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What is the environmental impact of building an Ike Dike?

Maybe we should try to figure that out.

Plans for building a massive storm-surge protection system for the Houston area are rushing ahead before officials determine whether the project could harm Galveston Bay, environmental groups say.

The Sierra Club and the Galveston Bay Foundation, the environmental groups most closely watching the planning process, worry that there’s been too much focus on how to build the so-called Ike Dike and not enough on its impact on the bay.

“The Ike Dike has gained traction and local government support,” said Scott Jones, spokesman for the Galveston Bay Foundation. “We understand that, but we don’t think the environmental questions have been answered.”

Brandt Mannchen, spokesman for the Sierra Club’s Houston Regional Group, agreed. “We really need to look at the environmental impacts and, from our standpoint, should have looked at them first. We are kind of doing this backward.”

[…]

The groups are concerned that political momentum for the existing proposal may be so strong by then that the study results will have little influence.

“Maybe the Ike Dike is the best thing since Wonder Bread, but right now we don’t know because we haven’t looked at it,” Mannchen said.

See here for previous Ike Dike blogging. I guess we need someone to create some models of the various proposals, to simulate what the effects of building them are, as well as the effect of having them or not having them in place when a big storm hits. It may be that even with some negative effects from the construction, the mitigation in the event of nightmare hurricane is more than enough to make it worthwhile. Or not. Who knows? It sure would be nice if we did.

Mayoral debate #1

Who watched?

In the first televised debate in the Houston mayor’s race, three of the candidates jockeying to replace Mayor Annise Parker took aim at former Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia and the agency’s allegedly low crime clearance rates.

The pointed effort marked a swift and telling segue from the candidates’ summer circuit of mostly small forums, featuring intermittent fireworks, to their biggest stage yet.

At the end of the debate, former Congressman Chris Bell, businessman Marty McVey and former mayor of Kemah Bill King all honed in on Garcia, a Democrat who many view as a frontrunner in the Nov. 3 balloting.

[…]

Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said the first televised debate typically previews some of the battle lines and messaging beginning to emerge as the campaigns heat up.

Still, with the race crowded and the time limited to one hour Thursday, it was difficult for any one candidate to stand out. There was little new policy territory covered, but the candidates did find themselves on the hot seat, both with one another and the moderators, more than in previous settings.

“This (debate) rises above the clouds in terms of its prominence and its significance in that its audience is all of Houston, not just a specific interest group, and its medium is television instead of the best-case scenario a somewhat unreliable Web stream from a forum,” Jones said.

With State Rep. Sylvester Turner seemingly “close to invulnerable getting into the runoff,” Jones said, “pretty much everyone has an interest in taking a hit on Garcia.”

PDiddie was impressed by what he saw, Campos not so much. I confess I didn’t watch. I’m not a big fan of general interest candidate forums, which are especially hard to do with multiple candidates. You need to limit response times to give everyone a chance to speak, but that generally invites sound bite answers. I think forums that are focused on narrower and more specific topics can be more illuminating, partly because they often cover ground that gets very little attention overall, and partly because it gives you a chance to see who has actually thought about some of this stuff, and who is faking it.

And along those lines, there are a couple of upcoming specific-interest Mayoral forums coming up. On Thursday, September 10, Shape Up Houston and the Kinder Institute are hosting a forum on urban health and wellness. The forum goes from 8 to 9 AM with preliminaries beginning at 7 – see here for details and a list of sample questions. The event will be livestreamed here if you want to check it out. That evening at 7 PM, the Houston area Sierra Club, Citizens’ Transportation Coalition, and Citizens’ Climate Lobby with support of OilPatch Democrats will be hosting a forum on growth and climate change. That will be at the Trini Mendenhall Community Center, see here for more information and to RSVP. Finally, there’s an event this morning at Rice hosted by Emerging Latino Leaders Fellowship, Mi Familia Vota, the Hispanic Association for Cultural Enrichment at Rice (HACER), the Student Government Association at University of Houston-Downtown, and Young Invincibles on the subject of young adult and Latino community issues. It’s too late to attend if you wanted to – the venue is full – but this is one I wish I would have been able to see. I’m hoping it will be recorded, and if so I’ll post a link to the video. All of this is my longwinded way of saying that if you have an opportunity to go to an event like one of these, I recommend you take it. I think you’d learn more than you would watching a general purpose event. Just my opinion, of course, and your mileage may vary.

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.

Drinking water from the Gulf

Well, there is a lot of water there.

The wicked drought gripping Texas has made one thing clear to Bill West: There is not enough water to meet new urban demands and competing environmental needs.

So in his search for new sources of water, the general manager the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority is looking in another direction. West plans to tap the Gulf of Mexico.

The river authority has launched a two-year, $2-million study into the economic viability of building a seawater desalination plant by the Texas coast, a technology being used in Australia, Singapore and the Middle East that has been slow to take hold in North America.

[…]

The cost of desalting seawater is usually many times more than that of conventional water sources, such as rivers and reservoirs.

The Texas Water Development Board has estimated that water from a desalting plant will cost about $2,000 an acre-foot, roughly enough water to satisfy two or three families a year. The Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, which supplies water for a fast-growing corridor between Austin and San Antonio, now sells water from the Canyon Lake reservoir for $125 an acre-foot.

Energy is the primary driver, accounting for as much as 70 percent of the operating costs of a seawater desalting plant, said Tom Pankratz, the Houston-based editor of the Water Desalination Report.

“In a number of places, desalination always has been too expensive,” he said. “But now the cost of developing conventional supplies is rising, making the cost of desalination more viable.”

The Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority would build the desalting facility with a power plant near Victoria, about 130 miles southwest of Houston. The power plant likely would be fueled by cheap and plentiful natural gas from the nearby Eagle Ford play, though the feasibility study also will look at renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind.

“The energy part of the equation has changed over the years,” said Les Shephard, director of the Texas Sustainable Energy Research Institute at the University of Texas at San Antonio, which will help the river authority on the project. “Now is a good time to look at natural gas.”

See here for previous blogging about desalinization. Most of what has been talked about so far has involved brackish water, of which there is plenty in Texas. It’s cheaper to process, since it’s not nearly as salty as seawater. I get the impression that things must be getting desperate if using water from the Gulf is looking like a viable option.

The Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority’s idea “seems awfully Herculean for what we need,” said Amy Hardberger, a water policy and law professor at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio. “It does not get to the heart of the matter.”

Hardberger said the river authority should look more closely at using water more efficiently before building a big desalting plant that could cost more than $1 billion. She is among those who 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.

Others are bullish on a brackish desalination. The groundwater is much less salty than seawater, so purifying it is much less expensive. The San Antonio Water System, for one, is building a $145 million desalting plant above the Wilcox Aquifer, about 30 miles south of the city.

There are 46 brackish desalination plants across Texas, with nearly 40 more facilities included in the state’s long-range water plan. The state holds 2.7 billion acre-feet of brackish groundwater, which is 150 times the amount of water Texans use each year, according to the state water board.

But West said the Gulf is more attractive than a salty aquifer because he can avoid the often nasty permitting fights with the special districts that oversee groundwater. What’s more, the river authority’s project is an important piece in an “all-of-the-above” water portfolio, especially with climate models showing Texas getting less rainfall as global temperatures keep rising.

See here for more on what San Antonio has done, and here for all my previous blogging on desalinization. I’m curious about putting a desalting plant in Victoria – wouldn’t you also need to build a big pipeline to get the water there in the first place as well? Most of the previous stuff I’ve seen on desalinization had to do with brackish water, which is found all over Texas, but in browsing my archives I didn’t see any indication of how much it cost to desalinate brackish water, so I don’t have a basis for comparison. I do agree with Prof. Hardberger that conservation has to be the first priority, as that is always the cheapest option, but in the long term I suspect desalinization will be a part of the equation. I don’t know how much of that will be Gulf water, though.

One thing I’ve yet to see mentioned in any story about desalinization is what to do with all the excess salt – technically, the brine water that is left over, which can be 15 to 25 percent of the intake, from what I can tell. If you take salty water and extract all the fresh water you can, you’re going to have to do something with the extra super salty residual water, right? Fortunately, the Sierra Club of Texas has done the heavy lifting on that, and you can read all about it here. If we’re going to go down this road – and I believe we are – we need to make sure we have sufficient environmental controls in place so that we don’t create bigger problems than the ones we’re trying to solve.

Questions about the Memorial Park part of the Uptown/Memorial TIRZ

Lisa Falkenberg reports that some people have raised questions about the Memorial Park part of the Uptown/Memorial TIRZ.

Reforestation is sorely needed in a park devastated by hurricane damage and drought. This is a great deal, city leaders and supporters say, a great way to restore our crown jewel to its former beauty. And we should all trust the Memorial Park Conservancy – a private body whose members aren’t elected and which acts as both fundraiser and watchdog for the park – to make it happen.

But some meddlesome environmentalists aren’t so trusting. This week, they walked into City Hall and demanded the public have a say, a real say, in the deal. They asked for details beyond a press release. They asked for more than a couple of weeks to sort it out and read the small print.

When they were assured by Mayor Annise Parker and some City Council members that the city would have to sign off on any decisions, the environmentalists continued to argue that the public should be involved from the get-go. Not after the fact. Not left holding a rubber stamp.

After all, it’s a public park, a very special one with a rare wildness that offers a unique escape in a city as large as Houston. It belongs to all of us, they say. It is not for sale.

[…]

There are details in a “Letter of Intent” on the project that didn’t make it into the press release. The letter outlining details of the plan states that the Conservancy would be responsible for major decisions including design, bidding, and managing construction projects in the master plan. The city would later have to approve those decisions, but it’s unclear if that leaves enough time for a thorough public vetting.

A troubling section of the letter called “Coordination of Public Relations” points out that the conservancy isn’t subject to public information requests. And the agreement would require all parties – even the public ones that are subject to information requests – to coordinate through private parties before disclosing any information to the public.

When I asked Joe Turner, Houston’s parks director, about that provision, he said it had been awhile since he’d read the letter. He said he’d read it and get back with me if he had anything to add. He didn’t call back.

“The public is a missing piece of this organization. It’s political appointees, private nonprofits and a TIRZ. Where’s the public?” Evelyn Merz, with the Sierra Club, told me. Merz said she’s “appalled” by the plan, but not because she doubts the motives of conservancy members.

“I know they care about the park. That’s not the issue. Are they the same as the public? I would say they aren’t,” she told me.

My first thought upon reading this was to wonder what kind of public input on the management of Memorial Park exists now. If the TIRZ were to go away, I presume the Conservancy would still be responsible for major decisions concerning the park and any attempt to reforest it via grants and private donations, just as it has always been. If the public has been involved in that in any substantive way, I couldn’t tell you what it is.

The difference here is the addition of public funds via the TIRZ. Public money requires public accountability, so it is perfectly reasonable to demand that. Unfortunately, just as there’s no mention of what public involvement currently exists for Memorial Park governance, there is no mention of what type of new or further involvement would make the Mayor’s proposal acceptable. Falkenberg notes that Council would have to approve any decisions made by the Conservancy, but what is being asked for is involvement in the process, before the signoff. I think that’s a fine idea, I’d just like to know what that involvement might look like.

