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Rio Grande

Carrizo cane and French wasps

I love stories like this.

They’ve burned it, bulldozed it, hacked it and poisoned it. Now they want to try wasps – imported from France, no less.

The target is carrizo cane, a bamboo-like reed that’s a fearsome enemy of officers patrolling the Texas-Mexico border. Dense stands have camouflaged stash houses, half-ton steers and a caged Bengal tiger someone tried to sneak into the country.

“I’ve heard agents talk about it like it was Sherwood Forest,” said Francis Reilly, an environmental consultant and adviser to the U.S. Border Patrol. “They’d hear screams or gunfire in the cane thickets, and not be able to find anybody when they went in.”

The federal government has spent millions trying to prune the stuff. Now Texas is coming to the rescue – or is at least trying to – with Governor Greg Abbott signing a law in May to create a $10 million carrizo-purge program at the State Soil and Water Conservation Board. It turns out there’s nothing in the budget to cover it, though officials are hunting for the funds. They would finance the efforts of John Goolsby, a U.S. Department of Agriculture entomologist who wants to unleash armies of French carrizo-eating wasps along the Rio Grande.

Texas, in other words, aims to fight an invasive foreign species by bringing in another foreign species.

What could possibly go wrong?

[…]

The war on the cane has been raging for years along the border. Back in 2008, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security intended to annihilate carrizo with imazapyr, but the plan to spray the herbicide from helicopters didn’t sit well with locals in Laredo, who sued. Protesters, including priests and first- graders, descended on City Hall. The spraying scheme died.

Since then, the feds have thrown the kitchen sink at the stalks. They engaged bulldozers to tear up roots, but that hurt the ecosystem. They set fields on fire, but that made the reed grow back with a vengeance. They sent in crews armed with machetes and tricked-out weed-whackers, but that was just ridiculously time-consuming.

Goolsby had meanwhile tracked down the tiny Arundo wasp – a bit bigger than a pinhead – in Montepellier in France.

As it happens, Arundo won’t lay eggs in anything but carrizo. Once the larvae hatch, they act as petite saws, slicing through a plant’s fibers, ultimately stunting its growth.

Goolsby has been testing this since 2009, and swears the Arundo wasp won’t eat anything but the cane. I guess we’ll find out. According to Wikipedia, Carrizo cane, aka Arundo donax was introduced into California around 1820, and has multiple uses, including for the reeds of musical instruments such as the saxophone. I always knew reeds were made of cane, but had never thought about it any further. Carrizo also sucks up a lot of water, so beating it back from the Rio Grande also serves a drought-fighting purpose. Who knew? Finally, I will note that the state of Texas had something like $18 billion in unallocated cash lying around at the end of the legislative session. If we wanted to find a measly $10 million to do this project, we could have done. That’s just how we roll around here.

Abbott’s border surge plan

A whole lot of not much here.

Still not Greg Abbott

Attorney General Greg Abbott, the Republican candidate for governor, said Tuesday he wants to nearly double state spending to improve security along the U.S.-Mexico border, proposing a “continuous surge” with 1,000 new boots on the ground and millions of dollars worth of high-tech equipment.

The proposal, dubbed his “Securing Texans Plan” and unveiled Tuesday in Dallas, would also include tougher laws against sex crimes, gang activity and domestic violence.

At a cost of more than $300 million over two years, the proposal represents the largest government expansion he’s proposed as a candidate for governor. The border security package would entail the hiring of 500 new Department of Public Safety officers over four years — plus additional overtime and support staff — to help create what he called a “permanent border shield.”

“We must do more to protect our border going beyond sporadic surges,” Abbott said. “As governor I will almost double the spending for DPS border security. I’ll add more boots on the ground, more assets in the air and on the water, and deploy more technology and tools for added surveillance.”

Abbott would not specify any existing sources of funding to pay for the new programs. He said only that it would come from existing general revenue dollars.

“These are going to be budgetary priorities that must be paid first,” Abbott told reporters after his speech. He said seized dollars and asset forfeiture programs eventually would help pay for the border security portion, which exceeds $292 million over two years, but he wouldn’t say how to pay for it before that money kicked in.

Asked if there were any programs that would have to be cut to pay for the dramatic spending increase, Abbott said, “I couldn’t identify them.”

“It would be whatever legislators may come up with they want to have funded. That is left to the ideas that will be articulated by the 150 state reps and 31 senators,” he said.

Abbott said he would not rely on “any new form of revenue,” including taxes or fees, to pay for the proposals.

“To be perfectly clear right now and forever: absolutely no tax increases whatsoever for any of my programs,” he said. “The Abbott administration will not have any tax increases.”

The first thing you need to realize is that there’s absolutely nothing new here. Remember Operation Border Star? Or Rick Perry’s border cameras? Or how about the fact that President Clinton sent the Marines to patrol the border in the 90s, as a commenter at BurkaBlog pointed out. That ended after 17-year-old Ezequiel Hernandez, Jr was shot and killed. I wonder if anyone in the media will remember any of this and ask Greg Abbott about it.

