Thursday, August 17, 2017

Total Eclipse of the Sun

On Monday, August 21, 2017, all of North America will be able to see an eclipse of the sun. Anyone within the path of totality from Salem, Oregon to Charleston, South Carolina can see a total solar eclipse. The path of totality is where the moon will completely cover the sun making the sun’s corona visible.

The shadow of the moon enters the United States near Lincoln City, Oregon, at 9:05 a.m. PDT. Totality begins in Lincoln City, Oregon, at 10:16 am PDT. The total eclipse will end and hour and 2 minutes later in Charleston, South Carolina, at 2:48 p.m. EDT, though the lunar shadow will linger in the United States until 4:09 p.m. EDT. A partial eclipse will be visible throughout the United States. Here in Virginia we will see a partial solar eclipse where the moon covers about 85% of the sun's disk.

Looking directly at the sun is unsafe except during the brief total phase of a solar eclipse (“totality”), when the moon entirely blocks the sun’s bright face, which will happen only within the narrow path of totality and only during the window of complete coverage which is about 2 minutes 40 seconds. Otherwise you must protect your eyes and vision. The only safe way to look directly at a partially eclipsed sun is through special-purpose solar filters, such as “eclipse glasses or hand-held solar viewers.

Homemade filters or ordinary sunglasses, even  dark ones, are NOT SAFE for looking at the sun; they transmit thousands of times too much sunlight. Eclipse glasses and handheld solar viewers must be verified to be compliant with the ISO 12312-2 international safety standard for such products. However, there have been reports in the news of large numbers of fake solar glasses. It's not enough today to just look for the ISO 12312-2  certification, as many vendors have started printing fake glasses with ISO 12312-2  certifications. At this point, if your have not purchased solar glasses from a vendor from the approved list of the American Academy of Ophthalmology or NASA it’s probably too late and you should protect your eyes and view the eclipse on NASA’s web site or through a pinhole projector as we did when we were kids.

As described on NASA’s web site, a convenient method for safe viewing of the partially eclipsed Sun is pinhole projection. You simply pass sunlight through a small opening (for example, a hole punched in an index card) and project an image of the Sun onto a nearby surface (for example a piece of printer paper). See the NASA website for full instructions. I will be inside viewing the eclipse on-line. There is also lots of fun information about science data gathering that will take place during the eclipse.

Do not look at the  partially eclipsed sun through an unfiltered camera, telescope, binoculars, or other optical device- even if you are wearing eclipse glasses. The magnification will damage the eclipse glasses and damage your eyes. Be safe.


Monday, August 14, 2017

Conowingo Dam and the Chesapeake Bay

Last week Governor Hogan of Maryland announced that Maryland will request bids to test dredging and reuse of the dredged material from the Conowingo Dam reservoir. The test will involve removing about 25,000 cubic yards of sediment and is estimated to cost $4 million. This is the first step to remove 31 million cubic yard of sediment that have almost filled the reservoir which Maryland has estimated will cost $250 million to dredge. Dredging the reservoir is essential to protect the Chesapeake Bay.

The Conowingo Dam is a large hydroelectric dam on the Lower Susquehanna River about 10 miles upstream from where the river flows into the Chesapeake Bay at Havre De Grace, Maryland. The three dams at the downstream end of the Susquehanna River have been important in mitigating the downstream transport of nitrogen, phosphorus, and suspended sediment from the Susquehanna River watershed to the Chesapeake Bay. The Conowingo, the last dam in a series of three traps polluted sediment from the Susquehanna River in its 9,000 acre reservoir.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) placed a contamination limit called the TMDL (total maximum daily load for nutrient contamination and sediment) on all the states in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed and Washington DC. The TMDL sets a total limit for the entire watershed of 185.9 million pounds of nitrogen, 12.5 million pounds of phosphorus and 6.45 billion pounds of sediment per year that represents a 25% reduction in nitrogen, 24% reduction in phosphorus and 20 % reduction in sediment from the 2011 levels. The pollution limits were then partitioned to the various states and river basins based on the Chesapeake Bay computer modeling tools and monitoring data.

When the EPA allocated the nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment reductions among the Chesapeake Bay states, the EPA believed that the Conowingo Dam would continue to trap polluted sediment for an additional quarter of a century and counted the sediment and nutrient removal of the Conowingo Dam in the design of the nutrient and sediment reductions. Subsequent studies by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the Army Corps of Engineers found that sediment was gathering at the dam at a faster rate than assumed by the EPA’s model.

The three dams on the lower Susquehanna River (Safe Harbor, Holtwood, and Conowingo) and their associated reservoirs (Lake Clarke, Lake Aldred, and Conowingo Reservoir) have been the topic of a number of studies (Langland, 2009; Langland, 1998; Langland and Hainly, 1997), all of which generally conclude that the pools behind the dams were on a long-term trajectory to becoming filled. Recently, the USGS has concluded that the dam’s sediment reservoir is almost full. There are nearly 200 million tons of sediment, nutrients, and other pollutants from the Susquehanna River trapped behind the dam.

Analysis of water-quality data collected during the large flood in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Lee (September 2011), as well as high flows that occurred in March 2011, indicate a significant decrease in the effectiveness of the reservoir system at trapping nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment. Rather than reaching capacity in 2030 to 2035 as originally projected by the EPA, the Conowingo Dam is already 95% full and will be full and cease protecting the bay from sediment within the next three years.

The Conowingo Dam will no longer be able to trap sediment in the Susquehanna River and prevent them from entering the Chesapeake Bay. The Susquehanna River flows 464 miles from Cooperstown, New York to Havre De Grace, Maryland collecting sediment and nutrient runoff along the way. The Susquehanna drains an area of more than 27,000 square miles and is the single largest source of fresh water flowing into Chesapeake Bay. The river currently provides nearly half of the Bay’s freshwater, 41% of its nitrogen, 25% of its phosphorus and 27% of its sediment load. Without the Conowingo removing sediments containing nitrogen and phosphorus before the waters reach the Chesapeake Bay that contamination load will increase.

EPA can’t just assign increased reductions to Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York. The sources of most of this sediment is non-point source in origin. To meet the long term goals of the Chesapeake Bay TMDL needs the Conowingo Dam to trap excess sediment from the river –it is the cheapest way to meet the goals.

Also, the Conowingo Dam cannot be left full. It will not exist in some gentle equilibrium. The Conowingo and its sister reservoirs will not be constantly filled to capacity with sediments because of short-term changes from severe storms that cause scour and a subsequent reduction in exported sediments until the scoured amount is refilled. Therefore, the amount of sediment transported out of the reservoirs will not always be in equilibrium with the amount of sediment transported into the reservoirs.

After large storm events there will be plumes of sediment and nutrients released into the river and the Chesapeake bay damaging any progress made by the TMDL program. However Governor Hogan works out who will contribute to the costs, the Conowingo Dam needs to be dredged.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Climate Change, Rain and Nutrient Pollution

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) global temperature has risen about 1 degree Celsius from pre-industrial times. Last year, reported to be the warmest year on record, was also the year that representatives from more than 175 countries gathered at the United Nations on Earth Day to sign the Paris Climate Accord.

The current administration has withdrawn the United States from the agreement. Even with the United States the Paris Accord lacked any clear path on how the nations would meet the goal to maintain global temperatures within 2 °C increase above pre-industrial temperatures. The carbon reductions committed to under the agreement are woefully inadequate to meet that goal, and neither China nor India who combined represent about a third of world greenhouse gas emissions have committed to any reductions. Instead those two nations are merely projecting when (not even at what level) their greenhouse gas emissions will peak.

If climate change progress, (and really, there are no realistic plans to stop it) most climate models are forecasting a significant increase in precipitation in the northeastern corridor of the United States including Virginia. At least we’ll have water, but all that rainfall can bring other problems. Rainfall and other precipitation washes nutrients from human activities like agriculture, lawns, septic systems and other activities into rivers and lakes. When these nutrients overload waterways, a process called eutrophication occurs. The results of this process can be dangerous to water quality when toxin-producing algae blooms develop and low-oxygen dead zones develop. We are all familiar with the annual dead zones and algae blooms in coastal regions including the Gulf of Mexico, the Chesapeake Bay and Florida.