I sent an email to Ms. Merz to ask her what she would like to see done to involve the public more directly, but I didn’t get a response. It’s not unreasonable to me for the Mayor to suggest that Council signoff on any proposal gives the public a voice in the process, but it’s also not unreasonable for Ms. Merz to suggest that the public should have its say earlier in the process, while the ideas are still being debated and proposed. I suppose the ordinance that creates the TIRZ could put some requirements on how the Conservancy operates – open meetings, outreach via social and traditional media for feedback, etc. Again, it’s not clear to me what the specific concerns are. I wish Falkenberg had considered that question. Maybe she felt she didn’t have the space for it in her column, but she does have a Facebook page for her column as well as a long-dormant blog, so she did have avenues to explore it that wouldn’t have cost her space in the news hole. Maybe she’ll write a followup, I don’t know. Campos has more.

UPDATE: Here’s an FAQ about the TIRZ proposal that Campos forwarded to me. Note the following:

How will transparency in the development of the Master Plan be ensured?

The process for creating the Memorial Park Master Plan will follow the same pattern that the Buffalo Bayou Master Plan was developed under. Public meetings will be held during the draft stages; drafts will be circulated for public comment and prior to any finalization of the Master Plan by the consultants selected a public meeting will be held. After that the Master Plan will be brought to the City’s Quality of Life Committee for review and then to City Council for final consideration.

Seems pretty reasonable to me. What do you think, Lisa?

What other environmental groups think about “One Bin For All”

As you know, last week the city announced that it had won the $1 million runnerup prize from the Bloomberg Foundation that would enable it to begin work on a single-bin solution for solid waste and recycling. While this announcement was generally met with cheers, the Texas Campaign for the Environment was not among those cheering. Their opposition to this proposal was a reiteration of previously expressed concerns about it. This got me wondering what other environmental groups thought about this proposal, since none of the coverage I’ve read has included any discussion of that. So I contacted several environmental groups and asked them for their feedback on this proposal. These are the responses I got.

From Frank Blake of the Houston chapter of the Sierra Club:

1. The proposal claims that it will reduce air pollution by reducing truck routes. But I don’t understand how truck travel would be significantly reduced since the overall volume of material to be transported would be the same. (50 truck loads of trash and 50 truck loads of recycling are still 100 truck loads if you combine it all; and since trash trucks fill up fairly quickly, there wouldn’t be much reduction in travel miles).

2. Since this ‘innovative’ method has not been tested on a large scale, and involves multiple technologies, is it really more cost effective than other existing methods? The costs to develop ‘innovative’ technological approaches often exceed estimates. And does the ‘One Bin’ collection method just shift certain processing costs down the line to other stages? Or result in reduced market value of recycled materials (contamination issues)?

3. Initial source separation enhances the market value of certain recyclables – e.g., paper and cardboard. Paper products co-mingled with other trash and food waste would have significantly reduced value, and limited recycling options. If you want to efficiently recycle paper products, one doesn’t mix them with food waste and other contaminants.

4. Composting is mentioned as a component of the ‘One Bin for All’ program. But how is it possible to maintain quality control for compost generated from general trash collections? General trash would include everything from broken glass, fluorescent lights (mercury), pharmaceuticals, and a variety of hazardous substances. What could such compost be used for? (Note: both Austin and San Antonio have initiated pilot curbside compost collections – i.e., compost materials are collected separately from general trash and recyclables).

5. What ‘waste to fuel’ technologies would be involved? The use of municipal waste as fuel can present problems because of the possible inclusion of contaminants and hazardous wastes. Where would such ‘waste to fuel’ facilities be located? Would the public be involved in any ‘waste to fuel’ decisions?

6. Other cities, including Dallas and Austin have adopted zero waste plans, with goals to reduce waste going to landfills by 90% and more. Houston has not yet adopted a long range plan or goals. Would adoption of a “One Bin for All” program with expensive processing facilities limit future options in Houston? What if there is a ceiling on the effective recycling rates that this method can accomplish? (and there is concern that the claimed “up to 70% rate” is overly optimistic).

7. How does a “One Bin for All” program really discourage waste, or encourage more ‘sustainable’, lower CO2 emitting lifestyles? It seems to do the opposite in ways, by sending a message to the public that it doesn’t matter what they discard, and that they don’t need to be conscious of recycling. (if recycling is perceived as difficult in some quarters, it is in part because the City of Houston has invested very little in public education over the years and has had different recycling programs or lack of programs in different parts of the City).

8. I am concerned and puzzled that the City of Houston would roll out this type of comprehensive proposal without more consultation, input and involvement with the public, and recycling and environmental advocates.

Elena Craft of the Environmental Defense Fund had this to say:

I think the One Bin proposal is an interesting and innovative approach to the issue. The city of Houston needed to take a proactive step to deal with its low recycling rate. This proposal beat out many others from other cities to win the Bloomberg Foundation grant, and I would like to see it succeed. I believe the concerns that have been raised by others can be addressed.

Finally, Luke Metzger of Environment Texas said he would defer to TCE on this issue, since they are the experts on waste among Texas environmental groups and he had not been following the story. David Weinberg of the Texas League of Conservation Voters also deferred to TCE, saying that there’s a division of labor in the environmental community, with TCE taking the lead on waste issues. I hadn’t considered that before now, but in retrospect it makes sense.

So there you have it. There are definitely concerns about the Houston One Bin solution, though they are not universally shared. I do think we are low on detail at this point, and it would be nice to know more about the history of this kind of solution in other cities, and why Houston thinks past failures can be overcome. I also think Frank Blake makes a strong point about the message this sends that recycling would become the city’s responsibility and not the individual’s, which in turn provides a disincentive for people to think about their own usage patterns and their own need to follow the three Rs – reduce, reuse, recycle. The idea of recycling just doesn’t exist for a lot of people. I base this statement on the fact that every public recycling receptacle I’ve ever seen in Houston always has at least as much trash in it as recyclables, and every public trash can always has lots of plastic bottles, aluminum cans, and other obvious recyclables; this is true even when the trash can and the recycling bin are right next to each other. People just don’t think about it. I suspect that even in neighborhoods with the 96-gallon single-stream recycling bins, participation is less than it should be, and in neighborhoods that still use the little bins that don’t take glass or cardboard, it’s pathetically low. That’s without taking into account apartments, offices, restaurants, and so forth. This is the crux of the city’s case for the one bin solution. One could certainly argue that a combination of a more aggressive single-stream rollout plus a PR campaign to educate people about recycling would be a more ideal way for the city to go. I agree that it would be more ideal, but it’s not clear to me that it would get better results, even if the claims about how much material can be usefully recovered from a single bin solution are overstated. What’s the minimum level of participation in single-stream recycling that’s necessary to be “better” than the single-bin solution? I don’t know the answer to that.

Anyway. I would certainly prefer that Houston be a better recycling city. I’m open to arguments that it’s possible to get to where we should be as a city without the one bin solution. I get the concerns, and I plan to follow up with the city to see how they would respond to them. What are your thoughts?

The parks that weren’t there

Very sad.

For 30 years, the state parks department has owned 1,700 acres of diverse wilderness about 45 minutes east of downtown Houston. It stretches from the highest hill on the Texas coastal plain down to a pristine, white sandy beach on the Trinity River.

Yet the public never has had access to this indigenous gem – Davis Hill State Park, named after Gen. James Davis, a Texas Revolutionary hero who once had a plantation home atop the 261-foot hill.

This park has sat idle without the state making a single plan for developing it since the land was acquired in 1983.

But it is not alone. It is the oldest of four state parks, covering nearly 48,000 acres, for which no money has been set aside for development. All remain closed to the public.

Records show Texas lawmakers have not put any money into Texas Parks and Wildlife’s budget for developing new parks for a decade. The park budget now under consideration for 2013-14 requests nothing for development of forgotten properties such as Davis Hill.

“It feels remiss for us to be letting potential parkland sit dormant because there’s no funding,” said State Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio. “But park administrators have been beaten back from the trough for so long that this year they didn’t even ask.”

Evelyn Merz, the Sierra Club’s statewide conservation chairwoman, said, “It’s a shame that we have all this parkland that nobody is able to appreciate.”

[…]

State officials estimate it would cost $200,000 to develop a master plan for Davis Hill, plus another $12 million to complete the infrastructure.

Merz, with the Sierra Club, said park administrators have not focused on park development but rather on obtaining enough money to keep the doors open to already operating parks. Preliminary budget proposals explored by lawmakers could force possible closure of as many as nine of them.

Just as a reminder, the TPWD’s budget is a teeny tiny fraction of the state’s revenue. The $200K to develop a master plan for Davis Hill doesn’t even amount to rounding error. The issue goes back a lot farther than the time period in which Republicans have been in control of the Lege, though of course back in 1983 people like Rick Perry were still Democrats. This is what starving the beast looks like.

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.

There’s still a drought out there

Despite the rain, the state of Texas is still mostly in drought conditions, and the threat will remain for the next several years.

Most of Central and East Texas beat long odds with heavy rains this winter, but experts warned state lawmakers Thursday that the drought is far from over.

State climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said that the second year of a La Niña cycle — cooler temperatures in the Pacific Ocean that influence global weather patterns — produces a dry winter for Texas “4 times out of 5.”

But Nielsen-Gammon said it’s a coin toss whether the recent winning streak will continue. “The (short-term) outlook is not particularly dire or good,” he said.

The U.S. Drought Monitor, a summary of drought conditions that was updated Thursday, showed how quickly conditions can change. As recently as 
Oct. 4, 88 percent of the state was categorized as being in “exceptional” drought, the most severe level. On Thursday’s map, about 18 percent of the state remained in that category.

[…]

Nielsen-Gammon said that most of the winter rains fell on the most populated areas of the state.

“The people of Texas are going to tend to forget a drought is still going on in many parts of Texas,” he said.

In parts of the Panhandle and far West Texas, Nielsen-Gammon said, the drought has gotten worse this winter.

Despite the rains and the short-term forecast, Nielsen-Gammon said he still believes Texas remains in a long-term drought cycle.

“We are more likely to get droughts over the next decade than the one after that,” he said.

Lake levels remain down, and while conservation remains the best strategy for both the short and long term, such planning is often inconsistent and sometimes contradictory.

Ken Kramer, director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, urged lawmakers to maximize the state’s existing water supplies.

He testified that drought contingency plans are drafted locally and filed with the state without the state reviewing “how much water is actually being saved.”

He said that causes inconsistencies in how cities — including neighboring communities drawing from the same water supplies — handle restrictions on water use.

“It’s (a problem) everywhere,” Ritter said. “It’s definitely an issue we will be dealing with.”

For example, Kramer said, voluntary restrictions on water use were never used in Corpus Christi because the restrictions aren’t triggered until the city’s reservoir reaches 50 percent of capacity. Kramer suggested that is too low and that weather conditions — not just reservoir levels — should be part of the equation.

“You may well be into a drought before the reservoir reaches the trigger,” he said.

Likewise, Kramer said Houston was restricting its residents to twice-a-week watering of their lawns while selling water to neighboring cities that didn’t have those limits.

He said water wholesalers, whether public suppliers like Houston or private companies, don’t have a financial incentive to restrict water sales.

I don’t see how we can hope to effectively deal with this without some state level regulations. Especially now that some parts of the state are feeling flush, the incentives are all out of whack. It may go against the grain for some folks – Rep. Ritter was clearly not thrilled with the idea – but I don’t see how you can prevent shortsighted usage when there’s a buck to be made without them.

