Monday, March 31, 2014

President Obama to Reduce Methane Emissions

On Friday the Whitehouse announced that the President, will continue to fight against climate change using executive fiat. The next step for the White House climate plan, originally introduced in a speech at Georgetown University in June 2013, is an “interagency methane strategy.” Towards this goal, the Whitehouse is directing federal agencies to clamp down on emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas, though U.S. methane emissions have fallen 11% since 1990.
data from US EPA
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), methane is more than 20 times as effective as CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere. If you recall it is the greenhouse effect that is expected to increase the sensitivity of the climate to carbon dioxide, methane and the other greenhouse gases. Though in its September 2013 report the IPCC eliminated attempts to estimate the “most likely” sensitivity of the climate to the expected manmade doubling of the carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere because according to British climate scientist Nic Lewis “the best observational evidence indicates our climate is considerably less sensitive to greenhouse gases than climate scientists had previously thought.” All the climate models had failed to predict that for the last 15 years there has been essentially no net warming. Global Warming has been having what the IPCC calls a hiatus.

Over the last two hundred and fifty years, the concentration of methane in our atmosphere has increased by 151% to 1.8 parts per million. Methane is the primary component in natural gas, methane is emitted to the atmosphere during the production, processing, storage, transmission, and distribution of natural gas and because gas is often found alongside petroleum which is much more valuable, methane is sometimes vented to the atmosphere rather than captured during oil production. Methane is also produced from the decomposition of human and animal waste as well as garbage and is the major component of landfill gas. Methane is also released from the natural biological process of enteric fermentation which is fermentation that takes place in the digestive systems of animals. In particular, ruminant animals that have two stomachs and eat grasses (cattle, buffalo, sheep, goats, and camels) produce and release methane from the microbial fermentation that breaks down the grass and hay into soluble products that can be utilized by the animal. Also, when natural gas and other petroleum products are used as a fuel incomplete combustion releases traces of methane.

Methane emissions come from diverse sources and sectors of the economy, unevenly dispersed across the landscape and not well tracked. These uncertainties have resulted in estimates of current and projected methane emissions by simplified models and rules of thumb for the source of methane emissions. Nonetheless, the estimates below are the best available and the Administration has launched a methane mitigation plan.

The President’s Strategy to Reduce Methane Emissions targets reductions in methane emissions from landfills, coal mining, and agriculture, and oil and gas systems that include action on four fronts:

  1. Landfills: This summer, the EPA will propose regulation to reduce methane from new landfills and begin the process to tighten the methane standards for existing landfills.
  2. Coal Mines: In April 2014, the Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management will begin the process of developing a program for the capture and disposal of waste mine methane on lands leased by the Federal government. 
  3. Agriculture: In June 2014, in partnership with the dairy industry, the U. S. Department of Agriculture, the EPA and U.S. Department of Energy will jointly release a “Biogas Roadmap” outlining voluntary strategies to reduce U.S. dairy sector greenhouse gas emissions by 25 % by 2020. Maybe the administration will reduce the U.S. consumption of dairy products, beef, buffalo, sheep and goats and thus reduce the herds of rumens. 
  4. Oil and Gas: This spring EPA will assess potential sources of methane and other greenhouse gas emissions from the oil and gas industry and in the fall of 2014, EPA will determine how best to pursue further methane reductions from these sources. EPA is expected to develop additional regulations if necessary by the end of 2016. Later this year, the Bureau of Land Management will update the rules to reduce venting and flaring from oil and gas production on public lands. In addition the Administration will identify “downstream” methane reduction opportunities. Through the Natural Gas STAR program, EPA will work with the industry to expand voluntary efforts to reduce methane emissions.

One downstream area for reduction of methane is our natural gas distribution systems. In 2012 and 2013 two scientists mapped the gas leaks under Boston and Washington DC using a new, high-precision methane analyzer provided by Picarro installed in a GPS-equipped car. They found that there were approximately 4.3 leaks per mile of street in both cities. Levels of methane in the surface air on some streets exceeded 15 times the normal atmospheric background value.

For some time we have failed to maintain our unseen infrastructure systems as a way to cut costs. We have failed to maintain and upgrade the oil and gas distribution system. Gas distribution companies are well aware of the leaks in the system. The companies calculate the difference between the gas pumped into the distribution system and what is metered at the end user. This is referred to as "lost and unaccounted-for" gas is often a surcharge on customer bills. These leaks are wasteful, dangerous and a significant source of greenhouse gas released into the environment.

Distribution companies try to prioritize finding and fixing leaks likely to be explosion hazards, where gas is collecting and concentrating and ignore the small losses from deteriorating iron pipe and the deteriorating distribution system in our cities. Natural gas distribution leaks and explosions cause an average of 17 fatalities, 68 injuries, and $133 million in property damage each year, according to the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. In 2010 a natural gas pipeline exploded in San Bruno, CA, just south of San Francisco. There was no warning and eight people were killed, 58 were injured and 38 homes, the entire section of a neighborhood, destroyed. In 2011, a leak from an 83-year-old cast-iron main in Allentown, Pa., caused an explosion that killed five people. And just last month a gas explosion killed eight people in East Harlem.