In a recent study published in Science magazine Dr. Sinha and Dr. Michalak used models to predict how climate change might affect eutrophication. The two build on their earlier work where they found that, while land use and land management control the supply of nitrogen, precipitation controls how much of that nitrogen flows from the land into waterways. More rain more nitrogen and phosphorus pollution flows into waterways and estuaries.

In the current study, the scientists used these insights to predict how future changes to precipitation caused by climate change will, in and of themselves, affect nitrogen runoff and thereby increase the risk of water quality impairment in the United States.

Their modeling found that the mean projected increase in nitrogen loading within the continental United States is projected to be 19% with the Northeast projected to increase 28% and the Upper Mississippi Atchafalya River Basin project to increase 24%. In the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, the EPA has mandated a contamination limit called the TMDL (total maximum daily load) for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment. The TMDL sets a total limit for the entire watershed of 185.9 million pounds of nitrogen per year which is a 25% reduction in nitrogen from 2011 levels. Increased rainfall will make meeting and maintaining those goals more challenging.

So far Virginia is on track to meet the midpoint goals for nitrogen reduction set by the EPA. We did it by having spent about $2 billion from 1998-2017 to upgrade the waste water treatment plants in the watershed. That was expensive, but easy to achieve reductions- we knew how to do it.

The remaining areas for reducing nitrogen for the midpoint evaluation and the 2025 goals are in the agricultural, suburban and urban storm water management. These are harder targets to hit because the sources of pollution in these areas are non-point source pollution (NPS), diffuse sources of pollutionthat are carried to streams and rivers by runoff of rain and snowmelt.

The way to reduce non-point source pollution in the environment is to control stormwater and implement what is called “best management practices” (BMPs). BMPs have mostly been used in the agricultural sector. Virginia made great progress towards the EPA goal in management of livestock. A huge program carried out by the Soil and Water Conservation Districts to induce all animal operations to fence all pastures to exclude all livestock from rivers and streams and provide alternate sources of water for the animals away from rivers and streams. There are also BMP to slow storm water, limit fertilizer use and limit or eliminate tilling.

To protect our waters with the forecast increase in precipitation the Soil and Water Conservation Districts will have to introduce programs for suburban neighborhoods and communities and keep improving and expanding those programs. We can’t stop the rain, but we can prepare for it.


Monday, August 7, 2017

Montgomery Pesticide Ban Struck Down

Last week the Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Terrence McGann struck down the county's ban of nonessential pesticide usage on private and public property. The Judge issued a summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs; lawn care companies and private property owners who opposed the 2015 county measure. The ban, Bill 52-14 would have gone into effect Jan. 1, 2018 and would have banned the ornamental use of pesticides including Roundup and 2,4 D as well as hundreds of others.

Bill 52-14 restricted the application of pesticides on County-owned and private lawns down to 100 square feet. The law included all pesticides classified as "Carcinogenic to Humans" or "Likely to Be Carcinogenic to Humans" by the U.S. EPA; all pesticides classified by the U.S. EPA as "Restricted Use Products;" all pesticides classified as "Class 9" pesticides by the Ontario, Canada, Ministry of the Environment; all pesticides classified as "Category 1 Endocrine Disruptors" by the European Commission; and any other pesticides that are determined not to be critical to pest management in the County. Pesticides, including herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, and rodenticides, used to simply prevent blemishes and other imperfections on private and public lands are banned.

In his opinion Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Terrence McGann said the county ordinance conflicted with state laws regarding pesticides, which would have pre-empted the county’s ability to pass pesticide regulations. Stating in the opinion: “The Ordinance prohibits the use of registered pesticide products that Maryland law permits, and in doing so, it simultaneously undermines the express purpose of State law to promote uniformity between Maryland pesticide requirements and those adopted by EPA and other states. The Ordinance prohibits and frustrates an activity intended to be permitted by State law.”

Judge McGann ORDERED that Plaintiffs’ Motions for Summary Judgment GRANTED; and further ORDERED that Bill 52-14 as it regards the use of pesticides on private property, shall not take effect, and Plaintiffs are entitled to permanent injunctive relief from the enforcement of these sections.

The Montgomery County ban on cosmetic use of herbicides and pesticides was intended to protect children based on their belief that children may be more at risk of developing health problems from pesticides because:
• Their activities lead to more exposure e.g., playing in the grass, putting their hands or toys in their mouths.
• They are closer to the ground and breathe in higher amounts of pesticides.
• Proportional to their weight, they breathe in more air and consume more food and drink than do adults.
• Their immature metabolic systems cannot break down toxins as effectively as adults.
• Their bodies are rapidly growing and developing and potentially impacted more strongly by endocrine disruptor effects.

With the exception of nitrogen, there has been no direct evidence linking pesticides to diseases in humans. Though, an increasing number of health and environmental groups are claiming that these chemicals do indeed impact human health. A wide range of chemicals are used to treat everything from pests to mold in household gardens. One of those is 2, 4-D, used by cereal crop producers and commonly found in household weed killers. It has been the subject of an extensive study by Health Canada which determined that, when used properly, it is safe. Organizations like the Sierra Club and the Canadian Cancer Society, which strongly support a ban on cosmetic use of pesticides and herbicides, disagree. However, no specific research linking the currently used ornamental pesticides to disease in humans was found.

The only documented study to find a disease link to 2,4-D was done in the United States, a 1991 National Cancer Institute study examined dogs whose owners' lawns were treated with 2,4-D four or more times per year. The study found those dogs had double the risk of developing canine malignant lymphoma than dogs whose owners do not use the herbicide.

In addition, glyphosate (N-phosphonomethylglycine), the active ingredient in the herbicide Roundup and the most popular herbicide in use today in the United States was labeled a probable carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, IARC, in 2015. 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 found that glyphosate is nearly nontoxic to mammals; however, there have been for some time a minority of scientists and experts who believes that glyphosate may be more toxic than is claimed and pushed for additional  studies impacts to human health from low level constant exposure to glyphosate.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Human Waste and Disease

Human excrement can carry disease such as cholera, diarrhea, dysentery, hepatitis A, typhoid and polio. In the developing world, a case of diarrhea can be life threatening. Sanitation is what makes modern cities and towns possible without the consequences of disease and possibly death. There are 7.5 billion people on earth. In 2015, only 40% of the earth’s population (2.9 billion people) had the use of a toilet or improved latrine with a system in place to ensure that excreta are treated or disposed of safely. Though 68% of the world’s population (5.0 billion people) used at least a basic sanitation service, that leaves 2.3 billion people who still do not have the most basic sanitation facilities such as toilets or latrines. 

Of these, almost 900 million still defecate in the open, in open fields, street gutters, behind bushes or into open bodies of water. Open defecation perpetuates a vicious cycle of disease and poverty. In the countries where open defection is most widespread they have the highest number of deaths of children under 5 years old as well as the highest levels of malnutrition and poverty.

Open defecation is as old as humankind. As long as population densities were low and the earth could safely absorb human wastes, it probably caused few problems. As more people gathered in towns and cities diseases spread. Mankind gradually learned the link between hygiene and health and, in particular, the importance of avoiding contact with feces. Today open defecation is declining worldwide, but of the nearly 900 million people still defecate in the open, over 550 million of them are reported to live in India. In India it is reported that almost 120,000 children under 5 years old die each year from diarrhea. Children are dying from diarrhea. Untold numbers suffer with chronic intestinal infections that reduce nutrient absorption and result in stunting.

In India and worldwide open defecation perpetuates a vicious cycle of disease and poverty. Globally most of the people who engage in open defecation live in rural areas, and that is true in India also. However, in India there is reported to be over 150 million urban slum dwellers that lack sanitation facilities and the number is rising. The situation of the urban poor poses a growing challenge as they live increasingly in slums where sewerage is precarious or non-existent and lack clean and safe water.

In the rural areas of India, in particular, cultural taboos and beliefs seem to perpetuate open defecation even when latrines have been installed. Since 1990 India has been engaged in various missions to build latrines in rural India and end open defecation. Under Prime Minister Modi there has been $40 billion allocated for latrine-building and education. The current program is called Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission). This program follows the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (Total Sanitation Campaign) is a program in India to provide subsidies ($190 per pit latrine) for the construction of household toilets for those at and near the poverty level to prevent diarrhea, soil-transmitted helminth infection, and child malnutrition and stunting of growth.