The Trib also covered this hearing, and added another dimension to it.

“This is the biggest threat we have to our economy right now,” said state Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, speaking about water supplies. In 2011, he added, “the bell went off, and either we’re going to do something or we’re not.”

How big a threat to the economy is this? This big.

Texas’ worst drought in history just got worse, with new estimates putting the agricultural toll at $7.6 billion for 2011 – $2.4 billion above the original loss estimate, which already was a record.

The recently updated estimate from Texas AgriLife Extension Service economists was $3.5 billion more than the losses for the previous record drought in 2006.

“When you are one of the biggest agricultural-producing states in the nation, a monumental drought causes enormous losses,” said Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples.

If we’re not adequately prepared for when this happens again, we’re going to be that much worse off.

Sierra Club sues over coal permits

Remember how four coal plants were granted permits to pollute more in December? You probably don’t, because it basically happened under cover of darkness. The Sierra Club found out about it and has filed a lawsuit to call a halt to it.

Martin Lake coal plant

The environmental group is appealing permit amendments approved Dec. 16 by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality that allow increased emissions from the plants, in East and Central Texas, during periods of planned startup, shutdown and maintenance.

The issuance of the permits is “invalid, arbitrary and unreasonable,” according to the lawsuit filed in state District Court in Travis County.

The lawsuit comes as coal plants across the state apply for permit amendments for emissions produced during startup, shutdown and maintenance, which were not previously regulated, said Ilan Levin, an environmental attorney representing the Sierra Club.

Environment commission spokesman Terry Clawson said the agency has not received the lawsuit and will not comment on it, but he said the four permits questioned in the lawsuit were issued legally.

Coal plant operators were required to apply for the amendments to authorize increased emissions by Jan. 5, 2011 . The four plants involved in the suit, all owned by the state’s largest generator, Dallas-based Luminant Generation Co., applied for higher emission ceilings and were approved in December.

“We were surprised to find out that, really, just by trolling the agency’s website, that right before the holidays, the TCEQ had issued these permits to Luminant without any public notice or any sort of opportunity at all to file some formal comments,” Levin said.

I wish I could tell you more about this, but the Sierra Club webpage has no information on the suit, and I have been unable to get a copy of it for myself. So this is all I know for now. Texas Vox also wrote about this, but they don’t have anything more than the Statesman did.

How gassy are we?

I’m talking about greenhouse gases, of course. And the answer is, now you can find out for yourself.

Martin Lake coal plant

The greenhouse gas wars are about to heat up again in Texas. Next month, a federal court hears oral arguments in lawsuits that Texas has filed to challenge the Environmental Protection Agency, which began regulating heat-trapping emissions a year ago.

The EPA is hardly backing down. On Wednesday, the agency released an easily searchable database of big greenhouse gas polluters across the nation, prompting Texas environmentalists to immediately list the largest polluters in the state. Topping the list is the 1970s-era Martin Lake coal plant (pictured) in the East Texas city of Tatum. In 2010 it emitted nearly 19 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, about 13 percent more than the runner-up, the W.A. Parish coal plant in Thompsons, southwest of Houston. In third place is the Monticello coal plant in Northeast Texas, which narrowly avoided a shutdown when a federal appeals court issued a last-minute stay to an EPA pollution rule last month.

“This will be the first time that this data is publicly available and will inform Americans about the heat-trapping greenhouse gases emitted in their communities,” wrote Elena Craft, a health scientist with the Austin office of the Environmental Defense Fund, in a blog post. Power plant data has always been available, she said, but now industries like pulp and paper and landfills must also report it.

The photo above, courtesy of Think Progress, is of the Martin Lake plant in Tatum, TX, which has the distinction of being the nation’s top mercury emitter in 2009 (click the TP link for the chart) as well as Texas’ top greenhouse gas emitter last year (the Trib has that chart). No wonder the Sierra Club has targeted it for closure. Note that the other two plants named in that report appears on each of those lists I mentioned – Texas had four of the top five mercury polluters in the country in 2009, with Martin Lake #1, Big Brown #2, and Monticello #5. And as Patricia Kilday Hart reminds us, we have Rick Perry to thank for a lot of this.

Remember in 2006, when Perry issued an executive order fast-tracking permit requests for the construction of new coal-fired power plants? (This occurred, not surprisingly, while he was accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from power and coal interests.)

Back then, Perry predicted the new plants would be an economic boon. Well, yes, says one of his toughest critics, Environmental Defense Fund attorney James Marston.

Wyoming, Marston says, sends rail cars full of coal south to Texas power plants, and we refill them with cash and send them home. To the tune of $1.9 billion a year. This, at a time when Texas is awash in cheap natural gas, a cleaner alternative for the production of electricity.

[…]

Meanwhile, Marston said, Perry’s policies in Texas mean “we have dirtier air and we’re sending money to Wyoming. Both were avoidable if we had better leadership and better vision.”

And about the promise that coal plants would create new jobs? We were hoodwinked. According to a national study by the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies, proponents claimed the $2.3 billion Oak Grove project in Texas’ Robertson County would produce 2,400 construction jobs. But total construction employment for the entire county increased by only 329 during the peak construction year, the researchers found.

Similarly, in Milam County, the construction of the Sandow project was supposed to produce 1,370 jobs, but only 463 positions materialized.

The researchers concluded: “These findings strongly suggest that the economic development argument for coal plants is relatively weak, especially when compared to the job creation potential of alternative means of addressing demand for power.”

And yet Perry and his henchman Greg Abbott keep up their crusade to let these polluters have free rein. It’s clear whose interests they have in mind.

Even in the absence of enforcement, publishing these data may have a positive effect, as Brad Plumer notes.

In a conference call with reporters Wednesday, Gina McCarthy, the EPA’s assistant administrator for air and radiation, compared the new greenhouse-gas reporting law to the agency’s Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), a database that was passed by Congress back in 1986 to measure and publicize the release of more than 320 toxic chemicals from industrial facilities around the country. “[The TRI] had a tremendous impact in terms of providing opportunities for reduction, and we’re really hoping this information will do the same,” McCarthy said. And, in fact, a variety of analyses suggest she might be onto something.

One recent book, “Coming Clean: Information Disclosure and Environmental Performance” charts the impacts that the Toxics Release Inventory had on polluters. As Mark Stephan, a professor at Washington State University, Vancouver, explained to me, he and his co-authors conducted interviews with a variety of companies about their responses to the new public database. Many companies didn’t even realize they were spewing out so much pollution until forced to start keeping records. And that proved to be a big deal.

For instance, when the inventory was first disclosed in 1987, Monsanto executives realized that the company was one of the largest emitters in the country and pledged to reduce its toxic air releases 90 percent by 1992. This wasn’t in response to any new laws — Monsanto wasn’t legally required to do anything. The company was simply reacting to public information. Stephan adds that many other companies soon followed suit, in response to a fusillade of newspaper stories about toxic waste and pressure from community groups and local environmentalists.

That’s good news, but I have a feeling we’re going to need more than just bad publicity to get some real action around here. Still, forewarned is forearmed. At least we know what we’re up against.

It’s hard to get beyond coal

The city of Austin is trying, but there are many obstacles along the way.

Fayette County coal plant at dusk

In Austin politics, it’s almost an article of faith that the city must aggressively curb its contribution to global climate change, regardless of what transpires across the rest of the country. That philosophy has led environmentalists to target the Fayette Power Project, a coal-burning plant 83 miles east of downtown Austin.

The plant’s fate is sure to be among the city’s most hotly debated political topics this year. A major rate increase for Austin Energy customers is coming regardless of what the utility does with Fayette, and Republican legislators already skeptical of Austin-style environmentalism have indicated they would not look kindly on additional increases.

But after failing to persuade Congress to enact coal restrictions in recent years, the Sierra Club has focused its lobbying efforts on local decision-makers — a change that includes targeting Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell.

Leffingwell won environmental plaudits when he pledged to move Austin off coal during his re-election campaign kickoff in November. Other council members have also committed to the idea in the abstract. But their statements are carefully parsed, and they have avoided committing to a time frame, particularly the 2016 date sought by the Sierra Club.

Many details — most notably the cost to the average customer — will probably remain murky until Austin Energy finishes a comprehensive study next fall.

But ahead of the heated debate that is sure to come, another question has emerged: How environmentally ambitious should Austin be?

Should activists push Austin Energy to shut Fayette down? Should they push for the city to sell? Should the city stick with a plan already in place to begin weaning Austin off coal over the next decade?

All of those plans have advantages — and significant drawbacks.

That picture is of the Fayette Power Project, which you’ve seen if you’ve driven along Highway 71. Part of the problem is that the Lower Colorado River Authority, which jointly owns the FPP along with Austin Energy, plans to continue to use it even if Austin Energy pulls out, meaning that just getting Austin weaned off coal won’t actually reduce coal consumption. It’s cheap energy, so someone will buy it if Austin won’t, and Austin will need to figure out how to pay for energy sources that are more expensive, at least for the foreseeable future. There are legal issues as well, not to mention the possibility of legislative meddling. It’s a noble and worthwhile goal, one at which I hope they succeed, but the path forward is long and unclear.

CSAPR stayed

This is what the Ship Channel looked like in 1973 (Source: National Archives and Records Administration)

There was some bad news at the end of the year.

A federal court ordered [last] Friday that the Environmental Protection Agency’s controversial cross-state air pollution rule be stayed — to the delight of Texas officials and the chagrin of environmentalists.

The rule, which sought to reduce sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from power plants in Texas and 26 other states, had been scheduled to take effect in January. Now it will await a ruling by the court on its legal merits.

[…]

Luminant, a Texas power-generation giant, said that it would no longer shutter two units at its Monticello coal plant in Northeast Texas. Luminant “intends to continue closely evaluating business and operational decisions given that this stay does not invalidate the rule, but delays a decision on its implementation until a final court ruling is issued,” the company’s statement said.

Environmentalists, who have been trying to shutter Monticello for years, are disappointed with the decision.

In a blog post, the clean-air group Downwinders at Risk wrote:

“If the rules get pushed back past the beginning of ozone season, it means all those dirty Luminant plants upwind of [Dallas Fort-Worth] in East and Central Texas will still be contributing a significant amount of smog pollution to the Metromess a year after our worst ozone summer in five years spotlighted state ineptitude in getting cleaner air.”

Needless to say, Rick Perry and Greg Abbott cheered this on and vowed to continue the fight to let polluters do whatever they want. The point of this rule is the very simple recognition that air pollution created in one state can and does travel to other states. Having grown up across the river from New Jersey’s manufacturing plants – you know, all that stuff Tony Soprano drives past on the Turnpike – I can personally attest to this. For that matter, we’ve seen this movie before right here in Texas, with the Midlothian cement plants and their deleterious effect on the air quality in neighboring Dallas and Tarrant Counties. You’d think it would be self-evident that those who create the problems would be held accountable for the cost they impose on others – this is the sort of concept we generally teach our children, after all – but not to Rick Perry and Greg Abbott. Perhaps someone should remind them what America looked like before the EPA came into existence. That’s where they’d like to take us again, and that’s why this is a big deal.

