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One for the road

How about one last lawsuit against the federal government, for old times’ sake?

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Tuesday announced he, along with 13 other mostly Republican-led states, would sue the federal government yet again to block a recently finalized federal rule limiting coal mining near waterways.

The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement finalized the “Stream Protection Rule” in December, President Obama’s last full month in office, “after an extensive and transparent public process that spanned multiple years.”

“This rule takes into account the extensive and substantive comments we received from state regulators, mining companies and local communities across the country,” Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Janice Schneider said in a statement last month announcing finalization of the rule.

The statement said it “updates 33-year-old regulations and establishes clear requirements for responsible surface coal mining that will protect 6,000 miles of streams and 52,000 acres of forests over the next two decades, preserving community health and economic opportunities while meeting the nation’s energy needs.”

But according to Paxton’s office, “the federal agency adopted the revised rule without the participation of the states.”

“By imposing a mandatory, one-size-fits-all rule regarding coal mining, the rule goes against states’ sovereign rights allowed by the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act enacted by Congress in 1977,” Paxton’s office said in a statement Tuesday announcing the filing of a petition for review and injunction of the rule, which was just published in the Federal Register.

Sometimes I like to imagine a world in which Ken Paxton lives next to an industrial polluter and is unable to afford health insurance. It doesn’t change anything in this world, but one does what one must to cope.

MUDs and debt

Another story about the least-understood form of debt and taxation in Texas.

BagOfMoney

In Houston’s conservative suburbs, where local governments are loath to raise taxes, the thankless task of hiking revenues has fallen to hundreds of so-called municipal utility districts created for developers to finance water and sewage systems, roads and other amenities.

These MUDs, as they’re called, have virtually unlimited power in bright red, anti-tax Texas to sell bonds and levy property taxes.

The state’s leading tea party conservatives, Comptroller Glenn Hegar and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, have championed their creation in what ethics reformers say is a clear example of special interest influence in Austin.

All told, lawmakers who carry bills creating MUDs and other water districts have collected $3.5 million in campaign contributions since 2001 from law firms that specialize in creating those districts on behalf of developers or do bond work on their multimillion-dollar deals, a Houston Chronicle investigation has found. The Chronicle used a state database to pinpoint which law firms work for water districts. The data doesn’t include developers, who also contribute large sums to legislators.

Both Hegar and Patrick say MUDs and other water districts have played a critical role in developing infrastructure and creating jobs. They deny campaign contributions have anything to do with the bills they’ve carried. But both also say they are concerned about surging property tax burdens levied by school districts, towns, cities, counties – and MUDs, their less accountable, largely anonymous first cousins.

MUDs and other water districts have to date issued more than $60  billion in outstanding debt and face almost no government oversight of their spending. While most voters know the names of their mayors and city council members, many have no idea who runs their local MUD – or even what a MUD is.

James Quintero, director of the Center for Local Governance for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Austin, wants the legislature to protect taxpayers by preventing local officeholders from “off-loading” the delivery of public services to MUDs and other “special purpose districts” that contribute to the property tax burden and often lack transparency.

See here for past blogging on this topic, and be sure to read the whole story. Anyone who is surprised by the connection between MUD law firms and the politicians who push MUDs should probably go lie down in a quiet room for awhile. I know one should never read the comments, but I was struck by the number of commenters on that story who basically accused the Chronicle of being “anti-development” for having written this. I don’t doubt that MUDs are an effective mechanism for spurring development in currently undeveloped placed. The question I have is whether this is the best way to spur development in currently undeveloped places (*) or if perhaps a better mechanism may exist. To put it another way, if we could emulate Metro’s bus system redesign and start with a blank map of Harris County and its governmental entities and undertake the task of reimagining them all from the ground up, would we want to design something that looks like what we have now, or would we go a different direction? Call me crazy, but I think we’d gravitate towards the latter. That doesn’t mean that we can easily or pragmatically move in a different direction from where we are now, but it is worth reminding ourselves that what we have now, with its heavy reliance on this unhealthily symbiotic relationship of officeholders and niche law firms, not to mention millions of dollars in debt being ratified by elections in which literally two people vote, is not the only possible option. The Chron’s Chris Tomlinson has more.

