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What the Texas State Aquarium is up to after Harvey

They’re doing what they need to do, which they should be doing.

During Harvey, aquarium officials took in other birds and marine animals from the University of Texas-Austin Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas and the Aquarium at Rockport Harbor — both areas that were devastated by the storm. They rescued pets such as Macaws, goats and chickens abandoned by owners who were fleeing Harvey’s torrent of wind and rain. And after the storm passed, they took in and cared for injured Brown Pelicans, turtles and other marine life.

Most returned to the wild. Others, like Storm, never will.

This kind of rehabilitation work is nothing new for the aquarium; it has been part of its mission, along with conservation, since it opening almost 30 years ago. It’s become such an important part of their work, officials said, they plan to open a new rehabilitation facility on their campus as early as 2021. Officials expect it will cost up to $20 million.

A new state-of-the-art building is important, aquarium president and CEO Tom Schmid said, because it’s only a matter of time before the Gulf of Mexico has another environmental disaster like Deepwater Horizon. When that oil rig exploded in April 2010, nearly 3.2 million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf, harming animals, marine life and coral.

“We need to make sure we are ready for any environmental issue out there,” he said.

There’s a lot more, so go read the rest. Storm, by the way, is a Magnificent Frigatebird that the aquarium rescued right after Harvey. They’re doing a lot of good and necessary work at the Texas State Aquarium, and they deserve our support. I love aquariums and have visited several in my travels on the west coast, but I need to find a reason to call on this one.

Save the bats

In case you needed something else to worry about.

Texas researchers have closely watched the state’s bat population for years, looking for signs of a disease that has killed millions of North American bats: the white, powder-like substance on their nose and wings, the erratic hibernation patterns, the piles of dead bats at cave openings.

And every year, those researchers breathed a sigh of relief. Their bats were safe.

That changed last year. Swabs from three different kinds of bats in the Lone Star State’s panhandle came back positive for white nose syndrome, aptly named for the white fungus that grows on the tiny winged creatures.

The discovery of the disease, which has a nearly 100 percent mortality rate, was “devastating,” said Winifred Frick, senior director of conservation science at the Austin-based Bat Conservation International (BCI), at a news conference Tuesday.

But about $600,000 in grants announced Tuesday by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation could help researchers stop the disease’s spread in Texas. That amount is part of $1.36 million being handed out in the U.S. and Canada for six projects. The money comes from public and private entities: the foundation, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Shell Oil Co., and Southern Co., an Atlanta-based gas and electric utility business.

With these funds “we’re hoping to make a stand,” said Paul Phifer, assistant regional director for ecological services at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Northeast region. “They show that the government working with the private sector can really turn research into action … so I’m really hopeful.”

I’m hopeful, too, because Texas is a very bat-ful state, and we need them around. Go visit Bat Conservation International if you want to learn more or get involved.

Remember the Katy Prairie

From the four things we could have done differently to maybe mitigate some of the worst effects of Harvey:

Preserve and restore as much prairie land as possible

Much of northwest Houston used to be covered in prairie land, where tall grasses could absorb huge amounts of floodwater. But most of it has been paved over in the past two decades amid rapid development and a massive influx of people. Between 2000 and 2010, this part of Houston grew by nearly 70 percent to a population of 587,142 — equivalent to that of Milwaukee. Restoring or preserving prairie can’t prevent flooding altogether, but it can be a tremendous help in mitigating the damage.

Some local officials flat-out disagree with this conclusion; they believe you can erect public works projects to catch and manage runoff — essentially fighting water with concrete — and don’t need more green space.

But the vast majority of scientists believe the region needs to impose stricter regulations on those who want to develop prairie land.

Just a reminder, because I see some variation of this – some more egregious than others – in every story like this one: The vast majority of this development and growth is outside the city of Houston. It affects the city of Houston, but there’s literally nothing the city could have done about it because it’s outside the city’s borders and ETJ. In the case of this story, I would note that while “the region” may need to impose stricter regulations on development, there is no “regional” authority to do that.

Now, let’s be honest enough to admit that even if we had all the green space we had thirty years ago, there’s only so much to be done about nine trillion gallons of water being dumped on you. A storm this size was always going to be a catastrophe, it just might have been a slightly smaller one if we had been smarter and perhaps a bit luckier. We can’t undo what has been done, but we can be more specific about just what paved over these former wetlands.

Torrential rains that flooded hundreds of northwest Harris County homes last week reinforced long-standing worries that development on the Katy Prairie could make future floods more frequent or more severe.

Development encouraged by a planned segment of the Grand Parkway connecting Interstate 10 to U.S. 290 threatens to diminish the environmentally sensitive prairie’s capacity to absorb floodwaters, said Jim Blackburn, an attorney representing the Sierra Club in two related lawsuits.

“The Katy Prairie, for decades, has been our sponge,” Blackburn said, noting that the prairie also provides valuable wetlands and wildlife habitat.

Tension between development interests and environmental and neighborhood groups surfaced in the Sierra Club’s 2007 lawsuit challenging flood plain maps for the Cypress Creek watershed, which encompasses the area where last week’s floods were most severe. The organization has filed a separate lawsuit challenging the parkway.

The developers of the Bridgeland master-planned community intervened in the case last year, seeking to prevent an expansion of flood plain boundaries that would require the company to take expensive steps to offset increased runoff downstream.

An executive of Bridgeland GP, the company developing the 11,400-acre community, said in a Jan. 9, 2008, affidavit that the revisions sought by the Sierra Club would cost the company $28 million in flood mitigation measures that would “adversely affect” the development.

Despite the company’s efforts, the maps are being redrawn under U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal’s supervision. Rosenthal has stayed the lawsuit until October to allow time to complete the maps, but officials said they aren’t certain when the task will be finished.

Preliminary revised maps shown to the Houston Chronicle by Blackburn and the Harris County Flood Control District show a significant expansion of the flood plain in an undeveloped western segment of Bridgeland’s property and a reduction of the flood plain in other areas.

That story is from 2009. Here’s one from 2011:

Over the decades, this 1,000 square mile sanctuary has largely survived the encroachment of farmers and relentless development pressure from neighboring Houston, thanks in no small part to its dedicated supporters.

But the Katy Prairie has never faced a opponent like the Grand Parkway before. Piece by piece, the Houston area has been building a third — yes, third — bypass for the region. And much to the horror of local environmentalists, the next segment is planned to directly bisect this extraordinary habitat.

Development of this pristine land isn’t just collateral damage — it’s the point of the project. Project sponsors make no bones about it: The 15.2-mile Grand Parkway segment through Katy Prairie is a $462 million development project as much as it is a transportation project. Known as “Segment E,” it would be the third phase in a 180-mile “scenic bypass” for Houston. Each of the 11 segments is considered a separate and “independently justifiable project.”

Billy Burge of the Grand Parkway Association says right now there isn’t much need for Segment E, in terms of traffic. Burge and his colleagues don’t shy away from the fact that the project will generate more car trips and sprawl. In fact, they have what you might call a “build it and they will come” philosophy about road-building and traffic.

“There’s real demand in 15 to 17 years to have this,” said Burge, who chairs the association overseeing the project for the state and the region. “Once that link is completed, you’ll have a steady stream of traffic.”

To hear Burge and his colleagues at TexDOT and Harris County tell it, they are simply trying to get out ahead of what they see as inevitable: sprawl, on top of sprawl, on top of sprawl. But not in a bad way, they say.

“It will increase sprawl but that’s really the reason people come to Houston: to have a big house and a big yard,” said Burge. “You can call it sprawl, or you can call it quality of life.”

If you want to see what will likely replace the switchgrass and wildflowers of Katy, look to the Bridgeland development. This massive, 12,000-acre “new urbanism” development, where homes sell from $160,000 to north of $1 million, stalled in the real estate crisis. Since then, developers have stepped up pressure on local authorities to bring forward highway infrastructure needed to jump start sales.

Anything that we can do to protect and restore the Katy Prairie going forward, we must do. I hope that the scarring experience of Harvey will put enough political pressure on the people who can do something about this to take action. But one thing we can’t do is decide not to build the Grand Parkway. It’s too late for that.

Border walls are bad for the environment

Not that anyone pushing for a border wall cares, but just so you know.

There’s been a lot of debate about how effective the Bush-era barrier has been at keeping out illegal crossers and drug smugglers. Some data indicates the barriers have encouraged people to cross in places where there isn’t one. But the handprints show that a determined person can still easily scale it.

What the border fence has kept out instead, according to environmentalists, scientists and local officials, is wildlife. And the people who have spent decades acquiring and restoring border habitat say that if President Donald Trump makes good on his promise to turn the border fence into a continuous, 40-foot concrete wall, the situation for wildlife along the border — one of the most biodiverse areas in North America — will only get worse.

Right now, a mix of vehicle barriers and pedestrian fencing covers only about one-third of the nearly 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border. Even with all those gaps, experts say the barriers have made it harder for animals to find food, water and mates. Many of them, like jaguars, gray wolves and ocelots, are already endangered.

Aaron Flesch, a biologist at the University of Arizona, said most border animals are already squeezed into small, fragmented patches of habitat.

“If you just go and you cut movements off,” he said, “you can potentially destabilize these entire networks of population.”

Still, the impacts of the border fence on wildlife aren’t totally understood. That’s in large part because Congress let the U.S. Department of Homeland Security ignore all the environmental laws that would’ve required the agency to fully study how the barrier would affect wildlife.

Flesch and other scientists say the federal government also has made almost no research money available to support independent studies. Most of the studies that have been done are limited in scope, but their findings are pretty clear: Impeding animal movements puts them on a faster path to extinction.

Environmentalists and conservation groups say the border fence also has compromised the federal government’s own efforts to protect those vulnerable species, pitting the U.S. Department of Homeland Security against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The latter agency bought large tracts of land along the border decades ago and turned them into national wildlife refuges.

It’s a long story, so click over to read it, and see also the border fence slideshow that accompanies it. But just reading those few paragraphs above, we all know there’s literally nothing here that would deter Dear Leader or any of the fervent wall zealots. What do they care about a bunch of stupid animals, or the scientists who say we’re hurting them? There are some fights you can win by being right and having the evidence on your side. This isn’t one of them.

Clean Power Plan can proceed for now

Good.

ERCOT

A federal appeals court has denied a request from Texas and other states to block President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, leaving the controversial climate change rules in place as a legal challenge winds through the courts.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia wrote Thursday that the states — joined by the coal industry — “have not satisfied the stringent requirements for a stay.”

The two-page order was an early victory for Obama and others who support the state-by-state effort to combat climate change by slashing carbon emissions from power plants — largely through a shift from coal-fired power to natural gas and renewable sources.

Texas and West Virginia are leading a 25-state coalition challenging the plan, arguing that it could push electricity costs too high and threaten reliability. Beyond declining to immediately halt the rules, the court on Thursday set oral arguments in the case for June 2.

[…]

Texas must cut an annual average of 51 million tons of carbon to reach its federal target, a reduction of about 21 percent from 2012 emissions. The mandate rankles Republicans, but proponents of the rules — backed by early analyses — suggest that market forces and existing policies alone will push Texas most of the way toward its target.

As it stands, states have until Sept. 6 to submit a final plan or apply for an extension.