I emailed Jennifer Powis, who is running the Beyond Coal campaign here in Houston, for a reaction to this story. This is her reply:

It was very unfortunate and puts at risk air that millions of people breath. Texas has some of the worst air in the nation (I’ve attached a fact sheet above for you), and most of that pollution is generated by the 2,000 industrial facilities in our state. But at the same time, air pollution doesn’t stop at a state line and much of Eastern Texas is impacted by industrial emissions from Louisiana. Without a cohesive plan that forces states to be a “good neighbor,” we’ll continue to have problems with cleaning up the air we all breath.

There’s no doubt Texas has major air pollution problems and much of the blame lies with Governor Perry’s appointees over at the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality. But at the same time, this rule would have helped our state tremendously because it would have leveled the playing field for most of the Eastern states.

But don’t worry, this rule will eventually prevail. States across the nation need it in order to comply with basic clean air act provisions. Folks do a lot locally, but you also have to help out your neighbor. We’re one nation, and the clean air act recognizes that important fact.

The aformentioned fact sheet can be seen here. When you take that next deep breath of sweet chemical emissions from Louisiana, you know who to thank for it.

Seeking more water for Houston

I don’t know how I feel about this.

After decades of fits and starts, Houston is pushing forward with plans to move Trinity water nearly 30 miles to Lake Houston. The reservoir, located on the smaller San Jacinto River, fills the taps for millions of people in the region.

Planners say the Luce Bayou project, a nearly $300 million pipeline and canal, would provide water to the ever-swelling city and suburbs while helping with the area’s planned conversion from groundwater. The newly adopted state water plan identifies it among the key strategies to slake the region’s thirst in 2060.

While population growth and a wicked drought boost the prospects for the mega-plumbing job, critics are asking how much water does Houston need. To their dismay, the answer is always the same: More than it has.

The project, they say, could invite too much growth, encourage more transfers from water-rich East Texas and damage native habitats along the Trinity and in the bay.

“This project is a game changer,” said Brandt Mannchen, of the Sierra Club’s Houston group.

[…]

The push comes amid state forecasts showing the 15-county Houston region growing from 6 million people to 11 million during the next half-century.

The new state water plan also identifies five new major reservoirs by 2060 to provide enough water for the region in times of drought.

Critics say the state plan promotes more pumps, pipes, dams and canals ahead of saving existing water. Although the plan calls for 12 percent of the supply in 2060 to come from conservation, they say more could be done.

With Luce Bayou, “we will have capacity well into the future,” said Jim Lester, a water policy expert at the Houston Advanced Research Center. “My fundamental problem with this is, we are doing so little on conservation.”

The plan referenced is this one, which I noted in October. There’s not enough in the story for me to judge this plan – PDiddie is singularly unimpressed – but I definitely concur with Jim Lester that we’re not doing enough to conserve water. Whatever the merits of this project, I’d really like to see a more aggressive approach taken to conservation, which in the long run will be far less expensive than any expansion project we might undertake.

Recycling water

There’s more than one way to conserve water. The city of San Antonio recycles theirs to get the most out of what they have.

“During wet seasons, the river functions like any other river would,” says Steve Clouse, the chief operating officer of the San Antonio Water System. “But during the dry seasons, we used to pump from water wells to make sure we had a river — otherwise there wouldn’t be water here.”

To keep the river flowing, the city used to have to pump up to 5 million gallons a day from its precious supply, the Edwards Aquifer. Now, by using a state-of-the-art water treatment plant, the city produces high-quality, recycled water that’s just shy of being drinkable.

San Antonio’s River Walk is not alone in using the treatment plant. Big industrial customers like the Toyota manufacturing plant, Microsoft Data Center, USAA Insurance and the city’s golf courses also take part. More than 60 miles of recycled-water pipeline built in the last decade now snake through San Antonio.

“We have a goal to save a billion gallons of water every single year by working with all of our customers,” says Karen Guz, the water system’s director of conservation. She says the plant is hitting that goal. “We are a community that has figured out that it is better to save water than to worry about having to always just acquire more water.”

Guz says it started in the early ’90s when the Sierra Club sued the city in federal court to protect an endangered species — the blind salamander — that lived in the water supply of the Edwards Aquifer.

When the judged ruled in favor of the Sierra Club, San Antonio politicians and newspapers spitted with rage. Twenty years later, the current San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro says his city has learned the judge was right.

“The city, over these last two decades, really has made lemonade out of lemons. In fact, the number of gallons per consumer in San Antonio per day that is used has gone down from just over 200 to about 130,” Castro says.

Funny how these things work, isn’t it? The point here is that while San Antonio’s population has been growing, the amount of water available to it is finite. Either you make the best use of what you have, or you suffer for it. San Antonio’s good choices mean that the city can continue to grow and prosper.

Luminant and the CSAPR

I have not followed the dustup between energy producer Luminant and the EPA very closely. What I know is that like most other disputes between those who want cleaner air here in Texas and those who don’t is that someone in the latter group is complaining about a new federal regulation that will force them to clean up their act a bit. (It’s always a federal regulation, because our state never makes them do anything it doesn’t have to make them do.) Fuelfix summarized the situation last month:

Texas’ largest energy producer, Dallas-based Luminant, has launched an online campaign against a new federal rule that the company says will force the closing of units at one of its coal-fired power plants and three nearby mines.

Luminant’s new website, reconsidertherule.com, takes aim at the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, which requires aging power plants in 27 states to install modern pollution controls to sharply cut emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide by Jan. 1. The company filed a federal lawsuit Monday against the Environmental Protection Agency to block the rule, saying the deadline is impossible to meet.

The EPA, to its credit, pushed back aggressively against Luminant’s allegations, which you can see in that post. I still wanted to know more, so I turned to Jennifer Powis of the Sierra Club and asked her to write something for me about this that I could run here. This is what she sent me:

Texas Can Do Better

Let’s start focusing on the road ahead instead of the road behind

Every time a new environmental rule comes down, industry proclaims the sky is falling, and that compliance will be too expensive. Yet, all of our major environmental standards—the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act to name a few—are roughly over 30 years old and all the while, the United States has seen clear economic growth and a cleaner, safer, healthier environment for workers and citizens alike.

The Cross State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR, pronounced “Casper” even though the acronym is missing a few letters) is no different but here, only Luminant, Texas’s largest power provider, is crying and carrying on as if one rule would be decisive for any regulated business. In truth, as Tom Sanzillo’s recent op-ed in the Houston Chronicle pointed out, poor financial choices, made worse by lower natural gas prices, and rising competition from renewables, made business tough for Luminant long before any new air quality rule was finalized.

CSAPR closes loopholes, allowing coal plants to meet similar air quality standards as other regulated industries

The Rule affects 27 states and creates a cap and trade system for pollutants primarily responsible for the formation of ozone. Ozone, as every Houstonian has dealt with and knows, is smog and has been scientifically linked to premature death, lung damage, and aggravation of asthma or other respiratory conditions. But because the rule is a cap and trade system, any polluting entity can continue to pollute at the same levels as it does today, as long as that same entity purchases pollution allowances on the open market. It’s a sort of pay to play, recognizing that a business can be in the driver’s seat, determining how best to improve air quality within its own fleet. For this rule, every power provider in the state has known something like this was coming since 2005, when then-President George Bush’s administration promulgated a similar transport rule across state borders.

Why should Houston care?

Nearly 500 industrial plants in the Houston/Galveston/Brazoria area, 120 in the Beaumont/Port Arthur area, and 342 in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area have had to install and operate air pollution control systems because those areas fail to meet basic public health safety limits for pollution – the areas are all in non-attainment. But Luminant has saved hundreds of millions of dollars by not installing air pollution controls compared to the more than 900 other industrial plants that have done their part in cleaning up dirty smoke stacks and attempting to clean up Texas’s awful air quality.

Realize the three old Luminant coal plants (Big Brown, Monticello, and Martin Lake) are the top 3 industrial polluters in Texas among nearly 2,000 industrial plants. They are exceptionally dirty plants:1

Combined they emit 25.5% of state industrial air pollution
Combined they emit 33.8% of state industrial SO2 air pollution
Combined they emit 11.4% of state industrial PM10 air pollution
Combined they emit 10% of state industrial NOx air pollution
Combined they emit 37.6% of state industrial CO air pollution

Comparing Luminant’s big dirty three coal plants only to other coal plants, however, shows an even more harrowing tale. Luminant’s Big Brown, Monticello, and Martin Lake are:

46.8% of all Texas coal plant emissions (19 existing coal plants)
41.5% of all Texas coal plant SO2 emissions
36.0% of all Texas coal plant PM10 emissions
30.6% of all Texas coal plant NOx emissions
71.7% of all Texas coal plant CO emissions

You can see why only Luminant has reached far and wide into the media, into state government, and into the courts in an effort to stop a rule that will drastically improve the lives of every day Texans.

It’s Time To Move Beyond Coal

Mayor Parker and Houston industry should fight to defend this rule and level the playing field. But unfortunately, while this rule will create real and substantive improvements in air quality — eliminating multiple non-attainment regions across the country — the Houston/Galveston/Brazoria non-attainment region will still have major air quality concerns after this rule is implemented. (See page 30 and 31.) And in truth, so will Texas.

But the path forward is a go local argument for the state. Texas leads the nation in wind production, has huge untapped solar and geothermal resources, and generally has the most underutilized natural gas capacity of any state in the nation. Instead of capitalizing on this potential, all of the state’s power is focused on overturning this rule. Unfortunately, what scores points in party circles doesn’t often make good policy.

Jen Powis is the state lead for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign working to transition Texas’s electric system to cleaner alternatives. The campaign is currently working to stop the construction of seven proposed coal plants, and retire older facilities in order to make room for cleaner and greener systems.

1 All data is compiled from the self-reported emissions inventory in 2009 and maintained by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).

My sincere thanks to Jen Powis for writing that. The one thing I will add is that if you read that Tom Sanzillo op-ed, it references a report he wrote for the Sierra Club regarding Luminant’s finances. A little Googling led me to that here. It’s a bit technical for me, but the basic gist of it is that Luminant is way overleveraged; the op-ed summarizes it succinctly. The bottom line is that you should keep all this in mind when the pollution apologists complain about what that bad ol’ federal guvmint is making them do now.

No grass, no problems

Texas is in the midst of one its worst droughts ever, yet one of the more arid cities in the state is seeing no noticeable drop in its reservoirs. How is that possible? Simple: They got rid of lawns years ago.

For decades this city in far West Texas defied the look of most desert communities, with neighborhoods boasting lush, green lawns and residents freely running their sprinklers.

Then a study released in 1979 showed just how close El Paso was to a crisis: At its rate of water use, the city would run dry within 36 years.

Over the next couple of decades the city took drastic measures to stabilize its water supply, undergoing a philosophical and physical facelift that included ripping up grass from many public places, installing rock and cactus gardens and offering financial incentives for residents to do the same.

Today, El Paso is among the few cities in the drought-stricken state not worrying about water. It’s a distinction El Paso leaders attribute to a conservation plan that other cities in less arid climates such as San Antonio and Austin have tried to a limited extent amid receding water resources and booming population growth.

[…]

Over the past 20 years El Paso has paid residents a combined $11 million – $1 per square foot – to remove their grass and replace it with gravel, cement or desert plants. The city has permanent restrictions on watering days and reduced water consumption by offering special showerheads and rebates for water-efficient toilets.