Beyond the un-originality of the idea is the unlikelihood of it doing anything. The Texas-Mexico border is really long; adding 500 agents means one more agent every two miles or so. The refusal to say how he’d pay for this little scheme is typical Abbott hand-waving. Does anyone really think these 500 new agents could collect $300 million in asset forfeiture funds per biennium, more than what the entire border patrol collects now, without the entire operation turning into Tenaha? It’s a scandal waiting to happen.

There is a way forward here, and that is for Greg Abbott to call on his Republican colleagues in Congress to quit screwing around and support comprehensive immigration reform. You know, like the plan that the Senate passed but the House refuses to vote on, with the explicit blessing of Abbott’s former employee Ted Cruz. The Senate plan is hardly the end of the rainbow, but it’s a big step forward. If Abbott wants to push for a better plan than the Senate’s, one that fetishizes the shibboleth of border security less and seeks a realistic and compassionate way to let more of the many people who really want to come to the US but are being kept out by our broken and byzantine process, then more power to him. I expect to be appointed to the board of the Koch Brothers’ evil empire before that happens.

Abbott isn’t actually interested in solving the problem, though. He’s just throwing red meat to his base, despite having the primary in the bag. As much as the locals didn’t care for his “Third World country” rhetoric, I doubt he even noticed, or cared if he did. He knows who he’s talking to. It’s what he does.

One more thing:

Abbott also proposed introducing the so-called E-Verify system, used to determine whether a particular employee has legal status, in state government.

Even though he said the system was “99.5 percent” effective, Abbott said he would not apply that new enforcement program to the private sector, where the vast majority of undocumented immigrants work.

The big-business lobby, representing many companies that have for years relied on cheap immigrant labor, has long resisted increased worksite enforcement in Texas and elsewhere.

“I think that Texas should establish the leadership position by employing this first as a state body, show that it works, set the standard for what it should be, before the state goes about the process of imposing more mandates on private employers,” Abbott said.

I’m just curious here, but how many undocumented immigrants does Abbott think are currently working undetected in state government? If this is a problem, why wasn’t he calling for E-Verify to be implemented before now? Surely Rick Perry and the Legislature wouldn’t have opposed the idea. And suggesting that maybe private businesses might consider voluntarily adopting it if he sets a good example for them is just too precious for words. If the system is so damn effective – not an incontrovertible claim, of course – and if undocumented immigrants are such a huge problem, why wouldn’t you push to make it a requirement? Burka is right, we don’t have policy in this state, we just have ideology. And it’s just insane.

Who gets the water?

This will be worth watching.

A simple idea has guided appropriations of Texas water for decades: First come, first served.

Now, with drought conditions returning to almost the entire state, the principle is being put to the test by a fight over water in the Brazos River.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is withholding water from some, but not all, rights holders to meet the needs of the Dow Chemical Co., which operates a massive manufacturing complex where the river empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

Farmers have sued to get their water back, saying the state agency overstepped its authority by exempting cities and power producers with rights younger than theirs from the suspension order. The agency based the decision upon “public health, safety and welfare concerns.”

No one disputes the chemical maker’s rights, which date to the 1920s. The legal question is whether TCEQ may consider factors beyond seniority when deciding who gets water first in times of shortage.

“This really will be a precedent-setting case if the courts uphold TCEQ’s position,” said Ronald Kaiser, professor of water law and policy at Texas A&M University. “It is about whether we still believe in the priority system. It is elegantly simple, but its limitation is that we don’t consider the highest economic use of water.”

[…]

In the lawsuit, the Texas Farm Bureau and two growers argue that TCEQ does not have the authority to divert from the priority system during drought.

The order leaves more than 700 farmers without surface water for irrigation, while dozens of others with junior rights, including the cities of Houston and Waco and NRG Energy, will not be restricted in their use.

“It turns the priority system on its head,” said Regan Beck, assistant general counsel for public policy at the Farm Bureau.

Mark McPherson, a Dallas-based lawyer who specializes in water rights but is not involved in the lawsuit, agreed.

“When the historic state priority system is changed so materially, it makes those who planned based on the priority system look foolish, and it makes those who benefit from the change look lucky,” McPherson said. “I don’t think that’s a proper use of agency power.”

The solution, he said, is for those who need more water to pay for it. State law allows TCEQ to transfer water rights to meet urgent public health and safety needs, but doing so requires compensation, which was not offered in this case.

“The correct answer is perhaps harsh, but nonetheless necessary: Go acquire more water rights, at the market cost, and pass those costs on to the users,” McPherson said. “And if this were allowed to happen, we’d quickly feel, and finally understand, that water supply is a critical factor in economic competition.”

I’m not a lawyer and I know precious little about water rights, but what McPherson says makes sense to me. I can’t wait to see what the court says. I imagine the Lege will be interested in this decision as well, as it may force them to rewrite some existing laws, and it may give them some extra incentive to tackle that long-term water issue.

Meanwhile, in other water dispute news, the state of Texas has filed a complaint with the Supreme Court against New Mexico over water from the Rio Grande.