Detecting and reducing gas leaks are critical for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, improving air quality in cities and consumer safety, and ultimately saving future generations of consumers from loss of life, property and wasted money. Right now, repairing our infrastructure will be very expensive, but as the pipes that distribute gas (and the other essential utilities of water, sewer, and electricity) continue to age failure will become more frequent. Infrastructure is the foundation of our economy, connecting businesses, communities, and people, making us a first world country-we need to repair and maintain it.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Landslide in Oso Washington Death Toll Grows

At about 11 am a large landslide occurred in northwest Washington State last Saturday. According to the U. S Geological Survey, USGS, the recent heavy rain conditions and soil saturation of the glacial deposits in that area led to the landslide. This was a falling rock, mud and debris flow-the most common type and often the most deadly type of landslide. The hillside collapsed at a speed that caught the local community unaware. Landslide debris covered about 30 houses and 0.8 miles of State Route 530. Flow also dammed and partially blocked the North Fork Stillaguamish River, creating a potential for flooding at the blockage. A pool of water currently 20-30 feet deep has formed behind the blockage a naturally formed dam. There is danger of flooding when this dam gives. There are still over 100 people reported missing the number is reported to be up to 176, but that number contains many duplicates from consolidating all the lists of the missing. It is unlikely any will be found alive. According to the Snohomish County Twitter feed, 16 bodies have been recovered and they believe that they have located an additional 8 bodies.
There are many types of landslides, and this event in Washington was a “debris flow,” also commonly referred to as a “mud slide” or “mud flow.” A debris flow is a flowing mixture of water-saturated debris that moves downslope under the force of gravity. Debris flows consist of material varying in size from clay to boulders that are tens of meters in size. When moving, they resemble masses of wet concrete and tend to flow downslope along channels or stream valleys. These mud slides can flow at up to 30 miles an hour and gives people little time or warning to get out of the way. These types of landslides occur most frequently in California, but the glacial deposits of sand and silt and weeks of rain created the conditions for a landslide. The hillside that collapsed had a history of slides and a study performed for the Washington Department of Ecology in 1997 identified the potential for a large catastrophic failure of the slope. Nonetheless, development of the area proceeded.

Hundreds of thousands of landslides of some scale occur in the United States each year from the tiny to the massive. Landslides occur in all 50 states and U.S. territories, and cause $1-2 billion in damages and more than 25 fatalities on average each year. Falling rocks, mud, and debris flows are the most common and deadly of the landslides, and yet there is still much to learn about how and why they happen. Any area composed of very weak or fractured materials resting on a steep slope can have a landslide when the conditions are right. Those conditions are predominately excess weight from heavy rains and melting snow that causes the slopes to fail. The rock and soil slopes are weakened though saturation by snowmelt and of heavy rains and literally begin to flow. Earthquakes of magnitude 4.0 and greater have been known to trigger landslides.

There is so much we do not know about our earth. The USGS science is helping answer questions such as where, when and how often landslides occur, and how fast and far they might move. USGS scientists produce maps of areas susceptible to landslides and identify what sort of rainfall conditions will lead to such events. You can watch the video about the USGS Landslide Program and check the maps to know if your area is suspect able to landslides.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Bringing the Colorado River Delta Back to Life

from NASA the Colorado Delta in 2004
Yesterday, March 23rd , the Morelos Dam along the US–Mexico border near Yuma, Arizona, opened their gates and began releasing 34,000,000,000 gallons of water downstream that will make up an eight-week long pulse of water intended to mimic a spring flood. Since 1960, when Glen Canyon Dam was finished, the Colorado River has rarely flowed to the sea, and the river’s delta a once alive estuary started to fade and dry out. Now, scientists, environmentalists and politicians are trying to bring the Colorado River Delta back to life.

The water that will make up this pulse was slowly collected from releases from the Hoover, Davis and Parker dams removing some water from the parched west during this extended drought. The water has collect behind the most southerly dam on the river, the Morelos, which sits on the Mexico-US border and normally diverts the last of the Colorado toward agricultural lands in Mexico. The demand for the water of the Colorado has increased and yet the flow (except in the years of the El NiƱo rains) has not met the demand. Part of the problem has been lack of adequate water management and conservation, but that is only part of the problem.

Control of the water and flow of the Colorado River is part of a 1944 Treaty between the United States and Mexico. The United States and Mexico have spent years negotiating a new Colorado River agreement between the two nations changing the allocation of water. The agreement, called Minute 319, requires the US to provide $21 million to help improve water-saving measures in Mexico (for example lining irrigation canals) and the United States to forego some of its water rights this year to free up water for the pulse and to guarantee a minimum flow to the delta for environmental purposes.

The Minute 319 agreement changes the framework of water law that has always been “First in time, first in rights.” Now the U.S. and Mexico will share the surplus when and if water is plentiful and share shortage when water is scarce. The agreement also commits the two nations to work together on water conservation and restoration of the long dried out delta estuary by guaranteeing a small continuous flow, totaling an additional 16,000,000,000 gallons to the delta to sustain it over the next three years. It's a small but continuous trickle that researchers expect will bring a portion of the delta back to life in the weeks after the pulse.

The Colorado River delta like all estuaries is an incredibly complex ecosystem that we are only beginning to understand. Estuaries are productive ecosystems and habitats. The type of habitat is determined by geology, salinity and climate. Estuaries are fragile ecosystems that are very susceptible to disturbances both natural and those created by man. By diverting the flow of the Colorado River fresh water flow for irrigation and drinking water supplies changes flow, quantity of fresh water if any entering the estuary, and impacts the balance within the ecology. As the ecosystem of estuaries declines, species die out, coastlines experience excessive erosion by wind and tidal action. It is going to take knowledge, effort and resources (wealth in all forms but especially water rights) to restore the delta.

