“The Big Here” – Water

Thanh -- April 21st, 2007

The other week finnegan posted a quiz called “the big here,” which included several questions about the local environment. finnegan had shared the quiz with me and I took an attempt at answering as many questions as I could. Even as an Environmental Specialist, I learned that I do not know as much as I wish I did. Out of a total of 34 questions, I felt confident about 12 of my answers, the rest I either took a lame attempt or had no clue. My excuse could be that I am not a native to to Harrisonburg or the Shenandoah Valley, but then I realized I wouldn’t know these answers if they were applied to my hometown. Here are some of my answers, primarily to questions relating to water and watersheds… if I’m wrong, please speak up!

3) Trace the water you drink from rainfall to your tap. Potable water for residents in the City of Harrisonburg is provided by the City of Harrisonburg’s Public Utilities (Water/Sewer) Department. Potable water comes into my house from several sources. However, the one pipe leading up to my house serves water for drinking, filling the toilet, and any landscaping (which is why I think rainbarrels are so important; why waste good, treated drinking water for landscaping needs?). Today, the City gets water from two sources. 1) From the west, near Switzer Dam and Rawley Springs and 2) from the South near Bridgewater (from the North River). After rain falls in these two areas and/or flows to these areas from the surrounding landscape and areas upstream, the water is pumped to Harrisonburg where it goes through a water treatment plant. From there, the water gets stored in one of the water tanks within Harrisonburg (but I’m not sure which one is closest to my home). From there the water is pumped alongside several streets in pipes underground until it reaches my home and comes out of my tap. For more information visit the Public Utilities website. Here’s an article from the Daily-News Record.

4) When you flush, where do the solids go? What happens to the waste water? The solids, which includes poop, toilet paper, and in some people’s homes things that shouldn’t be flushed, flow through sanitary sewer pipes adjacent to streets towards a low point in the land, generally into pipes alongside Blacks Run. The solids eventually flow to the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Regional Sewer Authority, located in Mount Crawford, where solids get filtered out, allowed to settle out, and then the waste water gets treated for nutrients and other biologicals in the water (more details). However, not EVERYTHING gets treated because people flush all sorts of unknown, unexpected and improper things down the toilet. Whatever doesn’t get filtered or treated, things like pharmacueticals, detergents, or chemicals dumped down the sink, flows into the Shenandoah River to become someone else’s drinking water. I hope their drinking water treatment plant is good. (More info on emmerging contaminants, in tap water)

7) How far do you have to travel before you reach a different watershed? Can you draw the boundaries of yours? We are a part of MANY watersheds and subwatersheds. One well known watershed is the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. The Chesapeake Bay watershed encompasses much of Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Deleware. The smallest well distinguished watershed to Harrisonburg is the Blacks Run Watershed. A neighboring watershed is Cooks Creek, which is part of the Shenandoah River watershed, which is part of the Potomac River watershed and again we’re back to the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

13) How many people live in your watershed? Again with the watershed questions. Depends on which watershed we are referring to.

17) Right here, how deep do you have to drill before you reach water? I don’t know. Can someone help me find out?

18) Which (if any) geological features in your watershed are, or were, especially respected by your community, or considered sacred, now or in the past? Well, like a lot of other areas, Harrisonburg sprung up near a water supply. Here in Harrisonburg we have many natural springs. Blacks Run is primarily spring fed. With that, I’d like for everyone to think about this – for all the problems that Blacks Run suffers, we have no one upstream to blame. Blacks Run begins here in Harrisonburg, so any problems that it has with fecal coliform, sedimentation, etc is a result of activities here in Harrisonburg. However, anything that we do the water affects those who live downstream of us. Just a thought.

21) What was the total rainfall here last year? I don’t know. Any idea where I can find this information out? Any idea where I can view trends in rainfall over the last few years, decades? I’m sure the USGS keeps track of this, but I can’t find it. (I found an average of 34.4 inches for Harrisonburg here.)

28) After the rain runs off your roof, where does it go? After the rain runs off my roof, down through the downspout it either gets absorbed into the soil beneath and around the downspout where it can replenish the water table, or be absorbed by plants, OR it can flow across the surface of my property into a nearby storm drain and into Blacks Run… and again with the watersheds, it may end up in the Cheapeake Bay or Atlantic Ocean. It might even evaporate into the air.

This was fun. If someone else doesn’t post answers for the other questions, I will work on them and post again soon… I believe finnegan is researching information on electricity. Okay, enough of this for me. Time to go back to enjoying the beautiful weather outside! Happy weekend everyone!

12 Responses to ““The Big Here” – Water”

  1. finnegan says:

    Thanks for all this info, Thanh.

    Even thought it seems like an obvious and simple thing, I had never actually seen a rain barrel before last weekend, when I saw the demo at the Blacks Run cleanup display area. Great idea.

  2. Frank Witt says:

    apparently with nothing better to do during a slow time here in the restaurant…it seems at 310 feet you will hit water. I may also be reading this wrong…that would be nothing new.
    Have fun wasting more time !


