closing of U.S. 29 and VA 234 through the Park and asked the supervisors to support the community group in their quest to stop the parkway.

Chairman Stewart while affirming the need for an outer beltway, pointed out that in 2005 the PWC Board of Supervisors passed a resolution in support of locating the Tri-County Parkway east of the Battlefield which would move it out of the Rural Crescent and away from the direct watershed of Bull Run. He stated that closing VA 234 and U.S. 29 through the park would be very disruptive of traffic and that the Board of Supervisors did not in any way support that plan.

On May 14th Congressman Frank Wolf sent a letter to the Governor that can be read at this link.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Two Scientists Claim Roundup Linked to Diseases of the Western Diet

In the news have been articles about a “report” that was published in the online journal Entropy. This report or paper was a rational scientific argument based on the systematic search of the literature and possible pathways of impact that led the authors to believe that many of the health problems that appear to be associated with a Western diet could be explained by biological disruptions that have already been attributed to glyphosate. These include digestive issues, obesity, autism, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, Parkinson’s disease, liver diseases, and cancer. The paper was authored by Stephanie Seneff, a researcher at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory of MIT, and Anthony Samsel, a retired science consultant from Arthur D. Little, Inc. as well as a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Glyphosate (N-phosphonomethylglycine), the active ingredient in the herbicide Roundup that is manufactured by Monsanto (though the formulation is no longer under patent) is according to the authors, the most popular herbicide in use today in the United States, and increasingly throughout the World. Today, Americans spray an estimated 180-185 million pounds of the weed killer, on their yards and farms every year. All the acute toxicity tests have indicated glyphosate is nearly nontoxic to mammals. The typical description (by services that want to spray it in my yard) is that you could drink a bucket of the stuff and be perfectly fine. Thus, any residues of glyphosate that are ingested from food sources are safe. As a consequence, measurement of its presence in food is practically nonexistent. Glyphosate and its metabolite aminomethylpholphonic acid (AMPA) have not been covered in the reports from the Center for Disease Control on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals, so human exposure has not been measured.

Nonetheless, there have been for some time a minority of scientists and experts who believes that glyphosate may instead be much more toxic than is claimed and Anthony Samsel and Stephanie Seneff have put together their paper to argue the case for reexamining potential impacts to human health from low level constant exposure to glyphosate and studying that exposure. In humans, only small amounts (~2%) of ingested glyphosate are metabolized to AMPA, and the rest enters the blood stream and is eliminated through the urine. The philosophy that tiny amounts of chemicals are of no health consequence has been the cornerstone of toxicology and regulation, but that has recently come into question with our increased ability to measure trace amounts of chemicals. For many environmental chemicals, more research is needed to determine whether exposure at the extremely low levels is a cause for health concern.

While correlation does not necessary imply causation, the authors develop the argument that the recent increase in digestive issues, obesity, autism, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, Parkinson’s disease, liver diseases, and cancer can be traced back to a combination of gut dysbiosis, impaired sulfate transport, and suppression of the activity of the various members of the cytochrome P450 (CYP) family of enzymes. In the literature study they found evidence that glyphosate disrupts gut bacteria and suppresses the CYP enzyme class.

As the authors point out the Western diet is a delivery system for glyphosate and other potentially toxic chemicals used in industrial agriculture. The diet they refer to consists primarily of processed foods based on corn, wheat, soy and sugar, consumed in high quantities. Chemical residues of insecticides, fungicides and herbicides like glyphosate contaminate the diet. In addition, since 2000 there has been widespread adoption in the U.S. of Roundup Ready® (RR) crops, for the production of soy, beet sugar, and corn. Confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are used to produce corn feed animals that produce meat that is vastly different from pasture raised, grass feed cows, pigs, sheep, goats, chickens. Now we are even feeding farm-raised fish corn. According to the authors the corn feed to these animals is laced with herbicide due to the late application of the herbicide. As a consequence, animal products like, eggs, butter, cheese and milk are also contaminated with these residues. The authors argue that glyphosate enhances the damaging effects of other food borne chemical residues and environmental toxins as well.

This paper is certainly food for thought, but without measurements of the presence of AMPA in human populations and further research there is only speculation. The authors do propose a pathway of impact to human health that should be investigated further. This paper was prepared (and peer reviewed) to be submitted to the U.S. EPA for consideration in the standard registration review they are conducting of glyphosate to determine if it’s use should be limited. The study is among many comments submitted to the EPA that is expected to complete their review by 2015. Monsanto and industry experts have submitted a review of their studies and believe that glyphosate has been proved safe to humans and the environment. As for me, I feel good about the “extra” money I spend buying organic grass fed meat and organic foods and all that extra time I spend cooking and preparing food. My personal decisions on  pesticides and herbicides is a blanket policy because my well draws from a shallow aquifer in a fractured rock system.

