Friday, August 29, 2014

Coal and Drinking Water

Coal has been a bit of a topic in Washington State and Oregon as well with several coal export terminal schemes proposed. Coal has been portrayed as a toxic substance by some opponents to coal export terminals. But there is a lot of variability in coal toxicity and quality. Powder River coal, the primary coal that is being railroaded across Washington State is low in sulfur relative to most other coal, but is not particularly high in energy content. That low sulfur content makes it an attractive coal relative to more polluting coal with higher sulfur.

High quality anthracite coal is very carbon rich, has a very high energy content and burns very cleanly (excepting CO2 emissions). Very high quality anthracite is more typically used for steel production and for water filtration. Yes, you might be drinking water that passed through a sand filter full of anthracite coal.

Anthracite is almost glass-like and when crushed it makes a fine sand that combined with the carbon content makes an excellent filter media for purifying drinking water.

I was doing some source area work for a water district and got a tour of the treatment plant and had the fortune of getting to see the backwash cleaning of the anthracite and garnet sand filter media.

Backwashing of filter media

Periodically the water flow is reversed with a surge of water to break up the sand column and
knock out the trapped fine sediment.

The muddy water is then routed to a waste discharge out of the system. The backwash is timed to last long enough for the water to clarify. All that brown fine sediment coloring the water had been trapped by the anthracite coal. Good clean water thanks to coal!


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Boistfort Valley Mound - Random Land Form Curiosity

During a visit to the Boisfort Valley I noted this isolated small hill rising from the floor of the valley. I had no time to visit the hill, but noted it is the site of a cemetery. 
Small hill in the Boistfort Valley

Same Boisfort hill from the southwest

The Boistfort Valley is located in the east Willapa Hills. The Boisfort Valley is one of the earliest Euro/American settlement areas in Washington State with some of the earliest donation land claims as well as the oldest public school district in the state. The name Boistfort is old French meaning strong wood and was likely named by early Hudson Bay Company French fur employees that settled in the valley. The valley was along the route from Fort Vancouver on the lower Columbia River to Fort Nisqually on Puget Sound. Topographic maps show it as Boistfort Prairie. Green forested hills rise up to the east and west. The valley was badly flooded in 2007 during heavy rains and hundreds of landslides on the steep forest lands above the valley. The South Fork of the Chehalis River flows from south to north through the valley. The valley had decidedly northern California feel about during  my visit - hot 90s plus temperatures, brown grass and large oaks on the valley floor.

Wells (1981) and Wells and Sawlan (2014) geology maps of the east Willapa Hills have the hill mapped as part of the younger alluvial material that covers the valley floor, but its elevated stature suggests it is an older erosional remnant. Perhaps too small of a scale to warrant a separate designation. Wells mapped a nearby similar height ridge as a basaltic intrusion and the lower slopes of the valley as McIntosh marine sediments. So possibly the hill is an older alluvium deposit remnant or some harder outcropping of bedrock rising slightly above the valley floor.

Even more intriguing is the Lewis County soil map. That map indicates the hill is underlain by Salkum silty clay loam, a soil derived from glacial drift. The glacial drift interpretation would be exciting (for glacial history folks) as it is well south of the interpretation of the farthest extent of the Puget ice lobes. There is a mound-like hill of somewhat slightly greater height north of Chehalis call Grand Mound that is mapped on geology maps as glacial drift of uncertain age. Perhaps the soil mappers were influenced by the mound topography at Grand Mound and based the interpretation off of that mound. But then again it is hard to figure how this little bump is glacier related given its location.

A land form worth some further investigation perhaps.  

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Douglas Maple and few other plants

When I am out in the field with plant folks I try to learn a new plant per day. A picture and writing the name helps set the plant in memory. Drawings would be even better. 
From a recent outing in Ross Lake National Recreation Area:
Acer glagrum (Douglas maple)

Adenocaulon bicolor (Pathfinder)

Goodyera pubesceus (Rattlesnake plantain). This is a native orchid.

Salix scouleriana (Scouler willow)

The last one has some uncertainty as I did the identification myself.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Notes from Ross Dam

Ross Dam is the uppermost and highest dam of the three Seattle Light dams on the Skagit River. It is the key dam for controlling flows and power production on the Skagit. Two additional dams are located down river.
Ross Dam from the south

Note the high steep cliff on the far side of the dam and the fact that the slope from the vantage of where the picture was taken are steep as well. At one time there was a scheme to have an even higher dam matching those higher slopes. A higher dam would have backed water up into Canada. An agreement was reached to do so, but there are no current schemes to build a higher dam.

