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.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Hard Water

In many parts of the country (including mine) the water contains high levels of dissolved minerals and is commonly referred to as hard. Groundwater very slowly wears away at the rocks and minerals picking up small amounts of calcium and magnesium ions. In the water clinics we run here in Prince William county, we have found almost 38% of homes tested in the 2012-2015 water clinics had water softeners, many of these systems unnecessary. Water softening systems have been oversold. Before considering treating your water test it to get a full picture of the nature of your water supply. While these hard water minerals are harmless to human health, but they do cause household problems. However, no treatment is without consequences and an inappropriate treatment could create other problems.

Water hardness are either reported in milligrams per liter(mg/L) or grains per gallon (gpg). Water containing approximately 125 milligrams of calcium, magnesium and iron per liter of water or 7 grains per gallon can begin to have a noticeable impact and is considered hard. Concentration of magnesium and calcium above 180 milligrams per liter or 10.5 grains per gallon is considered very hard. As the mineral level climbs impacts become noticeable. These minerals combine with soap in the laundry and bath soap to form a pasty scum that accumulates on bathtubs and sinks, and doesn’t rinse well from fabric, leaving clothes dull. Hard water spots appear on everything that is washed in and around the home from dishes and silverware to the floor tiles and car (though commercial car washes use recycled water and are more environmentally friendly). When heated, calcium carbonate and magnesium carbonate are removed from the water and form a scale (lime scale) in cookware, hot water pipes, and water heaters. As the scale builds up more energy is required to heat the water and hot water heater and appliances have work harder which will burn them out eventually. Thus, in hard water locations hot water heaters and other appliances have a shorter life. 
from VAMWON


There are a number of simple things you can do to reduce the effects of hard water in your home, without having to resort to treating your water, so called softening. My water has elevated levels of calcium and magnesium 170 milligrams per liter yet I do not have a whole house water softener. The simple things to do to address hard water are:
  • Choose a detergent based laundry product. Some laundry detergents/soaps do not produce as many suds in hard water, these are likely to be soap-based products and do not work as well in hard-water as detergent based products. These days, there are laundering powders and liquids available for a wide range of water hardness. Occasionally running your washing machine with vinegar and hot water will clear out the buildup of lime scale.
  • Reduce the temperature of your hot water heater. When water temperature increases, more mineral deposits will appear in your dishwasher, hot water tank and pipes. By reducing the temperature, you will save money and will reduce the amount of mineral build-up in your pipes and tank. Use rinse agents to remove mineral deposits. There are low pH (acidic) products available to remove mineral deposits from pots and pans and dishwasher. 
  • Alternatively, you can use plain white vinegar by using the dishwasher dispenser or placing a cup of vinegar on the dishwasher rack. Boil some white vinegar in your kettle to remove hard water deposits. Drain and rinse your hot water heater annually.

In days past, at the first sign of hard water, domestic water supplies were commonly softened by using a salt based conventional water softening system. Water softening is basically an ion exchange system. The water softening system consists of a mineral tank and a brine tank. The water supply pipe is connected to the mineral tank so that water coming into the house must pass through the tank before it can be used. The mineral tank holds small beads of resin that have a negative electrical charge. The calcium and magnesium ions are positively charged and are attracted to the negatively charged beads. This attraction makes the minerals stick to the beads as the hard water passes through the mineral tank. Sodium is often used to charge the resin beads. As the water is softened, the sodium ions are replaced and small quantities of sodium are released into the softened water, thus the taste.

Eventually the surfaces of the beads in the mineral tank become coated with the calcium and magnesium. To clean the beads, a strong salt solution held in the brine tank is flushed through the mineral tank. Sodium is typically used and is cheap, but potassium can also be used. The salt ions also have a positive electrical charge, just not quite as strong as that of calcium and magnesium, but the high concentration of salt ions overpowers the calcium and magnesium ions and drives them off of the beads and into the solution. The excess sodium solution carrying the calcium and magnesium is flushed to the septic system and into the environment. Some sodium ions remain in the tank attached to the surfaces of the beads and the resin is now regenerated and ready to continue softening the water.

The amount of sodium in water conditioning systems is a real problem for humans and the environment. All of the salt is released into the septic system and ultimately the leach field and groundwater, and these conventional salt-based water softening systems contribute to three problems:
  1. The brine backwash can cause salt buildup in groundwater and other aquatic environments. Water softeners release sodium chloride and other chloride salts into the environment. This can adversely affect groundwater aquifers, streams and rivers. This can add to problems in areas that are already suffering from high concentrations of salts due to road salt application.
  2. Brine backwash in the conventional septic tank had interfered with the digestion of the cellulose fibers and reduced scum layer development, carryover of solids and grease to the distribution system.
  3. The brine back wash system uses water to flush itself out regularly. The EPA estimates in that a conventional softener can use up to 10,000 gallons per year for the backwash cycle. This could be a significant increase in water use for well owners. 
In addition softened water should not be used to water house plants, the salt build up will eventually kill them and they will not thrive. Softened water should also not be used in steam irons or evaporators like evaporative coolers. In addition, while some studies have shown that sodium does not interfere with bacterial action in ATU tanks in alternative septic systems, David Pask, Senior Engineering Scientist of the National Small Flows Clearinghouse has seen septic distribution pipes plugged with a “noxious fibrous mass” that was grease and cellulose from toilet paper that only occurred in homes with water softening systems. He felt the brine in the conventional septic tank had interfered with the digestion of the cellulose fibers and might be carried over into the septic systems drain field. Field practitioners reported to the Small Flows Clearinghouse negative impact from water softening regeneration brine.

Terry Bounds, an engineer, in an article published in the summer 1994 issue of Small Flows (the precursor of the Small Flows Quarterly magazine) states that in his work he has seen noticeable differences between septic tanks with and without water softener brine discharges. Mr. Bounds said that in the tanks with added water softener discharge, he saw reduced scum layer development, carryover of solids and grease to the distribution system, and a less distinguishable "clear zone" that might mean solids remain suspended instead of settling in the tank.

Personally, I do not care to add all that sodium to my diet while removing calcium carbonate and magnesium (something that is also sold in pill form for stronger bones). If you are on public water, you should not need to soften your water. If you must soften your water there may be other options- which I will discuss in a future post.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Contaminants found in Deep Groundwater

All the water that ever was or will be on earth is here right now. More than 97% of the Earth’s water is within the in oceans. The remaining 2.8% is the fresh water on the planet most of which is contained in the icecaps and glaciers with the remaining fresh water is stored primarily as groundwater with a tiny fraction stored as rivers and lakes. Groundwater forms the invisible, subsurface part of the natural water cycle, in which rivers and streams are the visible components. The “visible” components are all strongly affected by weather and climate, and although they can be contaminated quickly, they generally recover quickly too. By contrast, the subsurface processes of groundwater percolation and seepage are much slower ranging from weeks to years to millennia.

There is groundwater everywhere on earth, but our ability to pump it and use it varies from place to place, depending on rainfall and geology- the rock and sand layers within whose pore spaces the groundwater sits. Generally, groundwater is renewed only during a part of each year through precipitation, but can be withdrawn year-round serving as a natural reservoir. Provided that the withdrawal rate does not exceed the rate at which groundwater is replenished, and that the source is protected from pollution, groundwater can be abstracted indefinitely.

The groundwater cycle in humid and arid regions differ fundamentally from each other. In humid climates like ours, with high rainfall, large volumes of water seep into the groundwater, which contributes actively to the water cycle feeding streams, springs and wetlands during periods when the rainfall is lower. In semi-arid and arid climates, there is by contrast practically extremely limited exchange between the surface water and groundwater because the small volume of seepage from the occasional rainfall only rarely penetrates the thick and dry (unsaturated) soils. The groundwater is much deeper and isolated from surface contact. In these areas groundwater resources are only minimally recharged. Our understanding of the complete water cycle is still only rudimentary.

We do know that groundwater availability varies by location. Precipitation and soil type determines how much the shallower groundwater is recharged annually, and the volume of water that can be stored is controlled by the reservoir characteristics of the subsurface rocks. Groundwater may be present today even in places with very dry climates because of the nature of the local geology and the historic climate cycles that have occurred through time. Giant groundwater deposits of limited recharge are thought to exist on nearly all continents, but the amount of groundwater that can be pumped out is unknown. Scientists are just beginning to study deeper sources of groundwater.

Groundwater is usually cleaner than surface water. Groundwater is typically protected against contamination from the surface by the soils and rock layers covering the aquifer, and until now, the scientific community has believed that this fossil groundwater was safe from modern contamination, but a recent study has challenged this belief. University of Calgary hydro-geologist Dr. Scott Jasechko led a team that discovered ancient groundwater is not immune to modern-day pollution. This study was recently published in Nature Geoscience.

Dr. Jasechko and his co-researchers measured the amount of radioactive carbon in the water to determine the age of the groundwater from more than 6,000 groundwater wells around the globe. Based on their findings they estimated that the majority of the earth's groundwater is likely fossil groundwater, derived from rain and snow that fell more than 12,000 years ago. Dr. Jasechko and his team estimated that this fossil groundwater accounts for between 42%- 85% of available fresh water within a kilometer of the earth's crust. However, they discovered that half of the groundwater wells in the study also contained detectable levels of tritium, a radioactive isotope that was spread around the globe as a result of thermonuclear bomb testing.