In its complaint, Texas says that New Mexico has dodged a 1938 agreement to deliver Texas’ share of Rio Grande river. Instead, New Mexico is illegally allowing diversions of both surface and underground water hydrologically connected to the Rio Grande downstream of Elephant Butte reservoir in New Mexico, according to the filing.

The complaint, filed after New Mexico took its own legal actions and after years of negotiations, asks the Supreme Court to command New Mexico to deliver water apportioned to Texas.

The Rio Grande is the primary, and at some places the only, source of water for much of the agricultural land within Texas. Water from the river constitutes, on average, half the annual water supply for El Paso, according to the filing.

“So long as New Mexico refuses to acknowledge its Rio Grande Compact obligations to Texas, no amount of negotiation or mediation can address Texas’ claims,” the filing said. “And so long as the matter continues unresolved by this Court, New Mexico can simply continue to divert, pump and use water in excess of its Rio Grande Compact apportionment, to the continued detriment of Texas.”

Conservation in El Paso has been emphasized for decades, said state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso. “The community has rallied behind conservation as important,” he said. “But we have rights to access to water: Water in the desert is crucial.”

New Mexico Attorney General Gary King fired back Thursday in a statement that Texas’ court filing was “tantamount to extortion.”

New Mexico farmers already can draw less water from the Elephant Butte reservoir following an agreement several years ago between the two states. King said the Texas complaint, if successful, would “deplete the water in southern New Mexico in a manner that would destroy the long-term viability of water resources.”

The Trib also covered this and another dispute between Tarrant County and Oklahoma that SCOTUS has agreed to adjudicate. I figure we’re going to see a lot more of this sort of thing in the coming years.

Two water stories

The future of Texas’ water supply sure is a hot topic in the papers these days. I hope that continues after we start getting normal rainfall again.

Story One is about desalinization:

For El Paso and a growing number of Texas cities, the question isn’t whether they have enough water, but what price people are willing to pay to make it drinkable.

Aquifers beneath the Chihuahua desert are filled with brackish groundwater, belying the seared landscape above. Salty water rushes down rivers. And the Gulf of Mexico offers a virtually unlimited supply.

For centuries, Texans had cheaper ways to quench their thirst. But population growth – up 20 percent over the past decade, to 25 million people, and predicted to almost double by 2060 – is driving up demand, just as the supply is shrinking. The latest draft of the state water plan predicts existing supplies will fall by 10 percent in the next 50 years.

But Texas has more than 2.7 billion acre-feet of brackish groundwater, enough to meet current demands for more than 176 years.

For many cities, the cost of desalination – up to four times that of other water treatments, sometimes even more for seawater desalination – is no longer a deal-breaker.

The state’s first permanent seawater desalination plant will open on South Padre Island in 2014. Until then, all of the state’s 44 desalination plants – most of them small, scattered across West Texas and the Rio Grande valley – treat brackish groundwater.

The El Paso plant is the state’s largest, capable of producing 27.5 million gallons of water a day for city customers and those on the Fort Bliss Army post.

“It’s a piece of the puzzle,” said John Balliew, vice president of operations for El Paso Water Utilities, which worked with the U.S. Army to build the $91 million plant.

See here and here for some background. The good news is that there’s plenty of brackish water in Texas, more than enough to meet the needs of the growing population, at least in the drier western parts of the state. The bad news is that it costs more than fresh water to use, and I suppose no one really knows what if any negative effects there may be from sucking that water out from underground. The other good news is that the need to use a more expensive water supply ought to encourage conservation – using less is always cheaper than finding new supplies. Be all that as it may, I think we’re going to see a wave of desalinization plant construction, which means it’s just a matter of time till we get the first major scandal involving some kind of financial shenanigans having to do with such construction. That’s when you know an industry has really arrived in this state.

Story Two is about reclaiming wastewater.

Wastewater – the water that runs down the drain as you brush your teeth, wash dishes and clothes, shower and flush your toilet – will be increasingly important to Texas’ future. The 2012 state water plan predicts use of so-called “reclaimed water” will grow by about 50 percent by 2060, to 614,000 acre-feet per year, or more than 20 million gallons.

“It takes a little bit of getting used to,” said Midland Mayor Wes Perry, whose city already uses treated wastewater to irrigate the grounds of Midland College and will add it to its drinking supply in 2012.

“When you start talking about drinking water, that is uncomfortable,” Perry said. “But if you look at other places, they’re doing it. It’s a psychological thing more than anything else.”

California, Florida and a few other states already add treated wastewater directly to the drinking supply, but this will be a first for Texas.

I suppose I had always assumed that treated wastewater was part of the equation, so the “ick factor” mentioned in the story doesn’t affect me. We’ve actually been doing a little bit of this on our own, by putting a basin in the kitchen sink to catch water that we use when washing our hands, rinsing dishes, or dumping unused drinking or cooking water. We then use what we collect in the basin to water plants outside, since it’s perfectly fine for them. Baby steps, but I figure every little bit less that we use the hose to water outside is a win.

What do you think about this stuff? Does any of it bother you?