From May 2010 until December 2013 the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded a study to assess the effectiveness of installing rural household latrines in India under the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan in preventing diarrhea, soil-transmitted helminth infection, and child malnutrition. The study attempted to investigate the effect of the installing latrines as actually delivered by the foundation and its local partners working in India within the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan.

The study findings cast doubt on the health effect of the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan that focus only increasing latrine construction but do not end open defecation or address other sanitation issues that might reduce other possible sources of exposure fecal contamination. Although latrine coverage increased substantially in the study villages to levels targeted by the campaign, many households did not build latrines and others were not functional at the time of the follow-up.

The study findings showed no evidence that the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan program in rural Odisha reduced exposure to fecal contamination or prevented diarrhea, soil-transmitted helminth infection, or child malnutrition. The study found that the program was a failure and had no impact on health. These findings are consistent with another study performed in India in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, but in contrast to results found with improved sanitation and hygiene in other world programs.

The study found that householders with access to latrines did not always use them. Open defecation remained practiced by widely practiced by men and children in homes with latrines. The problem experienced were unique to India. Before any program can succeed India needs to address the underlying cultural acceptance of open defecation, before they can make any progress in improving childhood health and the eliminating the widespread stunting of growth in Indian children. Latrine use was nearly five times higher for women than for men or children in the study, but the study results show that the health benefits generally associated with sanitation cannot be assumed simply by construction of latrines.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Dug Well- Rust Colored Water after Rain Storms

We had quite the storm pass through here yesterday. Frankly after heavy rains I always get a pile of questions about rust colored water. Here is a problem that showed up in Spring 2016. I just heard from the homeowner last week with another concern so I was reminded of his problem. (It’s edited for clarity.)

“I have had a problem with my 38 foot deep 2 foot diameter dug well in rural Spotsylvania County that I have been fighting for the past 9 years...The water from the well will stay brown for about 2 weeks after a series of heavy rainstorms. Consequently, we always use bottled water during that time and wait for things to clear up. I have regularly tested the well after things have cleared up over the years by using the WaterSafe test kit and have never noticed bacteria. (I have never tried it when it was brown though).
The water entering the house is pre-filtered by a pleated 10 inch 50 micron filter. When the heavy rains start, I have (with some success) put in a 5 micron carbon filter in its place. This seems to help when things aren’t so bad, but it doesn’t do very much when there are storms going on for days on end like the ones we had. This only happens once or twice a year. After the mineral earthquake, the problem stopped for nearly 3 years! I’d welcome your thoughts.”
photo from J. De Jesus

The image above shows the outside of the well. The 1992 Water Well regulations for Virginia state “Shallow wells are not desirable from a public health standpoint and shall not be used for new construction, except when deep wells attempted have been nonproductive, as it is normally possible to obtain sufficient water from a deep well.“ Existing wells were grandfathered under the regulation.

Thirty-eight feet is a very shallow well and likely to be impacted by surface infiltration, and drought. Typically rain water and snow melt percolate into the ground and the deeper the well the further away is the water origination and the older the water. The groundwater age is a function of the depth of the well, the geology of the area, the precipitation, recharge of the aquifer and pumping rates of the aquifer that control the rate of flow of water to a well. The age of the water in an aquifer provides insight into the likelihood of contamination from both anthropogenic and natural sources. Very young groundwater that has recently infiltrated into the aquifer is more vulnerable to contamination from human activities near the land surface than older, deeper groundwater that has had more time to be filtered by soils. Old groundwater, however, is not necessarily free of contaminants. The older groundwater can contain naturally occurring chemical elements and contamination from years past. The land surface through which groundwater is recharged must remain open and uncontaminated to maintain the quality and quantity of groundwater.

The fact that well owner states that when he tested the water was free of bacterial contamination and that the problem cleared up for a few years after mineral earthquake does suggest that the problem might be infiltration of Virginia red clay carried in the very young groundwater during storms. The most common type of observed ground-water response to an earthquake is an instantaneous water-level fall or rise and can occur near or far from the epicenter of the quake without significant change to the rock formation. Recovery to the pre-earthquake water level can be so rapid as to be almost unnoticeable, or it may take as long as several days or months. Water level changes can be large enough to make a well flow to the land surface, or render a well dry.

The shaking associated with an earthquake may cause sand or clay fines to plug a well screen, and thus reduce the volume of water that can be pumped. Conversely, the shaking can dislodge sand/clay fines plugging a well screen and cause an increase in the volume of water that can be pumped from the well. In Virginia where well casings typically extend only 50 feet below grade or in this case of a very shallow well, the shaking or oscillation of the earth may dislodge sand or dirt within the water table that can be captured by the pump. In in this case the looser dirt within the water table might have been flushed so that for a few years there was not enough dirt to be carried by heavy rains. 
photo from J. De Jesus
 Nonetheless, the typical sources of rust colored water cannot be discounted as a cause of the problem. After rust in the household fixtures there are five causes for well water to be discolored or brownish: surface infiltration, well collapsing or water level dropping, iron – iron bacteria and/or manganese in the water, pump system or well casing rusting and worst of all contamination from a nearby septic system.

The most likely causes of dirty looking water after heavy rains is surface infiltration and shallow groundwater in a shallow well, but contamination from a failing septic system is also possible and should be investigated an monitored for. The bacterial test can help confirm whether the problem is septic. I would recommend taking a water sample to a local certified laboratory, and have the water tested for coliform bacteria and if positive e-coli and fecal coliform bacteriaat the very least. However, to further diagnose the problem and monitor the well the water should be tested regularly for: iron, manganese, nitrate, lead, arsenic, fluoride, sulfate, pH, total dissolved solids, hardness, sodium, copper, total coliform bacteria and E. Coli bacteria. Also, considering how shallow the well is an occasional look at pesticides might be prudent.

Filter cartridges for sediment removal are rated in microns. As you know, the micron rating for a water filter is a way of indicating the ability of the filter to remove contaminants by the size of the particles. A filter that is marked “5 microns” has some capability in capturing particles as small as 5 microns. However, there is no one accepted method to measure and describe the size of particles that a filter can capture or the total amount of particles that the filter can hold. Filter micron ratings for water are usually Nominal or Absolute. For sediment removal, Nominal rated cartridges are most common. Absolute ratings are needed for example, in removing Giardia, a type of parasite, when it becomes important that the filter cartridge absolutely must be rated at 1 microns. A Nominal Micron Rating (NMR) usually means the filter can capture a given percentage of particles of the stated size. For example, a filter might be said to have a nominal rating of 90% at 10 micron.

The breakthrough you are experiencing could possibly be resolved by having two or three filters in series, a 50 micron followed by a 25 micron followed by a 5 micron; however, I have a basic concern that there is the possibility that your well could be impacted not only by bacteria but by parasites and spores that have the potential to be fatal in vulnerable populations. Though I would encourage you to drill a well at least 100 feet below grade to ensure the health of your family, surface water can be treated. You need a series of filters meticulously maintained to reliability remove the discoloration, a series of two or three should do it. (This will impact your water pressure that you may need to boost.) Make sure you match the flow to the capacity of the filer. Then after the water is clear you need to disinfect using a using a UV light.

Finally, you will need a point of use filtration system for any water that is likely to be drunk because of the potential for cysts, parasites etc. Giardia is a fairly common microscopic parasite that causes diarrhea. Once an animal or person is infected with Giardia, the parasite lives in the intestine and is passed in feces. Because the parasite is protected by an outer shell, it can survive outside the body and in the environment for long periods of time extending to months. Millions of Giardia parasites can be released in a bowel movement of an infected human or animal. Human or animal waste can enter water through sewage overflows from flooded septic systems, polluted storm water runoff, and agricultural runoff. Wells may be more vulnerable to such contamination after flooding, particularly if the wells are shallow, have been dug or bored, or have been submerged by floodwater for long periods of time.