Rain and snow that fell on earth after the 1950s contains tritium. Disturbingly, traces of tritium were found in deep well waters, which indicate that contaminated rain and snow melt of today may be able to mix in with deep fossil groundwater and, in turn, potentially contaminate that ancient water until now scientists believed to be pure. This suggests that contemporary contaminants- chemicals of our modern world may be able to reach deep wells that tap fossil aquifers. "The unfortunate finding is that even though deep wells pump mostly fossil groundwater, many still contain some recent rain and snow melt, which is vulnerable to modern contamination," says Jasechko. "Our results imply that water quality in deep wells can be impacted by the land management decisions we make today."

Groundwater is the only available clean drinking water in many parts of the world, and now we find out it may not be as clean as we assumed. Once contaminated, groundwater is very difficult to clean and often after removal of contaminated plumes only long term abandonment of use to allow for natural attenuation is the only possible course of action. Precious groundwater resources increasingly need to be protected and well managed to allow for sustainable long-term use.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Check List for Chlorine Shocking a Well

You disinfect a well and plumbing system by circulating a concentrated chlorine solution throughout the system. The level of chlorine to use is between 50 ppm and 200 ppm (parts per million) depending on which University extension office is asked. I typically use about 200 ppm as recommended by The Virginia Cooperative Extension where I volunteer unless I am addressing a significant iron bacteria problem in which case a much higher concentration of chlorine is necessary. Be aware that too concentrated a solution or too weak a solution will not be effective. Do it once the right way.

Why disinfect a well, there are several reasons, the most common reason is because coliform bacteria was found in the well water. In that case, standard protocol is:
  1. Carefully check the well and water system for points of contamination. Make sure you have a sound and secured sanitary well cap and that the soil around the well is packed to drain water away from the well. 
  2. Then treat the well and plumbing system with chlorine for 12-24 hours to disinfect system (thet 12-24 hours is essential). Then flush the chlorine from the system.
  3. Retest the water after the chlorine has left the system in about 10 days to two weeks. If coliform bacteria is “absent” you’re done. If not, then it is time to install a long term disinfection system.
Chlorine shocking a well is also used to knock back iron bacteria which can foul a well, damage pumps, stain plumbing fixtures, clog pipes, faucets, showerheads, and produce unpleasant tastes and odors in drinking water. There are no drinking water standards for iron bacteria so water is very rarely tested for it. Confirmation is usually based on visual symptoms in the water, including the slimy brown/red appearance (often most noticeable in the toilet tank) and an unpleasant musty odor. Over time as iron bacteria takes over the system the perceived quality of the well water declines as iron bacteria produce unpleasant tastes and odors commonly reported as: "swampy," "oily or petroleum," "cucumber," "sewage," "rotten vegetation," or "musty." There is often a discoloration of the water with the iron bacteria causing a slight yellow, orange, red or brown tint to the water. The standard protocol for treating iron bacteria is to chlorine shock the well at a recommended chlorine concentration of 500-1,000 parts per million unless the well is already fouled then the pumping equipment in the well must be removed and cleaned, which is usually a job for a well contractor or pump installer.

I have had iron bacteria problems and coliform bacteria in the past. I chlorine shock my well every couple of years simply to maintain water quality and knock back the iron bacteria. This practice was until recently fairly radical in the private well sector, but is common in small public supply wells.

This past weekend I helped someone who attended our Prince William County Drinking Water Clinic chlorine shock his well. He is someone who sought help from VAMWON where I volunteer and then came to the water clinic. He is a professional, bright and capable, but not an engineer and wanted help with the project. I know there is nowhere to turn to get your well done right, so when he pressed I agreed to show up and provide guidance on how to do it. Given my arthritic hands I am fairly useless with a wrench, but I can walk you through it and lend a hand and it is really an easier job with to people. Here is how you do it:

First you need to know how deep your well is to calculate how much chlorine to use. Also, the flow rate on the well will give you an idea on how long it will take to clear the well of chlorine. Get a copy of the Well Completion Report from the county. They will make a copy for you, but if you ask nicely they will just email it to you saving you a trip to the department of health.

Depth of well tells you how much water is stored in the well boring. The typical 6 inch diameter well stores 1.47 gallons per foot, so you multiply your well depth by 1.47 and then add about 110 gallons for the hot water heater and household plumbing . You will need about 3 pints of chlorine per 100 gallons. If you have a very large hot water heater and lots of treatment equipment you will need to add another half a gallon of chlorine. Buy extra- you might need it.


A few days before disinfecting your well you need to purchase all your supplies. You will need:
  • a plastic tarp, 
  • 3 -5 gallons of plain unscented Clorox bleach (you need 3 pints for every 100 gallons of water with standard bleach), 
  • an 8” diameter funnel, 
  • rubber gloves
  • a relatively new scrub brush 
  • a white 3 gallon bucket (I can’t easily lift a 5 gallon filled with water and chlorine), 
  • lots of chlorine test strips 
  • a clean and relatively new hose or hoses at least long enough to reach the well from the spigot
  • a pair of safety glasses or goggles
In addition, you will want to purchase 6 gallons (or more) of bottled water (to carry you while we have no water to use and make sure that our coffee and tea do not have any chlorine residue to spoil the taste), new refrigerator filters, and coliform home test kits for use in a couple of weeks.

When you are ready to disinfect your well, you need to have about 24-30 hours when you will not be able to use the water. Shock chlorinating a water supply system can potentially damage  pressure tanks, water softeners, filters and filter media, and other treatment devices, but the only way to kill the bacteria is to run the chlorinated water into the components and let it sit in the system. Virginia Cooperative Extension always recommends that you check with component manufacturers before shock chlorinating your water supply system to determine how to bypass or protect this equipment if necessary. With my components I consider this wear and tear. 


I began by filling my bucket with some water and chlorine then go into the basement and turn off the power to the well. Then turn off the power or gas to the hot water heater and drain it, and close the water intake valve. Once the well is fully chlorinated you will refill the hot water heater, but keep it cold (and turned off) during the hold time.

Now it is time to unbolt and remove the well cap. Examine the well cap to make sure it is in good condition and the screen on the base is sound. Next take your brush and clean off the well cap using the chlorinated water from your bucket. Once the well cap is good and clean place it on the plastic tarp or wrap it in a clean plastic bag. Next scrub the edger of the well casing to remove any dirt and take a rag dipped in chlorine water and wipe down the wires in the well examining them for any damage. Get the wiring nice and clean and push them aside.

  • Put on old clothes and safety glasses
  • Run your nice new hoses from the house to the well and place on the tarp
  • Fill bucket with half water and half chlorine. 
  • Turn off power to the well
  • Drain the hot water tank
  • Remove well cap
  • Clean well cap with chlorine and water solution and place in clean plastic bag
  • Clean well casing top and well cap base using brush dipped in chlorine water
  • Pull wires in the well aside if they are blocking the top of the well and clean them with a rag dipped in chlorine water mixture. Make sure there are no nicks or cuts in the wires. 
  • Put the funnel in the well top and pour in the chlorine and water mixture
  • Now pour in the rest of the chlorine SLOWLY to minimize splashing
  • Go back to the basement and turn the power to the well back on
  • Turn on the hose and put it in the well 
  • Sit down and wait for about 45 minutes or an hour

What you are doing is recirculating the water. It is running from the well to the pressure tank to the hose and back again. This effectively is mixing the chlorine into the well water. The deeper your well the longer this takes. Also, if you have any treatment tanks installed ahead of the pressure tank they are also being included in this cycle. After about 45 minutes the water should look orange and test strongly for chlorine. 

  • Use the hose to wash down the inside of the well casing
  • Turn off the hose
  • Carefully bolt the well cap back in place
  • Fill your hot water heater with water
  • Draw water to every faucet in the house until it tests positive for chlorine then flush all your toilets. Turn off your ice maker. 
  • Then it was no water for 12-24 hours 
  • Set up your hoses to run to a gravel area or non-sensitive drainage area. The chlorine will damage plants 

After 16 hours turn on the hoses leave them to run for the next 6-12 hours. The time is dependent on the depth of the well and the recharge rate. Deeper wells with a faster recharge rate takes longer. If you cannot run your well dry-it recharges faster than I can pump you need to keep diluting the chlorine.
  • After about 6 hours of running the hoses begin testing the water coming out of the hose for chlorine. Keep running the hose and testing the chlorine until the chlorine tests below about 1 ppm.
  • Now it is time to drain the hot water heater again, refill it and turn it back on
  • Open each faucet in the house (one at a time) and let run it until the water tested free of chlorine. Be aware the hot water will sputter- big time- until all the air is out of the system. Flush all the toilets
  • Change the refrigerator filter cartridge and dump all your ice and turn your ice maker back on. 
  • You are done. 
There are a few twists and turns that can come up. If you have iron bacteria in your well, your will see gunk in the water when you are re-circulating the water in the well. In that case I typically run off some water for an hour or so to get some of the gunk out. Then add an additional gallon of chlorine to the system and recirculate for another half an hour before I close up the well. Also if you have treatment tanks in your basement, you also want to drain after the chlorine has been flushed out of the system. Do not drain them into your septic system. Good luck.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Using Iron Filters for your Well Water

Iron and manganese are naturally occurring elements commonly found in groundwater in many part of the country were the underlying geology is igneous rocks. At naturally occurring levels iron and manganese do not present a health hazard. However, their presence in well water can cause unpleasant taste, staining and accumulation of mineral solids that can clog water treatment equipment and plumbing and discolored water. The standard Secondary Maximum Contaminant Level (SMCL) for iron is 0.3 milligrams per liter (mg/L or ppm) and 0.05 mg/L for manganese. This level of iron and manganese are easily detected by taste, smell or appearance. In addition, some types of bacteria react with soluble forms of iron and manganese and form persistent bacterial contamination in a well, water system and any treatment systems. These organisms change the iron and manganese from a soluble form into a less soluble form, thus causing precipitation and accumulation of black or reddish brown gelatinous material (slime). Masses of mucous, iron, and/or manganese can clog plumbing and water treatment equipment.

