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FAQ on the Upper Potomac Spill

Below are some of the most frequently asked questions ICPRB has received regarding the September 23, 2015, spill in Luke, Md. If you have additional questions, please feel free to contact us. We will continue to update this page as more information is available.

Where did the spill occur and how much was spilled?

A valve in a tank that holds a synthetic latex-like chemical used to coat paper at the Verso paper mill in Luke, Md., was accidentally left open. The tank was being filled from a rail car, and the contaminant flowed into a containment area, then flowed to the wastewater treatment plant in Westernport, Md. About 10,000 gallons of the material went through treatment and into the North Branch Potomac River.

Is the contaminant toxic?

The latex is not considered a toxic substance. However, water utilities remain vigilant regarding the safety of their equipment and effects on river ecology. To date, no fish kills or other damage has been observed, and the treatment plant that the spill ran through before entering the river reported no damage to the bacterial colonies used in the treatment process.

How are the water utilities responding?

The ICPRB is working with drinking water utilities along the Potomac to keep them informed. A series of conference calls has allowed officials to communicate with each other and get briefed on the latest news. They were given estimates of the times when the contaminant plume will arrive at their intake, the peak concentration, and when the plume will be past the intake. Some of the utilities have stored water and will close their intakes until the contaminant has passed. Others further downstream have time to decide whether to close their intake, and are using this time to gather information on whether the contaminant could damage the treatment plant. Please contact your local water utility company with additional questions.

When is it expected to reach my area?

As part of ICPRB’s spill response protocol, the Emergency River Spill Model is continuously utilized to predict the travel time of the pollutant down the river. A limitation of the model is that it uses a single flow level to estimate travel time. The river is always dynamic, but especially so because of a recent upstream reservoir release and heavy rains in the watershed. The travel times are an approximation used to show utilities when they should start monitoring for the contaminant and when it will likely pass their intake. As of September 30, the contaminant plume is close to Hagerstown, Md., and will likely reach the metropolitan area water intakes on October 3. The ICPRB continues to run the Toxic Spill Model to help guide the utilities’ management decisions.

Will I have a reaction to the water if I am allergic to latex?

Although the coating substance is called “latex,” it is a synthetic compound and is not expected to affect people allergic to latex or other rubber products.

Can I still kayak/SUP/fish?

Based on current information, the substance is not harmful, but has discolored the water upstream. With the heavy rainfall predicted for the next few days, it is probably a good idea to stay off the water anyway until the contaminant passes. All this rain is quickly diluting the contaminant, and model runs predict a concentration of less than 1 part-per-million when it reaches the northern metropolitan area.

I am on a well. Will it affect my water supply?

No. There is no indication that the contaminant has entered the groundwater.

What do I do if I see a spill?

If you suspect a contaminant spill has occurred, please notify ICPRB and the appropriate agency. You can find our contact information and a list of agencies on our Spill Response page.

The red circle on the Google map above indicates the spot where the contaminant entered the river.

Looking to stay informed of spills in the Potomac River basin? Sign up for our Newsletter and follow us on Facebook and Twitter to get the updates!


Photo Credit: Jack Delawder, Paw Paw Water Plant

Photo of a muddy-looking river from the top of a bridge.

ICPRB Tracks Latex Spill for Water Utilities

The ICPRB is using an emergency spill model that can help water utilities in dealing with a spill of synthetic latex that entered the North Branch Potomac at Westernport, Md., on September 23, 2015.

The spill of synthetic latex occurred when a rail car of the substance was being unloaded at the Verso paper mill in Luke, Md. About 10,000 gallons spilled into a containment area and traveled to the Upper Potomac River Commission wastewater treatment plant in Westernport, Md., and was discharged to the North Branch Potomac. The Maryland Department of the Environment is investigating the spill, and is awaiting lab results of samples taken from the river. The agency noted that the latex substance, used to coat paper, is not expected to threaten public water supplies at this time.