(*) There is of course the completely separate question about whether it is a good idea to spur development in undeveloped places at all, or whether it would be better to spur it in already-developed places, with more investment in transit and other non-car modes of travel. That is a conversation that is very much worth having, but it would make Dan Patrick’s head explode, and so it is unfortunately beyond the scope of this blog post.

Stuck in the MUD

Tricky things, these municipal utility districts.

MUD 187 came to be when a Houston developer arranged for two people to move their trailer onto a 519-acre site on the edge of Richmond in Fort Bend County, which at the time was an empty field.

As the only “residents” within the municipal utility district’s boundaries, the couple headed for the polls in November 2008. The ballot asked whether the state’s approval of MUD 187 should be confirmed and whether the district should be authorized to sell up to $188 million in bonds for water and sewage systems, drainage, parks, recreational facilities, roads and a fire station.

The vote was unanimous – 2-0.

“That’s not how democracy is supposed to work,” said Clifford Gay, a retired construction superintendent who now lives in Del Webb Sweetgrass, a retirement community that owes its existence to MUD 187 – and the taxes it is levying to pay off $24 million in bonds.

Gay and his neighbors wonder how high those taxes might go as more bonds are sold, especially with extraordinary bond issuance costs of 9 percent, according to IRS documents. MUD 187’s bonds are rated Baa3 by Moody’s, which says they may have “certain speculative characteristics.”

[…]

There are 1,751 active water districts in Texas, a class of special purpose districts tracked by TCEQ, ranging from large river authorities to tiny irrigation districts, including 949 MUDs, according to the state.

The epicenter of water district financing: Houston’s suburbs.

Forty-four percent of those 1,751 districts are in Harris, Fort Bend and Montgomery counties. Sixty-five percent of the 949 MUDs are in those three counties – 389 in Harris County, 146 in Fort Bend County and 85 in Montgomery County.

MUDs are the most popular type of water district in Texas with developers, in large part because they hold enormous sway over how they’re created and because MUDs are empowered to issue tax-exempt bonds covering the developers’ infrastructure costs.

Taxpayers’ advocates increasingly view them as a problematic way to pay for infrastructure in the face of climbing local government debt, given their sweeping power to sell bonds and raise taxes.

Since 2000, 207 water districts were created in Harris, Fort Bend, and Montgomery counties, with voters approving more than $39 billion in bonds to be used for various infrastructure projects. There is more than $60 billion in outstanding debt statewide, according to the most recent financial audits that water districts are required to submit to TCEQ.

Water district debt makes up at least 15 percent of Texas’ debt. It’s also the fastest-growing debt, according to recent data from the state Comptroller’s Office.

Read the whole thing – for as dry and wonky a subject as this would seem to be, the behind-the-scenes stuff is quite intricate and rather fascinating. And that’s without taking into account the bizarre voting procedures that “govern” MUDs and related beasts like Road Improvement Districts (RUDs) and Levee Improvement Districts (LIDs). Say what you want about cities, but at least you get to vote for people who are supposed to represent you.

In past discussions of MUDs and RUDs, I’ve been asked what the alternative is, since everyone seems to agree that as things are now, there’s no way for the kind of development that needs to happen to keep up with Texas’ booming population to take place in the absence of this structure. That may be, but let me turn the question around. If we were (as a thought experiment) to do with the state of Texas and the greater Houston region what Metro did with its bus system and redesign it all from scratch, would you set things up the same way they are now, or would you try to come up with something different? I don’t know about you, but I’d lean strongly towards the latter. I freely admit, I have no idea what that might look like, though I’m sure there are actual experts out there who could offer a suggestion or two. My point is, just because this is what we have to work with, doesn’t mean it’s the best way to do it.

One more thing: Given the current Republican obsession with dictating to cities how to run their business as well as their obsession with property taxes and debt of all kinds, you’d think the plight of people like Clifford Gay might interest them a bit. I’ll leave it to you to speculate why cities must be brought to heel, but MUDs and RUDs and so forth can do pretty much what they want. The Chron editorial board has more.

The zebra mussels keep invading

Can anything stop them?

Zebra mussel

When zebra mussels exploded in the Great Lakes region during the early 1990s, fisheries managers in Texas and many other southern states certainly noticed, but most weren’t overly alarmed.