The key to iron and manganese removal is oxidation. An oxygen molecule must be supplied to change the minerals from the soluble bicarbonate to the insoluble hydroxide form so it can be filtered from the water. Four methods are typically used to deliver oxygen: aeration, ion exchange (a water softener), a greensand or iron filter, or chlorination.

If you have an iron problem, a manganese greensand filter often referred to as oxidizing, iron or red water filter might be a good solution for you. Like most home model water filters the typical manganese greensand filter is a pressure filter, a fully enclosed tank type filters that operates at the same pressure as the water delivery system so that you do not need to buy a booster pump. These devices are used for a variety of water treatment processes such as taste and odor improvement, iron and manganese removal and removal of suspended matter (turbidity) in water. The water treatment performed by a pressure filter is determined by the filter media that is inside the tank. Most companies that sell pressure filters use the same tank for all treatments but change the inside filter media depending on the type of treatment needed.

Iron filters contain a resin designed to remove iron and manganese that is in solution. It will also act as a filter and catch iron and manganese precipitates that have been oxidized before reaching the filter. Typically these filters are effective for iron and manganese removal concentrations up to 10 ppm. However, this type of filter will not tolerate iron bacteria, because the slimy material that is produced coats the greensand and fouls it. The greensand filter must be regenerated with a new solution of potassium permanganate when the oxygen is depleted. This process is similar to regenerating a softener. The filter must be backwashed every so often based on the size of the filter. The typical cycle is weekly.

The iron filters have been less successful in actual practice. Before you install any treatment system test your water thoroughly. An iron filter will not function if there is iron bacteria present in the well, because the slimy material that is produced by the iron bacteria coats the greensand and fouls it. Next, the functioning of the filter is pH dependent. Iron filters can remove iron when the pH is about 7.5 or higher, but manganese is very difficult to remove at pH values below 8.5. So to install a greensand or iron filter you first must adjust the pH of the water to the appropriate level. The final problem is iron breakthrough.

For the iron filter to work properly the correct flow rate is the secret to effective iron removal. Adequate flow is required to clear the filter bed of sediment before it becomes too dirty. Most well pumps used for private drinking water wells supply 10 to 15 gallons per minute (gpm) of flow. The size filter that can be used is limited by the backwash water available. That is why many of the home pressure filters are tall thin “bottle-type” units that are only 8 inches in diameter. This size filter can be backwashed with 8 to 10 gpm flow. However, the low surface area only provides treatment for a limited water flow of about 2 gpm on average or about 5 gpm for short peak flows. Use of higher volumes of water would result in iron breakthrough. At first the water will appear clear then often become brown or rusty after a few minutes. The chemical coating on a greensand or iron filter has limited oxidizing capabilities, but they can all be made more effective with the addition of a pre- oxidant step using air, chlorine, or peroxide in a first tank followed by the filtration step.

Before you select a treatment method for an iron and manganese problem you might want to consider all your options. Another approach for iron and manganese removal is chlorination. Chlorination and filtration can remove high concentrations of iron, iron bacteria, and hydrogen sulfide gas. The iron, manganese and hydrogen sulfide gas is oxidized by the chlorine. A sediment filter is used to remove the rust particles followed by an activated carbon filter is used to remove excess chlorine and other impurities. The resulting water has an excellent taste. For this system to work the pH of the water must be above 7. No other method of home water treatment has as many benefits as chlorination- disinfection and oxidizing agent.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Be Prepard

On April 6th we were at the kitchen table having lunch when the sky already gray from the rain turned dark. Then it began to hail, but the hail was not falling it was pounding the house horizontally. The intensity of the hail increased and was a little scary. Just as I stood up to close the drapes, the NOAA Weather Radio alarmed. (You might want to have one, too.) There was a tornado 5 miles northeast of Haymarket. We are 5.5 miles northeast of Haymarket! My husband said two words, “basement now.” We grabbed the cat and our coffee cups and went down stairs. You need to have a plan in place for storms or other emergencies- there is no time to consider you need to be prepared to act. We settled in my husband’s man cave (actually the basement is an over crowed and cluttered library, office and home theatre) and turned on the TV to the weather channel just as the power went out. In less than 20 seconds the TV was back on.

Ten years ago when we first bought this house, I had a Guardian 16 kilowatt automatic generator manufactured by Generac installed as part of our emergency planning. When the power to the house is cut, the generator automatically kicks in to power most of the house in under 20 seconds. (Generac advertises that the new generators come on-line in 10 seconds. I have not timed the generator since having the gas line replaced last year, but I think it is longer than 10 seconds.) The generator runs on liquid propane from a tank buried in my yard that also powers my hot water heater, backup furnace, fireplace, gas grill and stove. The generator can supply the house for 23 or more days depending on whether the gas furnace is running, and is housed in a lovely insulated aluminum casing under my deck (muffling the sound) and looking almost good as new even after ten years of sitting outside. (Note that if the generator runs more than a few days it will need oil.)

The generator works great. Without electricity I would have no water, no septic and my freezer containing a quarter of a cow (grass fed sustainably raised down the pike) is in danger of spoiling, my carefully laid down wine is in danger of being damaged and my life generally disrupted with the loss of the all the modern conveniences. Instead my generator powers the well, septic, elevator, refrigerators and freezer, the cable and high speed internet and most, but not all, of the house. Over the years we’ve adjusted the load a few times, but we are never without power. The generator is serviced annually and my propane tank is never allowed to fall under 50% full. The propane tank has a very readable gauge on it. We stayed in the basement until the storm had moved on and the tornado warning for our area had passed.

We emerged from the basement to find 7 of my 15 plum trees pulled out of the ground. A chair from the deck had been lifted by the wind over the railing and flung out into the yard and the rest of the deck furniture was “rearranged” by the storm. The funnel to my rain gauge was gone, but all the solar panels were still on the house and a when I did a quick binocular survey of my roof I did not see any damage. Since then, we have had several significant rainstorms that brought a total of 13.46 inches of rain (as measured by my rain gauge with a new funnel) and no leaks. So, I think our roof made it this time. All that rain has alleviated the drought that had been building in this area over the past year. There is no longer any area of Virginia that is in drought- a silver lining to the recent rains.

You always have to plan for emergencies and the future to be ready for what comes at you. When my husband wanted to retire and suggested we look around for a place to live-my criteria was adequate water, location where a mild temperature increase from a climate warming would not be devastating, and high speed Internet. My husband was born and breed in Virginia and in truth there was little chance of us retiring anywhere else. Fortunately, based on several different predictions, the eastern slope of the Piedmont region of Virginia is a climate change sweet spot, and far enough from the shore and high enough that rising sea level (or sinking land which is also happening around here) would not impact us. It was predicted to get wetter and warmer (like the Carolinas), has a moderate four season climate with lots of available water in the Culpeper Groundwater Basin and average annual rainfall of over 44 inches a year.

When I finished my basement and installed the elevator that made it possible for those who can no longer climb steps to live in this house, I installed a secondary sump pump utilizing the elevator shaft (installed a couple of feet below the basement) as the natural drainage point. The sump pumps are also tied into the generator. Power is most likely to fail just when you need a sump pump, so a backup system is necessary- either a battery or a generator. The sump pumps are tested and run each spring when I drain the hot water heater- last Wednesday though by last week I knew they were working. The house has good natural drainage, but all the rain lately had at least one of the sump pumps was operating this spring. Our land has a good slope of about 40 feet from the northwest corner to the southeast corner with the house itself on a slight rise that serves to keep the basement dry.

Hurricane season officially launched last week. NOAA's 2017 Atlantic Hurricane Season Outlook indicates that for the Atlantic an above-normal or near-normal hurricane season is most likely. The outlook indicates a 45% chance for an above-normal season, a 35% chance for a near-normal season, and a 20% chance for a below-normal season. NOAA is predicting 11-17 named storms, 5-9 hurricanes with 2-4 of those major hurricane storms. Now is the time to plan for storms. Make sure you are ready for the next big storm. Check out this link to the Prince William Emergency Preparedness Guide.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Problems with Well Water-Iron and low pH

As part of my volunteer work as a VAMWON volunteer often get calls and email for help. Also, the blog seems to generate questions, too. I received the following inquiry by email:

We have been dealing with water issues for some time (10 years) and I think I have my hands wrapped around things. It would take a while to go into all the details but, basically we have a low pH, high iron, magnesium, and flow rate of 7 gallons per minute.  Originally, we had a water softener and acid neutralizer that did not seem to solve the problems. I installed a Chem feeder with soda ash and chlorine followed by an iron filer. My issue is that I believe my pipes have continued iron in them? First thing in the morning when I turn on the water, the water is actually very clean and then within a gallon, when the water starts flowing, it gets a bit brownish. Not as bad as before, but discolored. Makes me think that particles start to come off of the pipes. Does that sound right?  