Texas leaders have refused to confirm whether they will create a carbon-cutting plan in case they lose in court. If the state flouts the rule, the EPA will impose its own plan on the state.

See here and here for the background. In addition to being not too hard a target to meet, the Clean Power Plan would have the ancillary benefit of saving water, and there are power companies in Texas who support it and oppose the lawsuit against the EPA. Not that any of that matters to Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton. FuelFix and Think Progress have more.

The inevitable latest lawsuit against the EPA

As night follows the day.

ERCOT

As promised, Texas is suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over President Obama’s plan to combat climate change, Attorney General Ken Paxton announced Friday, just after the new regulation had been finalized.

The state is suing as part of a bipartisan coalition of 24 states — including Missouri and Kentucky, which are led by Democrats — that will jointly request a stay on the plan Friday afternoon.

The regulation, known as the Clean Power Plan, requires states to cut carbon emissions by shifting from coal power to natural gas and renewables over the next 15 years.

Paxton has warned that the Clean Power Plan would dramatically inflate the cost of electricity for consumers and imperil the state’s power grid, describing the regulation as a federal “power grab.”

[…]

The coalition will argue that the EPA “cannot force the states to regulate where the EPA doesn’t have authority to regulate itself,” Morrisey explained.

It filed a petition for review of the regulation Friday morning with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

“Petitioners will show that the final rule is in excess of the agency’s statutory authority, goes beyond the bounds set by the United States Constitution, and otherwise is arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion and not in accordance with law,” the petition says. “Accordingly, the petitioners ask the court to hold unlawful and set aside the rule, and to order other such relief as may be appropriate.”

See here for the background, and here for the AG’s complaint. ERCOT has actually confirmed that Texas is well-positioned to comply with the Clean Power Plan, but what fun would that be? The ritual must be observed, like the playing of the National Anthem before a sporting event. Round and round we go, and when the Supreme Court ultimately settles it, nobody knows.

Droughts will always be with us

Remember how wet and rainy it was earlier this year? It ain’t like that now, though we do have some rain coming later this week.

After an uncharacteristically wet early-summer across Texas, the Lone Star state’s weather has turned dry since early August.

An estimated 14 million Texans are now living in drought-affected areas, with Houston being the only major metro area with reasonably moist soils.

But even Houston is starting to feel the pinch. Most parts of the region have received just about a quarter of an inch of rain during the last four weeks.

Three months ago less than 1 percent of Texas was in a drought, today nearly 50 percent of the state is. Along with the upper Texas coast, only the Panhandle, far west Texas and South Texas are free of drought.

“Many in the agricultural industries are already dealing with another drought,” said John Nielsen-Gammon, a professor of atmospheric science at Texas A&M University, and the state’s climatologist. “The dry conditions have not lasted long enough to make too much of a dent in water supplies, though.”

[…]

This overall dry pattern could change during the final 10 days of the month, as forecast models indicate a more southwesterly flow that would be more conducive to showers.

Texas typically has wetter and cooler winters when El Niño develops in the Pacific Ocean.

However, when particularly strong El Niños develop,which are currently happening, that does not mean an extra wet upcoming winter for Texas, Nielsen-Gammon said.

“The two strongest El Niños, as strong as the one presently in place, were among the near-normal El Niños rather than the wet ones,” he said. “So just because this El Niño is super-strong doesn’t mean that rainfall will be super-heavy.”

However, even normal rains during the winter should be enough to quench the state’s developing drought.

Let’s hope so, because anything resembling what we went through in 2011 would be devastating. Not much more we can do about it right now, but a little basic water conservation would be helpful and is never a bad idea. And let’s hope the system that’s coming our way brings plenty of the wet stuff.

We still face water shortages

Yes, we’ve had a lot of rain lately. No, that hasn’t solved all our water problems.

The recent rainfall that drenched much of Houston and the state was thought to put the drought and the state’s water supply concerns at ease as summer approaches. Texas, known for multiyear droughts, now has many lakes and reservoirs over, at or near capacity.

Today, only 15,726 Texans are affected by drought– a sharp drop from the 10.8 million affected at the beginning of the year, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

But water shortages are affecting millions because bulging lake levels and soaked soil don’t reflect the levels of underground reservoirs. For example, the 8 inches that fell on tiny Lazbuddie in May wasn’t enough to restore the underground water table.

About 10 million Texans, including 600,000 in the Houston area, are under some level of water restriction, limiting nonessential usage. Of that, 60,000 residents, primarily to the west and south, are at risk of running out of water, according to state data.

Some of the restrictions in Harris, Montgomery, Brazoria, Liberty and Galveston counties range from mild to moderate and include limiting outdoor watering to no more than once a week or prohibiting all outdoor watering.

One problem is that many residents, including those in the Houston area, rely heavily on groundwater.

While a lake’s reservoir can be filled in a day or two, it can take several significant years of rainfall and a few additional years on top of that for the rain to seep through and recharge an aquifer.

“Aquifers do respond to rainfall, but it’s very slowly,” said Larry French, groundwater resource division director at the Texas Water Development Board.

[…]

According to the state water board, about 2.2 million Texans rely on groundwater from their own wells for their drinking water. And groundwater supplies more than 99 percent of drinking water for the rural population.

To say May’s showers ended the drought depends on where a person lives and where their water comes from, French says.

“East Texas has been blessed with an abundance of surface water, but West Texas is a different story,” French said.

One of the things that the water infrastructure bond issue from 2013 is intended to do is help build reservoirs, which deals with this problem. Of course, as much as anything, the real issue is population growth. The more people drawing from the same source – as is the case in Montgomery County, which the story notes is starting to draw some water from Lake Conroe – the less there is for everyone. The bottom line is that conservation is still a vital component of any water plan for Texas going forward, whatever part of the state you’re in.

Texas plans to sue over EPA’s latest clean air plan

So what else is new?

ERCOT

Attorney General Ken Paxton said Tuesday that he plans to sue the Obama administration over the proposed “Clean Power Plan,” its plan to combat climate change by slashing carbon emissions from power plants.

“Texas has proven we can improve air quality without damaging our economy or Texans’ pocketbooks,” the Republican said in a statement, claiming the rules would threaten the power grid and increase electric prices. “I will fight this ill-conceived effort that threatens the livelihood and quality of life of all Texans.”

Using those arguments over the past year, the state’s Republican leadership has loudly panned the proposal, which would require the state to cut close to 200 billion pounds of carbon dioxide in the next two decades however it sees fit.

Environmental and health advocates say limiting the greenhouse gas would help fight climate change, bolster public health and conserve water in parched Texas, and they suggest that opponents are exaggerating the economic burdens.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency suggests that Texas could meet its goal through a combination of actions: making coal plants more efficient, switching to cleaner-burning natural gas, adding more renewable resources and bolstering energy efficiency. Under the proposal, Texas could also adopt a “cap and trade” program – a scheme in which companies bid on the right to pollute.

The federal proposal is scheduled to become final in June, and Texas would have one year to submit its plan. But some watching the debate expect the EPA to push back the deadline amid pressure from states and other critics.

If Texas ignores the rules, the EPA will construct its own plan for Texas, though the agency has not said what that might look like. Democrats and others call that approach risky and suggest it would beckon more stringent requirements.

Bills that would direct Texas regulators to adopt a plan are nearing their death in the Legislature.

Fossil fuel interests and 15 U.S. states – not including Texas – have sued the EPA over the proposed rules in a case heard last week in federal court. Judges appeared skeptical of a challenge to rules that haven’t been finalized.

See here, here, and here for the background. I have to say, if Paxton managed to deliver that line about Texas improving its air quality on its own with a straight face, it will be the most impressive thing he ever does in office. Texas has fought the EPA multiple times in recent years with little to show for it, with another fight currently before the Supreme Court. Doesn’t mean they’ll lose this time, but it does give one some hope. It would of course be cheaper and easier and better for everyone if they would give up this fight and adopt rules that the state is already most of the way towards meeting anyway, but like most things in life that comes down to winning elections, and we know how that has gone around here.

Meanwhile, if you don’t like the idea of the EPA wielding power over Texas, you won’t like this, either.

Texas appears poised to enact environmental legislation that could trigger an unintended consequence: more federal oversight.

Fast-moving bills that would curb opportunities for public protest so state environmental permits can be issued more quickly have drawn the attention of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, long the state’s political punching bag.

The agency says it has concerns about the legislation, and may need to review whether it jeopardizes permitting authority the EPA has granted Texas.

Senate Bill 709 would scale back contested case hearings, a process that allows the public to challenge industrial applications for permits at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) — such as those allowing wastewater discharges or air pollution.

Similar versions of the bill pushed by Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, and Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, have sailed through the House and Senate, rankling consumer and environmental groups.

[…]

The EPA says it shares concerns about the bill, which would overhaul the hearings process in a variety of ways. It would give the agency sole discretion to determine who is an “affected person” who could ask for a hearing; set an 180-day time limit for the proceedings (with potential exceptions); narrow the issues the public could argue; and arguably shift the burden of proof from the company to the public.

“EPA is concerned that as currently drafted, [the legislation] could be read to impact the applicability of federal requirements to federal permitting programs being implemented by the TCEQ,” David Gray, director of external affairs for the EPA’s Dallas-based regional office, recently wrote to Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, who had asked for input.

Gray called the shift in the “burden of proof” as particularly problematic, adding that the EPA should review the legislation to ensure that it doesn’t “interfere with federal requirements or alter the basis for one or more program requirements.”

See here for the background. It’s like we can’t help ourselves sometimes, isn’t it?

And finally, on a related note:

Kansas and Texas will file amicus briefs supporting Florida in its lawsuit against the federal government over Medicaid expansion, Gov. Rick Scott announced Monday.

Scott filed suit last week, alleging that the federal government is “coercing” the state into accepting Medicaid expansion by witholding the extension of a different Medicaid program. The Low Income Pool brings $1.3 billion in federal funds to the state to pay hospitals for care for the poor and uninsured and is set to expire June 30.

“I am glad Kansas and Texas are joining our fight against the Obama Administration for attempting to coerce Florida into Obamacare expansion by ending an existing federal healthcare program and telling us to expand Medicaid instead. The US Supreme Court has already called this sort of coercion tactic illegal,” Scott said in a released statement.

In granting a one-year extension last year, federal officials stated they would not extend it again without significant changes. A recent letter from federal officials to the state clearly suggested the fate of LIP was tied to Medicaid expansion but officials with the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services have also said Florida is free to expand Medicaid or not as it wishes.

See here for the background. Daily Kos has characterized the Florida lawsuit as being about refusing federal Obamacare dollars while demanding federal non-Obamacare dollars, which strikes me as apt. Easy to see why it was irresistible to Texas to join in. Ed Kilgore has more.

Just a reminder, we still need to use less water

In particular, we need to water our lawns less.

Less of this, please

Even Texans with the greenest of lawns water them too much, many landscape experts say. And if everyone would turn on the sprinklers only twice a week — still probably more than necessary — the water savings would be significant, according to a report from the Sierra Club released Tuesday.

In the Dallas and Houston regions, about 52 billion gallons of water per year could be saved just by cutting back lawn watering, the report says. That’s enough to supply almost half a million Austin-area homes for a year. And the numbers include lawns with St. Augustine grass, among the thirstiest of choices for a green lawn.