Here in the Chesapeake bay watershed we have reached the point in population density and development that during times of drought, natural flows on the Potomac are not always sufficient to allow water withdrawals by the utilities (including power generation which takes an awesome amount of water) while still maintaining a minimum flow in the river for sustaining aquatic resources. For more than two centuries the waters of the Potomac seemed unlimited so that our region is not hampered and tied by water allocation agreements created almost a century ago that bind the waters of the Colorado River to fixed and rigid allocations. Instead, the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin, ICPRB, allocates and manages water resources of the river to improve reliability of the water supply and ensured maintenance of in-stream flows to meet minimum aquatic habitat requirements.

It is unknown if this can be accomplished for the Colorado River whose management is complicated by interstate boarders, water rights that have a basis in law and are truly a form of wealth, but cannot be fairly monetized, sold, or transferred without addressing water and groundwater law in the west. In the third year of drought in California when Governor Jerry Brown has declared a drought emergency and stopped all the water allocations from the State Water Project, which delivers water from Northern California through the California Delta to Central valley Farmers the Imperial Valley, east of Los Angeles, still has plenty of water.

The farmers there are unaffected by the drought. The Imperial Valley is not connected to the State Water Project; its water comes directly from the Colorado River, which has continued allocations despite the need for the water for the Minute 319 agreement. The Imperial Valley’s share of water is assured by the terms of the 1922 Colorado River Compact and subsequent agreements among the seven states that depend on the Colorado River water for life. The Imperial Valley farmers were the first to tap the Colorado for irrigation water and in in water law in the western states, one rule is supreme: "First in time, first in right."

The framework of the Minute 319 agreement to water management changes that absolute. While it creates benefits for water users on both sides of the border, demonstrating that with a broad approach to river and water management, there is room to negotiate and serve multiple interests. It is also a model that would take water and what is truly wealth from the Imperial Valley farmers if applied elsewhere in the Colorado River basin. Water, water rights, environmental needs are complicated in the west and not only impact the wealth of the farmers, but the cost of food. Cheap water and fuel mean cheap food. A century ago food accounted for about a fifth of the household budget of the typical U. S. citizen, now it is about 3%, though only a few years ago it was under 2%.

As part of the changes that are coming in the allocations of the Colorado River waters, water rights must be fairly monetized so that they can be bought and sold to allow future agreements elsewhere on the Colorado to be a win for all stakeholders not just those parties who advocate the restoration of the delta’s environment and the Colorado River itself, but to include the holders of the water rights and the U.S. consumer.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Fix a Leak Week Once Again

Spring really is just around the corner and so the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has named this week the sixth annual Fix a Leak Week. According to the EPA, one out of every 10 homes has a leak that is wasting almost gallons of water per day that can account for 10,000 gallons of water lost in a home in a year and can account for more than one trillion gallons of water wasted each year across the United States. Reducing wasted water is essential in areas experiencing extended droughts: Texas, California and Nevada and to save money for the rest of us.

Look for dripping faucets, showerheads and fixture connections. Twist and tighten pipe connections, it may be all that is necessary to stop a leak. Though I find that I get mineral build up in my faucets and they need to be disassembled and soaked in hot vinegar and water to dissolve the build up every year or two to prevent drips. Likewise my showerheads need to have the connection between the showerhead and the pipe stem cleaned and tightened regularly. Sometimes fixtures just need to be replaced. When you do, look for WaterSense-labeled models, which are independently certified to use 20% less water and perform as well as standard models.

Check toilets for leaks, the flappers in toilet tanks become worn after several years and leak. Test your toilets by putting a few drops of food coloring in the tank at the back of the toilet and wait 10 minutes before flushing to see if color shows up in the bowl. If there is color, the toilet flapper likely needs to be replaced, which is an easy repair to make. Though it is still a bit early around here you should check your irrigation systems and outdoor spigots too. Though you might want to reconsider your garden and outdoor water use or install rain barrels for watering your garden.

Lawns in general are watered more than other landscaping (though I have never watered mine). The most commonly used varieties of turf grass require more water than many landscape plants, such as ground covers, shrubs, and trees. In addition, homeowners tend to overwater their lawns. As a result, homes with large expanses of lovely green lawns generally use more water (fertilizer and herbicides) than those with a mixture of other plants or the mowed field that surrounds my house.

According to the US Geological Survey total domestic water use in homes totaled 29,400,000,000 gallons per day in 2005, and the “average” US citizen uses 98 gallons a day of water for domestic use, which includes, bathing and bathrooms, laundry, cooking, drinking and outdoor use. Outdoor watering in the drier climates causes domestic per capita water use to be the highest in the driest and hottest climates- the areas of the country facing the biggest water supply challenges Though many water supply companies are facing the reality that the source of their water has limitations and it is expensive to provide and distribute finished drinking water, that realization has not reached most people.