The CDC usually recommend boiling water, but that may be impractical unless you are sure that the water is impacted. An alternative to boiling water is using a point-of-use filter. Not all home water filters remove Giardia. Filters that are designed to remove the parasite should have one of the following labels:
• Reverse osmosis,
• Absolute pore size of 1 micron or smaller,
• Tested and certified by NSF Standard 53 for cyst removal, or
• Tested and certified by NSF Standard 58 for cyst reduction.

There are now available on the market some carbon block filters which takes care of cysts and some chemicals and are certified by NSF Standard 53 0r 58. I am always interested in your problems. Please use email to ask questions. 

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Trash in America


In 2014, in the United States, we threw out about 258 million tons (U.S. short tons) of household trash or more formally municipal solid waste (MSW). Of that trash, more than 89 million tons or 34.6% of MSW was recycled and composted, 33 million tons (12.8%) of MSW was burned to produce power and 136 million tons (52.7%) was buried in landfills. Our trash, or MSW, is consists of various items that include packaging, food, yard trimmings, furniture, electronics, tires and appliances that Americans commonly throw away. MSW does not include industrial, hazardous or construction waste.


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been collecting data on the generation and disposal of waste in the United States for more than 30 years. Municipal solid waste generation per person per day peaked in 2000. The 4.4 pounds per person per day in 2014 is about the same as in 2013, and is one of the lowest rates since before 1990.
National trend in MSW generation from US EPA
Of the 258 million tons of MSW generated in 2014, containers and packaging made up the largest portion: 29.7%, or over 76 million tons. Non-durable and durable goods each made up about 20% (over 52 million tons) each. Food made up 14.9% (38.4 million tons), yard trimmings made up 13.3% (34.5 million tons) and other wastes made up 1.5% (4 million tons).
Total MSW by material 2014 from US EPA

The percentage of trash we recycle and compost has increased from less than 10 % in 1980 to over 34 % in 2014. Burning trash to produce power increased from less than 2 % of MSW in 1980 to 12.8% in 2014. Landfilling of MSW decreased from 89 % in 1980 less than 53% in 2014. However, that does mean that 134.9 tons of trash were landfilled in 1980 and a slightly higher 136.7 tons of trash were landfilled in 2014. 
US recycling and composting trends from US EPA
Of the 136 million tons of MSW that were landfilled, food was the largest component (over 21 %). Plastics accounted for over 18 %, paper and paperboard made up over 14% and rubber, leather and textiles comprised over 10 %. Other material categories accounted for the rest and all were less than 10% each.

Of the more than 89 million tons or 34.6% of MSW was recycled and composted, almost half was paper and paperboard. This represented more than 64% of the total paper and paperboard generated that was recycled. Over 21 million tons of yard trimmings were composted (almost a five-fold increase since 1990), and in 2014, 34 % of metal was recycled. Recycling and composting these three materials alone kept over 28% of total MSW out of landfills. We are clearly most successful at recycling paper and paperboard.
2014 Recycling and Composting breakdown by material from US EPA


In 2014 total MSW recycling and composting was over 89 million tons. As you can see above paper and paperboard accounted for almost 50% of all recycling, yard trimmings accounted for over 23% while food accounted for another 2%. Metals comprised about nine percent and glass, plastic and wood made up about 3% each. Other miscellaneous materials made up about 6% of MSW recycling and composting.

If mankind is going to keep living on this earth without the planet becoming one giant landfill, we need to reduce our overall trash generation and increase our recycling, and we need to move beyond recycling, composting, combustion for power and landfilling. Manufacturers are developing mixed material products that can be recycled and countries like Japan are requiring manufacturers to take back products they sell at the end of their useful life. 

To assure we have sufficient resources to not only meet today’s needs, but those of the future, we need to build on the familiar concept of Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. We need to reduce the materials used and the associated environmental impacts over  products' life cycles. Using materials in their most productive way,  reducing materials, products and packaging.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Availability, Quality and Sustainability of Groundwater

Virginia is dependent on groundwater. According to information from Virginia Tech, the Rural Household Water Quality program and the National Groundwater Association approximately 30% of Virginians are entirely dependent on groundwater for their drinking water. While groundwater is ubiquitous in Virginia it is not unlimited. There are already problems with availability, quality and sustainability of groundwater in Virginia in places such as Fauquier County, Loudoun County and the Coastal Plain.

In addition, there is new information that was not previously available. Using their GRACE and GLDAS satellites, NASA can now measure ground water depletion from space, and the news is not good. Over the ten years (2003-2013) all of Virginia’s groundwater aquifers were determined to be under stress- using groundwater faster than it was being recharged. In other words we are using up our groundwater and unless we manage the use and recharge of groundwater better, some day we will run out.

An example of a problem of groundwater availability is in Marshall, where the Fauquier Water and Sanitation Authority (FCWSA) reported a 40 to 60 foot drop in the water levels over the past four years. Diminished water supply has left the town with inadequate water pressure. FCWSA and Fauquier County have invested more than$100 million in water wells, pipes and equipment yet they failed to identify the groundwater recharge areas for the wells and manage their groundwater. They have arrived at the point of not having enough water for Marshall today, let alone supply water for growth. Fauquier has engaged a detailed study designed by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and spearheaded by the USGS and Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) at a cost of $500,000 to understand available water resources to develop and manage the County’s water supply.

A recent example of a groundwater quality problem came in 2010 when total coliform and E. coli bacteria was found in the groundwater from one of the Raspberry Falls community supply water wells. That well was taken out of service and replaced at a cost of $1 million. In the summer of 2014 two of the four wells in Selma Estates and one of the two wells in Raspberry Falls were taken offline after E. coli was detected in those wells. The three remaining wells were inadequate to meet the needs of the communities. Now Loudoun Water is funding the capital costs of a new water treatment system through its general fund ($10-$12 million). The Loudoun Water general fund will be replenished over time through user rate payments collected from all their customers.

Virginia’s Coastal Plain aquifer is a major example of a groundwater sustainability problem. As reported by DEQ, groundwater levels have declined by as much as 200 feet near West Point and Franklin, Virginia. According to the NASA data, Virginia’s Potomac aquifer is under particular stress. It is only a matter of time until areas within the historic boundary of the aquifer begin to go dry and subside. Despite attempts by the DEQ to manage new uses of groundwater Under the Ground Water Management Act of 1992, groundwater levels have continued to fall in the two management areas.

Virginia manages groundwater through regulating withdrawals of groundwater in the Groundwater Management Areas. Currently, there are two Groundwater Management Areas in the state. The groundwater management areas appear in green and yellow on the map. Any person or entity located within a declared groundwater management area must obtain a permit to withdraw 300,000 gallons or more of groundwater in a month. DEQ has not identified the sustainable level of groundwater use in the management areas. As a result the program has been unsuccessful in reducing groundwater withdrawals to sustainable rates.

For these reasons it is now necessary to try managing availability, quality and sustainability of groundwater by the local communities themselves. The people need to understand where their water comes from and how development and use impact water availability, quality and sustainability . I suggest that the comprehensive plans prepared by the counties be used to consider the availability, quality and sustainability of groundwater resources to promote the health and well-being of the 2.45 million Virginia residents who are dependent on groundwater for of their water needs. The availability, quality and sustainability of groundwater needs to be managed and protected on a local level.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Sustainable Begins with Water

Water is at the core of a sustainable earth and is critical not only for economic development and healthy ecosystems, but for human survival itself. According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs water is at the heart of adaptation to climate change, serving as the crucial link between the climate system, human society and the environment. Water must be managed efficiently and equitably to strengthen the resilience of social, economic and environmental systems under duress of rapid changes.

Water problems are becoming increasingly severe and complex. Interlinkages between water resources management and other environmental, social and economic issues are increasingly becoming more evident as the earth’s population grows and land-use changes. We are seeing the degradation of water quality from both point and non-point sources of pollution and growing impacts from a changing climate. In undisturbed landscapes the land is covered with vegetation that holds the soil on the land and filters rain water and snowmelt through the soil recharging the groundwater table or flowing into streams. An undeveloped watershed provides clean, safe water and groundwater.