“Even if you have [St. Augustine] and you want to maintain it, you don’t need to water as much as you have been doing,” said Ken Kramer, water conservation chairman of the Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter.

The projections are based on the known effects of twice-a-week lawn-watering restrictions in various Texas cities. Only a handful of cities, including Dallas, Fort Worth and Irving, have such limits in place year-round, regardless of whether there’s a drought.

Environmental groups say these findings show that addressing Texas’ water problems doesn’t always require building controversial new reservoirs or expensive infrastructure. While the Houston and Dallas areas are projected to double in population by 2060, the savings of twice-a-week-watering would double as well, to 95 billion gallons of water annually, the report says. That’s equivalent to more than half of what the proposed Marvin Nichols reservoir would provide for North Texas, if the controversial $3.4 billion project ever gets built.

I’ve blogged about this before. The Texas Water Development Board published a report recently about the state’s future water needs and how conservation could help meet them in a cost-efficient manner. Texas is a growing state, and its water needs will continue to grow as well. But some parts of the state a drier than others, and some parts are growing faster, and as we have seen a lot of these projects to bring more water to where it’s needed are quite expensive. It costs nothing to water your lawn less. Surely we all can see the value in that.

Reusing wastewater

Get used to it.

Reclaimed wastewater soon will irrigate the trim lawns and wooded parks of some Houston suburbs. Instead of being dumped into the bayous, some of it might even undergo more extensive treatment in order to flow from kitchen taps.

Economics is starting to trump the yuck factor of reusing water flushed down toilets and drained from sinks.

“It’s becoming more real than theoretical,” said Mark Latham, who oversees Houston’s two “reuse” agreements with golf courses and the growing number of queries to contract for city wastewater.

As suburban water providers aim to meet state benchmarks for reducing reliance on groundwater, they have cringed at undertaking costly expansions to draw more water from Lake Houston via the city system. With the 2011 drought still fresh in the minds of many, treating wastewater for landscaping has advanced beyond mere discussion in many Houston suburbs. Unlike other water sources, the availability of wastewater grows with the population.

“We’ve had clients look at reuse for a long time,” said David Oliver, a public law attorney who works with several utility districts. “As the price of water has gone up, people are realizing the economics of the projects that may have been unreasonable 10 or 20 years ago now are feasible from a cost standpoint.”

[…]

Most water in the Houston area is pumped from underground aquifers or piped in from Lake Houston to treatment plants before flowing out of home faucets and sprinkler systems. After toilets are flushed, wastewater is sent to plants where it is minimally treated before being dumped into bayous along with rainwater, much of which eventually flows into Galveston Bay. Similarly, most of the water pumped from Lake Houston is treated wastewater that flowed downstream from Dallas and other cities.

Although reclaiming wastewater – also called recycling or reusing – remains rare in Texas, it has become more popular in recent years as drought-stricken towns have tried to meet local water needs. Wichita Falls was the second in the state to construct a costly treatment plant that takes waste­water “from toilet to tap.” Defying doubters, the city’s utility manager drank a full, clear glass while giving reporters a tour. San Antonio pioneered indirect reuse of wastewater decades ago, treating it for a variety of nonconsumptive uses.

I’ve discussed this before, and I think there’s a lot of merit to this approach. Certainly, it makes no sense to use clean, drinkable water on watering lawns and other similar uses. The main argument against wastewater reuse seems to be that it provides disincentives to conserve water. Be that as it may, this is a cheaper and surely more sustainable option than building a lot more water infrastructure for our region’s (and our state’s) growing population.

It pays to go green

It’s a simple enough formula – reduce energy usage, save money.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

As Houston leaders push the counter-intuitive notion that the world’s energy capital can go green, and pledge ever-lower emissions goals for municipal operations, installing energy-efficient lighting and low-flow toilets can seem like hopelessly small measures.

City data show a seven-year effort to retrofit municipal facilities with those types of energy-efficient upgrades is working, however. And that matters, since Mayor Annise Parker’s office says energy costs are the city’s third-largest category of spending, after employee salaries and benefits.

The energy and operational savings produced by upgrades to 87 city buildings, completed over the last four years, have averaged $5.2 million a year. That trend is beating officials’ original estimates, and, if it holds, will see the investments pay for themselves in about 10 years, more than two years sooner than projected.

The city will continue to operate the buildings beyond the next decade, added Gilberto Lopez, a senior project manager in the city’s General Services Department, capturing even more savings into the future. Even if the positive trend were to reverse, Lopez said, both contractors handling the upgrades for the city guarantee results from their work, and will cut the city a check if the buildings don’t perform.

“The savings is absolutely a win,” Lopez said. “Is it a windfall, is it taking our breath away? We’re always looking in terms of, ‘Let’s clear the baseline and then we’ll celebrate everything else.’ But we feel very positive about the program.”

[…]

Houston has decreased its greenhouse gas emissions by 32 percent since 2007, and Parker earlier this year committed to cut emissions by another 10 percent by 2016. Parker also this year announced the city would work with CenterPoint Energy to convert 165,000 city streetlights to light-emitting diodes to reduce energy use, electricity costs and emissions. White and Parker also passed new codes for new commercial and residential development requiring greater energy efficiency.

Such efforts are an important component of acting sustainably, said Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas, because an estimated 40 percent of all the energy used in the United States is consumed by buildings.

“A lot of older buildings are still wasting a lot of energy in terms of leaking insulation or outdated appliances, lighting and heating controls,” he said. “They really are largely an untapped resource in terms of saving energy – and the more energy we save, that means power plants are running less and pumping less pollution out of the smokestack. It definitely has a huge impact in terms of cleaning up the air.”

Putting aside the not-inconsiderable environmental benefits, this is savings without having to cut anything, and it’s ongoing. There’s nothing not to like about it. It’s true that any individual LED light or low-flow toilet doesn’t make much difference, but a couple thousand of them together adds up to quite a bit. Kudos all around.

Mayors against climate change

From the Think Globally, Act Locally department.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker briefly took center stage Monday in the campaign against climate change by pledging to make America’s energy capital a laboratory for experimentation and action.

Frustrated with the congressional response to global warming, Parker and the mayors of Los Angeles and Philadelphia vowed to set more aggressive targets for reducing their cities’ heat-trapping pollution while challenging others to do the same.

“Mayors are uniquely compelled and equipped to lead on the fight to stem climate change, as well as to adapt to it and prepare for the impacts of global warming,” Parker said after the mayors unveiled their agenda in New York, where world leaders were gathering for a United Nations summit meeting on climate change.

The mayors, all Democrats, stepped forward as the Obama administration faces Republican opposition to its efforts to tackle climate change, notably new rules that would slash emissions from coal-fired power plants, the largest source of greenhouse gas pollution.

[…]

As part of the plan, Parker said Houston would lower emissions 80 percent by 2050 from 2005 levels. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio made the same pledge Friday, two days before more than 300,000 people marched through the city in what was possibly the largest climate-related rally ever held.

Houston already has made significant cuts by reducing energy use in its public buildings, adding hybrid and electric-powered vehicles to its fleet and replacing 165,000 streetlights with more efficient light emitting diodes, or LEDs – a project city officials call the largest of its kind nationwide.

Houston also is the nation’s leading municipal purchaser of renewable energy, with 50 percent of its power coming from wind and solar sources. And it’s likely that the city will buy even more before Parker’s term ends in 2016, said Laura Spanjian, the city’s sustainability director.

Mayor Parker’s press release for this is here. I couldn’t find a website for the Mayors’ National Climate Action Agenda, but a Google News search shows they’ve been busy. Some of the Houston initiatves, like the ones for LED streetlights and electric cars, are things we have discussed here before. Some of them are things the city can do on its own – and remember, anything that saves energy also saves money, meaning it’s a painless way to cut costs – and some of them are things the city helps provide to enable its residents to use less energy, like improving the bike infrastructure. There’s no one silver bullet here, just a lot of big and small ideas that will add up to a lot in the long run.

A home where the Texas State Bison Herd can roam

Very cool.

It was a little confusing at first, but the bison at Caprock Canyons State Park are settling into a pasture that’s 10 times what they were used to — basically the entire park.

Park staff opened up 10,000 acres to the approximately 100 members of the Official Texas State Bison Herd on Tuesday, a big step in a program that has expanded their access since it started in 2010.

“We’ve kind of been working them with feed trucks to follow. When they got through the gate, they’d go into any opening to check it out,” said Donald Beard, park superintendent.

“And when they saw the bison metal cutouts (an art installation), they took off running to them. When they figured out they weren’t really bison, they moved on.”

And with all that range to roam on, the animals descended from the almost-extinct Southern Plains herd settled into an area of about 200 acres.

“They’ve been there for three days. It’s a restored area where we put a prairie dog colony,” Beard said.

[…]

It was a bit of a historic event in that the herd is wandering almost freely on prairie their ancestors used before hunting nearly wiped them out, and before pioneer cattleman Charles Goodnight captured remnants of the herd in 1878 to raise and breed.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department staff and volunteers rounded up the beginnings of today’s herd from JA Ranch, south of Clarendon and Claude, and brought them to Caprock Canyons, just north of Quitaque, in 1997.

“It’s been something we’ve been working on for years. It’s good for the bison and good for the park,” said Rodney Franklin, regional director for Texas State Parks Region 5. “This is a major step toward the ultimate vision. Being the Texas State Bison Herd makes it a pretty big deal.”

There are still areas that need the habitat restored, and TPWD wants to continue to grow the herd.

“Managing the herd has been an adventure for us,” Franklin said. “Managing the numbers and making sure the resources are protected is part of it, making sure we’re balancing the resources and recreational opportunities.”

Here’s a bit more from the Chron.

In 2003, media tycoon Ted Turner donated three bulls to help the herd, which had gone through more than a century of inbreeding that threatened its survival. At the time, the herd had dwindled to 53.

[…]

The Texas herd was started in the 1870s with five bison calves captured by Charles Goodnight, one of the most prosperous cattlemen in the American West, with more than 1 million acres of ranch land and 100,000 head of cattle at his peak.

His wife urged him to save the bison, also known as buffalos, because hunters were killing them by the hundreds of thousands for their hides and meat and to crush American Indian tribes who depended on the animals for food and clothing.

The herd was donated to the state in 1997 and moved to 330 acres of the state park, which was once part of Goodnight’s JA Ranch between Lubbock and Amarillo.

When the Transcontinental Railroad was built across the United States in the 1800s, the bison – which are believed to have numbered in the tens of millions – were split into what was known as the Northern and the Southern herds.

I don’t have anything to add to this. I just love stories like these and figure they’re worth sharing.

Two environmental stories

Some good news, and some bad news. The bad news: We have an oyster shortage.

Add an oyster shortage in Texas Gulf Coast to the problems exacerbated by the state’s years-long drought.

But Texas’ dry spell isn’t the only reason the slimy delicacies are harder to come by lately. What was once an abundant supply of oysters in bays from Port Aransas up past Galveston has taken a succession of hits, including sediment dumps from Hurricane Ike in 2008, continually increasing water temperatures – as well as hyper-salinity due to drought and thirsty inland cities with fast-growing populations.