A Chem-feed is a brand of diaphram pump used for feeding a controlled amount of chemicals, in this case chlorine and soda ash into a system. Soda ash is used to treat low pH and chlorine can very effectively treat high levels of iron as well as many other things. (I really love chlorine as a treatment option because of its versatility).

Low levels or iron can be treated with a water softener, but water with a low pH tends to be soft and combining an acid neutralizer with is really just a system to make the water hard and a water softener usually does not give good results. Chlorine treatment should be followed by a filter to remove the precipate and a carbon filter to remove excess chlorine. I had several questions.. Do he have a holding tank to assure an adequate contact time for the chlorine? How big is your pressure tank (it is possible to use the pressure tank in lieu of a holding tank to increase contact time if the treatment is installed ahead of the pressure tank) What concentration of chlorine was he using? What was the natural level of iron? After treatment what is the pH and chlorine level? What is the pipe material of construction?  What is the iron and manganese concentration after treatment?

To solve any water problem properly, you need to fully understand your natural water chemistry and the chemistry after treatment and when you are experiencing breakthrough. In this case the appearance of iron after some flow suggests breakthrough. Very high iron levels without adequate contact time for the chlorine could have this effect. I suspected that he was using his pressure tank instead of a contact tank and the first gallons had had adequate treatment after sitting overnight. However, other things could be going on.  I needed more information and facts to be any help. I sent my questions.

Iron 3.65 ppm
ph 6.7
manganese 0.1
TDS 52 ppm
Iron bacteria noted in sample

Lab testing did note "yellow color removed by 0.45micron filtration."I have a 15 gallon Chem- feeder.  Added soda ash until PH was 8 right before iron filter, and 4 cups of bleach.  Very trace chlorine on test strip right before filter.  Small pressure tank.  No contact tank, no other bacteria noted.
Filter installed after chem feeder "removes iron, rust, sulfur, manganese, dirt, turbidity, tastes, odors and even chlorine", per manufacture.  Backwashes overnight. The pipes are copper and cpvc mix.
 Some of the pipes were removed because of damage and the pipes removed at time of installation were lined with orange residue.  I don't not have a high concentration on test Iron strip from sink taps.  
 Was thinking maybe the residue is washing away, causing the water to be brownish?   The color is faint and mostly notable in a white styrofoam cup.  

The pH of water is a measure of the acidity or alkalinity. The pH is a logarithmic scale from 0 – 14 with 1 being very acidic and 14 very alkaline. Drinking water should be between 6.5 and 7.5. For reference and to put this into perspective, coffee has a pH of around 5 and salt water has a pH of around 98. Corrosive water, sometimes also called aggressive water is typically water with a low pH. (Alkaline water can also be corrosive.) However, his water is naturally within the normal range. It does not really need any treatment.

Low pH water can corrode metal plumbing fixtures causing lead and copper to leach into the water and causing pitting and leaks in the plumbing system. However, there is no reason to think that kind of corrosion was taking place here. The presence of lead or copper in water is most commonly leaching from the plumbing system rather than the groundwater. Acidic water is easily treated using an acid neutralizing filter. Typically these neutralizing filters use a granular marble, calcium carbonate or lime. If the water is very acidic or there are other problems to be addressed a mixing tank using soda ash, sodium carbonate or sodium hydroxide can be used. Acid neutralizing filters will increase the hardness of the water because of the addition of calcium carbonate. The sodium based systems will increase the salt content in the water.

Iron and manganese are naturally occurring elements commonly found in groundwater in this part of the country. At naturally occurring levels iron and manganese do not present a health hazard. However, their presence in well water can cause unpleasant taste, staining and accumulation of mineral solids that can clog water treatment equipment and plumbing and discolored water. The standard Secondary Maximum Contaminant Level (SMCL) for iron is 0.3 milligrams per liter (mg/L or ppm) less than 1/10 of the level in his water. This level of iron is easily detected by taste, smell or appearance. In addition, some types of bacteria react with soluble forms of iron and manganese and form persistent bacterial contamination in a well, water system and any treatment systems. These organisms change the iron and manganese from a soluble form into a less soluble form, thus causing precipitation and accumulation of black or reddish brown gelatinous material (slime). Masses of mucous, iron, and/or manganese can clog plumbing and water treatment equipment accumulate in pipes and hot water heaters.

Multiple problems can be addressed with a single treatment train. You can increase the pH by injecting soda ash, and add chlorine to oxidize the iron in a single operation. However, it appears that iron and iron bacteria are his only problems. A holding tank may be necessary, to allow the chlorine enough time to do its work in iron removal. Adding retention time always improves efficiency, and with some treatments can be essential to do the job. While filters are necessary to remove the “precipitated” contaminant (iron in this case), or to remove an injected chemical and its by-products after it has done its work. Excess chlorine is often removed using a carbon filter. If the water has adequate contact time, an oxidizing filter should not be necessary. It appears that he is using the Chem-feed to unnecessarily raise the pH and the iron filter to remove iron. He should be using the Chem-feed to control iron using chlorine.

The concentration of chlorine he is using (if he is even using it constantly), may not be adequate or the chlorine could be shaking loose the build-up in the pipe as he suggested (it could also be iron bacteria), or the treatment train is not properly set up for the level of iron. It is possible that he is using the iron filter to remove the iron and it just can’t do the job. To properly solve the problem I would first attempt to “blow it” out of the pipes and the well by using a very heavy chlorine shock and overnight hold. Then flush the system. This is effectively what public water systems do every spring to clear out their pipes.

After chlorine treating and flushing the system, next try adjusting the treatment system to more effectively control the iron and forget the pH. The Chem-feed should be constantly feeding chlorine and then followed by filtration to remove precipate and chlorine. If that fails, get a holding tank to increase the contact time with chlorine and adjust the treatment system accordingly. He will need to chlorine shock the well with about 600-800 ppm chlorine solution and then run the solution into the house and let it sit 16-24 hours in the pipes and hot water heater without using water. Do not flush out the well into the house or you will have to pump the septic tank (that much chlorine will cause a die-out in the septic system) and drain the hot water heater. For details on how to do this read my posts on Iron Bacteria and Chlorine Shocking My Well about two years ago. He does not have low pH and does not need to continue treating that problem.

He got back to me with some more questions:
  1. I was cautioned that shocking the well could cause sediment that could harm the pump.  Would you agree?
  2. Hot water heater - I have heard of changing the anode rod?  and poring a cup of bleach into the hot water heater? Then flushing it.  
  3. How do you feel about using IronOut in chem feeder for a one time flush of the pipes.
  4. If after flush with no success, would you recommend a contact tank or just a much larger pressure tank.  (I heard large pressure tank helpful for well pump life).
I still can't figure out why sometimes (last night), water was completely crystal clear, then a few hours later not.  Chem feeder is about 1/4 full at this point.  Thinking of adding 4 cups of bleach, and flushing pipes again.

IronOut is an acid in a solvent base. DO NOT EVER PUT IT IN YOUR DRINKING WATER pipes. It contains Sodium hydrosulfite which has a probable oral lethal dose (human) 0.5-5 g/kg of body weight. Because of rapid oxidation to sulfates, sulfites are well tolerated until large doses are reached; then violent colic and diarrhea, circulatory disturbances, central nervous depression, and death are described. It is best not to have human consumption to be safe.

In the commercial and public water supply sector it has been accepted for decades that the appropriate maintenance treatment for a well is to acid or chlorine treat to eliminate encrustation and buildup. Only in the past five to ten years so has this knowledge migrated to the private well sector. University extension departments now accept that as a water well ages, the rate at which water may be pumped (commonly referred to as the well yield, flow or performance) tends to decrease. Now Penn State Extension states that “often, reduced well yield over time can be related to changes in the water well itself including:
  • Incrustation from mineral deposits
  • Bio-fouling by the growth of microorganisms especially iron bacteria. This is also likely to kill your pump.
  • Physical plugging of "aquifer" (the saturated layer of sand, gravel, or rock through which water is transmitted) by sediment
  • Sand pumping
  • Well screen or casing corrosion
  • Pump damage”
They go on to state that the two most common methods to rehabilitate a water well are: chemicals to dissolve the incrusting materials from the well including acids and chlorine; and physically cleaning the well. Physical methods include using a brush attached to a drilling rig, high pressure jetting, hydro fracturing, and well surging. Chemical treatment usually dissolves the encrustations and extends pump function. I suppose it is possible that pump could catch a pebble or rock shaken loose and be damaged, but so can a pump you leave alone. These days regularly treating a well with chlorine is the recommended strategy to extend the life of a well and equipment. See well maintenance tips from Penn State University Extension, University of Minnesota Extension, University of Arizona etc. Pouring 4 cups of chlorine into a Chem-feed system is entirely inadequate to do the job.