The plan helped the city avoid a water crisis that other towns across West Texas now face, including the community of Robert Lee, which is rushing to find a new water source before its faucets run dry within the next several months.

Bigger cities facing diminishing water sources in less arid climates are hoping to duplicate El Paso’s success by offering money to their residents in exchange for turf.

Austin offers a $20 to $30 rebate for each 100 square feet of turf removed as part of a pilot program. So far 70 residents have replaced their grass, and the plan may become permanent if the city sees enough water savings. The city also offers up to three free water-efficient toilets per household and rebates for new dishwashers.

San Antonio offers rebates and gift certificates of up to $400 to residents who choose certain grasses, reduce their turf and cut their water consumption. Only about 360 residents have taken part since the program began in 2008, and the utility estimates savings of about 1 million gallons per year. Overall, the city estimates it can save up to a billion gallons annually from all the water-saving measures combined.

Clearly, Austin and San Antonio have a ways to go to catch up to El Paso on this front, but they do employ another effective tool for promoting water conservation, and that’s tiered pricing, in which customers that go above certain levels of usage get charged a premium. As the Austin Contrarian has repeatedly pointed out, charging the “water hogs” more both encourages conservation and helps to subsidize the more sensible among us, and it tends to be a more cost-effective policy than straight-up restrictions on use. Tiered pricing and better irrigation strategies are both central tenets of water conservation policies put forth in recent years by the National Wildlife Federation and the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club – see my posts “Drop By Drop” and “Sprayed Away” for more.

Now no one is going to argue that Houstonians should rip out their front lawns and replace them with gravel or cacti. We normally get a lot more rain than El Paso, so what works there isn’t necessarily sensible here. But there is something lawn-related we ought to be doing, and Chron gardening writer Brenda Beust Smith points it out.

It’s a proven fact. The average suburban St. Augustine lawn uses more water than all the other typically used landscape plants combined, including trees.

It’s also a fact now we have hundreds of beautiful landscape plants available that:

1 Love our heat and humidity (even this extreme cycle).

2 Require very little water.

3 Demand very little maintenance.

4 Are far more beneficial to our overall ecology than are lawn grasses.

Unfortunately, as she points out, pretty much all homeowners associations in the area make it difficult to install natives like buffalograss instead of the water-hogging St. Augustine. Sooner or later, the cities in the area are going to have to do something about that.

Lawsuit filed to stop Grand Parkway

We’ll see how it goes.

The Sierra Club has filed a lawsuit to block construction of the Grand Parkway in west Harris County until federal and state officials conduct a new analysis of the flooding consequences.

The environmental group says the 15-mile toll road may increase runoff into Addicks dam, which the Army Corps of Engineers has identified as among the nation’s riskiest because of the potential harm to low-lying Houston should the 1940s-era structure give way.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Houston, comes seven weeks after the Army Corps issued the final permit for the new leg of the long-planned outer beltway around greater Houston. The toll road would cut through the Katy Prairie between U.S. 290 and Interstate 10 – a mostly undeveloped area that stores rainwater like a natural sponge.

I believe the Grand Parkway is a bad idea and a misuse of resources, and I have no doubt it will have a negative effect on the environment. I don’t know nearly enough about the specific claims here to offer any judgment. Anybody out there want to comment on this? Swamplot has more.

Grand Parkway news

From Houston Tomorrow:

The Sierra Club lawsuit to stop construction of the proposed SH99 toll road over the Katy Prairie will see its day in court by September,according to KUHF.

The Sierra Club filed suit against “the Federal Highway Administration due to the failure of that federal agency to do an adequate assessment of the environmental impacts of the proposed Grand Parkway Segment E in western Harris County,” according to the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club.

The Texas Department of Transportation, however, is moving forward with proposed SH99 toll road across the Katy Prairie, having received 23 letters of interest in a public private partnership to build the toll road, according to Project Finance.

I had noted that RFI last week. The Chron provides more details:

A list of the companies that responded is posted on the department’s Web site at www.gpprocurement.com. Their submissions, which were due July 6, have not been made public.

The list includes San Antonio-based Zachry Construction, which was also part of the Trans-Texas Corridor consortium; Balfour Beatty Capital, a U.S.-based arm of an English company; and China Construction America, a subsidiary of China State Construction Engineering Corp.

[…]

Robin Holzer, Citizens Transportation Coalition volunteer board chairwoman, said the coalition has no opinion about the firms on the list but is concerned about the details that end up in eventual contracts.

“It matters whether the state expects one of these companies to accept all of the project risk rather than pledging the full faith and credit of Texas taxpayers to back the project,” Holzer said. “At the end of the day, building a brand new toll road through undeveloped land is inherently speculative.”

Yes, I have a feeling that the public is going to be a substantial part of that public-private partnership. As for that lawsuit, it was filed in March of 2009. I don’t find any mention of it in my archives, so it escaped my notice at the time. You can see the Sierra Club’s complaint here. We’ll see how it goes.

Grand Parkway protest

From the inbox:

Misplaced priorities: $4.8 billion to advance SH-99 while US-290 commuters sit in traffic

Coalition to protest Grand Parkway as poster child of all that’s wrong with Texas transportation policy

(Houston, TX) – As TxDOT hosts the final public hearings on its Statewide Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) Wednesday, a broad coalition of groups will hold press events in two locations to challenge the misplaced priorities of the transportation agency.

While Harris County commuters suffer on 34 of the 100 most-congested roadways in the state, including US-290, the Texas Transportation Commission will squander our scarce tax dollars to fund the entire proposed 180-mile Grand Parkway around Houston.

TxDOT’s Commission voted on April 28, 2011 to make Grand Parkway Segment E a statewide “priority” and assigned ~$350 million of statewide discretionary funds to expedite construction. This April allocation increases TxDOT’s planned expenditures to more than $4.8 billion for the Grand Parkway over the next four years. The 41 planned expenditures affect all project segments (B, C, D, E, F1, F2, G, H, I1, and I2) except for A. The 180-mile project will skirt largely uninhabited and environmentally-sensitive areas. TxDOT’s John Barton described the Grand Parkway as “an opportunity to open up areas for development” in Northwest Harris County, subsidizing private land development, and inducing more new roadway congestion.

In contrast, TxDOT’s plan includes one-tenth that amount for US-290 projects, or just $468 million of the $2.3 billion needed for improvements TxDOT outlined in the US-290 Final Environmental impact Statement (FEIS). According to the Texas Transportation Insitute, US-290 is the 11th most-congested highway in the state, affecting more than 230,000 Houston-area commuters daily. Other than some initial work on the US-290/IH-610 interchange, TxDOT will mostly leave these taxpayers waiting for relief.

What: Press conference
Who: Coalition of grassroots organizations opposed to squandering scarce transportation dollars on the speculative Grand Parkway, including:
Citizens’ Transportation Coalition (CTC), Houston Tomorrow, and Sierra Club
When: Wednesday, May 25, 2011 at 3:30 pm, immediately before TxDOT meeting
Where: Outside in front of TxDOT’s Houston District offices, 7600 Washington Ave., Houston, 77007 (map)

“TxDOT’s unelected Commissioners have ‘found’ billions for a speculative toll road that will destroy the Katy Prairie in order to subsidize a few private land developers. Meanwhile, a quarter million taxpaying commuters will sit in traffic on US-290 indefinitely. TxDOT’s gross misallocation of our tax dollars is appalling,” says Robin Holzer, board chair of the Citizens’ Transportation Coalition (CTC).

For more on this misallocation and how TxDOT could better use our tax dollars, see David Crossley’s recent oped, “Let’s tell TxDOT where to spend its $350 million

See here for more. Be sure to attend the TxDOT public meeting today from 4 to 6 to give your feedback on this. It’s at the TxDOT – Houston District Auditorium, 7600 Washington Ave.

Tar sands and Houston’s air quality

PDiddie attended the Houston Frontlines tour that I blogged about before, and wrote a really nice, detailed report about it.

Some background: Tar sands oil contains — among other heavy metals, neurotoxins, and carcinogens — an average of 11 times more sulfur and nickel, six times more nitrogen, and five times more lead than conventional crude oil (.pdf source here). Refining it emits three times as much global warming pollution as conventional oil (here), and the massive network of refineries along the Ship Channel is one of the only places in North America with the industrial capacity to create fuel from the tarry sludge of bitumen flowing from Alberta, Canada. Consequently, it is already one of the worst public health zones in the nation.

The proposed Keystone XL pipeline would bring upwards of 700,000 barrels of oil per day, and potentially 900,000 once the pipeline is completed, to be refined in Houston and Port Arthur. That represents about 35% of the capacity of the targeted refineries. Given that this oil is a lower quality crude with higher levels of toxic contaminants than usual, the risk of extremely grave consequences is unacceptably high — for Houston’s air quality, the health of its citizens and the repercussions from the federal government for continually failing to meet clean air standards.

Well worth your time to read.

Two environmental issues for your attention

Are you familiar with tar sands? The Sierra Club would like to acquaint you with them this Thursday, December 16, on its Houston Frontlines tour.

Elected officials and community members will gather at Hartmann Community Center on Thursday, December 16th for a tour of industrial facilities along the Houston Ship Channel and the communities they pollute. A press conference will follow the tour, but members of the press are welcome to join the tour as well.

Juan Parras, Director of t.e.j.a.s. (Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services) will be leading the East End tour that will focus on the health threats low-income Houstonians face from refining pollution and the dire consequences of increasing pollution from the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would drive a significant increase in refining of Alberta’s tar sands in the Ship Channel area. Tar sands oil contains, among other toxic metals, an average of 11 times more sulfur and nickel, six times more nitrogen, and five times more lead than conventional crude oil. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in charge of permitting the pipeline.

After the tour, local Officials will publicly call on Secretary Clinton and the State Department to conduct a full examination of the pipeline’s impact on Houston’s air quality in the form of a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement before granting approval for the project.

Lunch will be provided during the Tar Sands and Keystone XL educational seminar that begins at 12 Noon. Panelists include Clean Air Director Neil Carman, Director of t.e.j.a.s. Juan Parras, and Sierra Club Dirty Fuels Director Kate Colarulli.

HOUSTON FRONTLINES TOUR
Keystone XL Pipeline & Houston’s Air Quality Future
Thursday, December 16
Hartmann Community Center at Hartmann Park in Manchester
9311 E. Avenue P, 77012

The goal of this is to request a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, which will guarantee that an analysis of the project’s impact on public health is completed, and that there is time for the public to respond to this new information. To learn more, go to Toxic Tar Sands: Profiles From The Front Lines. To join the tour, respond to the Facebook event.

Also of local interest this week is a TCEQ draft rule that could have a bad effect on Galveston Bay. From Texas Water Matters:

In 2007, the Texas Legislature created a process to determine how much water is needed to protect rivers and bays across the state while allowing for increased water use due to population growth. The law was hailed by environmental groups and many in the water development community as a step forward on a long-contentious issue.

Unfortunately, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality appears poised to waste this opportunity to protect our rivers and bays. TCEQ recently released a rule proposal that would allow the rivers to be reduced to a trickle and leave Galveston Bay without meaningful protection.