Heightened saltiness encourages the spread of parasites and disease.

“Drought plus a growing population equals no water entering the bays,” said Bryan Legare, a natural resource specialist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “The reservoirs aren’t releasing as much water as they need to for environmental concerns.”

[…]

Legare, meanwhile, has been working to re-create habitats for oysters by pouring tons of river rock into viable locations such as Sabine Lake and the East Bay. With spat, or juveniles, already settling in, there’re hopes for market-size oysters two years from now.

For now, Legare’s take on the state of the Texas oyster habitat is that it’s “a combination of change – and not good.”

Nor is the situation much better for the Gulf’s other oyster- producing states.

“Overall, the Gulf Coast’s just been hit with a number of negative events that seem to have cumulatively depressed production,” said Chris Nelson, vice president of Bon Secour Fisheries in Bon Secour, Ala.

The events have included floods, droughts, hurricanes and precautionary harvesting bans in the wake of the 2010 BP oil spill.

In one case, the flood was man-made, caused by the state of Louisiana’s release of Mississippi River water in attempt to push the oil away from sensitive coastal areas. The gush of river water may have saved marshlands, but it flushed out oyster beds. To make matters worse, reefs were further depleted by a naturally occurring flood in 2011.

On the other side of the Gulf in Florida’s Apalachicola Bay, the problem has been continuing drought.

Nelson said there hasn’t been a good harvest since 2007, before Ike barreled in. “The impact of all these different problems, challenges along the Gulf Coast have led to an historical low point in the production of oysters,” he said.

Unfortunately, the problem isn’t just limited to the Gulf of Mexico. But don’t worry, climate change is still just a fairy tale invented by Al Gore. I’m sure this will all work itself out.

For the good news, the pine trees of East Texas are doing a lot better now.

From Texas 327, the two-lane highway that cuts a straight east-west line though Hardin County, it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees.

There are sweetgum and Texas hickory, loblolly pine and bluejack oak in the blur of green. But just beyond the dense thicket is one of the state’s last stands of longleaf pine, a towering tree that dominated these sandy flatlands before the area was heavily logged a century ago.

This remnant of a once common landscape is the centerpiece of the 5,600-acre Sandyland Sanctuary, a Nature Conservancy-managed property some 100 miles northeast of Houston. It’s also part of a new push to preserve and restore a key piece of the Southeast’s environmental heritage.

Across the eight-state region, timber companies, conservation groups and government officials are working to revert millions of acres to longleaf-pine forests and keep them free from development. It’s no small task because most of the land is privately owned, but there seems to be real interest in bringing back the native hardwood throughout its historic range.

That’s because the open piney woods are among the most biologically diverse ecosystems outside of the tropics. The red-cockaded woodpecker, bobwhite quail and eastern wild turkey – as well as nearly 900 plant species found nowhere else – live among the majestic trees.

[…]

Estimates vary, but many experts figure the Southeast has lost up to 97 percent of its longleaf-pine forest. The all-time low of 2.8 million acres came in the 1990s.

Since then, the amount of longleaf-pine forest has increased to an estimated 3.4 million acres, mostly because of a federally funded effort to restore the woodlands. Several states, including Texas, have set a goal of 8 million acres over the next 15 years.

At least half of the new acreage will come from 16 targeted areas, known as significant landscapes. In Texas, the restoration work mostly will be done in and around the Sabine and Angelina National Forests and the Big Thicket National Preserve.

“The good news is that it’s already hit rock bottom and it’s rebounding,” said David Bezanson, who leads the Nature Conservancy’s efforts to protect Texas land through the purchase of easements. Under such deals, timber companies hold onto ownership but agree to some restrictions on how the property is used.

It’ll never be as it was, but it’s better than it used to be and it’s headed in the right direction. That counts as a win.

Would you let Reliant turn off your air conditioning?

In the name of conservation, of course.

“Our objective is to have more and more customers participate so we can make a material difference in an event when the state needs us to make a difference,” said Elizabeth Killinger, senior vice president and retail regional president for Texas at NRG, Reliant’s parent company.

The program, which Reliant calls Degrees of Difference, is geared toward customers who use Nest, the Google-owned thermostat that can be controlled remotely over a wireless Internet connection.

Under the voluntary program, when electricity demand gets especially high, Reliant – through Nest – could remotely turn off customers’ air conditioning for around 30 minutes or less in an effort to reduce electricity consumption.

Reliant would then pay customers 80 cents for every kilowatt-hour of electricity they’ve avoided using, based on comparisons to their historic usage.

Officials at Reliant and Nest stress that the program is purely voluntary, and participants don’t lose much control, since they can easily override the adjustment and turn the air back on. But they doubt that will be necessary.

“Most folks aren’t really going to notice when their air conditioner pops off for a short time like this,” said Ben Bixby, general manager at Nest Energy Services.

[…]

The plan may seem counterintuitive. Reliant, after all, makes money when customers use electricity. But during periods of peak demand – generally, late afternoon in the summer – companies like Reliant can face extraordinary wholesale costs from power generators, which can charge up to $5,000 per megawatt-hour of power.

That figure is poised to increase to $7,000 in June and $9,000 next year. During normal conditions, wholesale prices from generators are generally below $100 per megawatt-hour.

“If we run into a circumstance where there’s not enough generation, and prices are rising, customer participation will help us reduce our costs,” Killinger said. The upside for Reliant is that the money it saves exceeds the value of the credits it would dole out to customers.

There’s already a program in place like this for large industrial and commercial power users, but residential users create a lot of demand, too. Basically, Reliant is looking to keep the peaks below a certain level, above which it becomes really expensive for them to provide the power needed. It reduces their costs, so they can provide an incentive to their customers to participate, and it may mean less need to build more power plants down the line. It’s a win all around if enough people agree to participate. We have a Nest at home, though we’re not currently using Reliant. I suspect we’d be willing to do this but haven’t discussed it with Tiffany yet. What do you think?

On “potty water”

I have three things to say about this.

Wastewater reuse in Wichita Falls has been in the works for years and would have happened with or without the drought. It was fast-tracked as the city deals with reservoirs that are only 25 percent full today. In addition, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality — not known for being a particularly strict regulating agency — is currently on the defensive for delaying the city’s project by asking for more testing.

Several other Texas cities — San Antonio, Austin and Fort Worth among them — have been looking at such water reuse projects for decades, and some are hoping the plans might come to fruition in the coming years. Across Texas, treated wastewater is being used for everything from watering golf courses to making silicon chips.

Yet judging by the headlines on news reports about the Wichita Falls project, the city’s residents could be in for some sort of disgusting surprise.

“Brushing Teeth With Sewer Water Next Step as Texas Faces Drought,” read a Bloomberg News headline. National Public Radio wrote, “Drought-Stricken Texas Town Turns To Toilets For Water.” Most recently, NBC’s Today Show tackled the topic, with a reporter noting, “Some residents think it’s just plain gross.”

Bloomberg News noted that many people are concerned about water contamination, comparing the Wichita Falls project to the example of Oregon water officials flushing 38 million gallons from a reservoir after a teenager urinated into it. “We’re not drought-stricken Texas,” an official there noted.

On that note, remember all the people guzzling beer and floating in the water out on Lakes Travis and Buchanan, which supply Austin’s drinking water. No one is suggesting flushing those bodies of water or implying that residents of the capital city are brushing their teeth with sewer water.

1. Maybe I’m the weirdo, but I always assumed that much of our drinking water came from treated wastewater. I mean, wastewater has to go somewhere, and one way or another it’s going to wind up back in whatever river or lake or reservoir we use for potable water. Maybe it’s the number of steps between the two that makes the difference for some people, but I figure it’s all the same water anyway, so what’s the fuss about?

2. Of course, if the thought of drinking treated wastewater wigs you out, maybe we can talk about using it for agricultural or industrial purposes, or even just for watering your lawn. It really doesn’t make sense to dump almost a hundred billion gallons of drinkable water on grass and plants.

3. Besides, all of our water has been inside a dinosaur at some point, so why be squeamish about it now?

Maybe we don’t need that much more water

More conservation would mean less demand and less need going forward.

Drought-prone Texas could make better use of its existing water supplies and avoid spending billions of dollars on new reservoirs, pipelines and other big-ticket projects with more realistic forecasts for demand, according to an analysis released Friday.

The report by the Texas Center for Policy Studies, a nonprofit environmental research group, concluded that the state overestimates how much water it will need as its population grows over the next half-century. The state also underestimates the potential of conserving water in dry times.

As a result, Texas is trying to add 8.3 million acre-feet of water by 2060 with new infrastructure. An acre-foot is typically enough to satisfy three families for a year. But the report found that the state could reduce the gap to about 3.3 million acre-feet through conservation and use of unconventional sources, such as brackish groundwater.

The state’s projected shortfall “isn’t a real number,” said Mary Kelly, an Austin-based lawyer who was one of the report’s authors. “The real gap is about half that amount.”

The report received a mixed review from the Texas Water Development Board, which oversees the state’s water planning. The agency acknowledged that some of it assumptions could be revised but was skeptical of other changes proposed in the study.

[…]

For now, Texas’ plan calls for new reservoirs, pipelines and other water-supply projects to avoid grave shortages in 50 years because of an ever-swelling population. State officials estimate the price tag at $53 billion.

To spur development of projects listed in the plan, Texas voters decided last November to dip into the state’s savings account to create a $2 billion fund that would reduce borrowing costs for municipalities seeking to increase their water supply.

But the report said Texas might not need to spend so much to increase its water supply, particularly if its demands are lower than projected. The forecast is inaccurate in part because it assumes that each Texan will use almost the same amount of water each day in the future even as new technology is helping them to use less.

The report is here, the Texas Center for Policy Studies project page with all of their related work is here, their press release is here, and the TCPS blog post with a summary of the report is here. As you know, I firmly believe we need to emphasize conservation and where possible prioritize it over building new water infrastructure. It’s cheaper and more sustainable, and cities like San Antonio and El Paso have shown it’s readily doable. The plan that was approved in last year’s referendum does include some emphasis on conservation, to its credit, but there’s always room for more. I’m glad to see the TCPS highlight this.

Brazoria looks at desalinization

Booming population growth plus greater upstream demands on their main water source equals thoughts of alternate water supplies.

By the time the Brazos bisects Brazoria County on its way to the Gulf of Mexico, it’s all but tapped out, unable to keep pace with new urban demands.

To firm up its water supply, a Brazoria County utility is moving quickly to pump from a massive saline aquifer beneath the Houston region’s surface. The Brazosport Water Authority’s roughly $60 million project – once the first phase is completed in 2017 – would convert millions of gallons of salty water into potable, or drinking, water each day.

The process, known as desalination, is used across Texas, mostly in the drier western half of the state. The Lake Jackson facility would be the first of its kind in greater Houston, which typically benefits from plentiful rain and full reservoirs. The city of Houston, in particular, is planning to meet its long-term needs with surface water and reused wastewater.

“It’s a bad time for rivers in Texas, and we’re only going to see more demand for water,” said Ronnie Woodruff, general manager of the Brazosport Water Authority, which has relied on the Brazos to provide water to seven cities and a massive chemical manufacturing complex. Brackish, or salty, groundwater “is a new, reliable source.”