The proposed route of human impact of glyphosate from the article.
Samsel, A.; Seneff, S. Glyphosate’s Suppression of Cytochrome P450 Enzymes and Amino Acid Biosynthesis by the Gut Microbiome: Pathways to Modern Diseases. Entropy 2013, 15, 1416-1463

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Tri-County Parkway to Destroy the Rural Crescent

From VDOT final report 2013
When the Deputy Secretary of Transportation, David Tyeryar, presented the scope of the planned crescent shaped North South Corridor, limited access cargo and truck highway, (the Tri-County Parkway) he glossed over a few key essential points. The Deputy Secretary pointed out the highway corridor is approximately 45 miles in length, and is essentially a more direct route for cargo and truck traffic connecting I-95 to Dulles Airport and Route 7. What he forgot to mention is that the North South Corridor portion alone will cost over $1,000,000,000, run through Prince William County’s Rural Crescent potentially damaging our watershed and impacting our groundwater resources, eliminates one of three corridors in our green infrastructure and once the segment of the Tri-County Parkway between I-66 and VA 234 is complete, U.S. 29 and VA 234 through the Park are planned to be closed.
red is 6 lands and blue 4 lanes

As Supervisor Candland (whose Gainesville District will be bisected by the six lane highway) pointed out this plan is troubling on many levels. Supervisor Candland has concerns about the effect of the planned Tri-County Parkway and greater crescent shaped roadway will have on commuters, the environment and our community, but the Tri-County roadway was approved by the Prince William County Board of Supervisors two years ago. So, on the county level, it has been approved. Supervisor Candland was not in office at the time, but the Gainesville Supervisor at the time (John Stirrup) was one of two votes against the plan.

Last Monday, April 29, 2013, Delegate Tim Hugo (R-40th), along with State Senators Dick Black (R-13th), Richard Stuart (R-28th), Jill Vogel (R-27th), and Delegates Bob Marshall (R-13th) and Michael Webert (R-18th), have all come out against the planned Bi-County Parkway (the North-South Corridor). Delegate Hugo will be attending a community meeting tonight at Bull Run Middle School at 7 pm in the cafeteria. The meeting was organized by "Say No to the Tri-County Parkway." There is still an opportunity to impact the VDOT plans through our state legislature and also through allocation of Federal Transportation funds so also contact Congressman Frank Wolf, Senator Tim Kaine, and Senator Mark Warner with your concerns. You can go to the Piedmont Environmental Council action center to help you express your concerns to our elected officials.

As Delegate Hugo stated “this road will destroy the Rural Crescent, land that the Prince William Board of County Supervisors has pledged to protect.” This project threatens our water resources and green infrastructure. The Rural Crescent is located within the northeast quadrant and eastern quadrant of the Culpeper groundwater basin and consists of an interbedded sequence of sedimentary and basaltic that is highly fractured and overlain by a thin cover of overburden. Groundwater is typically protected against contamination from the surface by the soils and rock layers covering the aquifer, but there is inadequate overburden in much of the Rural Crescent. Once contaminated, groundwater is very difficult to clean and there is limited if any natural attenuation in this type of geology and the aquifer could be polluted beyond our ability to remediate.

Why the Rural Crescent was formed is less important than understanding that the Rural Crescent provides a significant portion of our green infrastructure to our community. Green infrastructure connects the still intact habitat areas through a network of corridors that provide for wildlife movement and trails as well as pathways for pollinators. Maintaining intact, connected natural landscapes is essential for basic ecosystem and watershed preservation to ensure that there will always be clean air and water in Northern Virginia.

In building out the county and highway system Fairfax County overdeveloped eliminating much of the county’s green corridors and is now dependent to a large extent on the regional green infrastructure from neighboring Loudoun and Prince William Counties. These green corridors maintain a tree canopy and control runoff to prevent stream bank erosion and water quality impairments and maintain adequate water flows through groundwater and surface recharge. These green corridors are vital to ensuring safe water supplies, water recreation and the ecological integrity of the region.

The Northern Virginia Regional Commission (NVRC) has developed a Conservation Corridor Planning Project which is a regional effort to identify essential green infrastructure and help area governments to avoid the mistakes of the past and maintain the few remaining green corridors along the rivers and reservoirs in Fairfax and integrate green infrastructure planning into the future development planning of Prince William and Loudoun counties.

This roadway cuts through and destroys one of three priority conservation areas for the region. The conservation area begins at the Bull Run Mountains and heads east across Route 15 to Manassas covering the land between Route 50 and 29 to the confluence of the Occoquan River with Belmont Bay. This corridor is rich in water and environmental resources that ultimately deliver drinking water to over one million Northern Virginia residents. The Occoquan Reservoir, one of the country’s first water reclamation facilities where sewage treatment water is returned to provide water recreation. The western portion of the area is part of the Culpeper Basin Important Birding Area and the Culpeper Basin Groundwater Aquifer. Preventing water contamination and ensuring adequate groundwater recharge are vital to ensuring safe water supplies, recreation opportunities and the ecological integrity of the region.

Read more about happenings with the Parkway If you want to protect Prince William County, go to Say No to the Tri-County Parkway's  meeting speak to Delegate Hugo and write to Congressman Frank Wolf, Senator Tim Kaine, and Senator Mark Warner.