All three dams are located within a gorge between the broader upper Skagit valley and the broader lower Skagit valley. Ross is at an ideal location for a dam at a deep gorge entrance with a broad valley upstream allowing for a large volume reservoir. The Skagit gorge is thought to have formed during the continental glacial period when glacial ice to the north blocked north flowing rivers and diverted river outlets to the south and over a mountain divide where the Skagit gorge is now located (see Riedel, Haugerud and Clague, 2007). The gorge is incised down through the Skagit Gneiss, a band of high pressure and temperature metamorphic rocks within the core of the North Cascades.

Waffle face of the dam

The potential for a higher dam is also reflected in the waffle concrete face of the dam. The idea was that the waffle face would allow excellent adherence between the existing structure and a higher taller dam structure added on to the dam.

View of gorge below dam
The concrete structures on the left and right are the spillways. They are set up to allow the spilled water to collide and dissipate energy if water is spilled from the dam versus passing through the powerhouse which is located on the upper left of this view.

Boathouse and docks on upstream side of dam

Boat house and dock stairs descending into the water
The floating dock sliding up and down piers according to water levels and the permanent steep stairs  has been great improvement from the previous ladder descent to the dock and boat house.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Mirror Lake, Bellingham Drinking Water and Phosphorus

Stopped by Mirror lake while on journey elsewhere. Mirror Lake is where water diverted from Middle Fork Nooksack River is discharged before it flows via Anderson Creek to Lake Whatcom, the drinking water source for Bellingham. The lake was in fully muddy mode from the diverted water that is derived from glacial melt water. 

Mirror Lake

Mirror Lake turbidity

Aerial view of diversion and pipe (blue line) (USGS)

The City of Bellingham diverts water with a diversion dam on the Middle Fork Nooksack River. The Middle Fork headwaters flow out of the Deming Glacier on the southwest flank of Mount Baker - a 10,000-foot strato volcano covered with glaciers. During the mid summer to fall the Middle Fork becomes cloudy as the glacial meltwater becomes the dominant source of flow. The diversion is only used part of the time to augment the lake levels in Lake Whatcom, a natural lake and the city's drinking water source. The city also supplies water to non city residences.

Lower Demming Glacier. Blue line marks terminus of the glacial in 1993.

All that silt and mud in Mirror Lake is a source of phosphorus, a natural occurring problem for Lake Whatcom water quality. Phosphorus can lead to algae growth and results in low oxygen levels in shallow part of the lake. The low oxygen levels also cause phosphorus in the lake bottom sediments to be released making the problem worse. Algae utilize the phosphorus and also utilize available nitrates to the point that algae that can directly utilize nitrogen from the water start to become dominant leading to possible toxic blooms. The phosphorus loads to the lake have caused the lake to become degraded, particularly at its northern end.

As such the City of Bellingham and Whatcom County have been required to lower the amount phosphorus entering the lake by Washington State Department of Ecology under the Clean Water Act. The reductions are spelled out in a TMDL (total maximum daily load) (All and more HERE). But the requirements do not apply the the diversion as it is exempted. The requirements have also not been applied to the Washington State Department of Natural Resources or other forest property managers. Ecology decided to treat commercial forest land as natural background despite ample scientific evidence that forest roads are a major source of sediment discharge.

Hence, two major sources of phosphorus inputs to the lake - the diversion of water full of grounded up volcanic andesite and logging roads are included in the calculation of phosphorus inputs to the lake, but are excluded from being required to be reduced.

When Whatcom County took over management of the 8,000 plus acres of Lake Whatcom Forest Board Lands from the DNR, the County was given no credit in phosphorus reduction to the lake despite the fact that reconveyance will prevent 22 miles of new road building in the watershed and will greatly maintain the forest cover relative to DNR management.This issue of no credit points to a weakness of the TMDL process and to a broad challenge of Ecology oversite of water quality related to forest practices. Perhaps a result of competing natural resource issues.

The release of phosphorus via the diversion also presented a perception problem with the rules. For County government facing very stringent rule making and very expensive stormwater fixes to incrementally reduce phosphorus loads while at the same time a major source is allowed does raise some questions and perhaps some resentment.

The above said, the bigger problem for the lake has been at the north, shallow end of the lake where urban levels of development were permitted by the City of Bellingham for decades. Urban development and rural development permitted by the County at the north end of the lake has also contributed to elevated phosphorus discharge to the sensitive north end of the lake. The shallow waters at the north end of the lake are susceptible to algae blooms due to elevated nutrient levels. Fortunately, the discharges of phosphorus at the south end of the lake from the city diversion and off of commercial forest lands is into deep water where low oxygen is not an issue and most of the phosphorus remains unavailable for algae. But it may have been better if Ecology could have somehow managed to separate out this problem.              

Friday, August 22, 2014

Friday Music: The War on Drugs - Eyes to the Wind and Burning

A bit Krugman-like with Friday music. I have been listening to this band of late. Not for everyone, but I have been enjoying them.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Best Toilet in Whatcom County

Composting toilet at Desolation Peak