Desalination is energy-intensive and expensive, but the stubborn drought, which now covers three-fourths of Texas, has infused the discussion about its possibilities with a jolt of urgency. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, for one, has instructed a state Senate committee to study how to expand the use of brackish water before the Legislature convenes in January.

Texas already has built 46 desalting plants for public-water needs. But there is the opportunity for manymore, considering the state holds about 2.7 billion acre-feet of brackish groundwater, the Texas Water Development Board estimates. That’s more than 150 times the amount of water the state uses annually.

For all its untapped potential, desalination of brackish water might not be a cure-all for a thirsty state, experts say. In addition to the cost, which will result in higher rates for customers, the desalting process requires disposal of the leftover brine in a way that avoids harming fresh water and the environment.

And it is still unclear how the push for brackish groundwater will impact the Houston region’s persistent problem with subsidence, the sinking of soils as water is pumped from underground. The geological condition can crack pavement and cause flooding. Several coastal communities are weaning themselves from groundwater because of the issue.

[…]

Some people worry that the project will become a high-tech monument to panic. The water authority should focus on conservation and the reuse of wastewater, said Mary Ruth Rhodenbaugh, a former Brazoria County commissioner who served on a local water-planning task force.

“God gives us water, and then He expects us to use our brains,” she said. “I’m not against brackish desalination, but I think we should be looking at other things first.”

I’ve written about desalinization a few times before. It’s an increasingly popular proposal around the state, as there’s plenty of potential supply. But it’s expensive, there are issues with what to do with the briny wastewater, and as noted no one really knows what the subsidence effect will be. No question, the best alternative is always conservation, and I don’t think that gets enough emphasis. If cities like San Antonio and El Paso can do it, surely Brazoria County can as well.

We need to take better care of our water

We lose way too much of it because our infrastructure is old and in need of replacement.

At a time when the Lone Star State is facing a grave water shortage and its population is expected to double by 2060, billions of gallons are hemorrhaging from Texas’ leaky old pipes.

The exact loss is unknown as only 10 percent of the state’s 3,500 utilities were required to report their 2012 losses. But in Houston, enough water seeped from broken pipes to supply 383,000 residents for one year.

According to city records, Houston pipelines gushed 22.4 billion gallons of water in 11,343 leaks last fiscal year. That equates to about 15.2 percent of the city’s total water supply.

No state standard exists on an acceptable loss rate, but some utilities manage to hold their losses to single digits.

Proposition 6, which Texas voters approved last month, could help fund some Houston pipeline improvements since 20 percent of the $2 billion was set aside for statewide conservation efforts. The fund is designed to secure the state water supply for the next 50 years.

“We are still working on establishing the rules for using this money. It should be available by 2015,” said John Sutton, Texas Water Development spokesman.

Mayor Annise Parker’s spokeswoman, Jessica Michan, said the city plans to go after the conservation funds.

Michan said the city already has a separate request in with the TWD for $71 million to rebuild 130 miles of pipe. That request is still pending.

Alvin Wright, Houston’s public works spokesman, said it would take an “astronomical sum”- several billion dollars – to upgrade Houston’s entire system.

Well, water conservation is on Mayor Parker’s third term agenda. I don’t know how much they’ll be able to fund via this mechanism, but perhaps there are some high-value projects that can be done first. This sort of work really needs to be done, and should be prioritized because the fewer the leaks, the less new capacity that will need to be built. There’s plenty of this kind of work to be done across the state, and around the country. Ideally, there would be a federal program to provide grant money for all this work, but Republican nihilism plus an obsessive myopia about the deficit means that will never happen. Prop 6 was far from perfect, but it was the best we were going to get. Let’s make the most of it.

What’s on the agenda for Mayor Parker in her third term

Now that Mayor Parker has been safely re-elected, with a better-than-expected margin, what does she plan to do from here?

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

A triumphant Parker on Tuesday lauded her “decisive” victory but quickly shifted her focus to the coming two years, listing her third-term priorities as jobs, economic development, rebuilding streets and drainage, and financial accountability.

“There are no quick fixes. We’re rebuilding Houston for the decades, and we’re doing it right,” she said. “My election is over, but the work is going to get much tougher. … The next two years starts tonight.”

Parker had said for weeks she expected to avoid a runoff, and lately has acted the part, saying Monday she intended immediately to place controversial items before the City Council.

An ordinance targeting wage theft should be on the Nov. 13 agenda, she said, with a measure restricting payday and auto title lenders shortly to follow. Both items were discussed by council committees earlier this year before disappearing in favor of bland agendas during the campaign.

The council also should vote on a controversial item rewriting regulations for food trucks before year’s end, Parker said.

She said she also wants to pass a nondiscrimination ordinance similar to an item recently passed in San Antonio that prohibited bias against gay and transgender residents in city employment, contracting and appointments, and in housing and places of public accommodation.

Parker also has said she wants to expand curbside recycling service to every home in Houston, to finish an effort to reduce chronic homelessness, and to give Houston voters a chance to change the city’s term-limits structure, likely from three two-year terms to two four-year terms. She singled out homelessness and the Bayou Greenways initiative, a voter-approved effort to string trails along all the city’s bayous, Tuesday night.

Parker also has highlighted pending projects: the city is halfway through moving its crime lab from the Houston Police Department to an independent lab; voters’ narrow approval of a joint city-county inmate processing center on Tuesday will let the city shutter its two aging jails.

The mayor twice has failed to persuade the Texas Legislature to give her local negotiating authority with the city’s firefighter pension system; she will get another crack at it in 2015.

Another reform Parker said she wants to tackle is increasing water conservation in Houston, saying “we are one of the most profligate users of water of any city in Texas, and that has to change.”

A lot of this should be familiar. The wage theft ordinance was brought up in August to a skeptical Council committee, and the Mayor promised to bring it up on October 23. Payday lending is a to do items due to legislative inaction. The call for a more comprehensive non-discrimination ordinance was a recent addition that came in the wake of San Antonio passing its more muscular NDO. The crime lab and closure of the city jails are long-term projects that will move forward. It will be interesting to see where Council is on some of these, and it may be better for a couple of them to wait until the runoffs resolve themselves and bring them up next year. Finally, on the subject of water usage, there’s a lot we could do to affect that.

The one cautionary note I would strike is on term limits. You know how I feel about term limits, so I’m not going to go into that. My concern is that this necessarily means a change to the city charter, and that implies the possibility of a larger can of worms being opened. Which, maybe Mayor Parker would welcome, I don’t know. I personally have a hard time shaking the feeling that the goal of this exercise is to curtail the power of the Mayor one way or another – I have a hard time seeing us move to a City Manager form of government, but things like giving Council members the power to propose agenda items are in play. Which, again, may be something the Mayor wants to discuss, and even if it isn’t may be a good thing for the rest of us to talk about. I’ve said I’m open to the conversation, and I am. Doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about the possible ways it could go.

One more thing:

Parker said Tuesday she would not be a candidate for any office in 2016.

That was made in the context of speculation that the Mayor’s current agenda for Council might presage a run for statewide office. I don’t know what the Mayor’s plans are for life post-Mayorship, but I can say with a reasonable degree of confidence that of course she wouldn’t be a candidate for office in 2016. What office would she run for? The only statewide positions are Railroad Commissioner and judicial seats, and unless she wants to move out west and run against Steve Radack, the only county office that might fit would be Tax Assessor. The question to ask is whether she might be a candidate for office in 2018, and even I would have to admit that’s way too far off to really care about right now. Let’s see how these next two years go, and we’ll figure it out from there.

Mostly looking good for Prop 6

A good poll result for the water infrastructure Constitutional amendment.

Texans support $2 billion in water infrastructure financing by a better than 2-to-1 margin, but nearly a quarter haven’t decided how they will vote on the issue this November, according to a new University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

The respondents favored the measure, known as Proposition 6, 52 percent to 19 percent. A quarter said they had not decided how they would vote.

Political leaders including Gov. Rick Perry have been urging voters across the state to pass the proposition, saying the state’s future depends on it. They have some work to do: Asked how much they have heard about the constitutional amendments on the November ballot, nearly one-half of the respondents said they had heard either “not very much” or “nothing at all.” Only 9 percent said they had heard “a lot” about the amendments.

“To me, there was not a big surprise here,” said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Policy Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “People reflexively support water funding. People are aware of the drought, we just got out of a hot summer. … There was a decent amount of public discourse.”

The poll found Texans put a high priority on public education, water, and roads and highways. Asked to rank those things, 73 percent said they consider addressing public education needs to be very important, 65 percent said the same about water, and 55 percent gave that highest importance to roads and highways.

And the respondents agree with the Legislature about who ought to be deciding the water issue: 75 percent said “it’s best to let the voters decide” big issues, while 16 percent said “we vote legislators into office to make big decisions.”

The crosstabs are here and the poll summary is here. As pollster Henson explained in a subsequent post, the trick to these low-turnout affairs is to guess who really is a “likely” voter. (See also: Polling in Houston Mayoral races.) The good news for the pro-Prop 6 forces is that they span the political spectrum and have a lot more money than the opponents. They also have better organization and frankly, a better argument than the naysayers.

Until now, there has been little opposition to the measure, and even those leading the fight describe the coalition as “informal.” It includes libertarians, property rights activists, tea party supporters and rural residents worried about losing access to water.

[…]

In Houston, Kathie Glass, a Libertarian candidate for governor, said she is opposed to the proposition because it would encourage more borrowing by local entities already buried in debt. “All this would add to our debt in an unknown and open-ended amount,” she said.

Policy experts said building reservoirs and other big-ticket projects to meet future demand that does not materialize will put the credit ratings of public water systems at risk and significantly increase tax and water bills for customers. At the same time, the fund, as designed, would allow municipalities seeking to build projects to raise money faster and less expensively than through usual channels.

“The state isn’t going into debt on this,” said Ronald Kaiser, a professor of water law and policy at Texas A&M University. “It’s using its savings so that local communities can invest in themselves.”

Color me shocked that it’s these folks making factually dubious claims. I understand why some environmental groups aren’t thrilled by Prop 6, but this strikes me as one of those times to be careful about the alliances of convenience one forms. All in all, I’d much rather be in the Prop 6 supporters’ position, and since I do support Prop 6, that’s fine by me.

Don’t be surprised if we have brownouts

That’s the message I take from this.

Temperatures in parts of Texas have started hitting the upper 90s, and they’re likely to stay above normal this summer, according to a forecast by federal climatologists.

That means another difficult summer for the Texas power grid. In a recent report, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation projected that the Texas grid will have the lowest percentage of power reserves this summer of any region of the country.

“Sustained extreme weather could be a threat to supply adequacy this summer,” the report stated.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the power grid, also expects summer conditions to be “tight” and will probably ask Texans to conserve power on some hot afternoons when air conditioners put extra strain on the grid. Rotating blackouts are a possibility, ERCOT says, if the summer becomes as hot as 2011, which is not expected.

The Texas grid has struggled to keep up with demand, especially on the hottest days of the year. The problem is fast-growing demand combined with few new power plants being built. According to the reliability corporation, ERCOT’s projected reserve margin this summer — defined as the amount of power available above and beyond the anticipated peak needs of the grid — is 12.88 percent. That’s below ERCOT’s target, which is 13.75 percent. Other parts of the country all show more than an 18 percent reserve margin, according to the reliability corporation report.