The Earth might seem like it has abundant water, but in fact less than 1 % is fresh water available for human use. The rest is either salt water found in oceans, fresh water frozen in the polar ice caps, or too inaccessible for practical usage. As population grows the demand for freshwater for domestic use and for agriculture to feed us are increasing. However, the supply of water will not increase with demand, the supply of fresh water on earth will always remain constant. And although it's true that the water cycle continuously returns water to Earth, it is not always returned to the same place, or in the same quantity and quality due both to weather and changing climate. While the California and Texas are in an extended and extraordinary drought, I have plenty of water here in Virginia. Though it was not too long ago that well water levels were falling here.

Managing water is a growing concern in the United States. Communities across the country are starting to face that the supply of fresh water is limited and our infrastructure has not been maintained and is failing. Boil water alerts, broken pipes, and supply interruptions are increasing. The United States needs to update its aging water treatment and delivery systems. Many of the states that have projected population growth increases also have higher per capita water use. Strains on water supplies and our aging water treatment systems will result in: Higher water prices to pay for the repair and maintenance of our water infrastructure to ensure continued access to a reliable and safe supply. Higher food costs as farmers’ water allocations are reduced and water costs increase. Increased restrictions on water use to manage shortages. Expensive water treatment projects to transport and store freshwater when local demand overcomes available capacity.

The nation’s capacity for storing surface-water is limited and ground-water is being depleted. At the same time, growing population and regulatory mandates and pressures to keep water in stream flow for fisheries and the environment place new demands on the freshwater supply. We are a nation living on its “credit cards” with our “house” falling apart around us, we just don’t know that we are going broke. The cheapest water is the water not wasted. For those homes on ”City” water and sewer, a quick check of the status of your plumbing fixtures and checking your water usage indicated on your water bill could save thousands of gallons of water a year. Look for changes or increases in water use as well as calculating your absolute use. If your household uses more water than is typical, you might have a hidden leak, or you could be wasteful in your water use. Find out which. Fixing household water leaks can save homeowners about 10% on their water bills.

If like me, you are on well water, you do not have a water bill to track your water use, but you need to be aware of the factors that impact your water supply and regularly practice household water conservation to live within your water resources (it is a budget like any other). Your well is not unlimited and you need to be aware of your water use because wells often have weather and seasonal supply limitations. In addition, the life of a septic system is directly related to the amount of water that flows through your system. Repairing household water leaks could extend the life of your septic system and drainfield. All of us need to become aware of how much water we use and where that water is coming from and eliminate the egregious waste of water leaks.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Sargent’s and Wellmark will Cease Manufacture of Flea and Tick Products for Pets

off the market
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has reached an agreement with Sergeant's Pet Care Products, Inc. and Wellmark International to cease manufacturing flea and tick pet collars containing propoxur by April 1, 2015 and to cease selling the product by April 1, 2016. These flea and tick products are sold under the trade names Bansect, Sentry, Zodiac and Biospot and others. Since flea and tick collars have a shelf life of five years, be sure to read the ingredient list before buying any product.

EPA announced in their press release that this “voluntary” agreement will expedite the removal of propoxur containing products from the market, but the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) filed a petition against the EPA in 2009 to cancel the allowed use of propoxur, a known neurotoxin and carcinogen, and tetrachlorvinphos, an organophosphate a class of chemicals that are also neurotoxins. So, expediency was not the issue for five years. NRDC filed a lawsuit against the EPA toforce the agency to respond to NRDC’s petitions to cancel all manufacturer registrations and uses of neurotoxic pesticides propoxur and tetrachlorvinphos (TCVP) used in popular pet flea treatment products in February 2014. EPA had already negotiated an agreement with Wellmark and Sergeant’s by January 22, 2014.
off the market

Propoxur belongs to a class of pesticides called carbamates that can cause cognitive, behavioral and motor developmental defects in children. Several studies in the research literature documented that prenatal and early- life exposure to organophosphates of which TCVP is one, can impair children’s neurological development at levels below what can cause acute symptoms of poisoning. Due to concerns that the other organophosphates products can harm children’s more vulnerable developing brains and nervous systems, the agency had already restricted household use of other known neurotoxic pesticides.

EPA completed the propoxur pet collar risk assessment showing risks to children from exposure to pet collars containing propoxur in September 2013. Although the amounts in the residue left by flea collars are smaller than the doses that cause acute human symptoms, propoxur may cause long-term health consequences. Through pet collars, children are potentially exposed to levels of propoxur that exceed the US EPA's acceptable levels, according to an NRDC study published in 2009. That study found that after three days, 100 % of pets wearing a propoxur flea collar had enough chemical on their fur to exceed the EPA's acceptable dose level for toddlers.

EPA’s recent risk assessment confirmed this result. The decision reached between EPA and Sergeant's and Wellmark to remove this flea and tick products from the market is the solution to most quickly remove the pet collars from the market. Flea and tick collars work by leaving a pesticide residue on dogs' and cats' fur, which can be transferred to people by hugging, petting or coming into contact with the pets. Some children even sleep with their pets. The major source of exposure to these chemicals is from absorption through the skin after directly touching the treated pet. Small children may ingest pesticide residues when they touch a treated cat or dog and subsequently put their hands in their mouth.

EPA’s risk assessment found, in some but not all use scenarios, unacceptable risks to children from exposure to propoxur pet collars on the first day following application. Because the manufacturers could not find a way to eliminate unacceptable risk under all scenarios, EPA “encouraged” them to cancel these products and they subsequently agreed. Propoxur will remain a registered insecticide for use to control ticks, fleas and a variety of insects in industrial, commercial and residential facilities, just no longer used for pet flea and tick collars.