Yes, the alien freshwater mollusks, native to northern Eurasia and introduced to North America through the ballast water of commercial ships, had quickly become a major environmental and economic problem. Able to reproduce at tremendous rates – a single, fingernail-size mussel can produce a million eggs during spawn – and lacking any significant predators, the mussels swarmed northern waters, triggering considerable negative consequences.

But, evidence suggested, the invasive mussels were likely to remain a regional problem. They were confined to the Great Lakes. The mussels couldn’t transport themselves across scores of miles to infect river systems not directly connected to the infected waters. And, even if they escaped to new waters, the mussels’ relatively small native range was cold-water lakes; the mollusks might be able to live in the upper Midwest but almost certainly would wither and perish in the sultry waters of a southern summer.

It hasn’t worked out that way. Zebra mussels have spread at an alarming rate, thanks mostly to human actions. And the mollusks have proven much more tolerant of warm water than just about anyone suspected. They now are found in at least 30 states. By 2009, they had made it to Texas, first taking hold in Lake Texoma on the Texas/Oklahoma border.

Last week, barely seven years later, Texas fisheries officials announced discovery of zebra mussels in three reservoirs, boosting the number of lakes hosting the potentially devastating invasive species to a dozen spread across the Trinity, Red and Brazos river systems.

One of the new reservoirs on the list is Lake Livingston, the 90,000-acre lake on the Trinity River about 80 miles northeast of Houston. Livingston, a hugely popular fishing destination and a primary water source for the fourth-most populous city in the nation, is the southernmost and easternmost Texas waterbody in which zebra mussels have been documented.

“We knew Lake Livingston could be at risk for zebra mussels, but we were hoping they wouldn’t show up,” said Brian Van Zee, Waco-based regional director of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s inland fisheries division. “You don’t want to see any new infestation; there can be a lot of negative consequences.”

Some of those consequences are economic. Zebra mussels reproduce so quickly and in such dense concentrations they can carpet lake bottoms and anything under the water. They attach themselves to water management and transportation infrastructure such gates and pump parts and, especially, intake screens and pipes. The concentrations are so thick they clog and close these crucial systems.

This damage to water infrastructure systems has cost billions nationwide. It has cost hundreds of millions in Texas.

See here and here for some background. The main defense against zebra mussels has been trying to slow their march across the landscape, but that hasn’t been much of a success, and recent flooding appears to have helped them spread out to new locations. I hope someone’s thinking of a way to try and control their population, because we’re beginning to run out of places where they haven’t yet invaded.

How much would you pay to fix Houston’s sewer system?

Whatever your answer to that question is, the real answer is that it could be quite a lot.

Years of Houston’s cracked, clogged or flooded sewer pipes belching raw waste into residents’ yards and city streets have City Hall facing a federal decree that sources say could force the city to invest $5 billion in upgrades.

As in dozens of cities across the country, the looming Environmental Protection Agency mandate likely will force Houstonians to pay sharply higher water bills to fund the improvements.

[…]

As is the case in Wood Shadows, many of Houston’s sewer overflows reach local bayous and breed bacteria. These violations of the Clean Water Act create health risks severe enough that experts advise against swimming in local waterways, 80 percent of which fall short of water quality standards for fecal bacteria.

Rather than face a lawsuit from the EPA, which enforces the Clean Water Act, city officials have spent the last few years negotiating a so-called consent decree, a binding agreement that specifies projects aimed at reducing spills by upgrading pipes, ramping up maintenance and educating the public on how they can avoid clogging Houston’s 6,700 miles of sewers, such as not pouring grease down the drain.

EPA officials declined comment, and city leaders have resisted discussing details of the talks, but three sources with knowledge of the negotiations say the efforts expected to be required under the mandate could cost an estimated $5 billion.

Mayor Sylvester Turner has acknowledged the negotiations are “significant,” and said he has discussed the decree directly with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and plans to soon meet with Houston’s Congressional delegation on the issue.

“We are not opposed to making improvements, but we want the costs to be reasonable and spread out over the next 20 years so we can avoid any dramatic spiking of ratepayer rates,” Turner said. “Negotiations are ongoing on all fronts.”

Brent Fewell, an environmental consultant and former top official in the EPA’s water division, agreed that getting more time to comply with a decree can curtail a rate hike. Still, he said, Houstonians should expect to pay more.

