News

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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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.

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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.

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What is ICPRB doing for the Chesapeake Bay restoration?

ICPRB works with federal, state, and local partners to help achieve many of the goals and outcomes described in the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Agreement. Organized by the Outcomes listed in the Agreement, ICPRB’s activities include:
  • Forage Fish and Fish Passage Outcomes. For 20 years, ICPRB has been actively engaged in the restoration of American shad in the Potomac River and other Chesapeake tributaries and the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers have achieved their Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission population targets. ICPRB is advising the states on shad restoration in other tributaries and is a member of Bay Program workgroups for these outcomes.
  • Stream Health Outcome. ICPRB is developing one of the principal measures that the Chesapeake Bay Program (CBP) will use to measure stream health for this outcome.
  • 2017 and 2025 Watershed Implementation Plans Outcomes. ICPRB is part of the team developing the Phase 6 Chesapeake Bay Model, which is the key tool that will be used to assign pollutant load allocations to different land types and jurisdictions and to track progress in meeting pollution reduction goals.
  • Water Quality Standards Attainment and Monitoring Outcome. ICPRB is involved in building and maintaining the monitoring databases at the CBP and uses its expertise to analyze those data to determine status and trends of water quality and living resources parameters.
  • Citizen Stewardship, Local Leadership, Student Environmental Literacy, and Sustainable Schools, Outcomes. ICPRB runs several workshop and training programs for teachers and students. These include:
    • Watershed Connections workshops for teachers, where groups of teachers build table-top watershed models using common materials. The models are then used by students to explore how changes in land use affect water quality, soil erosion, and the spread of contaminants, and how best management practices can address problems.
    • Assessments of school grounds so that students and teachers can improve their schools through installation of appropriate best management practices. The assessment is performed in a classroom setting.
    • Stream Monitoring/Ecology programs. Outreach to schools to help them assess their local stream. This pilot project will result in monthly lesson plans that can be used by teachers in subsequent years.
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What does ICPRB do to address toxic spill threats?

On February 16, a train including tank cars carrying crude oil derailed with some of the cars dropping into the Kanawha River in West Virginia. Although not in the Potomac basin, this event is a reminder that accidental spills of toxic materials are an ever present risk to human health and the environment. Of particular concern are events that threaten drinking water. In the metro Washington area, 75% of drinking water comes from the Potomac River. Across the basin there are 77 public water supply systems with surface water intakes. When spills occur, local emergency responders, state emergency management agencies, and federal agencies mobilize quickly to protect public health and minimize environmental impacts. For spills into the Potomac River and its major tributaries, ICPRB has a role in emergency response and on a continuing basis works with other agencies to maintain and even improve preparedness.

Spill Emergency Response

When notified of a spill ICPRB’s emergency response role is to alert downstream water utilities and water management agencies that a spill has occurred. Using ICPRB’s Emergency River Spill Model, the staff calculates contaminant concentrations and travel times to water intakes and share that information with the utilities and agencies.  The spill model can calculate travel times for the Potomac River mainstem from Cumberland to Little Falls, plus the Shenandoah, South Branch Potomac, and Monocacy rivers, and Antietam and Conococheague creeks. Staff members are trained to run the spill model and carry out our spill communication procedures and they share responsibility for responding to an event at any time. Every year, spill events occur that turn out to be insignificant threats to water supply but provide regular opportunities for practicing our spill response procedures.

Spill Protection Planning

ICPRB is working with government agencies and utilities to improve our knowledge of spill risks and improve preparedness for spill events. The work is generally under the umbrella of the Potomac River Basin Drinking Water Source Protection Partnership (DWSPP). ICPRB collaborated with other agencies in planning and executing spill exercises in 2008, 2012, and an upcoming exercise in June of this year. With each of these exercises the participating agencies gain a better understanding of the threats and identify gaps in response procedures that need to be addressed.

Prompted by a series of spill events in early 2014 (storage tank failure in Charleston, West Virginia; train derailment into the James River, Virginia; coal ash release into the Dan River, North Carolina), ICPRB began discussions with EPA Region 3 about updating the District of Columbia Source Water Assessment Plan (D.C. SWAP). A new D.C. SWAP has relevance to the entire Potomac basin upstream of Washington because the entire watershed is D.C.’s source water area and an inventory of threats to D.C. water supply can provide an inventory of threats to other water utilities in the basin. At the quarterly DWSPP meeting on February 24, the EPA representative said they hope the new DC SWAP will be “a model SWAP” for the nation.

Also in 2014, but on a separate track, the MWCOG received a grant from the Department of Homeland Security to undertake a variety of water security tasks, including an inventory of spill threats to drinking water for the metro Washington area. ICPRB and DWSPP participate in the planning for both projects.

Stay Informed

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.

An image of an icy river. A large military ship is in the background.

Road Salts & Water Quality

While a winter snow can lead to warm and cozy day at home, the de-icing materials used to keep traffic flowing can be negatively affecting water quality. This is especially true when the products are applied incorrectly or flow with runoff into nearby streams. Impacts are not isolated to the winter months. The road salt’s chloride can be stored in soil and groundwater only to be released into streams throughout the rest of the year. Chronic and acute chloride levels can harm both plant and animal life in and along streams. Additionally, high sodium content in sources of drinking water can lead to taste and odor challenges for water suppliers and be an issue for individuals restricted to a low-sodium diet.

To minimize the water quality impacts and maintain safe roads, some communities are exploring alternatives to road salts and changing application procedures around high quality and sensitive streams. Learn more about alternative products and application methods from the Potomac River Basin Drinking Water Source Protection Partnership and the Chesapeake Bay Program.

For more on information on increasing concentrations of chloride in U.S. streams, read “River chloride trends in snow-affected urban watersheds: increasing concentrations outpace urban growth rate and are common among all seasons,” from the U.S. Geological Survey. ICPRB works to address this issue through the Potomac River Basin Drinking Water Source Protection Partnership.