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Water testing program helps get the lead out

Emily Hutchins of Blacksburg, Virginia, fills water collection bottles.

Emily Hutchins of Blacksburg, Virginia, fills water collection bottles.

Virginia Tech’s recent discovery of abnormally high amounts of lead in the Flint, Michigan, water system has made safe drinking water a hot topic. But while the water in Flint came from a municipal source, private water systems, such as wells, springs, and cisterns, are not immune to this problem.

Testing conducted though Virginia Cooperative Extension’s Virginia Household Water Quality Program has found high levels of lead in private systems around the state.

Kelsey Pieper, a researcher on the Flint team who received her doctorate from Virginia Tech, was the primary author on the study that found 1 in 5 private systems had lead concentrations above the Environmental Protection Agency standard for municipal systems. About 45 percent of the samples contained coliform bacteria and 10 percent contained E. coli.

The study determined that, like Flint, much of the lead in private systems is due to corrosive water.

“Homeowners may associate lead in water problems with older homes, but we are finding high lead in water from newer homes as well,” said Pieper. “Until 2014, lead-free plumbing could contain up to 8 percent lead. These components are still present in many homes, and exposure to corrosive water may cause the lead to leach.”

Nearly one-quarter of Virginia’s population — 1.7 million people — rely on private water systems for their source of household water.

“The safest thing you can do is have your water tested,” said Erin Ling, a senior Extension associate in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering and the Virginia Household Water Quality Program coordinator. Ling recommends that private systems be routinely tested every one to three years.

Jeremy and Emily Hutchins of Blacksburg are among thousands of families across Virginia that have had their water tested through the Virginia Household Water Quality Program. Emily Hutchins had heard about the program from a friend at work. She wanted to have her water tested and was also concerned about the water at her parent’s home in Craig County. She convinced her parents to have their water tested at the same time.

“It’s good to know what is in your water,” said Jeremy Hutchins. “Look at how much stuff can end up in your water. Why wouldn’t you want to know?”

“Our program works through local Extension offices to offer low-cost, confidential water testing for Virginia’s well and spring users. Since these are private systems, the owner is completely responsible for maintaining the quality of their drinking water,” said Ling. “In addition to learning about their water quality, we work to empower well owners with information about system care and maintenance and to address any problems.”

Clinics begin with a kickoff meeting that introduces the program and gives instructions for collecting the samples. After participants collect their water samples, the samples are taken to two labs at Virginia Tech to be analyzed. An interpretation meeting is held to review each participant’s results and discuss options for addressing maintenance or water quality problems. More than 50 clinics will be held across the commonwealth in 2016.

“As more testing is done, we will continue to develop a better understanding of the occurrence, sources, and remediation approaches of lead in private systems,” said Ling.

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‘Designer manure’ could become fashionable on farms

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Jactone Ogejo

Eugene Bowman’s family has owned a dairy farm in Franklin County, Virginia, for four generations, and Bowman wants to make sure that when he hands it over to his sons, the land is healthy for generations to come.

“It needs to be as good or better than when I got it,” he said.

So when his local Virginia Cooperative Extension agent told him about a research project Virginia Tech is undertaking to mitigate fertilizer runoff, Bowman jumped at the chance.

He is now working with Jactone Ogejo, an associate professor of biological systems engineering on a project to create the most fashionable thing to hit farms since Carhartts — designer manure.

Plants need nutrients such as those in manure to help them grow strong and produce food to feed the world. Plants love to suck up the nitrogen in manure when it is used as a fertilizer, but they don’t always need the phosphorous that comes with it. If plants don’t take up all the phosphorus, what’s left can run off into streams and waterways, sending pollutants downstream to places like the Chesapeake Bay.

Using a series of operations, Ogejo is developing a chemical-based process where manure is treated to remove some of the phosphorus — hence the term “designer manure.”  The recovered phosphorus is set aside so it stays out of the water source and can be sold separately to farmers who are in need of phosphorus for their plants.

“I approach my work by looking at the most beneficial research we can do for farmers,” Ogejo said. “This solution will not only protect the environment, but it will also help farmers continue farming while increasing their bottom lines.”

Government regulations are increasingly calling on farmers to monitor and curb runoff from their land, and efforts are underway to stem the flow of phosphorus to the Chesapeake Bay, so this research can help them comply with new guidelines. It is being funded in part by the USDA National Institutes of Food and Agriculture.

The process works by first separating the liquid from the solids in manure. The solids can be dried out and reused for other purposes, such as stall bedding. The liquids are then routed to a large vat where chemicals are applied to recover and separate the phosphorus from the other materials; the three different chemicals used are salts based on aluminum, iron, or calcium. Once the chemicals are applied, the phosphorus that is separated can be sold.

Ogejo is testing this system at Bowman’s farm but expects it to be available soon to others around the state. He wants farmers to learn about the process through videos and at field days and Extension events in hopes that it will make their work easier while benefiting the environment.

“I really enjoy agricultural production and the challenges of growing good food to put on the table with limited resources,” Ogejo said. “I hope this work will help make farmers’ work a bit easier.”

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