The ICPRB Emergency River Spill Model provides more than a dozen downstream water intakes with estimates of the time of arrival, maximum contaminant concentration, and the time the contaminant is expected to be past the intake. The model results can be used to guide management decisions by drinking water utilities to protect public drinking water supplies, such as storing water and shutting intakes until the contaminant has passed.

Releases of water from reservoirs (such as a release from the Savage Reservoir last weekend) and rainfall can alter the results as the model uses a set value for river flow. The ICPRB spill staff has now produced multiple model runs covering a range of flow conditions, which have been passed along to the water utilities.  The contaminant may take days or weeks to reach the Washington metropolitan area water intakes, depending on the amount of rainfall during the next few days. The staff at ICPRB will continue to update this information to provide drinking water utilities with the best information available to guide protection of the resource. Visit this page to learn more about how ICPRB addresses toxic spills in the Potomac River basin.

**Updated 10/1/2015**

The ICPRB continues to run the Toxic Spill Model and coordinate with water utilities. The most recent run of the Toxic Spill Model (on September 30), indicates the plume will likely reach the DC metropolitan area on or around October 4, 2015, and will have a concentration of less than 1 part per million at that time. Based on sampling results from MDE, styrene and other VOCs are not being detected in the plume.

According to the Maryland Department of the Environment, the synthetic latex is not considered a toxic substance. Water utilities are being vigilant for possible damage to water treatment facilities, but none are expected at this time.  No fish kills are expected and none have been reported.

Please see our FAQ on the Upper Potomac Spill page for more information.

**Updated 10/2/2015**

The ICPRB ran it’s final Toxic Spill Model on October 1, 2015 and does not plan on providing any further travel time updates. The plume is expected to arrive in the DC metropolitan area on October 4-5, 2015, at a concentration of less than 0.05 parts per million. Due to recent heavy rains, an increase in river flow has moved the plume quickly down the river and has helped dilute the contaminant.

The Washington Aqueduct reports that tests of water samples collected in the contaminant plume indicated that the contaminants are readily removed by conventional treatment and do not contain detectable volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

The Maryland Department of the Environment has provided a summary of the spill and their sampling results. According to MDE, this is not considered a health concern.

The red circle on the Google map above indicates the spot where the contaminant entered the river.

Looking to stay informed of spills in the Potomac River basin? Sign up for our Newsletter and follow us on Facebook and Twitter to get the updates!


Photo Credit: Jack Delawder, Paw Paw Water Plant

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ICPRB is Hiring!

The Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin seeks a Water Resources Fellow for a one-year position in the Drinking Water and Water Resources department.

This position’s purpose is to support water resource analyses. Understanding water quality and availability issues in the basin is greatly enhanced through the spatial analysis of data. This is particularly challenging in the Potomac basin which spans portions of four states and the District of Columbia. There are multiple projects in the Water Resources division and in the Section for Cooperative Water Supply Operations on the Potomac (CO-OP) that require specialized spatial analysis and programming skills. The water resources fellow will execute mapping tasks as well as conceptualize strategies for answering water resource questions, as defined by ICPRB staff. The fellow will also execute programming tasks using JavaScript and/or Python, and MySQL and/or PostgreSQL.

Successful candidates will meet the following requirements:

  • Experience conducting geographic analyses and independent research projects related to land use, water supply, source water protection, water quality, and/or hydrology using ESRI or open source mapping tools.
  • Proficiency with Microsoft Excel, web-based mapping, and JavaScript with MySQL and/or PostgreSQL databases required.
  • Programming experience with Drupal and Python desired.
  • Capable of synthesizing data and information into short issue briefs.
  • Demonstrated commitment to environmental stewardship and collaborative management of resources.

Compensation: $40,000, plus benefits

Duration: 1 year

Preferred Education: Master’s candidate or recent graduate in water resources, environmental science, planning, geography, engineering, or related field. ICPRB is an Equal Opportunity Employer that strives to maintain a diverse workforce. ICPRB is located in Rockville, Maryland.

Please send an electronic copy of cover letter and resume to jobs@icprb.org by 5:00 PM on September 30, 2015.