And though the say they will have enough reserves for next summer even if no new power plants come online, the future beyond that isn’t looking so good.

Kent Saathoff, an executive adviser to ERCOT, said that the economic growth forecast ERCOT used for its future projections “may well” need to be raised. ERCOT currently uses a “low-growth” economic forecast from Moody’s to make projections 10 years into the future. If higher economic growth occurs than ERCOT has projected, that means power demand will be higher and ERCOT, once again, may not have adequate reserves.

If the grid operator does change its current “low-growth” projections — a question Saathoff said the grid operator is still weighing — a new long-term forecast incorporating those projections would not be issued until the end of the year.

Longer term, ERCOT’s reserve margins are projected to fall still further behind, but Saathoff noted that natural gas-fired power plants can get built “relatively quickly,” in two to three years.

“Just because we don’t show some of those plants for 2015-2016 doesn’t necessarily mean that those plants won’t show up,” he said.

Environmentalists say that ERCOT should move more rapidly to incorporate programs that cut peak-time power demand. For example, home electric systems can be set up to cycle air conditioners or pool pumps on and off, thus reducing power use when the grid is strained.

Texas “lags far behind” other states in such programs, according to Colin Meehan of the Environmental Defense Fund. ERCOT says it has some pilots programs in place, and some large companies already participate in such programs.

As with water, the cheapest and most effective strategy is always going to be conservation. Reduce your peak usage and the rest takes care of itself. Sure would be nice if we paid more attention to that.

Shark fins

I’m not sure why the practice of shark finning wasn’t illegal already.

We’re the dangerous ones

Texas lawmakers are considering a ban on the sale and possession of shark fins, a move that reflects a growing trend to protect the imperiled creatures at the top of the ocean food chain.

Conservationists say the global trade for the age-old delicacy has helped drive rampant illegal shark finning. The practice involves slicing off valued fins from living sharks and dumping their still-writhing bodies back into the ocean to die.

They estimate that tens of millions of sharks are killed each year to support the shark fin market. By also banning the trade, “we are reducing the number of sharks killed specifically for their fins,” said Katie Jarl, Texas state director for the Humane Society of the United States, which is lobbying for the ban in Texas and elsewhere.

Eight states already have outlawed the trade, but Texas would be the first along the Gulf Coast to prohibit it. The Senate could sign off on House Bill 852 by Rep. Eddie Lucio III, a Brownsville Democrat, as soon as Monday.

While the legislation has bipartisan support, some fishing operators who catch sharks legally oppose the ban. The fin, which is used to make an expensive Chinese soup, is the most valuable part of the shark, said Buddy Guindon, who owns Katie’s Seafood Market in Galveston and operates commercial fishing boats in the Gulf.

“All it will do is drive fishermen out of Texas,” perhaps to Louisiana, which has less stringent catch limits and no ban on sales, Guindon said. “It’s not going to stop illegal shark finning.”

Texas and the United States already have some of the world’s toughest restrictions on shark fishing. The state limits fishermen to one shark per day, while federal law requires that sharks caught legally in all U.S. waters must be landed with fins attached.

But the regulations are difficult to enforce because the fins are easy to conceal.

Here’s HB852. Unfortunately, it appears to be dead in the water after running into some resistance on the Senate floor, mostly from frequent anti-environmentalist Troy Fraser. It’s not like the wholesale slaughter of sharks is some kind of major issue with global implications or anything. That does argue for federal action, since it almost surely is the case that banning it in Texas would simply shift the practice to Louisiana, but generally speaking state action is a great catalyst for federal action, and we just missed a chance to make something happen. Sorry about that, sharks.

Water infrastructure bill passes

This is good.

The Texas House on Wednesday voted overwhelmingly to create a revolving, low-interest loan program to help finance a new round of reservoirs, pipelines and other water-supply projects for the drought-stricken state.

Lawmakers approved House Bill 4 on a 146-2 vote, but left the question of how much seed money to provide the program for another day.

State Rep. Allan Ritter, a Nederland Republican who filed the bill, said a $2 billion capitalization could finance the state’s entire longrange water plan, which identifies 562 projects over the next half-century to satisfy the demands of a rapidly growing population.

The startup money would come from the state’s unencumbered Rainy Day Fund under separate legislation filed by Ritter. His HB 11 is pending in a House subcommittee on budget transparency and reform.

Ritter said the new fund could leverage $27 billion over the next 50 years for water-related infrastructure. The loan program, as designed, would allow the state to continue lending money for projects as earlier loans are paid back.

“This will work,” Ritter told House members to close a four-hour debate.

See here for some background on this program, which is called SWIFT, the State Water Infrastructure Fund for Texas. The good news about this is that conservation efforts were made an explicit part of SWIFT, and the forces of nihilism were beaten back, at least for the day. The Observer explains.

Despite the bill’s easy passage (there were 146 ‘ayes’ and just two ‘nos’), tea party-oriented members launched a challenge to key provisions in the bill-and spectacularly failed in what was another defeat for ideological enforcers like Michael Quinn Sullivan and Texans for Prosperity’s Peggy Venable, whose involvement in the spoiler effort lurked just beneath the surface of the debate.

Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford) led an effort to remove a key water-conservation provision. HB 4 has earned the support of some conservationists because Ritter included a stipulation that at least 20 percent of the funding go toward water conservation. King’s amendment would’ve gutted that requirement. King’s fellow legislators didn’t buy it though; the amendment was killed with a vote of 104 to 41.

Rep. Van Taylor’s (R-Plano) proposed amendments didn’t go over so well either. Taylor, for one, wanted to ban the transfer of Rainy Day Fund money to get the water bank rolling.

Rep. Lyle Larson (R-San Antonio), in a moment of political drama, called Taylor out for being what he called “disingenuous.” He asked Taylor if, should his proposed amendment pass, he intended to vote for HB 4. Taylor replied that he would still not vote for the bill.

Larson blew up. “If you’re not going to vote for the bill and you’re offering up amendments, I think everyone in this body needs to recognize that. The idea of an amendment is to make the bill better … and what you’re doing I believe is disingenuous, to step up and offer amendments for political reasons, to try to gain some kind of favor instead of trying to make the bill legitimately better.” The House shot Taylor’s amendment down with a vote of 127 to 18.

Good for you, Rep. Larson. There are legitimate questions about using the Rainy Day Fund for this purpose, but that’s not where Rep. Taylor was coming from. The puppet masters behind his amendment were as always primarily interested in spending as little money as possible on anything, regardless of its merit or value. If the startup funds for SWIFT come out of general revenue instead of the Rainy Day Fund, there’s that much less money for other things, like schools and Medicaid and everything else. It was a bad amendment, offered in bad faith, and it got what it deserved. But that won’t be the end of it, because there’s a separate bill (HB11) to authorize the transfer of funds from the RDF, and of course the Senate hasn’t discussed its companion bill yet. There are still plenty of opportunities for the forces of darkness to do their thing. PDiddie and the Trib have more.

Adventures in water marketing

The headline on this story is about Texans’ increasing interest in recycling water. That sounds nice, doesn’t it? But there’s another way of describing it that maybe isn’t so appealing.

Experts say recycled wastewater will play a key role in satisfying the thirst of a rapidly growing population. While reuse now provides 2 percent of Texas’ water, state officials say that over the next half-century the drought-proof source will account for at least 10 percent of new supplies.

To reach the goal, state lawmakers may require at least 20 percent of any new funding for water-related infrastructure to go toward conservation or reuse. The requirement is part of House Bill 4, which would allow a one-time transfer of $2 billion into a new revolving, low-interest loan program for water projects.

“This is a robust and reliable source,” said Jorge Arroyo, an engineer and director of innovative water technologies at the Texas Water Development Board, the state’s water-planning agency. “Its future is very promising.”

[…]

Before drought began gripping the state in 2011, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality typically approved fewer than 20 reuse requests from cities and water districts each year. The number jumped to 32 two years ago and 38 last year, with 25 applications already pending this year, the agency said.

Arroyo attributed the increasing interest in reclaimed water in part to the lingering drought, which covers 74 percent of the state. He also credited improving technology, which now is capable of turning sewage into water so clean it’s almost distilled.

[…]

Water managers see wetlands as a reliable, less-expensive solution to more dams, aqueducts and pipelines that deliver water over long distances. Wetlands allow them to reuse water that they already paid at least once to store and purify.

For all the interest in toilet-to-tap technology, more new potable reuse projects will take the indirect route through wetlands, rather than go straight to the faucet, Arroyo said. Meanwhile, most water reuse will continue to be for irrigation, landscaping and purposes other than human consumption.

I’m going to step out on a limb here and venture that if you were in charge of an advertising campaign for water recycling, you might prefer to steer clear of the phrase “toilet to tap technology”. I mean, you probably don’t want people thinking too much about where that water originated. I know, I know, this is ultimately the way it goes for all of our water, with or without any fancy new technology. I suspect most people would rather imagine that their water all comes from a nice reservoir or a cool mountain stream or something like that. It may not matter that much if most of the recycled water goes to things like irrigation or decoration or other non-drinking purposes. I’m just saying.

Meet SWIFT

SWIFT is the State Water Infrastructure Fund for Texas, which would be created by the big water bills of the session, HB4 and SB4. Basically, this is a plan to create a water infrastructure bank, to finance various water projects that the state needs at low interest, with some seed money from the Rainy Day Fund to get started. So far the proposals have been met with approval by the various stakeholders.

A parade of Texas mayors on Tuesday urged state lawmakers to invest $2 billion in reservoirs, pipelines and other water-supply projects.

Houston’s Annise Parker, San Antonio’s Julian Castro and other mayors said the passage of House Bill 4, which would create a fund to help pay for water-related infrastructure, is necessary to satisfy the demands of residents and businesses.

“We are not going to wait, but it sure would be nice to have the state with us,” said Parker, who said Houston is moving forward on water projects. “If the rest of the state does not make the same efforts we have, we may lose our competitive advantage.”

[…]

State Rep. Allan Ritter, a Nederland Republican who filed the bill, said a $2 billion capitalization could finance the state’s entire long-range water plan, which identifies 562 projects at a cost of $53 billion over the next half-century.

The initial $2 billion would come from the state’s rainy day fund

The projects would be selected by the Texas Water Development Board but would be locally owned and controlled, Ritter emphasized.

“They need help in what I call ‘getting over the hump,'” he said of the financing challenge water providers face with projects that can cost hundreds of millions of dollars and take years to complete.

There’s a lot of money at stake, and any time there’s a lot of money at stake, there are many competing interests for it.

“We can’t afford to pit one [group] against another,” said Laura Huffman, of the Nature Conservancy. “A growing state is going to want to eat, drink and turn the lights on.”

Much will depend on whether key lawmakers—Rep. Allan Ritter (R-Nederland) and Fraser in particular—can craft a fair structure for distributing what will likely be billions of dollars over the coming decades.

“I think it’s like most of the issues that come before this body,” said state Rep. Doug Miller (R-New Braunfels). “Follow the money.” Austin American-Statesman reporter Asher Price did just that. He found that one of the organizations behind the push for a state water bank, H2O4Texas, is funded by “industries that stand to benefit from massive projects to move water around the state.”