Flea and tick products can be appropriate treatments for protecting pets and people because fleas and ticks can transmit disease to animals and humans. In Northern Virginia we are especially aware of the threat of Lyme disease. Lyme disease is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi and is transmitted to humans through the bite of infected blacklegged ticks; however, there are eleven tick borne diseases listed by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

Dogs are also very susceptible to tick bites and tick borne diseases. Vaccines are available for only some of the tick borne diseases that dogs can get, and they don’t keep the dogs from bringing ticks into your home, thus it is prudent to use a tick preventive product on your dog. Alternatives include newer pesticide products sprayed or spotted onto pets, such as fipronil (Frontline®) or imidacloprid (Advantage®). Particularly when used in combination with physical measures like frequent washing and combing of the pet and vacuuming carpets and furniture, can bring mild flea infestations under control. Cats are extremely sensitive to a variety of chemicals. Do not apply any insect acaricides or repellents to your cats without first consulting your veterinarian! It simply might be best and safest to keep your cat as an indoor pet.

Remember to protect yourself and your children from tick borne disease. CDC recommends protect your family from Lyme disease and other tick borne illnesses by being diligent in preventing tick bites:
• Use insect repellent that contains 20 - 30% DEET on yourself and your children.
• Make children bathe or shower as soon as possible after they come indoors.
• Look for ticks on their bodies. Ticks can hide under the armpits, behind the knees, in the hair, and groin.
• Put clothes in the dryer on high heat for 60 minutes to kill any remaining ticks.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Antibiotic Resistance

When I was a child, antibiotics were still thought to be a miracle drug and saved my hearing in my right ear and maybe my life. Billions of microscopic bacteria normally live on the skin, in the gut, and in our mouths and throats. Most are harmless to humans, but some are pathogenic and can cause infections in the ears, throat, skin, and other parts of the body. In the pre-antibiotic era in the first half of the 20th century, people had no medicines against these common germs and as a result were often made quite ill, had severe complications or even died from bacterial infections. It has been less than 75 years that we have had antibiotics to fight these bacterial infections. Now, that miracle may be ending helped along by our excessive use and overuse of antibiotics.
Clostridium difficile, Enterobacteriaceae and Neisseria gonorrhoeae currently pose an urgent threat in the US

Less than a decade after antibiotics came into common use in medicine it began to be widely used as a feed additive in agriculture. It was discovered that antibiotics fed to young animals caused them to increase weight and grow faster on less food. To this day we don’t know exactly why that happens. Thumb through any farm supply catalogue and you are likely to see for sale medicated feet that “boosts the growth of poultry and livestock.” However, you are likely to find that medicated feed is out of stock. At the end of last year, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began implementing a voluntary plan with industry to phase out the use of certain antibiotics for enhanced food production. This action was taken as part of a coordinated program to preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics used to treat human illness and reduce the spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria.

Antibiotic resistant bacteria are a rapidly growing problem in the United States and the world. In 2012 at least 2 million people in the United States alone became infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics and at least 23,000 of those people died as a direct result of these infections. Many more people died from other conditions that were complicated by antibiotic-resistant infections. Almost 250,000 people in 2012 required hospital care for Clostridium difficile commonly known as C. difficile. At least 14,000 people died that year in the United States from C. difficile infections including the son of an acquaintance of mine who died in San Francisco despite the availability of excellent medical care. Antibiotic use is a major contributing factor to the spread of these infections. Many of these infections could have been prevented.

As antibiotic resistance grows, the antibiotics used to treat infections do not work as well or at all. The loss of effective antibiotic treatments will not only cripple the ability to fight routine infectious diseases but will also undermine treatment of infectious complications like C. difficile in patients with other diseases. Many of the wondrous advances in modern medicine—joint replacements, organ transplants, cancer therapy, and treatment of chronic diseases such as diabetes, asthma, rheumatoid arthritis—are dependent on the ability to fight infections with antibiotics. If that ability is lost, the ability to safely offer modern medical wonders will be lost with it.

Antibiotics are among the most commonly prescribed drugs used in human medicine. However, up to 50% of all the antibiotics prescribed for people are not needed or are not optimally effective as prescribed. Antibiotics are also commonly used in food animals to prevent, control, and treat disease, and to promote the growth of food-producing animals. The use of antibiotics for promoting growth in livestock is not necessary, and the practice should be phased out. Guidance from the FDA at the end of last year plots a path towards this goal. According to the FDA it is difficult to directly compare the amount of drugs used in food animals with the amount used in humans, but there is evidence that more antibiotics are used in food production. The Pew Foundation reports that 70% of antibiotics manufactured in the United States are used in food production (though I could not identify their methodology for calculating this). The primary danger from antibiotic over use in animal feeding is from antibiotic resistant bacteria that survive to enter the food chain, not from human exposure to antibiotics in meat; however, there might be human health impact from broad low level exposure or changes in gut bacteria colonies.
from FDA

Antibiotic resistance infections have left the confines of hospitals and begun appearing in our communities without any connecting factors to the hospital population. Antibiotic-resistant infections outside of the hospital setting were rare until recently. Today, resistant infections that appear in the community include tuberculosis and respiratory infections caused by Streptococcus pneumoniae, skin infections caused by methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, and sexually transmitted infections such as gonorrhea. Right now the biggest of these threats in the United States are Streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumococcus) and MRSA infections. Multidrug-resistant and extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR and XDR TB) infections are an increasing threat outside of the United States and could spread very quickly because of the ways the disease is spread. Now the FDA and the CDC are developing a group of strategies to fight back against antibiotic resistance.