Proper disinfection of the well and plumbing system using 600-800 parts per million chlorine includes the hot water heater. (Don’t forget to turn it off-you do not want hot chlorine water.) Anode rods are typically magnesium and should not have any impact or involvement in a rust problem. Hydrogen sulfide a different story. Leave it be.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Air Pollution Kills?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) air pollution causes one in nine premature deaths in the world, and it is often reported that in the United States air pollution causes 200,000 deaths each year. Though none of us has ever known anyone who has died from air pollution...quantifying the impacts of air pollution is very complicated and uncertain.

In the United States the estimate comes from a 2013 MIT research paper that used 2005 air pollution data. The MIT’s Laboratory for Aviation and the Environment tracked near ground level air pollution from sources such as industrial smokestacks, cars, buses, trains, and commercial and residential heating throughout the United States, and found by comparing areas of higher pollution areas with lower pollution that air pollution causes about 200,000 early deaths each year. Air pollution from cars, trains, buses, and trucks was found to be the biggest contributor, causing 53,000 premature deaths, followed closely by power generation, with 52,000 deaths.

Air pollution in the form of fine particles with diameters smaller than 2.5 microns, called PM 2.5, lodge in the lungs which can aggravate other conditions both immediately and long term –cutting months off of lives. This fine particulate matter can have immediate health impacts: itchy, watery eyes, increased respiratory symptoms such as irritation of the airways, coughing or difficulty breathing and aggravated asthma. Long term health effects can result from both short-term and long-term exposure to particulate pollution. Exposure to particles can cause premature death in people with pre-existing cardiac or respiratory disease. Researchers are still working to identify which types and sources of particles are most hazardous to human health. When the scientists estimated the total impact of particulate air pollution, they determined that all those months taken off the lives of people with pre-existing conditions added up to be about equivalent to about 200,000 deaths each year.

Fine particulate matter is made up of particles that are emitted directly, such as soot and dust, as well as secondary particles that are formed in the atmosphere from reactions of precursor pollutants such as oxides of nitrogen (NOx), sulfur oxides (SOx), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and ammonia (NH3). Particle are either directly emitted or formed in the atmosphere. Directly-emitted particles come from a variety of sources such as cars, trucks, buses, industrial facilities, power plants, construction sites, tilled fields, unpaved roads, stone crushing, and burning of wood. Other particles are formed indirectly when gases produced by fossil fuel combustion react with sunlight and water vapor. Many combustion sources, such as motor vehicles, power plants, and refineries both emit particles directly and emit precursor pollutants that form secondary particulates. Ammonium nitrate and ammonium sulfate are the principal components of secondary particulates.

In the MIT study they found that the largest number of emissions-related premature deaths came from road vehicles, with 53,000 early deaths per year attributed to exhaust from the tailpipes of cars and trucks. The scientists postulated that vehicles tend to travel in populated areas, increasing large populations’ pollution exposure and the exhausts are emitted close to the ground. While power plants are generally located far from most populations and their emissions are deposited at a higher altitude. Pollution from electricity generation still accounted for 52,000 premature deaths annually. The largest impact was seen in the east-central United States and in the Midwest: Eastern power plants tend to use coal with higher sulfur content than Western plants which contributes to fine particulate creation. Though changes in power generation fuel (the low price of methane from fracking) and coal plant regulations has decreased the amount of particulate matter emitted from coal fired power plants.

Unsurprisingly, most premature deaths due to commercial and residential pollution sources, such as heating and cooking emissions, occurred in densely populated regions along the East and West coasts. Pollution from industrial activities was highest in the Midwest, roughly between Chicago and Detroit, as well as around Philadelphia, Atlanta and Los Angeles. Industrial emissions also peaked along the Gulf Coast region, possibly due to the proximity of the largest oil refineries in the United States.


Just as I keep an eye on my water quality I also spot check the local air quality. As Bangledesh, India, Pakistan and China continue to spew more and more pollutants and particulates from their expanding automobile ownership and increasing numbers of power plants and industrial manufacturing the world level of particulate pollution slowly climbs up. While the pollution is most concentrated in their own cities, air pollution moves beyond borders. As the developing world expands their air pollution, the United States (and most of the western developed world) continues to reduce ours. 


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, requires states to monitor air pollution to assess air quality and ensure that they meet minimum air quality standards. Still, not all of the nation is monitored. The US EPA has established both annual and 24-hour PM2.5 air quality standards (as well as standards for other pollutants). The annual standard is now 12 ug/m3 (an AQI of 39). The 24-hr standard was recently revised to a level of 35 ug/m3 (an AQI of 99) and will remain unchanged. States will have until 2020 to meet this PM2.5 health standard that was last lowered in 2012. If you want to take a look at real time particulate pollution levels you can see what the monitors nearest your home are reporting. Note that the levels are reported in AQI (0-50 AQI is good air quality and 51-99 is moderate air quality). Long Park in Haymarket Virginia was reporting an AQI level of 3 as I was finishing this article. Long Park is about 3 miles from my house down route 15.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Cicadas are Emerging Early

Cicadas, probably Magicicada septendecim and Magicicada cassinii have arrived four years early in greater Washington DC metropolitan area. This year precursors to the cicada Brood X due in 2021 are emerging early and may continue to  emerge in the next couple of weeks around D.C. in Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia as well in other areas of Brood X. In Virginia there are seventeen broods of the 17-year cicada and thirteen broods of the 13-year cicada. Every year they will emerge somewhere in the state, but Brood X due in 2021 is one of the largest.  There may be a significant enough number of early emerges this year to qualify as a new brood and you can help scientists monitor this.  

Reports of cicadas have been widespread and this might be an acceleration event. Periodical cicada accelerations occur when a significant group of an established brood emerge in years ahead of the main brood, and sometimes the accelerated group are able to reproduce and create what is essentially a new brood. This is believed to be how Brood VI was formed. W.T. Davis documented accelerations of cicada populations back in the 1800s, which was reported in the 1898 report “The Periodical Cicada. An Account Of Cicada Septendecim, Its Natural Enemies And The Means Of Preventing Its Injury.

Cicadas that emerge either ahead or behind schedule are called “stragglers.” In terms of cicadas, scientists and naturalists have been using the term “straggler” for over a century, so it has stuck despite the common meaning of straggler as behind the group. Typically 17-year periodical cicadas emerge 4 years early or one year late. Climate or weather can impact a cicada cycle and there is a natural tendency to accelerate when population density becomes too great. If there is a high density of them underground, vying for limited resources, some might emerge early or a year after the main Brood.

Climate variations can also trigger periodical cicadas to emerge ahead of their brood. Periodical cicadas take cues from the seasonal cycles of their host trees. An unusual climate event, like a hot fall or winter, might cause trees to signal cicadas that additional years have passed, and cause them to shift to emerge early. Metropolitan areas like Washington D.C., or “heat islands” can often be much hotter than surrounding rural areas due to population density. The effects of living within a heat island may have disrupted the seasonal cycles of the cicadas’s host trees, and also the cicadas.


You will know the cicadas by their song, which to me sounds like wind on a cell phone connection, but you can listen to the actual chorus on the u-Tube video above. Male cicadas sing quite loudly by vibrating membranes on the sides of their abdominal segment. Male songs and choruses are a courtship ritual to attract females for mating. If you hear the cicadas chorus report the finding to Magicicada.org.

After mating, females lay their eggs in narrow young twigs slicing into the wood and depositing up to 400 eggs in total for each female in 40 to 50 locations each. It is the egg laying that does most of the damage associated with periodical cicadas. Cicada eggs remain in the twigs for six to ten weeks before hatching. The nymphs do not feed on the twigs. The newly hatched, ant-like nymphs fall to the ground where they burrow 6 to 18 inches underground to feed on roots. Mature trees and shrubs usually survive even dense emergences of cicadas without long term damage, but in the summer of a large emergence many deciduous trees turn brown due to the breakage and death of peripheral twigs caused by the females laying their eggs and the emergence of the nymphs. Nonetheless, only young trees are usually permanently damaged and that is because so much of these trees are small twigs and branches.

Monday, May 22, 2017

NRDC Reviews Quality of Drinking Water in the U.S.

Earlier this month the National Resource Defense Council, NRDC, reported that almost a quarter of the U.S. population, spread across all 50 states, received their drinking water from public water suppliers that reported violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2015. The Safe Drinking Water Act regulates not only threats to health, but also has requirements for water quality, testing, and reporting. The NRDC report found that 27 million people, or slightly over 8% Americans, were served by a drinking water system with health-based violations. In addition 15% of Americans obtain their drinking water from private wells that are unregulated and predominately untested.

The health-based violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act rules that were found by NRDC were most frequently caused by: disinfection byproducts which are known to cause cancer; coliform bacteria; the failure to properly treat surface and groundwater to remove dangerous pathogens; nitrates and nitrites that can cause “blue baby syndrome”; and lead and copper.

The report found the 12 states with the most offenses based on population were (in order):
1. Texas
2. Florida
3. Pennsylvania
4. New Jersey
5. Georgia
6. Washington
7. Ohio
8. California
9. Arizona
10. Kentucky
11. Wisconsin
12. Maryland

Though Maryland was on the list of top 12 violators, in the Washington DC metropolitan area their performance was much better, and you will notice on the map below that Prince William County was a regional sore spot with 4 violations impacting 14,525 residents of our county. 