At risk: Galveston Bay and the Trinity and San Jacinto Rivers

In most places, TCEQ’s recommended levels would allow Trinity River flows to be reduced to levels seen only about 5% of the time in the last 50+ years. This could harm water quality and could affect the ongoing plans for restoring the Trinity in the DFW area. Low water levels could impact fish and wildlife up and down the river basins.

The shallow waters covering Galveston Bay’s 600 square miles have historically produced as much as 80% of the oysters harvested in the state. The area’s blue crab and shrimp harvests are also some of the largest in Texas. Galveston Bay is loved by recreational anglers and its shallow waters are home to Atlantic croaker, flounder, spotted seatrout, and many other species of fish. Nearly three hundred different kinds of birds have been seen in the area around Galveston Bay.

Galveston Bay’s 600 square miles is one of the most biologically diverse places in the state. Nearly three hundred different kinds of birds have been seen in the area around Galveston Bay. This natural diversity is due in large part to the freshwater flowing into Galveston Bay from the Trinity and San Jacinto rivers. If the rivers are allowed to dwindle to a trickle, Galveston Bay would be deprived of freshwater and would become increasinly salty and less hospitable to wildlife.

What You Can Do

The standards need to be strengthened in accordance with an alternate proposal submitted by the National Wildlife Federation and the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. This alternate approach is based on the work of the majority of the regional Expert Science Team, but simplified to minimize potential water supply impacts and make it easier to implement.

This alternate rule protects the rivers and bay by proposing reasonable flows of water for people and the environment.

YOU CAN HELP MAKE A DIFFERENCE. Help protect the Trinity and San Jacinto Rivers and Galveston Bay by telling TCEQ to strengthen the proposed rule by the December 20th deadline.

Comments may be submitted online here or faxed to (512) 239-4808. All comments should reference Rule Project Number 2007-049-298-OW.

There will also be a public hearing on this in Austin on the 16th at 10 AM at TCEQ headquarters, Building E, Room 201S. This is on I-35 between Braker and Yager Lanes – see here for a map and directions. For more information on this issue, see this Chron story, this Galveston Daily News editorial, and this National Wildlife Federation fact sheet. You can also easily leave your public comment online. Please do so by the 20th if you want to be heard by the TCEQ.

Burning biomass

I can’t say I knew much about this before I read the story, but now that I have my initial reaction is to be skeptical.

Interest in building power plants fueled by wood waste has recently surged in East Texas, which has none of the wind-power potential of West Texas but does have plenty of pine trees. Forty-five miles away from Lufkin, in northwestern Nacogdoches County, a larger plant with the capacity to power about 75,000 homes is being built by Southern Company, an Atlanta-based utility holding company. That plant, which will sell its power to Austin Energy, broke ground a year ago and should be operational by mid-2012.

Two other plants, near Woodville and Lindale, received crucial permits from Texas air-pollution regulators this year, though construction has not yet started. A fifth plant, near Greenville, has an application pending.

The case for biomass power is that it derives from a renewable resource: trees. The power plants can produce electricity around the clock, unlike wind turbines and solar panels, which work only when the weather is right. They also create jobs.

I certainly get why East Texas might be interested in tree waste as a source of power, but I have two concerns. One is that any time you talk about burning something, you have to wonder about the carbon effect, among other things.

Neil Carman, the clean air director of the Sierra Club in Texas, says he is skeptical of the claims by biomass plants that they are “carbon-neutral” because the calculations would depend on how long it takes for the trees — the original source of the fuel — to grow back.

However, other types of pollution are more immediately worrisome, according to Carman. “They can have a lot of dirty particulate matter from what they’re burning,” he says. “I would be very concerned about the potential for local air pollution problems.”

Indeed, a few years ago locals raised concerns about pollution from the Lufkin plant, which is co-owned by Vines. That led to a protracted and rancorous permitting battle in which the Environmental Protection Agency got involved. Eventually, improvements in pollution controls were required, says Aaron Hartsfield, a postal worker who lives about a half-mile from the plant.

The other question is, what exactly is “wood waste”, and isn’t there something else you could be doing with it?

The pulp and paper industry also has reservations about potential competition for woody debris. Biomass plant operators insist they will use leftover materials — the Lufkin plant, for example, plans to use logging debris and limbs remaining in the forests that would otherwise rot or get burned, as well as trees and shrubs cut down by homeowners, and available wood waste from mills.

But sometimes, wood waste gets used for other purposes. Pulp mills, for example, use their debris to generate energy within their plants (as opposed to feeding it into the electric grid). There are 50 to 100 such plants across the Southeast, including in Texas, Whiting says.

“Potentially, you’re driving up the cost of their feedstock,” says Luke Bellsnyder, executive director of the Texas Association of Manufacturers, whose members include pulp and paper mills.

Landowners, however, will welcome a new market for their product, says Ron Hufford, executive vice president of the Texas Forestry Association, whose members span a range of forest-industry players, including some of the biomass plants.

Rotting in the forest is how nature has taken care of this stuff forever, so it’s not clear to me why we shouldn’t just keep letting that happen. Beyond that, I remain skeptical but would like to learn more. What do you think about this?

The Great Texas Clean Up Festival

Looking for something to do Saturday? The Sierra Club has a suggestion.

RAY JOHNSTON BAND
LOS PISTOLEROS DE TEXAS
ROBERT ELLIS & THE BOYS
MRS. GLASS

Join us on JULY 24TH, from 4-10pm for a day of music and art.

Featured artists: Amos Garcia, Kate Fu, Kyle Fu, JSQUARD, Lizbeth Ortiz, Andrew Chapa, Rockey Perez, Roger Hunter, Mickael Allen, Christian Navarrete,the Contemporary Art Museum Teen Council

At the Discovery Green, 1500 McKinney Street.
Houston, Texas 77010

For questions, email: cleanuptxnow@gmail.com

It’s more than just music:

On July 24th, the Sierra Club and the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Service (TEJAS) with other environmental groups, community organizations, and businesses from Houston and around the state will come together to help clean up Texas. With a concert free to the public, this broad and diverse coalition will speak out with Texans standing up demanding clean air and clean energy for a healthier Texas future.

Speakers include State Sen. Rodney Ellis, State Rep. Ana Hernandez, Representative Ana Hernandez, Matthew Tejada of Air Alliance Houston, and Juan Parras of TEJAS. Come on out, hear some music, and see what they’ve got to say about a cleaner Texas.

“Sprayed Away”

A couple of months ago, I blogged about a report on water conservation from the National Wildlife Federation and the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. Last week, they came out with a new report, on outdoor water usage and how the demands of summertime increase water consumption in 18 Texas cities, mostly due to things like watering the lawn. From the report:

The report calculates that if these 18 cities achieved just a twenty-five percent reduction in outdoor water use, they could save, collectively, an average of 147 million gallons every day during the summer. The Texas Water Development Board has estimated that about half of the water we use on our landscapes is wasted due to overwatering or runoff. Reducing summer peak usage can also save millions of dollars in treatment costs.

“The potential for easy savings during the summertime is simply staggering,”said Lacey McCormick, Communications Manager with the National Wildlife Federation. “We can have attractive landscapes without watering during the heat of the day, watering our lawns three times a week, or running our sprinklers during the rain. There’s a big opportunity here to save money while protecting our supplies of drinking water.”

[…]

The report recommends seven efficiency measures that have a proven track report at reducing landscaping water use. The measures include:

Improving Automatic Irrigation Systems: Irrigation systems are becoming increasingly common in Texas. The American Water Works Association estimates that homes with in-ground irrigation systems use 35% more water than homes without irrigation systems. Many of these systems are not designed or installed correctly-staff at the Austin Water Utility report water waste of 20% to 50% from poor system design. The report recommends that cities should take steps to make sure that these systems are as efficient as possible by offering free system audits and rebates on upgrades such as rain sensors.

Rethinking the Lawn: Over the past five years, permits for close to 600,000 new single family homes have been issued in Texas. Decisions made today about the types of lawns and landscapes to install in new developments have the potential to influence water use for decades to come. Smaller areas of turfgrass and the use of drought-resistant grasses can make a big contribution to reducing water use. Unfortunately, with only a few notable exceptions, Texas cities are currently doing little to guide new developments in this way.

Landscaping Rebates: Cities across the country have created programs paying customers to replace their turfgrass with more water-efficient landscaping. These programs are becoming more common in Texas, with entities such as the City of Pflugerville, San Antonio Water System and BexarMet Water District offering rebate programs. To ensure that customers learn new watering habits, the report recommends that utilities should make payment of rebates contingent on customers actually reducing their water use.

Rainwater Harvesting: Capturing rainwater has real potential as a source of water for Texas. A report published by the Texas Water Development Board estimated that a metropolitan area the size of Dallas could capture roughly 2 billion gallons of water annually if just 10 percent of the roof area was used to harvest rainwater. Although several Texas cities currently offer rebates on rain barrels, this source of water is currently seriously underutilized.

Rate Structures: A strongly tiered rate structure is the most equitable way to price water. Most residential customers use limited amounts of water, placing smaller demands on the system, and should pay less per unit of water as a result. For example, the San Antonio Water System has found that about 80% of their residential customers do not see any significant rise in their bills during the summertime. This indicates that the 30% bump in total water use that San Antonio sees during the summertime is primarily caused by a small portion of the utility’s customers. However, heavy users in most cities usually pay little more-and often less-per thousand gallons than frugal water users.

The full report is here (PDF), and it’s worth your time to read. Remember that regardless of what a city’s average daily water usage is, it has to build infrastructure – treatment plants, pipelines, etc – based on peak usage. Shaving even a bit off that peak can mean the difference between having to spent millions to build and operate another plant, or having to build a larger and more expensive plant, and not having to do so. A little bit of conservation can mean a lot of savings.

Here in Houston, where we are blessed/cursed with generally abundant rainfall, our summer usage only increases by about 14% over winter. Of course, our water rates just went up by 30%, so the potential for savings here is just as great. And on an absolute scale, even though Houston’s consumption rate only increases a little, our total usage increase is among the highest just because we have the most people. As such, if we all trimmed back a bit, the cumulative effect would be large.

Public hearing on tar sands pipeline

The Sierra Club has an announcement.

The impact of toxic tar sands oil on Houston’s air quality will be the subject of a press teleconference on Friday morning in the hours before a public hearing hosted by the State Department on the same issue that night. The Obama Administration is considering a proposal by TransCanada for the Keystone XL pipeline which would carry toxic tar sands oil from Canada through the American heartland to Texas. Last week the public comment period was extended through July 2 and the Houston hearing was added at the urging of Houston Mayor Annise Parker, Sierra Club and other groups. More than 60 Houston residents turned out to an Air Quality Forum hosted by the Sierra Club last Thursday that focused on the tar sands threat.

The public hearing will be this Friday evening at 7 PM at Channelview High School – Auditorium on New Campus, 1100 Sheldon Road, Channelview, Texas. As noted, the meeting was added late, and it’s the only one, so attend if you can, or dial in to the conference call to make your voice heard:

WHO: Evelyn Merz, Sierra Club; Matthew Tejada, Air Alliance Houston; Dr. Stuart Abramson, Health Professionals for Clean Air

WHAT: Press Teleconference Call on U.S. Department of State Hearing on Tar Sands Impacts to Houston Air Quality and Public Health

WHEN: Friday, June 18, 10:00 AM Central Standard Time (Houston)

PHONE: 1-866-501-6174, Enter code: 31790031892#

More information about this pipeline is at the link above, and more information about tar sands is here and here. Hope you can make it.