There are four core actions:
  1. Preventing infections. Avoiding infections in the first place prevent infection and the spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria. There are many ways that drug-resistant infections can be prevented: immunization, safe food preparation, hand washing, and using antibiotics as directed and only when necessary. Streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumococcus) can cause serious and sometimes life-threatening infections and can persist in a medical facility for years, so preventing infection in the first place is essential.
  2. Tracking. The CDC gathers data on antibiotic-resistant infections, the causes of infections and whether there are particular risk factors that caused some people to get a resistant infection. With more information, scientists can develop specific strategies to prevent those infections and prevent the resistant bacteria from spreading.
  3. Improving the way we use antibiotics. The most important action needed to greatly slow down the development and spread of antibiotic-resistant infections is to change the way antibiotics are used. Most antibiotic use is unnecessary and inappropriate and makes everyone less safe. Stopping the inappropriate and unnecessary use of antibiotics in people and animals would help greatly in slowing down the spread of resistant bacteria. This requires a commitment from all of us to only use antibiotics when necessary and appropriate and also to reserve the broad spectrum antibiotics (the big guns) for the most dire bacterial infections.
  4. Finally, new diagnostic tests and new antibiotics must be developed. Antibiotic resistance occurs as part of the natural process in which bacteria continually evolve. The process of developing resistance can be slowed but not stopped. Therefore, we will always need new antibiotics to fight resistant bacteria as well as new diagnostic tests to determine the most effective treatment and track the development of resistance.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Groundwater Awareness Week

It’s National Groundwater Awareness Week (March 10-16, 2014). 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. Well ownership comes with the responsibility of keeping the water well in good working order and managing your own water supply. Ensuring that your water is safe to drink, of good quality is your responsibility and should be done annually. Managing your water use is an on-going challenge.

The groundwater aquifer you tap for water is not seen so you have to be aware of your water budget and live within it, something that transplants from the suburbs and city are not always aware of. Many who are on public water on the east coast are very accustomed to thinking of water supply as unlimited. Your well is not unlimited and living with a well you need to be aware of your water use and water budget. A diminished water supply can be caused by drop in water level in the well due to drought or over pumping of the aquifer, or the well could be failing (though equipment problems are the most common cause of well failure). Groundwater supply and quality can and do change because groundwater systems are dynamic.

The National Ground Water Association (NGWA) and most health departments recommend that private well owners test their water annually for at a minimum bacteria and nitrate. When you bought your house in all probability you only tested your water for was bacteria, that is not adequate to ensure your water supply is safe. There are many other contaminants that might be of local concern that you could test for and there are common contaminants that can be health hazard or water quality issue; however, not every contaminant needs to be tested for each year. The quality of your water will be determined by the source of the groundwater, the ability of your local geology to protect or impact your aquifer and the absence or presence of a potential local source of contamination. According to the US EPA actual events of groundwater contamination have historically been rare; however, as population density increases and we use more and more chemicals, pesticides and drugs, there are more opportunities to contaminate our groundwater. The most common sources of pollution to groundwater supplies come from two categories; naturally occurring ones and those caused by human activities. Naturally occurring contamination are produced from the underlying soil and rock geology.

Human activities can also contaminate groundwater. Improperly constructed and sealed wells can allow surface contamination to enter the well. Improperly maintained septic systems containing human waste and any chemical you flush down the drain, horses, and backyard poultry can contaminate the groundwater. Leaks from underground storage tanks, excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides, surface disposal of solvents, motor oil, paint, fuel, or nearby landfills or industrial operations can contaminate groundwater. While a confining geological layer can protect groundwater from surface contaminants, there is very limited natural protection in karst terrain and fractured rock systems that are very common in Virginia. So while we have rich supplies of groundwater our aquifers can be very susceptible to contamination.

The Virginia Household Water Quality Program out of Virginia Tech recommends that wells be tested for 14 chemical and bacteriological contaminants: iron, manganese, nitrate, lead, arsenic, fluoride, sulfate, pH, total dissolved solids, hardness, sodium, copper, total coliform bacteria and E. Coli bacteria. The Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) Office will be holding a drinking water clinic for well owners on March 31, 2014 in Prince William County and will perform the 14 analysis listed above analysis for just $49. (The water clinics are subsidized by a grant to the Virginia Household Water Quality Program.) That is enough information to address most water problems and ensure that your water is safe for your family to drink. To sign up for the program please call 703-792-7747 or email

If your water is supplied by a well, you also need to be aware of the factors that impact your water supply and respond to them, making sure to live within your water budget. There are dry years and wet years and you need to know which you are in. Direct determination of the groundwater level in your well requires a water level meter which can cost hundreds of dollars, but the condition of the aquifer can be obtained from a proxy well. The U.S. Geological Survey, 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 is just up the road from me in the same groundwater basin and is currently measuring at normal groundwater levels. As a matter of fact, all twenty of the Virginia monitoring wells are currently at or above normal groundwater levels, so if you are in Virginia it doesn’t look like there are going to be any problems with water supply this year.
groundwater conditions in Virginia
The water level in a groundwater 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. The natural fluctuations of groundwater levels are most pronounced in shallow wells that are most susceptible to drought. However, deeper wells may be impacted by an extended drought and take longer to recover.