The analysis by NRDC found that in 2015 there were more than 80,000 reported violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act by community water systems. Of these violations more than 12,000 were health-based violations in some 5,000 community water systems serving more than 27 million people. Very small systems found in rural or sparsely populated areas account for more than half of all health-based violations, and nearly 70% of all violations.

Repercussions for violations were virtually nonexistent. Nearly nine in 10 violations were subject to no formal action, and just 3.3 percent faced financial penalties for the violations. It is also very possible that under-reporting and lax enforcement could mean the true number of violations is much higher.

We have turned away from enforcing our Safe Drinking Water Act regulations. We have good regulations, but if they are not enforced they can not protect us. Clearly, we cannot manage this from Washington D.C. Communities need to insist and ensure that our water supply companies are compliant with the regulations and supplying their customers with safe drinking water. In addition, the water infrastructure, pipes, reservoirs, pump stations, and treatment plant upgrades, has been neglected. For the large part the water systems are only reacting to the latest service interruption –repairing pipes after they break. This also needs to change. We can no longer afford to neglect our water supply and infrastructure.

In total, there are approximately 155,000 public drinking water supply systems across the country. Most Americans (just under 300 million people) receive their drinking water from one of the nation’s 51,356 larger community water systems. The remainder receive drinking water from private wells or small supply systems. The larger community water systems have an average pipe replacement rate of 0.5% per year. That means that it will take an estimated 200 years to replace the system – more than double the useful life of the pipes.

NRDC was founded in the 1970’s by a group of law students and attorneys and worked alongside other groups for the passage in 1974 of the Safe Drinking Water Act, SDWA, consisting of rules that regulate about over 90 contaminants often found in drinking water. Back then I was working for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Over the years I have not always agreed with NRDC’s approach or their emphasis, but it seems they have once more returned to the fundamentals of making sure that our nation’s citizens have access to safe drinking water. 
The findings of the NRDC report are quoted below:

Combined Disinfectants and Disinfection Byproducts Rules-Exposure to these contaminants can lead to cancer and may be linked to reproductive impacts such as miscarriages and birth defects. In 2015, there were 11,311 violations (4,591 health-based) at community water systems serving 25,173,431 people (12,584,936 health-based). Formal enforcement measures were taken in 12.4 % of all cases and 23.0 % of health-based cases.

Total Coliform Rule-The presence of coliforms in drinking water indicates that possible presence of organisms that can cause diarrhea, cramps, nausea, and headaches in otherwise-healthy people. It is an indication of how sanitary the water is. In 2015, there were 10,261 violations (2,574 health-based) at community water systems serving 17,768,807 people (10,118,586 health-based). Formal enforcement was taken in 8.8 % of cases (and 8.3 % of health-based cases).

Combined Surface, Ground Water, and Filter Backwash Rules-Exposure to some of these pathogens, such as Cryptosporidium or Giardia, can cause severe gastrointestinal distress, nausea, and diarrhea or death in vulnerable populations. In 2015 there were 5,979 violations (1,790 health-based) at community water systems serving 17,312,604 people (5,336,435 health-based). Formal enforcement was taken in 13.7 % of cases (28.2 % of health-based cases).

Nitrites and Nitrates Rule-Exposure can lead to blue baby syndrome in infants (potentially leading to death in extreme cases), developmental effects, and cardiovascular disease. In 2015, there were 1,529 violations (459 health-based) at community water systems serving 3,867,431 people (1,364,494 health-based). Formal enforcement action was taken in 11.3 % of all cases (and 27.9 % of health-based cases).

Lead and Copper Rule-Exposure to lead  generally comes from pipes and plumbing infrastructure. Lead is particularly toxic to children and can cause serious, irreversible damage to their developing brains and nervous systems. Lead exposure can also cause miscarriages and stillbirths in pregnant women, as well as fertility issues, cardiovascular and kidney effects, cognitive dysfunction, and elevated blood pressure in healthy adults. In 2015, there were 8,044 violations (303 health-based) by systems serving 18,350,633 people (582,302 health-based). Formal enforcement action was taken in 12.0 % of the cases (and in 14.2 % of health-based cases).

Radionuclides Rule-Exposure can lead to cancers and compromised kidney function. In 2015, there were 2,297 violations (962 health-based) in community water systems serving 1,471,364 people (445,969 health-based). Formal enforcement was taken in 11.7 % of all cases (and 16.1 % of health-based cases).

Synthetic Organic Contaminants Rule-Exposure can cause cancers, developmental effects, central nervous system and reproductive difficulties, endocrine issues, or liver and kidney problems. In 2015 there were 6,864 violations (17 health-based) serving 2,669,594 people (301,099 health-based). Formal enforcement action was taken in 7.3 % of cases (and 5.9 % of health-based cases).

Inorganic Contaminants Rule- Exposure can lead to increased cholesterol, kidney damage, hair loss, skin irritation, and cancer. In 2015, there were 1,505 violations (291 health-based) in community water systems serving 1,312,643 people (83,033 health-based). Formal enforcement was taken in 5.2 % of cases (15.1 % of health-based cases).

Volatile Organic Contaminants Rule-Exposure can lead to cancers; developmental, skin, and reproductive issues; and cardiovascular problems. Exposure can also cause adverse effects on the liver, kidneys, and immune and nervous systems. In 2015 there were 10,383 violations (15 of them health-based) at community water systems serving 3,451,072 people (5,276 health-based). Formal enforcement was taken in 6.1 % of cases (and 26.7 % of health-based cases).

Public Notification Rule-All community water systems are required to directly deliver information about their drinking water quality to each customer once a year. In 2015 there were 13, 202 violations by community water systems serving 8,381,050 people. Formal enforcement action was taken in 10.3 % of cases.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Working for Clean Water

Last month New York passed the Clean Water Infrastructure Act which allocates $2.5 billion to a variety of projects to improve the safety of drinking water in that state, my childhood home. The legislation will among other things provide $1.5 billion in grants for water infrastructure improvements, $75 million in rebates to help homeowners replace septic systems and $110 million to protect land in watersheds. This legislation significantly expands a similar state infrastructure fund that over the past few years made $400 million available to communities, though falls short of the $80-$100 billion the State’s Legislature Environmental Conservation Committee says is needed to fix the state’s aging water infrastructure.

The water quality problem especially on Long Island in Suffolk County is reported to be acute- every water body within the county is listed as impaired with dead rivers, closed beaches, and harmful algae blooms. It is reported that Suffolk County has 360,000 septic systems. For years, nitrogen along with E. coli from leaky septic tanks has seeped into groundwater and eventually into rivers and bays. Water quality has continued to decline over the decades.

The county’s current strategy is to build two sewer systems in business districts on the North Shore in Suffolk County and “coax” homeowners to replace antiquated septic systems with high-tech “denitrification systems.” The challenge, however, is “coaxing” homeowners to replace their septic tanks. The problem with an old system is that unless septic is backing up into the house, most people don’t know their system is failing.

Nitrogen is more harmful to coastal ecosystems than to sources of drinking water. The federal standard for drinking water is 10 milligrams per liter, but anything above one milligram per liter will have an impact on coastal waters and estuaries. In Suffolk County, the average concentration of nitrogen in groundwater is four milligrams per liter, and with nitrogen, there is usually also E. coli.

Across the United States, tremendous improvements in water quality have been made in the decades after passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972. The biggest sources of chemical and biological pollution, the so called “point sources,” those releases from manufacturing and sewage treatment plants have been addressed. Sewage treatment plants have been build and improved, and waste streams regulated. The problem now is diverse and small sources of pollution that impact overall water quality and ecology.

Back home in Virginia, the EPA mandated a contamination limit called the TMDL (total maximum daily load for nutrient contamination and sediment) to Virginia and all the states in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed and Washington DC. Locally, the Chesapeake Bay TMDL addresses the contamination from nitrogen, phosphorus and sediments. However, there are other contaminants impacting the waterways of Prince William County- E. coli is among them.
 

Prince William county has been subject to TMDLs for bacteria impairments to: Cedar Run and Licking Run, Neabsco Creek, Popes Head, Broad Run, Kettle Run, South Run, Little Bull Run, Bull Run and the Occoquan River; and Tributaries to the Potomac River for years, but little has been done because the diverse sources of the problem.