That’s not terribly surprising but suggests that legislators will have to be careful to guard against allowing the water bank to turn into a slush fund.

The key word is: prioritization. The state water plans lists 562 distinct water projects, a wish list drafted by hundreds of “stakeholders” organized into 16 regional water planning groups. Those projects are the essence of the plan. But how do you pick which ones to fund? What form does the funding take—grants, loans, etc? Which projects get funded first? Do conservation-focused projects receive a leg up or is the money going to flow into new reservoirs?

Ritter’s legislation, House Bill 4, has been praised by environmentalists for requiring that at least 20 percent of the funds go toward water conservation.

Sen. Fraser’s legislation, Senate Bill 4, would create a fund outside of the state treasury but would put the Texas Water Development Board in charge of prioritizing the projects. But Fraser repeatedly complained today that the board is ill-equipped to take on such a huge task. Fraser said he’d had trouble getting a simple list of water-supply projects that the board considers top priorities.

Under Senate Bill 4, the Water Development Board would be run by three full-time commissioners instead of six part-timers. It would also set up a nine-member advisory committee to recommend water projects to the full board. Other senators, however, piled on Fraser’s proposal, leading him to stress that it was a work in progress and likely to be negotiated until the bitter end.

This AP report goes into more detail about conservation and highlights a potential stumbling block for the legislation.

Luke Metzger, director of the advocacy group Environment Texas, told the Senate Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday that it was critical that the state emphasizes conservation and ensures enough water is left behind for the eco-system. He pointed out that large-scale water projects, such as new reservoirs, can have a negative impact on the environment.

“In 1968, the State Water Plan predicted that by the year 2020 you would need 32 million acre-feet of water. Of course it’s almost 2020 now, and we’re only using 18 million acre-feet,” he said. “It’s critical that in planning for the next 50 years, we are flexible and we’re careful not to burden Texans in the future with huge debts for projects we might not need.”

He pointed out that San Antonio grew by more than 65 percent while still using the same amount of water and said other cities could follow that model. He said plans are for the state to meet 34 percent of future water needs through conservation and called on the committee to set aside that much of the new water fund for projects that save water.

Just fixing leaky water mains could save enough water for 2.7 million Texans, Metzger said.

[…]

So far no group has come out against creating what would be called the State Water Infrastructure Fund for Texas, or SWIFT. But the measure may require Republican lawmakers to vote in favor of lifting the state’s constitutional spending limit, which many conservatives do not want on their record.

Have I mentioned before that artificial spending and revenue caps are stupid and destructive? This is another illustration of why. The issue here is whether appropriating money from the Rainy Day Fund would count towards the revenue cap, which mandates that spending can only grow so much from one biennium to the next. Use of the Rainy Day Fund wasn’t originally intended to be included in such calculations, but the fanatics who rule over Republican primaries don’t care for such subtleties, so the issue remains a potential roadblock for doing the things the Lege has said it wants to do.

Finally a focus on water

The good news is that the 2013 Lege does seem to be serious about water issues.

House Speaker Joe Straus recently said Texas’ water needs will be a high priority, while Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who presides over the Senate, proposed tapping the Rainy Day Fund for $1 billion to finance new infrastructure identified in the state’s long-range water plan.

Previous attempts to fund the water plan failed because of spending concerns, but Straus and Dewhurst have said the state cannot afford to go thirsty as its population grows. The plan warns of grave shortages by 2060 without more supplies.

The new push to fund the plan is encouraging, said Heather Harward, executive director of H2O4Texas, a coalition of businesses, cities and water suppliers. “We could have certainty once and for all,” Harward said.

The group has called for lawmakers to pour as much as $2 billion from the roughly $8 billion Rainy Day Fund to help pay for water-related infrastructure. The money would be part of a revolving loan program in which the state would help cities and other public entities start projects. Once the loan is repaid, other projects could get financing.

The Texas Water Development Board, the state’s water-planning agency, has advocated a similar approach. It has suggested that the state could finance $44 billion in projects over the next half-century with a $2.6 billion capitalization.

[…]

Some policy experts and environmentalists are skeptical of the state’s projected needs, saying the estimate overstates demand by assuming each Texan will use the same amount per day in the future. Studies show people across the country are using less water now than they were 30 years ago.

The estimated cost of the state’s plan, especially over the next decade, “strains the imagination,” said Sharlene Leurig, an Austin-based expert on water-project financing at Ceres, a nonprofit group that works with investors to promote sustainability. “In reality Texas needs to spend far less than that to meet its water needs.”

Leurig said cities should push to reduce daily consumption though conservation and efficiency because “it’s the cheapest water available.” In contrast, building expensive infrastructure to meet future demand that does not materialize will put the credit ratings of public water systems at risk and significantly increase tax and water bills for customers.

Like I said, it’s a good thing that the Lege is starting to pay attention to this issue. You would have thought they’d have considered it back in 2011 when we were in the middle of the worst drought of most people’s lifetimes, but the Republicans were all drunk on austerity punch back then, and they’re only just now beginning to figure out where they’ve woken up, and where their clothes and car keys are. The qualm I have is with the use of the Rainy Day Fund to kickstart things. Yes, it makes a certain amount of sense, and yes, there’s more than enough money in the RDF to cover what they’re talking about. The problem is that the 2011 Lege wrote a bunch of hot checks that the 2013 Lege will have to cover – $4.7 billion to Medicaid, $2.1 billion to schools, all deferred obligations from the last biennium – and unless you’re willing to basically drain the RDF dry, there’s not enough in there to cover all of these things. If we use the RDF for this purpose, and then Straus and Dewhurst et al turn around and say the RDF is now off limits because there just isn’t enough there to pay for other things and still maintain a cushion, that’s not good. Since those obligations must be met, it would mean the funds would come out of revenue for this session, which is another way of saying you can kiss that so-called surplus good-bye. Frankly, under that scenario, I’d expect there would need to be more cuts, especially if the Lege follows through on its claims to be more transparent about the budget and to not resort to the sort of skulduggery they’ve always used to make the budget appear to be balanced. We’ve robbed from the needy enough, thanks.

I also share Ms. Leurig’s concern about the need to prioritize conservation above all other efforts, as conservation is by far the cheapest and most effective solution. As the story notes, the San Antonio Water System, which has always emphasized conservation, came through 2011 in pretty good shape, while the wastrel city of Midland ran its water supply down so far it wound up hurting its water enterprise’s credit rating. Let’s not lose sight of simple and cost-effective ways to use less water and to encourage the use of less water, and let’s not build any reservoirs we’re not sure we really need.

HouZE

This is very cool.

Independence Heights earned a place in history as Texas’ first African-American city, settled in 1908 and sovereign until it was swallowed by the city of Houston 21 years later.

But tomorrow’s residents may be pioneers of another sort, as Mayor Annise Parker and a developer announced plans for as many as 80 energy-efficient homes powered entirely by natural gas and able to sell excess electricity to the grid, with the promise that home­owners won’t pay utility bills for at least a decade.

“We are the oil and gas capital of the world,” Parker said. “We intend to be the energy capital. But part of being the energy capital is understanding how not to use energy unnecessarily.”

The project, demonstrated in two model homes by Houze Advanced Building Science, offers what developer David Goswick describes as an entirely new style of energy-efficient house.

Built with metal framing and insulated panels, the houses have a Home Energy Rating System of 44, compared with a rating of 85 for Energy Star homes and a rating of 100 for the typical new home. (Lower is better.)

Once the technology is in place, the houses should achieve a rating of 0, Goswick said.

The models range from 1,600 to 1,650 square feet and will cost $200,000 to $225,000, and Goswick said homeowners will qualify for steep discounts on property insurance and other savings.

I received some materials for the press conference on this, which you can see here. There’s more information on HouZE here and on their Facebook page, which has a bunch of photos on it. I like this for two reasons. One of course is the energy efficiency of it, as that’s often an overlooked aspect of greenness, for lack of a better term, as well as being a boon for the homeowners. Two, I love that it’s being done in a historic, near-downtown neighborhood that has a lot of empty space in it and that needs the revitalization. There are concerns, as there always are, about pricing out existing residents, but as you can see from the story neighborhood leaders are involved in the project, which should hopefully help mitigate those aspects. Growth is better than decline or stasis, after all. I hope this succeeds and expands to other neighborhoods like the Independence Heights.

Mapping oil usage

From the Natural Resources Defense Council

America buys 18.8 million barrels of petroleum products every day, accounting for more than 20% of all global usage. This can drain roughly $1 billion on average every day out of the economy. This oil use also accounts for more than a quarter of the heat-trapping carbon pollution emitted by various sources in the U.S.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and League of Conservation Voters developed an interest in a more detailed understanding for the causes of our addiction. Specifically, we were curious about which geographic areas were most oil dependent, and thus, driving the country’s oil addiction the most.

First, we looked at all the total 2010 oil consumption in every county in the United States. We visualized that oil consumption in the map below.

gasoline consumption map.JPG

We can determine the nation’s oil addiction “hot spots” based on the figures plotted in the map above. It turns out a disproportionately small number of counties in metropolitan regions drive the nation’s oil use. In fact, just 108 counties out of the nation’s 3,144, or about 3.5% of the total consume more than 10% of the nation’s oil. This suggests that we should target policies and practices aimed at reducing oil dependence to a small geographic portion of the nation.

Consumption per person in these top oil-guzzling counties can give help further with targeting; those counties with high per-capita consumption levels afford the biggest opportunities for reductions. For example, Los Angeles County’s population is much larger than Dallas County’s, on average each person consumed much less in the former. If the per capita consumption in the latter were halved, while still higher than the average Los Angeleno it could save more than a half-million gallons of gasoline a year! 

Top 10 Counties Driving Our Oil Addiction

RankingofCounties.JPG*Note: The Missouri figures stood out as an outlier in the data set, possibly due to poor or inconsistent reporting so both on the map and in this table the numbers should be taken with a giant grain of salt.

On the other hand the Houston area and Dallas area are particularly addicted to oil, both in total and per person use. To find out more about where your county stacks up in this picture, click here to access and use a cool googlemap designed by friends at the Sierra Club.

I went looking for this after spotting this Express News story and figuring there had to be more to it than that. DC Streetsblog adds on to the conversation, but I have to agree with their commenters that per capita consumption is the better way to think of this. Still, it’s useful information and a reminder that another spike in gas prices will have a greater effect on the Houston area than other parts of the country. A growth strategy geared towards more and more development of the exurbs just isn’t going to be sustainable in the long term.

Who gets to use the water?

There’s a lot more demand for an increasingly limited supply.

Lake Austin

More than miles separate the rice farms of the Texas coast and the Highland Lakes, where the outward march of Austin is marked by each new house, strip mall and marina.

They are divided by how to share the water of the Colorado River, pitting agriculture against recreation in a state that values both.

Growers have turned on a new plan that would guide allocations in the lower Colorado basin for the next few decades, grousing loudly about water cutbacks to help preserve playgrounds. Meanwhile, those who live and work around Lakes Buchanan and Travis want guarantees of boater-friendly levels at the reservoirs.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality will consider the plan by April. How the three-member panel rules could influence management of Lake Conroe and other popular reservoirs across the state.