As a community grows, so does the amount of surface area covered by parking lots, roads and rooftops. When development disturbs more than 10% of the natural land by covering surfaces with roads, driveways, walkways, patios, and homes the natural hydrology of the land is disturbed, irreparably disturbed. Rainfall cannot soak through these hard surfaces; instead the rain water flows across them picking up velocity and pollutants along the way. The storm water flows into ditches or storm drains, which typically dump the water, pollutants and debris carried in the stormwater into our streams and waterways.

The Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite mission from the National Aeronautics Space Administration (NASA) has been collecting data since 2003. The GRACE satellites measure monthly changes in total earth water storage by converting observed gravity anomalies measured from space into changes of equivalent water height this was a method developed by Matthew Rodell & James S. Famiglietti in 1999. In 2015 scientists completed the analysis of all the data from January 2003 to December 2013.

The scientists found that more than one third of Earth's 37 largest groundwater basins are using up their groundwater faster than it is being replaced. Though the GRACE satellites can be used to see the rate of net water consumption, there is little accurate data about how much water actually remains stored in the earth for future us. So we know a third of the earth is using up their groundwater, we have no idea when the water will run out.

Throughout most of history surface water (rivers and streams) served as the principal freshwater supply for mankind. However, the importance of groundwater has increased in recent decades as mankind’s demand for water has surpassed surface supplies and our ability to access groundwater has increased with technology. Fresh surface water can no longer support the needs of mankind. Accessing groundwater allowed populations to increase, and provide reliable water as surface water has become less reliable and predictable as weather patterns change and regions experience extended droughts. Groundwater is reported to supply almost half of all drinking water worldwide, and is currently the primary source of freshwater for approximately two billion people [Famiglietti, 2015].

Virginia is dependent on groundwater. According to Virginia Tech there are approximately 1.7 million Virginians who get their water from a private well. In addition, according to the National Groundwater Association there are almost 750,000 Virginians who get their water from public and private community groundwater wells. In total that means that approximately 30% of Virginians are entirely dependent on groundwater for their drinking water. There are already problems with availability, quality and sustainability of groundwater in areas of Virginia in places such as Fauquier County, Loudoun County and the Coastal Plain.

According to the GRACE data, Virginia’s aquifers are under stress. It is only a matter of time until areas within the historic boundary of the aquifers begin to go dry and in vulnerable areas begin to subside. Now is the time to identify, understand and manage our water resources.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Largest Iceberg Ever

Last week it was widely reported that a one trillion tonne (metric ton) iceberg – one of the biggest ever recorded - has broken away or “calved” from the Larsen C Ice Shelf in Antarctica. The calving occurred sometime between Monday, July 10th and Wednesday July 12th 2017, when a 2,250 square mile section of Larsen C finally broke away. The iceberg’s volume is twice the volume of Lake Erie.

The development of the rift in the ice shelf was monitored over the past year using data from the European Space Agency Sentinel-1 satellites, reported by researchers at the MIDAS project team at Swansea University in Whales who study Antarctica. Though the iceberg weighs more than a trillion tonnes (1,000,000,000,000 metric tons), it has had no immediate impact on sea level because it was already floating before it calved away. The calving of this iceberg leaves the Larsen C Ice Shelf 12% smaller in area. Although the remaining ice shelf will continue naturally to regrow, the landscape of the Antarctic Peninsula changed forever, and the Swansea researchers say that the new configuration is potentially less stable. There is a risk that Larsen C may eventually disintegrate as did its neighbor, Larsen B, which disintegrated in 2002 following a calving event in 1995.

The first though we all have is global warming, but Scientists say global warming has caused the ice shelves to thin, but they differ on whether the latest event can be blamed on climate change. Dr Martin O'Leary, a Swansea University glaciologist and member of the MIDAS project team, said of the recent calving:

"Although this is a natural event, and we're not aware of any link to human-induced climate change, this puts the ice shelf in a very vulnerable position. This is the furthest back that the ice front has been in recorded history. We're going to be watching very carefully for signs that the rest of the shelf is becoming unstable."

Other scientists point to global warming. So far the global temperature rise has been about 1 degree Celsius (1.78 degrees Fahrenheit) from pre-industrial times and last year was was the third year in a row reported to be the warmest year on record. According to the International Energy Agency, IEA, policies that are now being pursued by developed nations, are predicted (by the accepted group of climate models) to produce a long-term average temperature increase between 3.6 °C and 5.3 °C (6.5-10 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial conditions), with most of the increase occurring during this century.

Even the Paris Climate Accord signed by 196 nations at the United Nations last year on Earth Day only put the nations on a course to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the combustion of fossil fuel. The agreement lacks any clear path on how the nations will maintain the 2 °C rise limit let alone the 1.5 °C above pre-industrial temperature limit. The carbon reductions committed to under the agreement are inadequate to meet that goal, and neither China nor India representing about a third of world greenhouse gas emissions have committed to any reductions. Instead those nation merely project when their greenhouse gas emissions will peak.


President Obama entered into the Paris Climate Accord without Senate ratification. The White House claimed that the president has the legal authority to ratify the accord without the two-thirds Senate vote required for treaties. Saying at the time that the pact negotiated by 196 countries was merely an “executive agreement.” President Trump withdrew from the accord in 2017.

The international efforts to take action to stop or limit climate change began at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and continued with the Kyoto Treaty negotiated at the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1997 which required that by 2013 the industrialized countries cut their greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 5% below 1990 levels. Developing nations (like China and India) were not required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the United States, which at the time was the largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, did not sign the Kyoto Treaty. Canada withdrew from the Kyoto Treaty in 2011. In all only 36 nations were party to the Kyoto Treaty.

Nonetheless, world CO2 emissions have continued to increase, blowing through each “tipping point” identified by the scientists. The first “tipping point” where global temperatures could be held within 2°C above pre-industrial levels was reached when world CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuel reached 32.6 billion metric tons of CO2 annually around 2012. The “Tipping Point” was called the 450 Scenario (for the CO2 concentration) which limits global warming to 2 degrees by limiting  the maximum concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to 450 parts per million of CO2 equivalents. Current concentration is a bit over 400 ppm depending on season but is expected to continue to rise without significant reductions in CO2 emissions.

Now the hoped for scenario is the 4°C Scenario. This senario takes into account all the pledges to limit emissions and improve energy efficiency made for the Paris Climate Accord and requires significant additional cuts in emissions in the period after 2050. The current worst case scenario, is the 6°C Scenario. This scenarios largely an extension of current trends. Primary energy demand and CO2 emissions would grow by about 60% from 2013 to 2050. In the absence of any further efforts to stabilize the atmospheric concentration of CO2, the average global temperature rise above pre-industrial levels is projected to reach almost 5.5°C in the long term and almost 4°C by the end of this century. This month Science ran a map showing the estimated economic costs to the United States if the temperature increases 6°C.  You can look at it here. Meanwhile, U.S. carbon emissions peaked in 2007 and World CO2 emissions appear to have stabilized.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Kemper Plant and the Death of Clean Coal


Two weeks ago the newly elected members of the Mississippi Public Service Commission stopped the experiment in the commercial use of a kind of carbons capture and sequestration (CCS) technology called Transport Integrated Gasification (TRIG™) technology at a newly built power plant in Kemper County, Mississippi. This TRIG technology was developed by Southern Company (the parent of Mississippi Power) and KBR in conjunction with the Department of Energy (DOE).

Last Thursday the Mississippi Public Service Commission issued a formal order saying the gasification technology should be abandoned because of high costs and technical problems and goes on to instruct the Mississippi Power to negotiate a settlement in 45 days.

After spending $7.5 billion and failing the plant will now be converted to run on natural gas. The plant was initially supposed to cost $1.8 billion , but costs kept ballooning. Southern Company and its shareholders have already absorbed $3.1 billion in losses and will probably have to write off an the additional cost overruns expected to total $3.4 billion, because the Mississippi Public Service Commissioners will not allow those costs into the rate base. However, it is expected the Kemper plant will be fully converted to operate on natural gas and Southern Company still hopes to be allowed to put $800 million in the rate base. The Kemper plant has been supplying gas powered electricity since 2014. 