The Department of Environmental Quality identified the primary sources of bacteria as follows:
  • Cedar Run: livestock (65%), wildlife (26%) upland pervious land (9%), impervious (<1 li="" nbsp="">
  • Neabsco Creek: wildlife (79%), pet sources (20%), livestock (1%)
  • Broad Run: cattle – direct deposition (44%), residential, commercial, industrial (41.5%), wildlife – direct deposition (6.4%) 
  • Bull Run: cattle – direct deposition (56%), wildlife – direct deposition (30%), residential, commercial, industrial (13%) 
  • Occoquan River: residential, commercial, industrial (85.7%), wildlife – direct deposition (9.2%) 
  • Powells Creek: urban – developed land (87%) 
  • Quantico Creek: urban – developed land (94%) 
Prince William County needs to commit funds and work with their partners to develop ongoing program to address the bacterial contamination not coming from the permitted stormwater system. This means stream exclusion of cattle, outreach programs and possibly financial incentives to pump-out septic tanks and upgrade septic systems, programs to develop community pet waste stations, and other programs. Our waterways and environment are worth it.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Iron Bacteria More than a Nuisance

Recently, we had a water clinic in Prince William County. After the results meeting we received the following email. "[Based on your description during the well clinic] it appears that I have iron bacteria in my water system.  When I had my well pump replaced in 2013, the old pump and the pipes in the well were all covered with orangey brown slime.  In addition, there are always orangey red particles trapped in my sediment filter before the water enters the treatment tanks, as well as orangey red stains on my shower tiles, and orangey red water in toilets.  Also, there are brown to black, hard to remove rings in toilets.
I have a water treatment system and I collected two (2) sets of samples, before and after the treatment.  My well water before the treatment contains 0.01 mg/L of Iron, but the greensand tank with Potassium Permanganate appears to reduce that concentration to below detection limit.  If so, then why do I have iron and/or iron bacteria in bathrooms past the treatment system?  Perhaps the iron in the toilet water comes from the rusting metal equipment and bolts inside the flush tanks, but that would not explain the rusty stains on my shower tiles.  My well is 400 ft. deep, with the pump at 320 ft., and the water level at 60 ft.  I consider shocking my well with chlorine solution, but first I would like to verify if that is the right approach."

The test for iron does not test for iron bacteria. Iron Bacteria are small living organisms which naturally occur in soil and water. These nuisance bacteria depend on oxidation of iron and manganese for “food.” These bacteria form the characteristic deposits of “rust”, and a slimy build up that does not test positive for iron. The most common bacteria known to feed on iron are thiobacillus ferrooxidans and leptospriillum feffooxidans. There are also acidohillic iron bacteria, like the autotrophi ferrobaccillus ferroxidans that are associate with the acidic environment or mines and not often seen in groundwater wells.

Iron bacteria can be a huge nuisance. These harmless bacteria can foul a well, damage pumps, stain plumbing fixtures, clog pipes, faucets, showerheads, and produce unpleasant tastes and odors in drinking water. Yet, water is very rarely tested for iron bacteria since very few certified laboratories conduct the test. Confirmation is usually based on visual symptoms in the water, including the slimy brown/red appearance (often most noticeable in the toilet tank) and a slight musty odor. There are no drinking water standards for iron bacteria since there are no health implications. A true “Iron Bacteria Test” involves an 8 day bacteria culture. These tests cost around $40-$80 and require a sterile sample bottle and collection method as all bacteria tests require. Also, once the iron bacteria have infected a well and plumbing system is very difficult to get rid of. Treatment of heavily infected wells may be only partially successful, but often that’s enough.

Iron bacteria often produce unpleasant tastes and odors commonly reported as: "swampy," "oily or petroleum," "cucumber," "sewage," "rotten vegetation," or "musty." The taste or odor may be more noticeable after the water has not been used for some time and are not easily explained by other causes. Iron bacteria do not produce the "rotten egg" smell common to hydrogen sulfide, but do create an environment where sulfur bacteria can grow and produce hydrogen sulfide. There is often a discoloration of the water with the iron bacteria causing a slight yellow, orange, red or brown tint to the water. It is sometimes possible to see a rainbow colored, oil-like sheen on the water. Though the classic symptom of iron bacteria is a rust colored slime, but may be yellow, brown, or grey.

You can order an Iron Bacteria Test from National Testing Laboratories- that’s where I got my test. They have an assay test for “Iron Related Bacteria” present in a water sample. Iron bacteria once introduced into the well will not get better, but continue to get worse destroying your pump and ultimately fouling the well. Along the way there will be a perceived deterioration in the quality of the water. Although iron bacteria can make water unpleasant in taste or smell, there is no health risk associated with the bacteria. They are harmless, but annoying. Elimination of iron bacteria once a well is heavily infested can be extremely difficult. Normal treatment for a problem such as this would be to chlorine “shock,” but iron bacteria can be particularly persistent and chlorine treatment of the well may be only partly effective.

If the wall is fouled then physical removal is done as a first step in these heavily infected wells where the functioning of the pump and well production have already been impacted by the bacterial slime buildup. The pumping equipment in the well must be removed and cleaned, which is usually a job for a well contractor or pump installer. The well casing is then scrubbed using (disinfected) brushes or other tools. Physical removal is usually followed by chemical treatment with chlorine (or less commonly acids). Chlorine is inexpensive and easy to use, but may have limited effectiveness and may require repeated treatments. Effective treatment requires sufficient chlorine strength and time in contact with the bacteria, and is often improved with agitation. Though typically a chlorine concentration of 200 parts per million for decontamination of a well, a higher concentration is recommended by the literature for iron bacteria. Recommended concentrations are between 500-1,000 parts per million. Be warned that too high a concentration can make the well alkaline and reduce effectiveness. In addition high concentrations of chlorine may affect water conditioning equipment, appliances such as dishwashers, and septic systems. You may want to check with the manufacturer of the appliances before chlorinating.

Though it is relatively easy to bypass equipment, iron bacteria may remain in the untreated units and reintroduce the iron bacteria into the plumbing system. The recommended strategy is to treat the well with a 500-1,000 parts per million of chlorine and then dilute the remaining water in the well. This can be accomplished by allowing a significant amount of the water to runoff to a safe disposal location using hoses until the water runs clear, and allow the well to refill and dilute the concentration then introduce the water into the house water system to disinfect the household treatment units, appliances and piping with lower concentrations circulated through the water system. I use chlorine test strips to get an idea of the level of chlorine in the well.

I found my iron bacteria problem before it fouled my well or plumbing system. Only a small amount of iron bacteria had begun to build up around the flapper in my toilet tanks. The ATU unit of my alternative septic system caused the iron bacteria in that tank to grow uncontrollably. The same thing happens with Iron Filters that use air injection-they actually increase bacterial slime and make things worse. Filters using chlorine injection work or a simple chlorine injection system works quite well at controlling the problems of order and staining quite well. However, it is best to knock the problem back in the well and then retreat every two to three years. Every time I treat my well and plumbing system, I finish the process by scrubbing my septic tanks and restarting the septic system. This reminds me that I need to open up my ATU tank and take a look...it is probably time to treat my well again. 

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Wells of Prince William County 2017

Every Year as part of the Virginia Household Water Quality Program Prince William County Extension holds a drinking water clinics for well owners. This year the clinic was oversubscribed and there will be a second sampling date on June 7th . The first group of samples were  taken March 29th 2017 and analyzed for: iron, manganese, nitrate, lead, arsenic, fluoride, sulfate, pH, total dissolved solids, hardness, sodium, copper, total coliform bacteria and E. Coli bacteria at a cost of $55 to the well owner.


What we test for are mostly the naturally occurring contaminants and common sources of contamination: a poorly sealed well or a nearby leaking septic system, or indications of plumbing system corrosion. Though this is not an exhaustive list of potential contaminants, these are the most common contaminants that effect drinking water wells. The chart below shows what we found in the 101 private wells tested in the first round in Prince William County in 2017.

In order to determine if treatment is necessary, water test results should be compared to a standard. The standard we use is the U.S.EPA Safe Drinking Water Act (SDW) limits. Though private wells do not fall under the regulatory authority of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or the Safe Drinking Water Act, the SDW act has primary and secondary drinking water standards that we use for comparison. Primary standards are ones that can impact health and from the tested substances include: coliform bacteria, E. coli bacteria, nitrate, lead, and arsenic. Secondary standards impact taste or the perceived quality of the water.

As in last year, the 2017 Prince William County water clinic found that almost 28% of the wells tested present for coliform bacteria-this was a lower percentage than the overall program finds. Coliform bacteria are not a health threat itself, it is used to indicate other bacteria that may be present and identify that a well is not properly sealed from surface bacteria. The federal standard for coliform bacteria is zero, but the federal standard allows that up to 5% of samples can test positive for coliform during a month.

Four of the homes tested positive for E coli. Fecal coliform and E. coli are bacteria whose presence indicates that the water is contaminated with human or animal wastes. Disease-causing microbes (pathogens) in these wastes can cause diarrhea, cramps, nausea, headaches, or other symptoms. These pathogens may pose a special health risk for infants, young children, and those with compromised immune systems. However, people can drink water contaminated with fecal bacteria and not notice. If your water is contaminated with coliform but not fecal coliform or E. coli, then you have a nuisance bacteria problem and the source may be infiltration from the surface from rain or snow melt. Typical causes are improperly sealed well cap, failed grouting or surface drainage to the well. Shock chlorinate the well, repack the soil around the well pipe to flow away from the well and replace the well cap. Then after the next big rainstorm retest the well for coliform. If it is still present then a long-term treatment should be implemented: using UV light, ozonation, or chlorine for continuous disinfection. These systems can cost up to $2,000 installed.

If you have fecal coliform in the well or E. coli, your well is being impacted by human or animal waste and you are drinking dilute sewage. If there is not a nearby animal waste composting facility, then you are probably drinking water from a failed septic system- yours or your nearest neighbors. To solve this problem you need to fix or replace the septic system that is causing the contamination, replace the well or install a disinfection and filtration system. Disinfection does not kill Giardia or Cryptosporidium, two microscopic parasites that can be found in groundwater that has been impacted by surface water or sewage. Both parasites produce cysts that cause illness and sometimes death.