Some people want the EPA to do more

The Sierra Club is taking legal action against the Environmental Protection Agency, saying it has dragged its feet in Texas.

The group said EPA officials have missed legal deadlines for action on limiting Texas pollution’s effects on neighboring states; reducing pollution from particulate matter, or soot; and regulating ozone, or smog.

“The [Obama] administration has failed to carry out its obligations,” said Neil Carman, clean-air director for the Sierra Club’s Texas chapter.

[…]

In spring 2005, the EPA found that Texas had failed to submit complete plans for reducing the transport, or interstate drift, of ozone and particulates.

When two years passed with no approvable Texas plans, the EPA was required to write and implement its own plans, Sierra Club attorney David Baron wrote in the draft letter to the EPA.

Five years later, the EPA has neither approved Texas’ submissions nor written its own substitute plans, Baron wrote.

The EPA missed similar deadlines for action regarding Texas’ particulates plan on Oct. 22, and regarding the state’s ozone plan on April 28, Baron wrote.

They’ll file a lawsuit in 60 days if these issues are not addressed. The Trib has more, including a more detailed look at the “flexible permits” issue.

Why should anyone trust the TCEQ?

Rick Perry wants the EPA to back off. I know, I’m as shocked as you are.

Gov. Rick Perry, citing improvements in Texas air quality, asked President Barack Obama on Friday to get regional Environmental Protection Agency administrators to back off efforts to take over the state’s air quality permitting process for refineries and power plants.

Perry told Obama the state process has improved air quality while ensuring economic growth.

“EPA’s unwarranted actions will kill good American jobs, reduce our economic output and undermine critical domestic energy and petrochemical supplies for all 50 states,” Perry said in a letter to the president. “Worse still, EPA’s actions are unwarranted given the tremendous air quality improvements that have been made in Texas.”

Neil Carman, Clean Air Program director for the Sierra Club said improvements in Texas’ air quality stand out only because of how polluted the state was.

“The problem with the comparison of Texas to the rest of the nation is Texas has so much pollution,” Carman said. “You can have a significant reduction and still be the most polluted.”

Perry’s letter said Texas has achieved a 22 percent reduction in ozone and a 46 percent decrease in nitrogen oxide emissions in the past decade.

“Houston is second only to Atlanta in the total percent decrease in ozone for metropolitan areas since 2000, even with a 20 percent increase in population,” Perry said.

However, records from the EPA website show Houston still far exceeds Atlanta for ozone pollution.

That’s the thing about being the worst at something: You can improve a lot, and still be the worst at it. The state is getting exactly what it deserves from the EPA, which by the way first picked this fight over the Clean Air Act back in 2006. The fault lies entirely with the TCEQ and its industry-friendly “flex permits”. Any protests by TCEQ or the Perry administration that things are getting better are belied by the fact that we’re still lagging behind the rest of the country in compliance, and by the fact that the TCEQ’s own record of performance is so bad that even some Republicans are calling them out.

U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess had some strong words for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality today following news that it presented inaccurate results to the Fort Worth City Council and failed to notify the city or the public for weeks after it realized the error.

The Lewisville Republican wants an investigation into why the agency didn’t make immediately clear that its testing of air quality in Fort Worth related to gas drilling had some problems as soon as they became aware of it.

“Those responsible should be held fully accountable, and I believe that a robust investigation by the Texas Attorney General’s office would be appropriate,” Burgess said in a statement.

Burgess said he was recently briefed by TCEQ on air quality issues related to gas drilling and he’s not happy to find out now that he wasn’t presented with all of the data.

“I relied on the information I was given, as did many others in North Texas,” Burgess said. “I find it personally offensive to find out that what I have been told may not be the full story on the air quality issues in the area that affect millions of North Texans. There are a lot of questions that TCEQ needs to answer, and the public is right to demand accountability.”

As BOR notes, Rep. Burgess is anything but an environmentalist. If he doesn’t trust TCEQ, why should anyone else? This matter isn’t directly related to the EPA issue, but it’s all of a piece. TCEQ is broken. It’s not working in the public’s interest, and there are direct costs that all of us in the state of Texas are paying as a result. And the problems with the TCEQ are the same as the problems with TxDOT and with the Division of Workers Compensation and with HHSC and with the TYC and with every other failing, dysfunctional agency in the state: They’re all Rick Perry’s responsibility. The people at these agencies are Rick Perry’s people, carrying out Rick Perry’s policies. Every last problem at every state agency is ultimately owned by Rick Perry. The only way to fix this is to put someone else in charge.

Here’s a press release from State Sen. Wendy Davis on the Fort Worth issue. Press releases from State Sen. Rodney Ellis and State Rep. Ellen Cohen about the EPA issue are beneath the fold. Finally, while we have to wait till November to do something about the Governor, there’s a Sunset review going on for the TCEQ. The Alliance for a Clean Texas will be hosting a call on Thursday, June 10, to kick off their TCEQ sunset campaign. Details if you want to dial in are at that link.

(more…)

San Antonio to introduce tiered water rates

Good for them.

The San Antonio Water System presented a proposed rate structure to the City Council on Wednesday that would penalize high-volume users while rewarding those who use less.

“This is designed to change behavior,” said Doug Evanson, SAWS chief financial officer and senior vice president.

[…]

By increasing rates for the top 7 percent of all users by 13.8 percent, SAWS believes those customers will voluntarily use less — conserving 1.4 billion gallons of water a year. According to the utility, the average consumer in the top tier would see a $20 monthly bill increase.

“You are just shifting who is paying the bill,” said District 9 Councilwoman Elisa Chan, who said although she opposes water waste, given the poor economy, rates should not be increased for any customers.

Well, yes. That’s the point. Those customers should be paying more. It’s the most effective way to encourage conservation. Let me introduce you to that Texas Water Matters report on reducing water usage, Councilwoman. You can say you oppose water waste, but that doesn’t mean anything if you don’t take sensible steps to actually combat it. And please note, once you put in such strong incentives for people to use less, you’ll wind up saving everyone money:

Because large water consumers use the most during droughts, they are driving peak demand and the need for SAWS to find new water sources, which are more expensive and raise rates for everyone, said Karen Guz, SAWS director of conservation.

Getting water from the Gulf Coast, for example, would mean building a desalination plant and pipeline at a cost of more than $1 billion.

“In the long run, conservation for San Antonio is going to be much cheaper for everyone,” McCormick said.

Sure seems like a no-brainer to me.

“Drop by drop”

We’ve talked a lot about flooding and drainage issues, and about the possibility of water rate increases in Houston, but something that has not gotten a lot of attention is water conservation. I want to call your attention to a new report that examines this in detail.

The National Wildlife Federation and the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club released a joint report today recommending seven common-sense water conservation measures. The report reviews 19 cities around the state to see where these measures are in place and concludes that, with some exceptions, most of the cities surveyed are not doing enough to make the most efficient use of existing water supplies.

“The best and cheapest source of water is the one that’s already on tap,” said Ken Kramer, state director of the Sierra Club. “The key measure of success for any water conservation program is reducing water use on a per person basis and we recognize that takes time. In this report, we looked at some measures cities can be using right now to see if they are moving in the right direction. Our review makes it clear that while a handful of cities are working to maximize their water-use efficiency, most cities are doing little to make the best use of existing water supplies.”

Water conservation is a lot like energy conservation in that it’s not only a good idea, it’s also likely to save you a bunch of money in the long term. There are a number of ways that a city can do that, and some cities in Texas – particularly Austin and San Antonio, which get a lot less rain than Houston – are already aggressively pursuing them.

The report describes and recommends seven efficiency measures that have a proven track report at reducing water use. The cities surveyed were rated on several of those measures. The measures include:

Water Pricing Structure: The report recommends a strongly tiered rate structure with affordable prices for those who use water efficiently and effectively higher water rates for customers who use excessive amounts of water. Austin was the only city whose residential use pricing structure earned a “Strong” rating, while Beaumont, Lubbock and Plano all had rate structures that, when assessed as an effective rate, offered significant discounts for high users, thereby encouraging wasteful water use.

Water Savings Goals: Texas cities are required to create conservation plans with five- and ten-year water use reduction goals, however many cities set easily-achievable but not very impressive targets. Dallas, for example, had the highest rate of per capita water use in our review and committed to just a modest reduction. On the other hand, San Antonio-which has already achieved impressive reductions in per capita water use-committed to continued reductions.

Toilet Replacement: New high-efficiency toilets can save 12,000 gallons annually over older models, but only six cities in the review had active programs encouraging the replacement of inefficient toilets.

Conservation Funding: Most of Texas’s biggest cities now have reasonably well-funded conservation departments. The city of Houston was the only major city in the state without a conservation department or any significant specific funding for conservation.

Outdoor Watering: In Texas, a significant amount of treated drinking water is used for watering lawns. The Texas Water Development Board estimates that over half this water is wasted due to overwatering or run-off. Only two cities in our survey-El Paso and Austin-had “Strong” outdoor watering ordinances while ten cities placed no restrictions at all on outdoor watering.

The full report is here, and I highly recommend it. Since water rates are on people’s minds here, let me quote a bit from that:

[T]iered pricing systems can be effective at lowering water use because a large portion of a city’s water supply is used by a fairly small percentage of the population. The City of Albuquerque has found that half of its households use, on average, three times as much water as the other half.

A relatively small handful of users is exceptionally profligate with water and these individuals are largely insensitive to water prices as they are currently set. In 2008, the top ten water users in the city of Dallas collectively used an astonishing 60 million gallons of water. An earlier 2003 National Wildlife Federation analysis of the Dallas Water Utility’s residential accounts shows that the top 5% of water users in that city used over 25% percent of its water.

[…]

In November 2009, the Austin Water Utility implemented sharply rising rates, with a top tier of $10 per thousand gallons for those who use more than 25,000 gallons a month. These rates are significantly higher than top tier rates in most Texas cities. The average Austin household uses around 8,500 gallons of water a month and would not be affected by the highest rates. The Austin Water Utility has low-to-average rates for more frugal water users.

Additional revenues from a city’s top rates can be used as a dedicated funding source for a utility’s water conservation programs. More than half the revenue from Albuquerque’s summer excessive use surcharge is allocated to its water conservation program. Much of this funding is returned to Albuquerque residents through rebates and other incentives. The San Antonio Water System has a similar program, devoting nine cents per 100 gallons of the cities’ top water rate to the help fund residential water conservation program.

If the city of Houston does nothing else, I hope it follows Austin’s model for pricing water usage. As the report notes, there is a lot that Houston can do to promote conservation. I know the city is looking at a big revenue shortfall right now, but there really isn’t a better time than this to pursue some of these ideas. At the very least, a more tiered structure for water rates would bring in more cash and would do it by making the heaviest users pay the most. Done right, it’s likely that relatively few people would see any kind of increase, and it would provide funds for further conservation efforts, which in turn will be a net savings for the city. Read the report and see what you think. The Star-Telegram and Forrest Wilder have more, while SciGuy delves into a somewhat related topic.

The EPA hearing on smog

Here’s the Chron story on that EPA hearing on smog from Tuesday.

The EPA’s plan calls for a smog limit between 60 and 70 molecules of ozone per billion molecules of air, down from 75 parts per billion set in the final months of Bush administration. Ozone is the main ingredient in smog.