The water fight reflects changes in Texas since farmers began drawing from the Colorado in 1885. The Lower Colorado River Authority built the lakes to generate power and tame floods in the 1930s, and the state’s population has surged since then, with more and more people moving into communities that barely existed, if at all, when the dams were constructed.

The state projects the population of the lower Colorado basin to double to 2.8 million people by 2060, and it is clear that there is not enough water to meet everyone’s needs.

“The issue is, Texas is a different place than when this system was set up,” said Andrew Sansom, executive director of the River Systems Institute at Texas State University. “We have to find a way to equitably allocate these shortages in a future that is nothing like the time of its origin.”

Growing population + drought + old rules = conflict. Obviously, agriculture is important, but I’m willing to bet that the revenue derived from tourism, recreation, and property taxes on lakefront real estate add up to a pretty penny, and will likely be more valuable on the whole than agriculture soon if it isn’t already. We know what we need to do – conservation, desalinization, not using treated water for irrigation, etc etc etc – and we know it will cost money and cause heartburn. We still have to do it.

You may be wondering if all that recent rain has helped these lakes recover. Sadly, not much.

Despite this already being the 11th-wettest July on record in Central Texas, officials said the unusually large amount of rain has not been enough to make a significant impact on lake levels in the area.

Bob Rose, chief meteorologist for the Lower Colorado River Authority, said Austin has received 5.82 inches of rain this month at Camp Mabry — a far cry from July 2011, when the city received 0.05 inches of rain.

[…]

LCRA spokeswoman Clara Tuma said Lake Austin received so much rain so quickly Sunday that officials were forced to open two floodgates to let out some of the water. The last time they did that was during Tropical Storm Hermine in September 2010, Tuma said.

However, because June was such a dry month and because the heaviest rains were not in the watershed, the storms did not make an appreciable impact on lake levels, she said. Lake Travis remains 28 feet below its historical July average.

Long way to go still. I’d be happy to send them some of our rain if I could, but then we might need it.

Water conservation task force

Mayor Parker has put together a water conservation task force.

“This task force will be forward-thinking in its approaches to addressing water conservation and water supply diversification,” Parker said, “taking into consideration Houston’s climate, existing water supply and alternative approaches to ensuring a robust water supply for decades to come.”

Ideas include the use of recycled water for irrigation, rainwater harvesting, desalination and use of greywater – that which drains from showers and bathroom sinks.

“Even if Houston is in a good position as far as water supply goes, Houston is going to continue to grow and conservation needs to be a big part of your future water portfolio,” said task force member Jennifer Walker, water resources specialist at the Sierra Club’s Lone Star chapter. “There’s a lot of room for improvement in the region, and I’m really glad that the mayor is on board with exploring options.”

I’m glad, too. Conservation is always the cheapest option, and there’s surely a lot of room to grab the low-hanging fruit. See the Mayor’s press release for more.

Laura Spanjian – From Industrial to Green Revolution: The New Houston

The following is from a series of guest posts that I will be presenting over the next few weeks.

Laura Spanjian

Bike Share kiosks in downtown. Electric vehicle charging stations at the grocery store. Over 15 miles of new rail lines being constructed. Wind turbines and solar on rooftops. Solar-powered mini-offices at schools and parks. E-cycling and polystyrene foam recycling. Urban gardens surrounding office buildings. LEED-certified historic buildings. Complete Streets in urban neighborhoods. Accessible and recreation-oriented bayous.

What City is this you ask?

The New Houston.

Innovation, creativity and a black gold rush spirit dominated industrial Houston at the turn of the last century – putting Houston on the map as an economic leader.

Today, Houston is at an historic juncture. Decision-drivers for the city and the region are no longer only economic. There is an emerging recognition that the city has the building blocks to be one of the most livable, equitable and sustainable places in the nation, and lead the next revolution: the green revolution.

What are these building blocks? Recently, Forbes Magazine placed Houston as the number one city for young professionals. And young professionals drive innovation and use new thinking to solve old issues. Houston has a business-friendly environment and a plethora of large companies conducting business in new ways. Houston has high average incomes and a concentration of graduates from elite colleges from across the country. Also, for the first time in thirty years, the Kinder Houston Area Study revealed a significant increase in the number of residents who support mass transit and prefer a less automobile-dependent, more urbanized lifestyle. And Mayor Annise Parker’s forward-thinking and innovative approaches and initiatives are putting Houston on the map as a national green leader.

What’s most exciting about Houston is that few people think it will lead the green revolution. But this sleeping giant is starting to awaken. Houstonians love a good challenge and love to save money.

At the turn of the last century, rich resources made Houston a national economic leader. At the turn of this century, rich resources will do the same. Texas has, by far, the largest installed wind power capacity of any U.S. state. The City of Houston capitalized on this and has been recognized by the EPA as the number one municipal purchaser of green power and the seventh largest overall purchaser in the nation.

The City has a robust partnership with the University of Houston’s College of Architecture’s Green Building Components Program. Their innovative faculty has designed the first movable solar powered office/generator, and the City, through a grant, has purchased 17 of these units for emergency preparedness and other uses. Houston also recently received two large grants to reduce the cost of solar for residents and test out new types of rooftop solar technology.

Houston Green Office Challenge

Houston does not only create cleaner ways to use energy, Houston actually uses less energy. The City knows about energy efficiency: over 80 City facilities are expected to achieve guaranteed energy use reductions of 30% with paybacks of, on average, less than ten years.

The City also wants energy efficiency to be part of the urban fabric of Houston. Through our Residential Energy Efficiency Program (REEP), led by the General Services Department, the City has helped 13k Houston residents weatherize their homes, resulting in 12-20% kWh reduction and $60-125 savings each month. On the commercial side, the award-winning Houston Green Office Challenge and the City’s partnership in the DOE’s Better Buildings Challenge are encouraging building owners and property managers to find innovative measures to reduce their energy and water consumption and decrease waste.

We also know that equally important to encouraging high performing buildings is looking at our codes. In January 2012, the City, with leadership from the Public Works and Engineering Department, set the bar high by adopting the Houston Residential Energy Code. This code makes Houston’s standards 5% above the state code for residential energy efficiency standards, and also requires all new residential buildings to be solar ready. And Houston is poised to adopt another 5% increase above state code this year.

It’s not just about energy efficiency. Houston also embraces green buildings. Currently Houston is number four in the nation in the number of LEED certified buildings with 186 certified projects. That’s up from #7 just a year ago.

One of the most impressive pieces of the green revolution is the emphasis on public transportation and new transportation technologies. Under the leadership of METRO, Houston will soon have three new rail lines, adding over 15 miles to the system.

Houston is at the forefront of the electric car movement. Houston was one of the first cities to receive EV cars for a City fleet, which now includes 40 Nissan Leafs and plug-in hybrids. And with partners such as NRG launching the first private investment in public EV charging infrastructure, Houston is leading in electric vehicle readiness.

In addition to electric, CNG is offering cleaner, cheaper fuel for additional options: In a partnership with Apache, the Airport’s new parking shuttles at IAH are being powered by natural gas.

With the launch of Houston B-cycle, the City’s bike share program is now a reality with 3 stations and 18 bikes in downtown, with $1 million in committed funding to grow to 20 stations and 225 bikes by the fall of 2012. This grant-funded program offers a transportation alternative for citizens and will help address pollution issues, traffic congestion, and rising oil costs.

And the City, under the leadership of the Houston Parks Board and the Houston Parks and Recreation Department, recently won a $15 million highly competitive U.S. Department of Transportation’s 2012 TIGER grant. This project will assist in eliminating gaps in Houston’s bike grid: the project includes building 7.5 miles of off-street shared-use paths, 2.8 miles of sidewalks, and 7.9 miles of on-street bikeways.

And the dream and vision behind the Bayou Greenway project is becoming more of a reality. This proposed linear park system is unrivaled in its breadth and scope.

Finally, sustainability must encompass urban agriculture. The City Gardens and Farmers Market Initiative supports urban gardens and markets: the City has planted numerous new vegetable gardens (some of which are highlighted in First Lady Michele Obama’s new book, American Grown) and, with its partner Urban Harvest, has encouraged the sale and purchase of local food by starting a weekly farmers market at City Hall, with over 40 vendors.

In addition, the Mayor’s Council on Health and the Environment created an obesity task force to look at the importance of healthy eating and exercise. The Healthy Houston initiative will review and implement sustainable food policies for Houston to create work, school, and neighborhood environments conducive to healthier eating and increased physical activity. And under the leadership of Councilmember Stephen Costello, Houston is working to minimize food deserts and increase food access.

These initiatives are helping to make Houston a growing, thriving, modern, green city of the future, a destination for visitors, a magnet for new residents and a city well positioned in the global market.

The New Houston is here, and it’s on a roll.

Laura Spanjian is the Sustainability Director for the City of Houston. Learn more at http://www.greenhoustontx.gov, http://www.facebook.com/greenhoustontx and http://www.twitter.com/greenhoustontx.

Conservation is still the best water plan

The state of Texas needs to do better at it.

As Texas recovers from the severe drought of the last two years, water experts say that conservation is the easiest way to ensure that the state will have enough of water for future growth. Fixing leaks is one method that took on added importance since the drought caused pipes to crack as soils dried out and shifted. But homeowners and businesses also have plenty of room to cut back on water use, especially on lawns, which account for at least half of the average home’s summertime water demand. Farmers, who account for 60 percent of the overall state’s water use, can also save more, though their share is already declining as cities grow.

The need to conserve was driven home by the 2012 state water plan, which opens with the statement: “In serious drought conditions, Texas does not and will not have enough water to meet the needs of its people, its businesses, and its agricultural enterprises.”

“Conservation is an essential part of the state water plan,” says John Nielsen-Gammon, the state climatologist. “It’s part of how we get from point A to point B. It’s also the least expensive to implement.”

The push toward conservation is gathering pace, especially in cities. This spring, Dallas —  a heavy water user, with about 120,000 gallons per year on average for a single-family household last year — announced that it was implementing permanent watering restrictions, limiting homeowners to two days of watering per week. Austin is also considering enacting permanent restrictions — something that El Paso, the driest major city in Texas, has had in place for a few decades.

“I think the best water management practice is to always restrict the use of outdoor watering,” state Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, said at a committee hearing this spring, in the wake of a visit to El Paso.

But enacting restrictions can be wrenching, especially in places that pride themselves on small government. Both Midland and Odessa — both of them in the perpetually dry Permian Basin — put in place restrictions for the first time last year, amid the worsening drought. “We don’t respond really well to, ‘Okay, the government says you’ve got to do this, and by God you’re going to do it or we’re going to string you up,’” Midland Mayor Wes Perry said last year, as he explained Midland’s initial preference for voluntary restrictions (which did not work).

That sound you hear is my heart breaking for the poor, put-upon people of Midland and Odessa. People who live in deserts should not expect to be able to water their lawns on demand.

To me, using tiered rates to charge a premium to high end water users, and dedicating a portion of those proceeds to fixing leaks, is a cornerstone strategy for conservation. I get that the high end users themselves don’t much care for this approach, but who cares? Let their big water bills serve as incentive to reduce their usage. I don’t even understand the argument against this.