In the fractured rock systems of the Piedmont where I live, most wells draw groundwater from vertical fractures in the bedding plane. Fractures can run dry or become clogged with sediment over the years. In unconsolidated sediments of the coastal plain ground water is pulled from the saturated zone. Prince William County is divided between these two areas. To provide a reliable supply of water, a drilled well must intersect bedrock fractures containing ground water and recharge at a rate greater than the typical domestic demand of 5 gallons per minute during periods of water use or have adequate storage within the well itself. In the typical 6 inch diameter well each foot of depth equals about a gallon and a half. So a 200 foot deep well that recharges at 1 gallon a minute could easily serve a family if the water demand were spread out throughout the day.

Failure of the well itself is rarely sudden, but happens especially in drought. A drought caused well failure may be restored when the drought ends. All problems with private wells break down into equipment failure, depletion of the aquifer or other groundwater problems and failing well design and construction. Though not as common as equipment failure, there are times that the problem is the well and the water supply. If the well cannot recharge at the same rate at which water is being pumped out of the well, you will experience intermittent episodes of severe water pressure loss or possibly loss of water entirely. If you have water first thing in the morning and again when you get home from work, but the supply seems to run out especially when doing laundry or taking a shower. Then you may have a groundwater problem or a well problem. Knowing the condition of the local aquifer will allow you to know which.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

NASA to Help Manage California’s Water Resources

Water is fundamental to life on Earth. Knowing where and how much rain and snow falls is vital to understanding how weather and climate impact our environment, including the effects on agriculture, fresh water availability and natural disasters. Nowhere is this better seen than in California. The California Water Plan, a regular analysis published by the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) is the major guide book for water planning within the state. The latest version of the Plan was released for public review in January 2009 and updated in 2013. It stated: “We must adapt and evolve California’s water systems more quickly and effectively to keep pace with ever changing conditions now and in the future. Population is growing while available water supplies are static and even decreasing.”

The powerful Pacific storm that brought rain and snow late last week through much of California. Communities endangered by wildfire just weeks ago, faced mud and debris landslides and flash floods. The much prayed for rain came in a massive deluge as it often does. On Friday 4.3 inches of rain fell on Los Angeles almost three times as much rain as had fallen in the region since July. The parched ground and hillsides stripped bare by wildfires were less able to absorb water and several communities experienced mudslides and flash floods. The storm front moved on to the east bringing more snow to the east coast.

Despite the enormity of the deluge, these storms will not rescue the region from the three years of below-normal rainfall, California still looks to be facing its most severe drought in decades. It would take rainfall of almost biblical proportions to make up the water shortfall that California faces. If you recall Governor Jerry Brown has declared a drought emergency and water allocations had been cut to zero by state and federal water manages. Though, this storm did bring some relief to rural and smaller communities especially in Northern California whose water supply was forecast to run dry in the next two months.

In the past California’s state water agencies could not even track how much water is actually being used, where it is being used, where it is being diverted to, how much is being diverted, or how many diversions are illegal. The ability to track water usage and accurate long range forecasts of precipitation would allow California water manages to better capture and store the precious water. The California DWR announced last week that they will be working with NASA to apply new technology to better understand, monitor and manage the state's water resources and respond to its droughts and changing water needs. NASA scientists, university researchers and DWR water managers will work together to apply advanced remote sensing and improved forecast modeling to better assess water resources, monitor drought conditions and water supplies, plan for drought response and mitigation, and measure drought impacts.

DWR first began working with NASA on the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) and Global Land Data Assimilation System (GLDAS) to quantify groundwater depletion. A group of researchers at the University of California, Irvine, the University of Texas, and the Hydrological Sciences Branch at NASA GSFC have worked in partnership to apply GRACE and GLDAS to various real world groundwater monitoring with funding from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The GRACE scientific team will launch the next generation of GRACE satellites able to monitor groundwater changes on a weekly basis and to be able to monitor groundwater and river basins that are 1,000 square miles in area. In addition, this partnership will provide the resources to interpret the date in a more timely fashion so that communities can use it to manage water resources in real time.

In California's Central Valley groundwater was pumped to such an extent that the ground subsided more than 75 feet in some places. The area was identified by the research efforts of Joseph Poland in the 1970’s as the location of maximum subsidence in the United States due to groundwater mining. Once the land subsides, it loses its water holding capacity and will never recover as an aquifer. Recent GRACE data has indicated that the groundwater level is once more falling due to over pumping. The groundwater resources of the state need to be managed with the surface water resources and the partnership with NASA holds promise of providing tools to do just that.

In addition, NASA is now planning on using their remote sensing data and research to monitor the California delta levees; map fallowed agricultural lands; and improve estimates of precipitation, water stored in the winter snowpack, and changes in groundwater resources. The agencies also are working to combine data from NASA satellites and DWR's network of agricultural weather stations to improve estimates of crop water requirements for California farmers seeking to better manage irrigation.