“These are big-ticket items. They’re not cheap, and it definitely has an impact,” Fewell said. “There are some communities that have seen as much as 100 percent to 150 percent increases in their water rates based on these consent decrees.”

Houston’s sewers have lagged since the city’s first postwar boom, with City Hall, critics say, tending to make fixes only when forced to by regulators.

Whatever sewage treatment plants could not handle in the 1960s was dumped straight into the bayous, making Houston for decades the region’s single worst water polluter. The Texas Attorney General took the city to court over the issue in 1974, securing a judgment that restricted Houston’s development until new plants were built.

Those investments did not end the spills, however, so another round of decrees spurred a mid-1990s effort that repaired a quarter of the city’s sewer pipes and upgraded many treatment plants and pump stations.

Even that $1.2 billion program didn’t fix the problem, leading to another 2005 state mandate that Houston is scheduled to satisfy this month. That mandate was to replace 1,800 miles of pipe, clean twice that much, and cut grease clogs by passing an ordinance requiring restaurants to clean their grease traps.

For a bit of extra credit, do some reading over at the city’s Wastewater Operations page. I’m reminded of a story I heard from the professor of an urban history class I took in college. He talked about how in New York, specifically in Manhattan, the upper classes lived farther north in the pre-indoor plumbing days, and thus were first in line to both cook and wash with, and dump their waste into, the Hudson and East Rivers. Those of lesser means, who lived south – that is, downstream – from there, were thus “literally eating shit”, as he put it.

Try to keep that in mind when you read this story, because it’s our sewer system and wastewater treatment plants that allow us to avoid a similar fate. Whatever the city negotiates with the EPA, the cost of building more capacity and fixing old leaks will be passed on to all of us, and no one will like it. If you want to blame someone for it, blame all the public officials og generations past that failed to maintain the city’s water infrastructure, and the voters who let them get away with it. It will not be much fun fixing this problem, but the alternatives are all much worse.

Clean Power Plan can proceed for now

Good.

ERCOT

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Dealing with climate change whether you believe in it or not

Writer Taylor Hill visits West Texas to talk about drought, wind energy, and the topic that dare not speak its name, also known as climate change.

Actions, though, do speak louder than words. AzTx Cattle and other ranching and farming operations across West Texas are changing a century-old way of life to adapt to the new reality of climate change, even if, in their unwillingness to talk about global warming, they see their actions as a pragmatic response to a new business reality. So a state that once spawned oil billionaires like T. Boone Pickens now mints wind barons like, yes, T. Boone Pickens, and rock-ribbed conservative cities are ditching dirty coal for wind and solar energy. Texas may be home to some of the nation’s most vociferous climate skeptics—hello, Ted Cruz—but Texans are already fighting climate change, even if they won’t admit it. Survival, it turns out, trumps denial.

“If people are making smart choices for different reasons, that’s OK,” says Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University, in Lubbock, and an evangelical Christian. “What matters is not why we do it; what matters is what we’re doing.”

[…]

AzTx Cattle once operated feedlots scattered across the parched landscapes of Arizona and Texas. Bob Josserand cites the continued consolidation of the cattle feeding industry as the reason the company has closed all of its feedlots except for one in Hereford. Today, John Josserand focuses mainly on the company’s open-range cattle ranches in East Texas and New Mexico.

But even at the Hereford feedlot, things have changed.

On a walk around the 50,000-cattle lot, John reluctantly leads the way to the feedlot’s latest herd of Holstein cows—a smaller breed that requires less food and therefore less water. For a man who associates high-quality cattle with the all-black coat, perky ears, and stocky build of Angus, the Holstein, with its splotchy black-and-white hide and floppy ears, is not his favorite cow. It doesn’t produce the prized steaks associated with Black Angus or other iconic Texas cattle. If Holsteins are not used as dairy cows, they’re typically sold as low-quality ground beef—they’re kind of the catfish of the cow world.

“They’re making up a larger and larger percentage of what we’re seeing here,” John says.

For Bob, the changes in the business—from downsizing to breed changing—are a logical response to current conditions. “We’ve seen years and years of wasting water, and it’s catching up with us,” he says. “The decisions that were made 40 years ago are coming back home.”