TRIG technology involved turning coal into synthetic gas before burning it to produce electricity and one unit of the plant has been operating on natural gas. The Kemper plant was designed to capture 65% of total CO2 emissions of the plant 3-3.5 million tons per year of captured CO2 and reducing the CO2 emissions per megawatt for the coal plant to under 800 pounds if the plant had performed as designed. The Kemper plant was designed to be the cleanest coal plant ever built.

The Obama administration partnered with Southern Company to prove the “clean coal” technology and the viability of the technology is important to the Trump administration’s promise to revive the coal industry. The design did not work and the plant is uneconomical with the price of natural gas under $3. It remains to be seen if there is any future in “clean coal” technology.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Accotink Creek Gets a New TMDL

from DEQ presentation
Last Friday, Will Isenberg of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), Office of Watershed Programs ad Ecology presented an update on the development of the sediment and chloride Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for Accotink Creek, a 51-square-mile watershed located in the center of Fairfax County that drains southeast to Accotink Bay, then Gunston Cove and finally to the Tidal portion of the Potomac River. Accotink Creek watershed includes Bear Branch, Crook Branch, Daniels Run, Hunters Branch and Long Branch tributaries and Lake Accotink, approximately 70 acres in the central portion of the watershed.

My husband spent summers in the early 1960’s playing on Lake Accotink, so it is featured in family lore and hearts. Though we no longer spend time at Lake Accotink or the nearby park, we pay attention to the health of that watershed and have watched from a distance as the health of the watershed declined. Accotink is an impaired watershed. For the last 20 years the DEQ has developed plans, with public input, to restore impaired streams, lakes, and estuaries. These plans are called "Total Maximum Daily Loads," or TMDLs. Following the U.S. EPA's approval of a TMDL, an Implementation Plan is developed to restore the watershed. This is all done under Section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act.

The first attempt at a TMDL for Accotink Creek was to use stormwater runoff as a surrogate for sediment loading in the stream. However, Fairfax County and the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), sued EPA on the basis that stormwater runoff is not, itself, a pollutant . In January 2010 a federal court ruled that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) exceeded its authority in establishing a flow-based total maximum daily load (TMDL) for Accotink Creek. The court decided the case in favor of the plaintiffs, Fairfax County and the VDOT. The ruling was based on the view that while EPA can dictate the pollutants attributed to a TMDL, Congress is the body who defines what a pollutant is.

Now the DEQ has developed a new TMDL this time controlling Sediment and Chlorine to restore the health of Accotink Creek. A public comment period will end on 21 July 2017, after which the final report will be prepared, unofficially forwarded to the EPA for their concurrence, and forwarded to the Virginia State Water Control Board for final approval before official submission to the EPA.

The EPA lists sediment as the most common pollutant in rivers, streams, lakes and reservoirs. Sediment is the loose sand, clay, silt and other soil particles that settle at the bottom rivers and lakes. Sediment entering stormwater degrades the quality of water for drinking, wildlife and the land surrounding streams. This sediment can come from soil erosion or from the decomposition of plants and animals. Wind, water and ice help carry these particles to rivers, lakes and stream. According to the EPA natural erosion produces 30% of the sediment in our streams and lakes, erosion from human use of land accounts for the remaining 70% - the most significant sediment releases come from construction activities, including relatively minor home-building projects such as room additions and swimming pools, landscape projects.

Chloride while present all year round is increasing average annual concentration. The chloride in Accotink Creek spikes in the winter. Severe winter weather requires an effective and affordable means of de-icing roadways- road salt. Though calcium chloride is also used it is much more expensive sodium chloride (road salt), which is composed of 40% sodium ions (Na+) and 60% chloride ions (Cl-). The sodium, chloride and impurities make their way into our environment through the runoff from rain, melting snow and ice, as well as through splash and spray by vehicles and by wind. They find their way onto vegetation and into the soil, groundwater, storm drains, and surface waters causing significant impact to the environment. Virginia’s freeze and thaw winters produce several spikes of chloride.



Chloride is toxic to aquatic life and impacts vegetation and wildlife. There is no natural process by which chlorides are broken down, metabolized, taken up, or removed from the environment. EPA's threshold of 230 mg/L is the concentration of chloride above which the water is unsafe for wildlife. Chloride runoff from highways has been measured over 20,000 mg/L. However, we can’t just eliminate road salt- it is a public safety issue and Fairfax County and VDOT will have to figure out how to balance environmental needs with public safety. The newest methods of salt application using brine sprayed on roads which are better for the environment and more cost effective, but very corrosive to automobiles.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Emerald Ash Borer


This spring when I walked the woods on the back 7 acres of my land it obvious that the mature hardwoods in the pristine woods that I am the steward for has a lot of Emerald Ash Borer damage. The trees in my wood cannot be saved.
from USDA
The Emerald ash borer (EAB), Agrilus planipennis Fairmaire, is an exotic beetle native of Asia that was discovered in southeastern Michigan near Detroit in the summer of 2002. The adult beetles nibble on ash foliage but cause little damage. However, the larvae feed on the inner bark of ash trees, disrupting the tree's ability to transport water and nutrients and ultimately killing the trees. Emerald ash borer probably arrived in the United States on solid wood packing material carried in cargo ships or airplanes originating in its native Asia. It has killed hundreds of millions of ash trees in North America so far.

from USDA


The Emerald Ash Borer was first found in Prince William County in 2010. In the following years trapping was used to track and monitor the Emerald Ash Borer as it spread across the county. At this point trapping is no longer being conducted and many ash trees in the county show symptoms of infestation; epicormic branching (water sprouts), canopy die back, woodpecker damage, and bark splits. To tell if you have Emerald Ash Borer in your trees look for the 1/8th inch diameter D shaped exit hole and larval galleries that are the signs of Emerald Ash Borer infestation. 
from USDA
Pesticides can be applied to individual trees to protect them against Emerald Ash Borer and my be a way to save single ornamental lawn trees. For the pesticides to work the trees must be healthy and have at least 30% of their leaf canopy remaining. Pesticides must continue to be applied on a scheduled basis for protection. Different pesticides are available to homeowners or state certified pesticide applicators. Many ash trees will not be treated with pesticides; some trees may be too unhealthy, too small, or pesticides may be cost-prohibitive or undesired. I could not possibly apply enough pesticides to save the woods and in truth to protect my groundwater I would not consider doing that. It is just difficult to know that almost all ash trees will continue to decline and die.

While the ash trees in my woods are lost. There is hope for the future. Beginning in 2015 the Prince William Public Works Department became cooperators with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Plant Protection and Quarantine EAB Biocontrol Program. Biological control (biocontrol) is the reduction of pest populations through the use of natural enemies such as parasites (stingless wasps), predators, pathogens, antagonists (to control plant diseases), or competitors. USDA research in the Emerals Ash Borer native China identified three potential biological control agents that are stingless wasps—Spathius agrili, Tetrastichus planipennisi, and Oobius agrili.
from Prince William County


Following testing, USDA prepared an environmental assessment that outlined the risks and benefits of releasing the stingless wasps. The wasps specifically hunted Emerald Ash Borer to an acceptable degree and were not expected to attack other insect species except for incidental attacks on other wood-boring species. USDA then prepared a “finding of no significant impact,” and with approval from the State of Michigan, USDA released the wasps in July 2007. Since that time, one or more species of the wasps have been released in 19 States: Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. The three species of wasps were introduced at two sites in Prince William County in 2015 as the first step in a multi-year process. The release sites were Silver Lake in Haymarket and Davis Tract in Manassas. A total of 34,574 wasps were released in Prince William County (about 3% of the national total). Silver Lake is about 3 miles as the bug flies from my woods. Too far until the population of parasite wasps grows and spreads. In truth, the stingless wasps will not eradicate the Emerald Ash Borer. However, they will be used in an integrated pest management plan to help control the pest.