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September Water Supply Outlook

Summary/Conclusions:

There is a below normal probability of releases from the Washington metropolitan area’s back-up water supply reservoirs for the 2015 summer and fall seasons. Generally, the use of Jennings Randolph and Little Seneca reservoirs is triggered by low flows brought about by a combination of low summer precipitation and low groundwater levels. The MARFC’s Water Resource Outlook for the southern portion of the Middle Atlantic reports that precipitation in the month of August has been below normal, with a basin averaged precipitation 1.9 inches below normal. Precipitation is expected to be below normal to above normal in the next month. Low precipitation and river flow caused COOP to initiate daily monitoring and reporting of Potomac River flows and withdrawals on August 31. COOP will continue to prepare for the possibility that more serious drought conditions could develop in the upcoming weeks. At present, there is sufficient flow in the Potomac River to meet the Washington metropolitan area’s water demands without augmentation from upstream reservoirs. In the event that low-flow conditions do develop, the Washington metropolitan area is wellprotected from a water supply shortage because of carefully designed drought-contingency plans.

ICPRB’s Low Flow Outlook:

There is a 3 to 12 percent conditional probability that natural Potomac flow will drop below 600- to 700-million gallons per day (MGD) at Little Falls through December 31 of this year; at these flow levels, water supply releases from Jennings Randolph and Little Seneca reservoirs may occur. Releases occur when predicted flow is less than demand plus a required flow-by. Drinking water demand ranges from 400 to 700 MGD during the summer months and the minimum flow-by at Little Falls is 100 MGD. Note that natural flow is defined as observed flow at the Little Falls gage plus total Washington metropolitan Potomac withdrawals, with an adjustment made to remove the effect of North Branch reservoir releases on stream flow.

The conditional probability is estimated by analyzing the historical stream flow records and giving consideration to recent stream flow values, precipitation totals for the prior 12 months, current groundwater levels, and the current Palmer Drought Index. Past years in which watershed conditions most closely resemble current conditions are weighted more heavily in the determination of conditional probability. The historical, or unconditional, probability is based on an analysis of the historical record without weighing for current conditions. The conditional probability of 3 to 12 percent compares to a historical probability of 7 to 14 percent and is considered the more reliable indicator.

Note: Natural flow at Little Falls was slightly below the 1200 MGD on September 1. The WSO’s probabilistic model uses a monthly time step and relies on data from the previous months to compute conditional probabilities for the coming months. Results shown in the last column of the table below reflect conditions as of August 31.

Learn More

 

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Metropolitan Washington Drinking Water Supply Adequate to 2035

The existing water supplies that serve more than four million residents can adequately meet demands through the Year 2035, according to a new study by the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin (ICPRB). Drought conditions as severe as the worst drought on record will likely require some form of mandatory use restrictions, however.

Looking further to 2040, the current supply system could experience considerable stress requiring stronger use restrictions, and some reservoir resources may be exhausted. During a severe 2040 drought there also is a small probability that the flow of the Potomac River could drop slightly below the environmental flow guideline of 100 million gallons per day (mgd) as measured at Little Falls Dam.

The study also assessed possible effects of climate change on the system. The impact on water supply varies dramatically depending on the change in stream flow that may result from changes in precipitation and temperature. Results from this study indicate that in the event of a severe drought with 2040 forecasted demands, the following range of potential impacts on the system could be expected.

  • If summer flows fall by 10 percent or more: During a severe drought, most system reservoirs would be drained and on some days the system would be unable to meet water supply demands and the 100 mgd environmental flow-by at Little Falls.
  • If summer flows change by 0 to +10 percent: the moderate increase in flows would not be enough to prevent some water use restrictions from occurring during a severe drought; some reservoir storage could be seriously depleted.
  • If summer flows rise by 20 percent or more: a substantial increase in flows would increase metropolitan area water supplies sufficiently to allow the current metropolitan area system to meet forecasted 2040 demands.