Bruce McCarl, an agricultural economist at Texas A&M University, views the Josserands’ decision to move away from feedlots as the type of adaptation needed to cope with climate change.

“We see farmers and ranchers adapting to climate change in our studies, even if they don’t call it climate change,” he says. Some of the more obvious changes include switching to drip irrigation systems and substituting corn and other water-intensive crops for drought-tolerating grains such as sorghum.

It’s a good read, though if you’re anything like me you’ll probably find yourself grinding your teeth a few times. People can believe whatever crazy things they want about climate change, and they can vote for politicians who nurture those crazy beliefs, but when their own eyes and their own bottom lines tell them they have to adapt or die, they adapt. And the actions they take ultimately help fight against climate change, even if their words and beliefs are still obstacles.

The inevitable latest lawsuit against the EPA

As night follows the day.

ERCOT

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Droughts will always be with us

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paxton asks judge to block EPA water rules in Texas

The basic story:

Texas has asked a federal judge to block enforcement of a new rule that expands authority over which water bodies the U.S. government can regulate.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton made the request Tuesday in an 88-page court document. The request comes in the wake of a federal court ruling in North Dakota that blocked enforcement of the rule in 13 states that filed suit in that court. Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers in a federal court in Houston and aren’t affected by the North Dakota ruling last week.

The May rule would greatly expand federal authority under the Clean Water Act over the bodies of water the EPA can legally regulate, restoring protections to tributaries and wetlands.

That federal ruling was issued two weeks ago, but does not apply to Texas, which is to say that the EPA rule is still in effect here. Texas, along with Louisiana and Mississippi, filed its lawsuit against the new rules a couple of months ago, but there has been no ruling in that case yet. Here’s the AG’s press release on the filing, with other information about that case, if you’re curious. You never know what a judge will do, so we’ll see what happens. WOAI and ThinkProgress have more.

Hempstead landfill clarification

I recently blogged about an update to the Hempstead landfill story, in which Green Group Holdings asked to amend its original filings regarding groundwater levels. I received an email on Monday from a Green Group representative, who sent me the following additional information:

  • On August 12, 2015, the Administrative Law Judges presiding over the hearing on the landfill permit application for the Pintail Landfill in Waller County granted a continuance of the hearing process to allow Pintail to evaluate new information regarding groundwater levels at the proposed site following recent extreme rainfall amounts.
  • TCEQ rules contemplate the incorporation of new groundwater data into the engineering design for a landfill.
  • Because of our commitment to environmental stewardship and engineering excellence, we believe that further evaluation of this new information is the responsible course of action and we requested a delay in the hearing process to allow for it.
  • This is consistent with Pintail’s approach to meet or exceed applicable requirements. For instance, the surface water detention ponds at the Pintail Landfill will have significantly more capacity than required. The surface water management system at a municipal solid waste landfill is required by rule to be designed and constructed to manage the rainfall from one 25-year storm event. However, the Pintail facility’s ponds are designed to manage stormwater from two back-to-back 100-year rainfall events.
  • For the Pintail site, groundwater levels in the 15 piezometers were measured over an 18-month period, from July 2011 until December 2012, including two 3-month periods during which rainfall in the area of the Pintail site was more than 150% of normal (see attachment for additional information).
  • The higher groundwater levels recently measured at the site followed a 3-month period in which rainfall amounts were well over 200% of normal.

Emphasis in the original. The attachment in question can be seen here. In the original Chron story that I blogged about, the folks fighting the landfill asked for a summary judgment denying the permit and dismissing the case after this happened; I haven’t seen any new stories relating to this, so I don’t know what the status of that is. In any event, I wanted to be as accurate as I can about this, so here you go. Thanks to Green Group for the feedback.

Hempstead landfill would indeed hurt the environment

Raise your hand if this surprises you.

StopHwy6Landfill

Pintail Landfill developers backpedaled from arguments that their proposed dump site outside Hempstead would not harm the environment, agreeing for the first time this summer that their review of groundwater under the property was flawed.

Environmental testing by opponents in preparation for a November hearing found that groundwater is several feet closer to the surface than Pintail reported in its 2011 permit application. If constructed as proposed, landfill officials admitted in related state filings that the dump site would be underwater, violating regulations designed to protect against groundwater contamination that could affect drinking supplies.