Monday, July 3, 2017

The Waters of the United States

On June 27th 2017 the EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt, along with Mr. Douglas Lamont, senior official performing the duties of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, signed the following proposed rule intended to review and revise the definition of “waters of the United States” consistent with the Executive Order signed on February 28, 2017, “Restoring the Rule of Law, Federalism, and Economic Growth by Reviewing the ‘Waters of the United States’ Rule.”
The definition of “waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act promulgated by the U.S. EPA in 2015, intended to expand protection and regulation under the 1972 Clean Water Act to include streams and wetlands and any body of water that the EPA previously needed to determine to be a “significant Nexus” to the “navigable waters of the United States” on a case by case basis. According to that version of the waters of the United States definition included navigable waterways and their tributaries. The rule greatly expanded the waters included in regulation to include:    Streams, regardless of their size of frequency of flow.  Wetlands and open waters in riparian areas and the 100 year floodplains

The 2015 version of the Water of the United States rule unleashed a torrent of Federal litigation. Thirty-one states, many local governments, and private industry filed suite asserting that the rule unconstitutionally expanded the Clean Water Act’s reach and misapplied several Supreme Court decisions and long standing practice. Various Courts of Appeal challenges had been consolidated before the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati, which granted a nationwide wide stay in November 2015.
With that stay in place the definition of "waters of the United States" currently in effect is the definition promulgated in 1986/1988, implemented consistent with subsequent Supreme Court decisions and guidance documents. Under the new rule promulgated last week that definition will stay in place.

40 CFR 230.3(s) The term waters of the United States means:
  1. All waters which are currently used, or were used in the past, or may be susceptible to use in interstate or foreign commerce, including all waters which are subject to the ebb and flow of the tide;
  2. All interstate waters including interstate wetlands;
  3. All other waters such as intrastate lakes, rivers, streams (including intermittent streams), mudflats, sandflats, wetlands, sloughs, prairie potholes, wet meadows, playa lakes, or natural ponds, the use, degradation or destruction of which could affect interstate or foreign commerce including any such waters:
    1. Which are or could be used by interstate or foreign travelers for recreational or other purposes; or
    2. (From which fish or shellfish are or could be taken and sold in interstate or foreign commerce; or
    3. Which are used or could be used for industrial purposes by industries in interstate commerce;
  4. All impoundments of waters otherwise defined as waters of the United States under this definition;
  5. Tributaries of waters identified in paragraphs (s)(1) through (4) of this section;
  6. The territorial sea;
  7. Wetlands adjacent to waters (other than waters that are themselves wetlands) identified in paragraphs (s)(1) through (6) of this section; waste treatment systems, including treatment ponds or lagoons designed to meet the requirements of CWA (other than cooling ponds as defined in 40 CFR 423.11(m) which also meet the criteria of this definition) are not waters of the United States.
The EPA is now proposing to re-codify the regulations that existed before the 2015 Clean Water Rule stating that it will provide continuity and certainty for regulated entities, the States, agency staff, and the public. The agency will also pursue notice-and-comment rulemaking in which the agencies will conduct a substantive re-evaluation of the definition of “waters of the United States.”

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Privatize the Washington Aqueduct

As reported earlier this month by the Washington Post buried in in the more than 1,200 pages of the President’s budget proposal are a few lines stating that the Administration wants to privatize the Washington Aqueduct, selling the assets for $119 million. The current Administration has stated they have plans to privatize public assets, such as the aqueduct, roads and bridges, intending to use the proceeds from the sales of the assets to fund new infrastructure projects.

Already some officials in the District instead want the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the aqueduct, to turn the facility over to D.C. Water, a public utility, but D.C. Water wants to pay the federal government far less than the $119 million the administration wants from the sale. In addition, Washington DC has not demonstrated an ability to properly run a utility. The Washington D.C. government answers to current political forces not the long term good of the region. It is essential that whoever ends up the owner of the Washington Aqueduct is rigorous in maintaining water quality and the ability to quickly respond to the variable water quality of the Potomac River and is prepared and capable of proactively addressing spills into the Potomac River and emerging contaminants in the water. Flint, Michigan demonstrated that operating a water treatment plant on a river is far more complicated and less forgiving than operating a water distribution system.

By 1996 when the Washington DC government initiated the creation of what would be rechristened DC Water in 2010, some portions of the water delivery system were already 100 years old. The water and rates in place in the Washington DC set by politicians covered the costs to deliver the water and treat and replace 0.33% of the system each year. This was an unrealistic and irresponsible repair and replacement rate. The city was sacrificing the future for the benefit of the current water rate payers. In the spring of 2012 DC Water announced that they have tripled the replacement rate to 1% (with of course the increase in water rates) so that in 100 years the system will be replaced.

In truth, according to an interview the General Manager, George Hawkins, gave on National Public Radio a few years ago, DC Water has gotten so far behind in water pipe repair and replacement that they cannot to catch up at that replacement rate- it will take more than decades and an increased repair and replacement rate to catch up. It is likely, given the age of the water system in Washington DC the increase in replacement rate was probably necessary to address just what was failing each year. One hundred years is longer than the predicated life of a water distribution system, piping systems are rated at 80 years and the average water main in Washington DC was 78 years old at the time. The water pipes in DC are old. They leak. DC Water is trying to use a predictive modeling to determine which pipes need to replace first to keep the good quality water they are buying from the Washington Aqueduct flowing to the homes and businesses in the District. Now they want the government to give them the Aqueduct. It is essential that the drinking water quality be maintained.

The Washington Aqueduct dates back to 1853 when congress appropriated $5,000 to develop the first portion of the system that consisted of the Dalecarlia Reservoir and Georgetown distribution reservoir. That portion of the system was designed to run on gravity, so that the system did not require pumps until much later when the system and the city expanded and demand for water required the expansion of the system. Even today the energy used by the system is reduced because they used the natural elevations in the design of the system. The Aqueduct first began delivering water in 1862. The Lydecker Tunnel and McMillian Reservoir and water treatment plant were added in 1905. The McMillian slow sand water treatment plant was the first treatment plant in the system and was built to address the increasing outbreaks of typhoid fever that were caused by contaminated drinking water. This was followed by a rapid sand filtration system at Dalecarlia to address the continued population growth after World War I.

Today, the Aqueduct draws water from the Potomac River at the Great Falls and Little Falls intakes and treats the water at two treatment plants, Dalecarlia and McMillan. The Aqueduct filters and disinfects water from the Potomac River to meet current safe drinking water standards. The treatment process includes sedimentation, filtration, fluoridation, pH adjustment, primary disinfection using free chlorine, secondary disinfection with chloramine through the addition of ammonia, and corrosion control with orthophosphate. Water quality is tested continually at various points in the process. The EPA sets national limits on residual disinfectant levels in drinking water to reduce the risk of exposure to disinfection byproducts formed when public water systems add chemical disinfectant for either primary or residual treatment. The EPA also sets EPA sets limits on the contaminants regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act to ensure that the water is safe for human consumption. Ensuring that the limits are not exceeded is the job of the owner and operator of the Aqueduct.

The Washington Aqueduct is a federally owned and operated by the Army Corp of Engineers, though the General Manager, Mr. Jacobus, and all employees of the Washington Aqueduct are civilian employees of the Army Corp of Engineers. The Aqueduct was initially built with federal funds, but since 1927 the operating budget and capital budget have been paid for by the Aqueduct’s customers. Today, the operating budget is around $46 million that is supplied by the wholesale water rates charged for the water delivered. The Aqueduct produces an average of 155 million gallons of water per day and sells that water to the District of Columbia (about 75% of the finished water), Arlington County, Virginia (about 15%), and the City of Falls Church, Virginia (10%). In total about one million people a day use water supplied by the Aqueduct.

Monday, June 26, 2017

The Rules for Backyard Chickens in Prince William County

By vote of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors back in 2011 a zoning change was made to allow backyard chickens in some parts of Prince William County. The Supervisors voted to create a Domestic Fowl Overlay District in the county where residents can keep a limited number of chickens and other domestic fowl.

In areas of the overlay district (pink area) that are zoned A-1 and consisting of more than one acre, chickens and domestic fowl are permitted “by right” subject only to any restrictions that may exist in the HOA Covenants and Restrictions. In areas of the Domestic Fowl Overlay District that are zoned SR-1, SR-3 or SR-5  that have more than one acre and not restricted by HOA Covenants and Restrictions, chickens and domestic fowl are permitted after a Special Use Permit is obtained from the County.