Federal regulators have said the proposed standard reflects research showing the nation’s most widespread air pollutant poses greater health risks than previously thought. Chronic exposure can trigger asthma attacks, chest pain and premature death.

The tougher stance will likely have a profound effect on Texas, where more than 25 counties could be out of compliance and in jeopardy of losing federal highway funds. By the Sierra Club’s estimate, as much as 80 percent of the state’s population would be breathing air not meeting the standard.

A press release from Clean Air Texas, which includes information on how to email comments to the EPA on this if you missed the meeting, is here. Most of the naysaying from the TCEQ and from industry shills boiled down to “it’s too hard” and “it’s too expensive”. I see this as a great opportunity for innovation and invention, which will be an economic driver going forward. It’s also the case that the pollution we experience now is plenty expensive, it’s just that those costs tend be externalized. That can’t be allowed to continue, which is what this is all about. Having said all that, it is true that only so much of this is related to manufacturing and refining, and we can only make so big a dent in it without tackling vehicular emissions. Doing that, however, requires things like better emissions and fuel economy standards, and enabling people to drive less. Needless to say, that’s a lot harder to do. But we’ve got to start somewhere, and this is the place to do it.

UPDATE: Forgot to include a link to this report on the state’s air quality (large PDF), among other things, by the Center for Houston’s Future. Fortunately, Tory reminded me about it.

EPA public hearing on hazardous ozone standards in Houston

The following was sent to me from the Sierra Club:

Right now the EPA is accepting public comments on proposed new ozone standards that will make the air we breathe cleaner and our communities healthier, but they are facing fierce opposition from the coal industry and its allies. We need you to join us the public hearing in Houston to show that Texas is ready to be a leader, instead of a laggard.

Can you join us for an important EPA public hearing on hazardous ozone standards in Houston on February 2nd?

The Coal and Oil industry is going to come out with a vengeance.  TCEQ and Governor Perry have already threatened to sue the EPA over this proposed ruling on ozone standards.

Texans deserve standards that follow the law and abide by the Clean Air Act.  There are TWELVE NEW coal plants proposed in Texas, and we already have 17 coal plants up and running (some of the dirtiest in the country).  We deserve better.

The final decision by the EPA will have an impact on our air quality for decades, but they need to hear from you.

If you can help organize turnout for the event—making phone calls, going to meetings, and spreading the word please email eva.hernandez@sierraclub.org or call Eva at 512.299.1550.

Who: The EPA and You, your friends, family and neighbors.

What: EPA public hearing on proposed revision of the ozone standard which would improve the air quality in Texas—see below to register to give your comment. For more information on the EPA’s ruling go here: www.sierraclub.org/coal/tx

Where: Hilton Houston Hobby Airport

Moody Ballroom

8181 Airport Boulevard

Houston, TX 77061

When: Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010 – 9:30am – 7:30pm or later

Press Conference at 11am

Rally in the evening at 7pm

I look forward to hearing from you!

Very best,

Eva

How to preregister to speak at the Houston Ozone Hearing
To preregister to speak at the public hearings, please contact Ms. Tricia Crabtree at:
crabtree.tricia@epa.gov; telephone: (919) 541-5688.

If you wish to speak at the hearing but don’t pre-register, you much arrive before 7:30 pm that evening at the Hearing location.  Otherwise, you can submit a comment to the EPA Docket here.

The public hearings will begin at 9:30 a.m. and continue until 7:30 p.m. or later, if necessary, depending on the number of speakers wishing to participate.  The EPA will accommodate all speakers that arrive and register before 7:30 p.m.

For Rideshare info to the hearing, click here.

A list of people who are already scheduled to speak, including Houston Mayor Annise Parker and State Sens. Wendy Davis and Rodney Ellis, is here, and more information about the hearing is here. Please come out in support of clean air if you can make it.

Open beaches

Got the following email from a colleague and thought it was worth mentioning:

Very late Sunday night a “deal” was made in the Texas legislature to make an exemption in the Texas Open Beaches Act – the law that guarantees public access to our beaches.

Rep. Wayne Christian of Center, Texas use to have a beach house on Bolivar. Hurricane Ike destroyed it. I feel badly for him and the thousands of others who lost property. But state law prohibits construction of houses on the public beach. Why? Because its the PUBLIC BEACH, not private beach.

Anyway Rep. Christian wants to build a new house on what is now PUBLIC BEACH, and he snuck a law through that exempts front-row owners in Bolivar to build new houses on our beach. That is bad public policy. Beaches are like public parks, you can live near them but not in them.

Right now, please phone Gov. Perry and respectfully ask him to “veto HB770, building houses directly on the public beach will cost us billions of dollars in the next storm”.

512-463-2000

Rep. Christian was on the conference committee for HB770, which is (I presume) where this amendment was added. The Galveston News had a story about HB770 on Monday.

House Bill 770 started as a bill to allow homeowners whose houses were destroyed by a hurricane to maintain their homestead exemptions — even if a final decision on whether to rebuild hadn’t been made.

But the law also appears to have exempted houses along the Bolivar Peninsula from the requirements of the Texas Open Beaches Act for four years.

Under existing law, buildings must be behind the line of naturally occurring vegetation.

The bill would exempt from state open beaches laws a house “located on a peninsula in a county with a population of more than 250,000 and less than 251,000 that borders the Gulf of Mexico.” Only one area in the state meets that description — the Bolivar Peninsula.

The bill, which was co-authored by Galveston County’s state representatives, Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, and Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, won unanimous approval in the state House and easily earned passage in the Senate. One of Galveston County’s two state senators, Mike Jackson, R-La Porte, was the bill’s sponsor in the Senate.

Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, whose agency is responsible for managing the open beaches laws in Texas, blasted the law.

“I don’t think building houses on the beach, with the waters of the Gulf beneath them, is a good idea or good public policy,” Patterson said. “This bill is so poorly drafted that will happen.”

Here’s the bill text. I agree with Commissioner Patterson on this, and think a veto is not a bad idea. And according to today’s Chron, he plans on sticking to his guns.

Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson has asked Gov. Rick Perry to veto the bill containing the amendment. The bill has not yet crossed the governor’s desk, and he will not make a decision until he sees it, said Perry spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger.

“I don’t think building houses on the beach, with the waters of the Gulf beneath them, is a good idea or good public policy,” Patterson said.

If the governor signs the bill, Patterson vowed that he would not enforce the amendment. “My option is just to say, ‘Screw you, Wayne Christian,’ because the Legislature didn’t pass this, one guy passed this,” he said.

Patterson said the Legislature would have to impeach him if lawmakers wanted the provision enforced.

That would be going too far – filing a lawsuit strikes me as the better way to stop enforcement of that law – but at least we know where he stands. Christian, for his part, says this wasn’t about him:

Christian said his vote for the amendment benefited other peninsula property owners and therefore was not a breach of ethics. “If I were to pass a law that affected only Wayne Christian, that would be a conflict,” he said.

At least 12 of his neighbors want to rebuild but can’t without the amendment, Christian said.

The amendment will keep property on the tax rolls that otherwise would be taken off if left undeveloped, Christian said. He also insisted the amendment is “not mine,” because it was put forward by Rep. Mike “Tuffy” Hamilton, R-Mauriceville.

“I did sign with him because I approved the concept,” Christian said. The amendment targeted the Bolivar Peninsula because it bore the brunt of the storm, he said.

He denied that it was improper to add the amendment to a bill so close to the end of the session. “This is not an unethical, deceptive method of doing anything,” Christian said. “This is the way it’s been ever since government was invented.”

Well, that much is certainly true. As has also been the case since government was invented, sometimes these last-minute deals contain unpalatable provisions. And so here we are.

You’ll be hearing more about the Open Beaches Act this November, as the passage of HJR102 means there will be an amendment voted on to make the Open Beaches act part of the Constitution instead of an ordinary law that could be changed by a majority vote in the Lege. The above-linked story, and this Chron story from last week have more info about that.

The push to protect public access comes in the wake of lawsuits challenging what is public and what is private along the 367 miles of mostly wild Texas coastline.

The Open Beaches Act prohibits houses seaward of the vegetation line, which crawls steadily landward as the beaches erode.

While trophy houses, subdivisions and hotels have sprouted along the Gulf of Mexico, rising seas, sinking land and storms have led to the rapid erosion of Texas coastline. By some estimates, as much as 10 feet of beach front washes away each year.

As the sandy shore shifts over decades, a barrier island, such as Galveston, may look the same, but it will be farther landward. Houses that once stood hundreds of feet from the surf will be encroaching on the Gulf.

In some cases, the Texas General Land Office, which is responsible for the coastline, has sued to remove houses from the beach.
Jerry Patterson, the state’s land commissioner, suggested that the proposed amendment wouldn’t change anything along the coast.

“We work every day at the Texas General Land Office to ensure the public’s right to access the beach,” he said.

Property owners contend that the existing state law tramples on their rights and that a constitutional amendment would make matters worse, according to the House’s analysis of the pros and cons of the bill.

J. David Breemer, a Pacific Legal Foundation attorney who is challenging the land office’s enforcement of the Open Beaches Act, said he doesn’t believe a constitutional amendment would insulate the state from lawsuits.

“The issue is how the law is used, not the intent,” Breemer said. “The easement keeps rolling over land that the public hasn’t ever walked and development has already happened.”

Still, beachgoers and environmentalists expressed enthusiasm over the proposed amendment, which cleared the state House on a 140-1 vote and the Senate on a 29-2 vote.

Ken Kramer, director of the Sierra Club’s Lone Star chapter, said the environmental group would campaign in favor of the ballot measure.

“It’s a great issue to elevate people’s awareness of coastal protection,” he said.

This KHOU story has more on that lawsuit. I’ll be voting for this proposition, and I look forward to seeing how the Supreme Court deals with it when that lawsuit, which has been sent its way by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, comes before it.

UPDATE: Land Commish Jerry Patterson keeps pushing this, with a press conference tomorrow in Galveston. From his release:

Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson will hold a press conference at 10:30 a.m. Friday on the beach in Galveston to rally Texans to demand Governor Perry kill a proposed law that would exempt the Bolivar Peninsula from the Texas Open Beaches Act.

The press conference will be on the beach in the Pirates Beach subdivision in Galveston, just seaward of the 4200 block of Ghost Crab Lane.

“Call Governor Perry now and let him know you want to keep Texas beaches for the enjoyment of the public,” Patterson said. “An eleventh hour amendment to HB770 would allow an elite few to rebuild their houses on the public beach or even in the surf. That’s not just a bad idea, that’s bad public policy.”

Patterson urged Texans who love the beach to call Governor Perry’s office at (512) 463-2000 and ask him to veto HB770.

The amendment was covertly slipped into the bill without any public debate on the first day of the 2009 hurricane season, which was the last day of the 81st Legislature.

“As Gulf Coast residents were thinking about the next storm, a few lawmakers were actually sneaking an amendment on to a bill that would allow their neighbors to rebuild their houses on the public beach or even in the surf zone of the area hardest hit by Hurricane Ike,” Patterson said. “That’s just unthinkable.”

Far as I know, there’s been no public comment from Governor Perry yet. He probably won’t say anything until he takes action on the bill, but it’s possible he could telegraph his intent.