Next month, NASA and DWR will resume flights of NASA's Airborne Snow Observatory to map the snowpack of the Tuolumne River Basin in the Sierra Nevada and the Uncompahgre watershed in the Upper Colorado River Basin. The Tuolumne watershed is the source of the water supply for 2.6 million San Francisco Bay Area residents. The airborne observatory measures how much water is in the snowpack and how much sunlight the snow absorbs, which in turn affects how fast the snow melts. This information would allow NASA and DWR to make accurate estimates of how much water will flow out of a basin when the snow melts. Last year, observatory data helped water managers optimize reservoir filling and more efficiently allocate water between power generation, water supplies and ecological uses.

Another pilot project is demonstrating the feasibility of using satellite imagery to track the extent of fallowed land -- cultivated land intentionally allowed to lie idle during growing season. NASA is working with DWR, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and California State University at Monetary Bay to establish a fallowed land monitoring service as part of a California drought early warning information system. New methods using time-series of crop data from NASA and USGS satellites can provide information on land fallowing and reductions in planted acreage early in the year. The team is preparing to produce data and maps of fallowed acreage in the Central Valley beginning this April to help monitor the impacts of the ongoing drought.

Over the next seven years NASA plans to launch four additional water-related satellites to add to the more than a dozen NASA satellites focused on understanding detailed Earth science processes. NASA also monitors Earth from ground-based observation posts. NASA is working to develop new ways to observe and study Earth's interconnected natural systems using the long-term data records and computer analysis tools to better see how our planet is changing and contribute to understanding and protecting our home planet.

These programs are not going to increase the water available to California, and they will likely reduce individual choice, but they may allow the state to rationally manage the resources available to it. I say maybe because California and its population has demonstrated an inability to face and accept harsh truths and plan rationally for the future. There seems to be a tendency to engage in magical thinking. Hope for the best, plan for the worst and carefully monitor the facts of the situation.

Monday, March 3, 2014

NASA Expands its Exploration of Planet Earth

An unusual March snow storm here in Virginia has me obsessing on weather. The Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) Core Observatory satellite, a joint mission between NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), was launched into space at 3:37 a.m. Japanese Standard Time Friday, February 28, 2014  from Tanegashima Space Center in southern Japan.

The Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) mission is an international partnership led by NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). The mission centers on the GPM Core Observatory satellite. This satellite is now 253 miles above earth traveling at 4.3 miles a second in a circular non-sun-synchronous orbit. The GPM satellite will make 16 orbits a day carrying two instruments: the GPM Microwave Imager and the (GMI) and Dual-frequency Precipitation Radar (DPR), an advanced radar/radiometer system that can measure the amount, size, intensity and type of precipitation, from heavy-to-moderate rain to light rain and snowfall. The DPR will return three-dimensional images of precipitation, revealing the internal structure of storms within and below clouds. The Microwave Imager will serve as a calibration tool.

The GPM mission builds on the success of the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM), a joint NASA and JAXA satellite launched in 1997 that measures precipitation over tropical and subtropical regions of the earth. During World War II scientists developed the ability to use ground-based radar to measure precipitation over land. The TRMM was the first utilization of spaceborn precipitation radar and this has resulted in the advances we’ve seen in the last 20 year in tropical storm monitoring and forecasting.

With its higher orbit and more advanced instruments the GPM Core Observatory satellite will provide even greater coverage of the earth-from the Arctic Circle to Antarctica. GPM Core Observatory will carry the next generation precipitation radar, the Duel-frequency Precipitation Radar (DPR). One of the major advancements of the DPR is the second radar frequency. In addition to the DPR’s Ku-band radar that will measure moderate-to-heavy rain at 13.6 gigahertz, its Ka-band radar will measure frozen precipitation and light rain at 35.5 gigahertz. These measurements, combined with those from other satellites in the constellation, will provide global precipitation observations approximately every three hours.

Measurements from the GMI will also serve as a reference standard for cross-calibration of the other satellites in the GPM constellation that have sensors to provide data. You can read about the transfer of and coordination of all the satellite data in the NASA mission brochure.

The calibrated GPM constellation will provide measurements on the:
• Intensity and variability of precipitation;
• Structure of cloud and storm systems;
• Microphysics of the ice and liquid particles within clouds; and
• Amount of water falling to Earth’s surface.

Observations from the GPM constellation, combined with land-surface data, will improve our knowledge and understanding of our planet’s allowing for the creation of better:
• Weather forecast models;
• Climate models;
• integrated hydrologic models of watersheds; and
• Forecasts of hurricanes, landslides, floods and droughts.

Rainfall and snowfall vary greatly from place to place and over time as weather and climates change. Satellites can provide more uniform observations of rain and snow around the globe than ground instruments, especially in areas where surface measurements are difficult to take, for example over the oceans and in extreme altitudes. The GPM mission will help scientists understand how local, regional and global precipitation patterns change over time. The GPM Core Observatory satellite is designed to serve for 3 years and carries 5 years of fuel.

The distribution of water in the atmosphere and how it moves, changing between its solid, liquid and gaseous forms, is a powerful vehicle for redistributing Earth’s energy and influences the behavior of the planet’s weather, climate and other environmental systems. Lack of full data and understanding of the water cycle has hindered the ability of scientists to develop accurate models to forecast weather and climate. We cannot predict weather accurately more than a few days out and all the climate models have failed to demonstrate any ability to forecast the future. Now, there is hope of using the collected data to develop a better understanding of our planet and to ultimately build predictive models of our weather and climate. Mission Video