Opponents celebrated the admission as vindication of their years-long battle to block the 250-acre landfill that would be visible from U.S. 290 and primarily receive trash from Houston 50 miles away.

Green Group Holdings, the Georgia-based developer behind the landfill, asked TCEQ for permission to amend its application just days after opponents submitted the revelatory geological report to the state administrative court scheduled to review the permit in a contested case hearing. An attorney for Green Group and Pintail did not return emails or phone calls requesting comment.

Instead of allowing Pintail to amend its application – and take that revised plan into the hearing – landfill opponents have asked state administrative law judges to issue a summary judgment denying the permit and dismissing the case.

“My client, along with the City of Hempstead, have collectively spent over $1 million fighting this landfill,” said Blayre Pena, attorney for the nonprofit advocacy group Citizens Against a Landfill in Hempstead. “It would be a true miscarriage of justice if Pintail is allowed to admit their application does not meet statutory and regulatory requirements and then be given the opportunity to send it back to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to fix it.”

The contested case hearing originally had been scheduled to start Nov. 2, but Pintail’s request has delayed that at least several weeks, assuming the judges don’t deny the permit outright.

“We are playing the waiting game,” Hempstead Mayor Michael Wolfe said. “While the TCEQ did not take a position on the city’s motion to dismiss, we are hopeful they will see the light and realize there is only one acceptable answer to this situation: Deny Pintail’s application.”

See here, here, and here for some background. I wonder what motivated this admission – the story doesn’t give any indication, and it’s not something they’d do if they didn’t have to. Whatever the case, I agree with Mayor Wolfe. Groundwater is precious enough in this state. The last thing we need is to put any of it at risk of contamination by a landfill. Let’s hope the TCEQ sees it that way as well.

Texas sues the EPA again (and again, and again, and…)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

Attorney General Ken Paxton on Wednesday filed a lawsuit over the agency’s rejection of parts of a Texas clean air program, launching the state’s second battle against EPA regulations in less than two weeks.

Texas has sued the agency 21 times since President Obama took office in 2009.

This challenge centers on how Texas handles pollution that spews from industrial plants during facility startups, shutdowns and equipment malfunctions.

Historically, regulators exempt pollution from those events from overall limits, letting plants to emit more than their federal permits allow. But environmental groups have protested this policy, claiming it has let plants discharge millions of extra pounds of dangerous air pollutants each year.

A federal appeals court in April 2014 found some of the environmental groups’ points valid, prompting the EPA in May to require Texas and 35 other states to revisit how they deal with such events.

The new state plans are due in November 2016.

But Paxton said that because the EPA had approved Texas’ plans in 2010, before the environmental challenge, the agency’s latest directive amounted to “an abrupt and unwarranted about-face.”

Whatever. I guess Paxton has to get all those lawsuits in quickly, before defending his own butt becomes his main job in life. As the story notes, Texas was one of several states to file suit over the EPA’s Clean Water Plan, and there will be another suit coming next month when the EPA’s Clean Power Plan rules get released. Too bad all this litigation isn’t an economic catalyst, we could use a little help on that front.

Now Texas is suing the EPA over its clean water plan

Another day, another anti-environmental lawsuit. It’s what we do.

For the 20th time since the Obama administration took office in 2009, the federal Environmental Protection Agency is facing a lawsuit from Texas.

Joined by Louisiana and Mississippi, Texas is challenging the “Waters of the U.S.” rule which the EPA finalized Monday. That rule is aimed at better defining the scope of bodies of water protected under the Clean Water Act. Members of the farm lobby and Republican leaders say the rule will lead to more regulation and a takeover of private property.

In a statement, Attorney General Ken Paxton called the rule “so broad and open to interpretation that everything from ditches and dry creek beds, to gullies, to isolated ponds formed after a big rain could be considered a ‘water of the United States.'”

The EPA has claimed it does not plan to expand the waters under its jurisdiction, only to clarify what they are.

“The very structure of the Constitution, and therefore liberty itself, is threatened when administrative agencies attempt to assert independent sovereignty and lawmaking authority that is superior to the states, Congress, and the courts,” the states’ lawsuit reads.

I’m reminded of a bit of dialog from a classic TV show:

Giles: It’s the end of the world.
Buffy, Willow, and Xander: Again?!