Membrane filtration is the usual treatment for these parasites- a one micron membrane is required after disinfection and can be accomplished at home with a reverse osmosis system. The failing septic systems can often be identified by using tracer dyes. While continuous disinfection will work to protect you from fecal bacteria and E. coli, be aware that if your well is being impacted by a septic system, then the well water might also have present traces of all the chemicals and substances that get poured down the drain. Long term treatment for disinfection, and micro-filtration should be implemented: using UV light, ozonation, or chlorine for continuous disinfection, carbon filtration, and anything that is used for drinking should be further treated with a reverse osmosis systems or micro membrane system that work by using pressure to force water through a semi-permeable membrane. Large quantities of wastewater are produced by reverse osmosis systems and need to bypass the septic system or they will overwhelm that system creating more groundwater problems. Reverse osmosis systems produce water very slowly, a pressurized storage tank and special faucet needs to be installed so that water is available to meet the demand for drinking and cooking.

Nitrate can contaminate well water from fertilizer use; leaking from septic tanks, sewage and erosion of natural deposits. None of the wells in our group of 65 samples had nitrate levels above the MCL. The MCL for nitrate is 10 mg/L. Infants below the age of six months who drink water containing nitrate in excess of the MCL could become seriously ill from blue-baby syndrome and, if untreated, may die. Symptoms include shortness of breath and a blue ting to the skin common in blue-baby syndrome. The NO3 dissolves and moves easily through soil which varies seasonally and over time as plants use up the nitrate over the summer. Testing in the spring will usually produce the highest levels. Nitrate may indicate contamination from septic tanks, but do not boil the water- boiling water reduces the water and actually INCREASES the concentration of nitrates. Reverse osmosis, or ion exchange is necessary to control the nitrate.

In years past the water clinic has found almost 20% of wells tested positive for lead. This year we had 6.9% of homes have first flush lead levels above the SDWA maximum contaminant level of 0.015 Mg/L. After the first flush only two homes had lead levels above the 0.15 mg/L level; however, many scientists do not believe that any level of lead is safe to drink over an extended period of time. In the homes that had elevated lead in the first draw, it tends to be negatively correlated with pH values. Houses built before 1988 when the ban on lead went into effect and had low pH water had higher lead concentrations. Lead leaches into water primarily as a result of corrosion of plumbing and well components, but can also result from flaking of scale from brass fittings and well components unrelated to corrosion and corrosion control techniques such as adjusting pH or alkalinity that are commonly used to neutralize aggressive water will not work in those cases. For most instances, though, a neutralizing filter and lead removing activated carbon filters can be used to remove lead. Recently, some home water treatment companies are offering in home treatment systems that neutralize the water and add orthophosphate other phosphate solution to coat the piping to prevent further corrosion. It should work, but I have never seen such a home system and am not aware of any testing. It is important to note that elevated lead concentrations were still observed in homes built after 1988 and in one home with normal pH and built after 2000.

Iron and manganese are naturally occurring elements commonly found in groundwater in this part of the country. 9.9% of the wells tested exceed the iron standard and 4% exceeded the manganese standard. At naturally occurring levels iron and manganese do not present a health hazard. However, their presence in well water can cause unpleasant taste, staining and accumulation of mineral solids that can clog water treatment equipment and plumbing and discolored water. The standard Secondary Maximum Contaminant Level (SMCL) for iron is 0.3 milligrams per liter (mg/L or ppm) and 0.05 mg/L for manganese. This level of iron and manganese are easily detected by taste, smell or appearance. In addition, some types of bacteria react with soluble forms of iron and manganese and form persistent bacterial contamination in a well, water system and any treatment systems. These organisms change the iron and manganese from a soluble form into a less soluble form, thus causing precipitation and accumulation of black or reddish brown gelatinous material (slime). Masses of mucous, iron, and/or manganese can clog plumbing and water treatment equipment.

All systems of removing iron and manganese essentially involve oxidation of the soluble form or killing and removal of the iron bacteria. When the total combined iron and manganese concentration is less than 15 mg/l, an oxidizing filter is the recommended solution. An oxidizing filter supplies oxygen to convert ferrous iron into a solid form which can be filtered out of the water. Higher concentrations of iron and manganese can be treated with an aeration and filtration system. This system is not effective on water with iron/ manganese bacteria, but is very effective on soluble iron and manganese so you need to do further testing to determine what type of iron/manganese you have before you install a treatment system. Water softeners can remove low levels of iron, but are not recommended for just this purpose. Chemical oxidation can be used to remove high levels of dissolved or oxidized iron and manganese as well as treat the presence of iron/manganese (or even sulfur) bacteria. The system consists of a small pump that puts an oxidizing agent into the water before the pressure tank. The water will need about 20 minutes for oxidation to take place so treating before a holding tank or pressure tank is a must. After the solid particles have formed the water is filtered. The best oxidizing agents are chlorine or hydrogen peroxide. If chlorine is used, an activated carbon filter is often used to finish the water and remove the chlorine taste. The holding tank or pressure tank will have to be cleaned regularly to remove any settled particles.

The pH of water is a measure of the acidity or alkalinity. The pH is a logarithmic scale from 0 – 14 with 1 being very acidic and 14 very alkaline. Drinking water should be between 6.5 and 7.5. For reference and to put this into perspective, coffee has a pH of around 5 and salt water has a pH of around 9. Corrosive water, sometimes also called aggressive water is typically water with a low pH. (Alkaline water can also be corrosive.) Low pH water can corrode metal plumbing fixtures causing lead and copper to leach into the water and causing pitting and leaks in the plumbing system. The presence of lead or copper in water is most commonly leaching from the plumbing system rather than the groundwater. Acidic water is easily treated using an acid neutralizing filter. Typically these neutralizing filters use a granular marble, calcium carbonate or lime. If the water is very acidic a mixing tank using soda ash, sodium carbonate or sodium hydroxide can be used. The acid neutralizing filters will increase the hardness of the water because of the addition of calcium carbonate. The sodium based systems will increase the salt content in the water. 9.9% of the wells tested were found to have acidic water this year. High pH levels are not natural to groundwater and typically result from salt water intrusion or over treatment with water softening system and/acid neutralizing systems. There two homes where this turned out to be the case.

Water that contains high levels of dissolved minerals is commonly referred to as hard. Groundwater very slowly wears away at the rocks and minerals picking up small amounts of calcium and magnesium ions. Water containing approximately 125 mg/L can begin to have a noticeable impact and is considered hard. Concentrations above 180 mg/L are considered very hard. As the mineral level climbs, bath soap combines with the minerals and forms a pasty scum that accumulates on bathtubs and sinks. You either must use more soap and detergent in washing or use specially formulated hard water soap solutions. Hard water can be just a minor annoyance with spotting and the buildup of lime scale, but once water reaches the very hard level 180 mg/L or 10.5 grains per gallon, it can become problematic. This year we had a well test at 505.7 mg/L, but overall on 15.8% of homes tested had hard water. Given the number of homes with elevated sodium and our local geology, it is probably a reflection of the number of homes with water softeners.

Water softening systems are used to address the problem are basically an ion exchange system. The water softening system consists of a mineral tank and a brine tank. The water supply pipe is connected to the mineral tank so that water coming into the house must pass through the tank before it can be used. The mineral tank holds small beads of resin that have a negative electrical charge. The calcium and magnesium ions are positively charged and are attracted to the negatively charged beads. This attraction makes the minerals stick to the beads as the hard water passes through the mineral tank. Sodium is often used to charge the resin beads. Water softeners can be used to remove small amounts of other metals like iron and some forms of arsenic. As the water is softened, the sodium ions are replaced and small quantities of sodium are released into the softened water, thus the salty taste of softened water. When the water softening system is recharged the excess sodium solution carrying the calcium and magnesium is flushed to the septic system which may shorten the life of the drain field.

At the present time the EPA guidance level for sodium in drinking water is 20 mg/L. This level was developed for those restricted to a total sodium intake of 500 mg/day and does not necessarily represent a necessary level for the rest of the population. Based on taste of the water levels of sodium should be below 30 to 60 mg/L based on individual taste. Water softeners ten to cost around $4,500 installed. They are often sold to solve every water quality problem because they have some ability to remove other contaminants. The resin bed used will determine specific contaminant removal. Softened water can have a low pH and high levels of chloride, corrosion control problems and softening systems can encourage the growth of reducing bacteria. Water softening systems add sodium. Reverse osmosis systems and distillation systems remove sodium and are safe for household use, but addressing hard water by using vinegar to descale pots and dishwashers, regularly draining hot water heaters, and using detergents formulated for hard water might be a better solution for you if your water like mine is only modestly hard.

For the second time this year we found a well that had arsenic exceeding the EPA MCL for drinking water of 10 ppm. While arsenic is a naturally occurring element found in soil and groundwater it is not typically found at significantly elevated levels in Prince William County. Arsenic can also be an indication of industrial or pesticide contamination and further testing should be done. Arsenic can be very tricky to remove depending on its form and the other contaminants present. Possible solutions for elevated levels of naturally occurring arsenic are reverse osmosis system, iron oxide filter system, or maybe a water softening system.