To obtain the Special Use Permit for those in areas zoned SR-1, SR-3, SR-5 within the Domestic Fowl Overlay District, you first fill out an application. Then the Special Use Permit applications are submitted to the Planning Office for staff review. The planning staff will then prepare an analysis and recommendation for consideration by the Planning Commission at a public hearing. The Planning Commission will then submit its recommendation to the Board of County Supervisors, and at a subsequent public hearing the Board will consider the case and the Planning Commission recommendation and either approve or deny the application. The Board action is final.

The maximum number of chicken or domestic fowl permitted is proportional to the size of the lot. One "bird unit" per acre is allowed for properties of 1 to less than 5 acres, three bird units per acre for properties of 5 to less than 10 acres. There is no limit on the number of bird units allowed on properties greater than 10 acres other than restrictions by HOA Covenants and Restrictions. A bird unit is:
10 chickens (though only one rooster per acre) or
6 ducks or
4 turkeys, geese or pea fowl or
1 ostrich or emu
20 pigeons, doves, or quail

Note: Only domestic fowl six weeks and older are allowed under the regulation. Also, only one rooster or guinea fowl are allowed per acre. Roosters and guinea fowl must be confined between sunset and sunrise within a caged area on any lot less than ten acres, and the caged area must be more than 150 feet from neighbor’s homes.

The domestic fowl regulations require coops or cages and runs on any lot with less than five acres and specifies construction standards and humane areas for each bird, distance from Resource Protected Areas (RPA) under the Chesapeake Bay Act, distance from well heads. The required coops, cages or runs must be enclosed with a minimum four feet high chicken wire fence and must be kept clean and free from excess feed, excrement, and such substances that may attract rodents or other predators.

Runs and cages for chickens must have a maximum density of four square feet per bird. For larger fowl, such as geese or turkey, the maximum run or cage density per bird is 15 square feet. For emus, ostriches and similar large birds, the maximum run or cage density is 100 square feet per bird.

Coops and runs must be located only in the rear or side yard and shall adhere to the same setbacks as non-commercial kennels. Such structures shall also be set back at least five feet from the principal dwelling on the property and at least 100 feet from an RPA stream (Resource Protected Area under the Chesapeake Bay Act) and 50 feet from all other streams. A zoning permit must be obtained for these structures.

Cages, coops and runs on properties not served by public water must be separated from the well head on the property. If the well is a class 3A or B with grouting then the minimum separation distance is 50 feet. If the well is a class 3C or class 4 well, then the minimum separation distance is 100 feet. If the chicken coop is enclosed, has a concrete floor and the chicken manure is removed and placed for trash pickup, or other best management practices are applied, then the separation distance for a class 3C or 4 well can be reduced to 50 feet. Waste management guidelines for surface and groundwater protection were established using Prince William Soil and Water Conservation district guidance. You can get the specifics from the District.

Prince William also regulates how the chicken and domestic fowl can be used. Fowl raised on properties less than five acres in size may only be used for producing eggs. No "dispatch" of fowl may take place on the premises. Chickens and domestic fowl raised on properties five acres or larger but less than ten acres may be dispatched for domestic use only. Fowl raised on parcels of ten acres or larger shall be under the same provisions for dispatch as any other livestock. Got it?

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Five Indicted for Involuntary Manslaughter in Flint Water Crisis

Last week the Michigan State Attorney General, Bill Schuette, announced charges for six state and local officials in connection to the Flint water crisis. Five people have been charged with involuntary manslaughter in the case relating to deaths from Legionella, a type of bacteria commonly found in the environment that grows best in warm water, such as hot tubs, cooling towers, hot water tanks, potable water systems, and decorative fountains. When people are exposed to the bacteria, it can cause Legionellosis, a respiratory disease that can infect the lungs and cause pneumonia. Legionella cannot spread from one person to another person. 

The charges are the latest in the Attorney General's investigation that has lasted more than a year and seen 15 people facing 51 charges for various offenses relating to the Flint Michigan water crisis. Charged with involuntary manslaughter last week were:
  • Nick Lyon, the Director of Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Mr. Lyon is charged with involuntary manslaughter and misconduct in office.
  • Darnell Earley, the Flint emergency manager from September 2013-January 2015. Mr. Earley is charged with false pretenses and conspiracy, misconduct in office and willful neglect of duty.
  • Howard Croft, former City of Flint public works superintendent is charged with involuntary manslaughter, conspiracy and false pretenses.
  • Liane Shekter-Smith, the fired head of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s Drinking Water Division is charged with involuntary manslaughter and previously with misconduct in office, and willful neglect of duty. 
  • Stephen Busch, the Lansing district coordinator for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance was charged with involuntary manslaughter. Previously, he had been charged with misconduct in office, conspiracy to tamper with evidence, tampering with evidence, two counts of violation of the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act. 
Others charged:
  • Dr. Eden Wells, the state’s chief medical officer. Dr. Wells is charged with obstruction of justice and lying to a police officer. 
  • Gerald Ambrose, the Flint emergency manger from January to April 2015. He is charged with false pretenses, conspiracy, misconduct in office and will neglect of duty.
  • Daugherty Johnson the former Flints utilities administrator is charged with conspiracy and false pretenses.
  • Adam Rosenthal a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality analyst is charged with misconduct in office, conspiracy to tamper with evidence, tampering with evidence, and willful neglect of duty. 
  • Patrick Cook a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality specialist is charged with misconduct in office, conspiracy and willful neglect of duty. 
  • Nancy Peeler, the director of the DHHS program for maternal, infant and early childhood home visiting is charged with misconduct in office, conspiracy and willful neglect of duty. 
  • Mike Prysby a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality drinking water offical is charged with misconduct in office, conspiracy to tamper with evidence, tampering with evidence, two violations of the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act.
  • Robert Scott, the data manager for the DHHS Healthy Homes and Lead Poisoning Prevention Program is charged with misconduct in office, conspiracy and willful neglect of duty.
  • Corinne Miller, the former state epidemiologist was charged with misconduct in office, conspiracy and neglect of duty. She pleaded no contest to misdemeanor and agreed to cooperate with the investigation last fall on the understanding that the felony charges would be dropped. 
  • Mike Glasgow, the City of Flint’s laboratory and water quality supervisor whas charged with two counts of tampering with evidence and willful neglect of office. He pleaded no contest to misdemeanor and agreed to cooperate with the investigation last fall on the understanding that the felony charges would be dropped. 
This all began in 2013 when the Flint city council decided to join the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) as the City’s permanent water source in a cost saving measure as wholesale water rates from the old Detroit system kept rising. KWA would supply water to the members by building a new pipeline from Lake Huron. While waiting for KWA pipeline to be completed, the City of Flint planned to use the Flint River as a temporary alternative water source.

The use of the Flint River was approved by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality in 2014. Here is where the problems began. Though the Flint Water Treatment staff, LAN engineering consultants and the DEQ understood that the Flint River would be subject to variations due to temperature changes, rain events and would have higher organic carbon levels than Lake Huron water and would be more difficulty to treat, they thought that Flint had the equipment (after a Water Treatment Plant upgrade) and the capacity to meet the demands of treating river water, after all, the Flint River had been the emergency backup water supply for the city. They were wrong.

Flint struggled to meet the Safe Drinking Water Act levels at the water treatment plant. The first problems were with of increased levels of trihalomethanes (disinfection by-products formed when chlorine reacts with organic matter in drinking water) next were increased levels of total coliform and fecal coliform bacteria levels. Just when they were convinced that the finished water from the plant was within Safe Drinking Water Act requirements, there began to appear problems at the tap. Lead levels became highly elevated.

Over the summers of 2014 and 2015 the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services reported 87 cases of Legionnaires’ disease with 10 associated fatalities in Genesee County. Of the confirmed cases in 2014, the source of water at the primary residence was City of Flint water for 47% of cases. Health Department officials haven't definitely linked the water switch to the disease, but Mr. Schuette has come close to doing so in public statements and documents related to the criminal charges filed last week. Still, prosecutors likely have to prove a direct link of the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak to improperly treated Flint water and the negligence of state officials. Though the message is clear that regulators and state employees have duty to perform their jobs to protect the public health.