I’m just saying. The usual suspects scored a victory the other day, but overall the EPA and the Obama administration have done very well. We’ll see how it goes this time. ThinkProgress has more.

We still face water shortages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Good news for Texas lakes

All that rain has had a positive effect.

Lavon Lake

Statewide, estimates from the National Weather Service indicate the first four months of this year have been the fifth wettest since 1895 and the wettest since 1997. So far this year, estimates show the state has gotten 11.5 inches of precipitation, or about 160 percent of the normal 7.1 inches. March and April each provided 200 percent of the state’s normal rainfall.

And the news going forward is good.

A weaker-than-anticipated El Nino that brought with it rain, snow and sleet to Texas is expected to persist and intensify through next winter.

This summer’s temperatures may be the lowest since 2007-2008, according to state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammons, which could lead to less evaporation from lakes, weather officials said. Also, the state’s wettest two months – May and June – are still ahead.

[…]

Lakes in the Dallas-Fort Worth area are faring well. Across the seven reservoirs serving Dallas County, lake levels are up nearly 30 percent from three months ago, at 94 percent full on Friday. Fort Worth’s seven reservoirs were almost 82 percent full Friday, up from 63 percent three months ago.

Other areas too have gotten good precipitation, including Houston, Corpus Christi and Midland. The Edwards Aquifer, which serves San Antonio and much of the Hill Country, has risen nearly 20 feet since Jan. 1.

The one area where lake levels remain low is around Austin, where Lake Travis and Lake Buchanan were 38 percent full Friday; that’s the second-lowest level for this time of year since the 1960s.

There is still some exceptional drought in Texas, in places like Palo Pinto and Childress counties, northwest of Fort Worth, but overall things are much better. Here’s a DMN story about lake levels in North Texas. Lavon Lake, in Collin County, released flood waters for the first time in three years. Its level was at a record low last July. I wish things would improve for Lake Travis, but on the whole we have a lot to be thankful about.

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

So what else is new?

ERCOT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

And finally, on a related note:

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

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

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

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

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

Just a reminder, we still need to use less water

In particular, we need to water our lawns less.

Less of this, please

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reusing wastewater

Get used to it.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

ERCOT acknowledges that meeting EPA clean air requirements won’t be that big a deal

From Texas Clean Air Matters:

ERCOT

Well, it didn’t take long before the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) released, at the request of Texas’ very political Public Utilities Commission, another report about the impacts of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) rules designed to protect public health.

This time ERCOT, which manages 90 percent of Texas’ electric grid, looked at the impact of seven EPA clean air safeguards on the electric grid, including the Cross State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR), the Mercury Air Toxics Standard (MATS), the Regional Haze program (all of which go back before the Obama administration), the proposed Clean Power Plan, which would set the first-ever national limits on carbon pollution from existing power plants, and others. What was surprising to learn, though, is that after power companies in the state start complying with EPA’s other clean air protections, the proposed Clean Power Plan poses a minimal incremental impact to the power grid. We would only have to cut 200 megawatts of coal-fired generation, which equates to less than one coal-fired power plant.

For as much doom-and-gloom we heard last month in ERCOT’s report about the Clean Power Plan, they certainly seem to be singing a different tune this go-around. The new report shows that Texas can go a long way toward complying with the Clean Power Plan by meeting other clean air safeguards, for which Texas power companies have had years to prepare.

Very soon power companies in Texas will install control technologies to reduce multiple – not just one – pollutants, thereby making compliance with EPA’s subsequent regulations easier and more cost-effective. In the end, Texas will only need to take a minimal amount of additional aging coal plants offline by 2029.

Plus, other energy resources, like energy efficiency, rooftop solar, and demand response (which pays people to conserve energy when the electric grid is stressed) are gaining ground every day in Texas. They have proven to be vital resources on the power grid that help reduce electricity costs for Texas homes and businesses.

Energy efficiency, in particular, provides significant reductions in power plant emissions, including carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and ozone-forming pollutants, and has a four-to-one payback on investment. This is the type of performance worth investing in.

See here for the background, and click over to read the rest. In addition to what the EDF says above, complying with the new regulations would also save a ton of water, which is a pretty big deal in and of itself. So let’s have less whining – and fewer lawsuits – and get on with the compliance. It’s a win all around.