The study makes several recommendations, including,

  • The region’s water suppliers should continue their efforts to identify and evaluate potential new water supply storage facilities and conduct an evaluation of the relative benefits of new storage facilities, non-structural changes in operations, and other options. Enhance flow forecasting abilities to allow more precise operation and avoidance of shortages.
  • Further develop ICPRB’s database and model of Potomac basin water withdrawals and consumptive use to provide a sound foundation for basin-wide water supply planning and for a planned basin-wide comprehensive plan.

The study is performed every five years by the ICPRB Section for Water Supply Operations on the Potomac River (CO-OP). The CO-OP works with the metropolitan area water suppliers to coordinate normally independent water supply operations during droughts, and studies the water supply system to improve operations and plan for its future reliability.

You can download the complete study on the ICPRB website.

The ICPRB CO-OP works closely with the Washington metropolitan area water utilities, Fairfax Water, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Washington Aqueduct Division, which collectively provide the bulk of potable water to the region’s residents. The suppliers usually operate independently, but work together with CO-OP during drought conditions to assure that all demands are met equitably. The CO-OP also provides important services, including annual drought exercises an analyses of potential changes to the existing system.

Water Supply Outlook

August Water Supply Outlook

Summary/Conclusions:

There is a below normal probability of releases from the Washington metropolitan area’s back-up water supply reservoirs for the 2015 summer and fall seasons. Generally, the use of Jennings Randolph and Little Seneca reservoirs is triggered by low flows brought about by a combination of low summer precipitation and low groundwater levels. The MARFC’s Water Resource Outlook for the southern portion of the Middle Atlantic reports that precipitation in the month of July has been scattered and variable, with a basin averaged precipitation 0.5 inches below normal. Precipitation is expected to be near or above normal in the next month. Dry weather conditions are still possible later this summer. At present, there is sufficient flow in the Potomac River to meet the Washington metropolitan area’s water demands without augmentation from upstream reservoirs. In the event that low-flow conditions do develop, the Washington metropolitan area is well-protected from a water supply shortage because of carefully designed drought-contingency plans.

ICPRB’s Low Flow Outlook:

There is a 1 to 4 percent conditional probability that natural Potomac flow will drop below 600- to 700-million gallons per day (MGD) at Little Falls through December 31 of this year; at these flow levels, water supply releases from Jennings Randolph and Little Seneca reservoirs may occur. Releases occur when predicted flow is less than demand plus a required flow-by. Drinking water demand ranges from 400 to 700 MGD during the summer months and the minimum flow-by at Little Falls is 100 MGD. Note that natural flow is defined as observed flow at the Little Falls gage plus total Washington metropolitan Potomac withdrawals, with an adjustment made to remove the effect of North Branch reservoir releases on stream flow.

The conditional probability is estimated by analyzing the historical stream flow records and giving consideration to recent stream flow values, precipitation totals for the prior 12 months, current groundwater levels, and the current Palmer Drought Index. Past years in which watershed conditions most closely resemble current conditions are weighted more heavily in the determination of conditional probability. The historical, or unconditional, probability is based on an analysis of the historical record without weighting for current conditions. The conditional probability of 1 to 4 percent compares to a historical probability of 7 to 15 percent and is considered the more reliable indicator.

Learn More

Water Supply Outlook

July Water Supply Outlook

Summary/Conclusions:

There is below normal probability of releases from the Washington metropolitan area’s back-up water supply reservoirs for the 2015 summer and fall seasons. Generally, the use of Jennings Randolph and Little Seneca reservoirs is triggered by low flows brought about by a combination of low summer precipitation and low groundwater levels. The MARFC’s Water Resource Outlook for the southern portion of the Middle Atlantic reports that this month’s precipitation indicates that a wet period has begun and has been decreasing the effects of the late spring dry spell. Additional precipitation is expected to continue to ease any remaining dry conditions. Though dry weather conditions are still possible later this summer, current conditions are positive. At present, there is sufficient flow in the Potomac River to meet the Washington metropolitan area’s water demands without augmentation from upstream reservoirs. In the event that low-flow conditions do develop, the Washington metropolitan area is well-protected from a water supply shortage because of carefully designed drought-contingency plans.