  3. linz says:

    I am fascinated by this. I grew up out in Rockingham where we knew that all water came from and went right back into the Shenandoah River and surrounding ground water supplies. My parents’ property had its own drainage field and septic. Being in Harrisonburg now, I really hadn’t thought about the path the water takes. The quiz, along with the posted answers (thanks!) has forced me to think about it and I’m glad.

    For all of us, I feel like answering questions like these breaks an overwhelming environmental issue down into parts that we can start to focus on and improve (like using rain barrels, having Blacks Run cleanup days, and not flushing/draining chemicals), rather than just taking things for granted or feeling like we can’t really make a difference. Just understanding the issue more makes me feel like I have to and can do something to help.

  4. linz says:

    My husband and I recently started receiving city water bills (we used to rent, and water was included) and I was looking forward to having a super low bill because we had made sure to conserve water. We were both surprised to find out that, although our water usage was very low, the city still charges a household minimum (of around $15) even though the household used less water than the value of the minimum charge. From a business standpoint, I understand why this is done. But we are living in a world that is finally waking up to environmental issues, so I don’t like the idea of there being a cut off point where people no longer have financial incentive to conserve fresh water.

  5. Daytonres says:

    One other water source for H’burg may be Silver Lake. There had to be repairs to the dam at Silver Lake several years ago and the work was done by the city. It was explained to me at the time why that was the case, which I no longer remember. I could be way off here, but I think the city “owns” Silver Lake and the valuable spring beneath it that replenishes the water there.

  6. Frank Witt says:

    If anyone would like to see them hazards involved in either throwing trash out your window in your car or dumping/draining ANYTHING to the streets…please feel free to walk up the “spill way” between Central and Emery streets. Looks pretty enough down by Pleasant Hill Rd and not so pretty about a block away.

  7. JGFitzgerald says:

    The North River, the Dry River, and Silver Lake are the three sources for the city. A pipeline is being built to the South Fork. The city treats and uses Dry River water first because it’s cheapest to treat, as the intake is above most of the farms, and it’s cheapest to pump, as it’s running downhill. The pipeline intake will be downstream of the treatment plant.

  8. Thanh says:

    Thanks for the correction regarding Silver Lake. I had no idea. I looked a little further into Silver Lake and found that it is only used as a source in times of emergencies.

    And linz, I agree with you. Breaking down these seemingly complex processes definately helps me to recognize what I can do at home to help the environment. I kind of hope to turn my home into somewhat of a demonstration project for my friends. Often people think that changes need to be big or they wont make a difference (but imagine if you and your neighbors collectively made small changes, that adds up!) or people think that changes are out of reach, are too hard. I don’t like to preach to people or tell them what to do, but I think it helps to see examples of slight modifications and to see that they work. I just constructed a compost bin in my backyard this weekend using old pallets, saving them from the landfill, thanks to my neighbors for the idea!

    Lastly, I’d like to share with you all this great book called the “Organic Suburbanite”. http://www.amazon.com/Organic-Suburbanite-Environmentally-Friendly-American/dp/0875968600. It has some great tips in it, and its a fun read.

  9. Bubby says:

    The “solids” in your sewage end up being land applied by a contractor in the piedmont. They are supposed to act as a crop fertilizer. Formerly the local WWTP composted the solids on site and sold them to VDOT for roadway improvement. This allowed for a conversion of the nutrients to a form that is less leachable, and hence less likely to contaminate surface and groundwater.

    Groundwater can be found with 15 feet of the surface throughout the area. Modern potable wells are drilled and cased into the bedrock, then extended until reliable (>5 gpm) clear water is found. 300ft. is a good estimate. But for the most part the local geology is a mix of limestone-types, a rock that dissolves in the percolating groundwater low pH. This leaves a condition known as “open conduit” flow – the rock looks like swiss cheese (think cavern). Essentially groundwater has the opportunity to flow from the surface to your well intake unfiltered. This is known as surface influence and is a factor in municipal as well as private water wells throughout the region. A majority of private wells and the County wells were found to have surface contaminants from septic fields and animal waste in a recent survey. The local groundwater quality is threatened by surface runoff contaminated by our land use practices.

    The north Fork of the Shenandoah is severely impacted by nutrient run-off, the South Fork also has nutrient problems as well as mercury from Waynesboro, and PCB’s from Front Royal. Federal and State agencies warn against eating fish from the Shen, and has been designated as one of the most endangered rivers in the US. Fish kills continue to happen with regularity during low-flow months.

  10. Thanh says:

    Thanks Bubby for that info on “solids”. When I was answering the question, I forgot to continue discussion of the actual solids… too focused on the water itself. I have heard both good and bad things, promises and concerns regarding the use of biosolids. I suppose the good is that human feces (like cow manure) has a lot of nutrients in it and acts as a great fertilizer when applied properly. The bad is the potential for things like heavy metals and unwanted chemicals in the biosolids. Basically, we are trying to mimic nature (which is great), but we need to be mindful of what we pour down the sink for this to be really safe. Does anyone have any more information or thoughts on this subject?

    I found this website by the Commonwealth of Virginia on biosolids: http://www.biosolids.state.va.us/.

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