ICPRB’s Low Flow Outlook:

There is a 1 to 3 percent conditional probability that natural Potomac flow will drop below 600- to 700-million gallons per day (MGD) at Little Falls through December 31 of this year; at these flow levels, water supply releases from Jennings Randolph and Little Seneca reservoirs may occur. Releases occur when predicted flow is less than demand plus a required flow-by. Demand ranges from 400 to 700 MGD during the summer months and the minimum flow-by at Little Falls is 100 MGD. Note that natural flow is defined as observed flow at the Little Falls gage plus total Washington metropolitan Potomac withdrawals, with an adjustment made to remove the effect of North Branch reservoir releases on stream flow.

The conditional probability is estimated by analyzing the historical stream flow records and giving consideration to recent stream flow values, precipitation totals for the prior 12 months, current groundwater levels, and the current Palmer Drought Index. Past years in which watershed conditions most closely resemble current conditions are weighted more heavily in the determination of conditional probability. The historical, or unconditional, probability is based on an analysis of the historical record without weighting for current conditions. The conditional probability of 1 to 3 percent compares to a historical probability of 8 to 15 percent and is considered the more reliable indicator.

Learn More

Water Supply Outlook

June Water Supply Outlook

Summary/Conclusions:

There is an above normal probability of releases from the Washington metropolitan area’s back-up water supply reservoirs for the 2015 summer and fall seasons. Generally, the use of Jennings Randolph and Little Seneca reservoirs is triggered by low flows brought about by a combination of low summer precipitation and low groundwater levels. According to MARFC’s Water Resource Outlook for the southern portion of the Middle Atlantic, below normal precipitation over the past several weeks indicates that a dry spell has started. Although still short term, if this overall dryness continues, then longer term deficits will grow and effects will increase, such as low stream flows, low groundwater levels, and dry soils. Expected precipitation for the month of June may help ease some of the increasingly dry conditions. At present, there is sufficient flow in the Potomac River to meet the Washington metropolitan area’s water demands without augmentation from upstream reservoirs. In the event that low-flow conditions do develop, the Washington metropolitan area is well-protected from a water supply shortage because of carefully designed drought-contingency plans.

ICPRB’s Low Flow Outlook:

There is a 10 to 19 percent conditional probability that natural Potomac flow will drop below 600- to 700-million gallons per day (MGD) at Little Falls through December 31 of this year; at these flow levels, water supply releases from Jennings Randolph and Little Seneca reservoirs may occur. Releases occur when predicted flow is less than demand plus a required flow-by. Demand ranges from 400 to 700 MGD during the summer months and the minimum flow-by at Little Falls is 100 MGD. Note that natural flow is defined as observed flow at the Little Falls gage plus total Washington metropolitan Potomac withdrawals, with an adjustment made to remove the effect of North Branch reservoir releases on stream flow.

The conditional probability is estimated by analyzing the historical stream flow records and giving consideration to recent stream flow values, precipitation totals for the prior 12 months, current groundwater levels, and the current Palmer Drought Index. Past years in which watershed conditions most closely resemble current conditions are weighted more heavily in the determination of conditional probability. The historical, or unconditional, probability is based on an analysis of the historical record without weighting for current conditions. The conditional probability of 10 to 19 percent compares to a historical probability of 8 to 15 percent and is considered the more reliable indicator.

Learn more about the Water Supply Outlook.

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Apply today! ICPRB seeks Communications Specialist

Support the communications/outreach program of a multi-state water resources agency. Major responsibility for production and maintenance of website content (using WordPress) and related social media and news story development; develop education and outreach materials; assist technical staff with report production, respond to information requests.

B.A. in journalism/communications or related degree or 2 years related experience. Some experience in writing, web site maintenance, and public outreach. Familiarity with water, environment issues preferred.

Send cover letter, resume, salary history, and two writing samples to info@icprb.org or mail to Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin, Communications Specialist Position, 30 West Gude Drive, Suite 450, Rockville, MD 20850. Good benefits package. EEO.  Please respond by May 22. No phone calls, please.