Other towns consider fracking bans

If Denton can do it

A Texas hamlet shaken by its first recorded earthquake last year and hundreds since then is among communities now taking steps to challenge the oil and gas industry’s traditional supremacy over the right to frack.

Reno Mayor Lyndamyrth Stokes said spooked residents started calling last November: “I heard a boom, then crack! The whole house shook. What was that?” one caller asked. The U.S. Geological Survey confirmed that Reno, a community about 50 miles west of Dallas, had its first earthquake.

Seismologists have looked into whether the tremors are being caused by disposal wells on the outskirts of Reno, where millions of gallons of water produced by hydraulic fracturing are injected every day. Reno took the first step toward what Stokes believes will be an outright ban by passing a law in April limiting disposal well activity to operators who can prove the injections won’t cause earthquakes.

Reno and other cities are taking their lead from Denton, a university town north of Dallas where the state’s first ban on fracking within city limits takes effect Tuesday. The Denton ban has become a “proxy for this big war between people who want to stop fracking and people who want to see it happen,” said Michael Webber, deputy director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin.

It also has become a referendum on Texas cities’ rights to halt drilling.

[…]

Denton’s city council has pledged to defend its ban, and other cities have taken note.

“Regulation doesn’t work very well in the state of Texas because the Railroad Commission doesn’t work on the public’s behalf,” said Dan Dowdey, an anti-fracking advocate in Alpine, a college town a few hours from two major shale formations, the Permian Basin and Eagle Ford. Dowdey and others are calling for Alpine’s city commission to ban fracking — even though the closest drilling is more than 100 miles away.

“We’re familiar with what the oil and gas industry can do to an area, and it’s not real pretty and it smells bad,” Dowdey added.

Residents of Presidio, a border town southwest of Alpine, want municipal leaders to protect their water source from being tainted by exploratory fracking wells in Mexico, said Pat Simms, who sits on a Presidio County water conservation board.

See here for some background. The Legislature will of course seek to pass a law that would forbid cities from adopting such bans, and the ongoing lawsuits might make that moot anyway. But maybe they won’t! Who knows? Point is, the desire to do this isn’t going to go away, and as long as that exists there will be a way. BOR and Texas Vox have more.

EPA climate change plan would save water

Well, what do you know?

ERCOT

As state regulators fret about how President Obama’s effort to combat climate change would affect the Texas power grid, a new study says the rules would be simpler to adopt than those regulators suggest – and that it would save the state billions of gallons of water annually.

In an analysis released Wednesday, CNA Corporation, a nonprofit research group based in Arlington, Va., said the federal proposal – which requires states to shift from coal power to cut carbon emissions – would slash water use in the Texas power sector by 21 percent. That would save the drought-ridden state more than 28 billion gallons of water each year.

“It’s a surprising finding,” Paul Faeth, the report’s author, said in a statement. “People don’t often associate water conservation with [carbon] cuts, but for Texas, they work together.”

[…]

CNA Corporation’s analysis comes two days after the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the state’s grid operator, said the proposal would threaten reliability and raise energy costs by as much as 20 percent by 2020 – not including the cost of new power lines needed to keep the grid running.

The CNA report, which relied on a model ERCOT has used in the past, said shifting away from water-guzzling coal power plants and boosting energy efficiency would ease Texas’ water woes.

Compared to Texas’ grid operator, CNA painted a rosier picture of price and reliability effects. With big investments in natural gas and wind power, Texas is already on pace to meet 70 percent of its target by 2029, according to the study. Improving energy efficiency could move the state the rest of the way.

The federal proposal would increase the per-megawatt cost of electricity by 5 percent by 2029, but cut total system costs by 2 percent, the group said.

“We find that the state will be able to meet the final and interim targets with modest incremental effort,” the study said.

See here for the background. The CNA report page is here, the press release is here, the executive summary is here, and the full report is here. It’s not clear to me if CNA was invited by someone to review the EPA plan as it affects Texas or if they did it on their own, but this is a strong argument for going along with what the EPA recommends rather than filing another frivolous lawsuit. The considerable water savings is enough by itself to make this worthwhile.

More on the initial bill filings

From the Trib, a sampling:

As of Monday afternoon, a bill repealing the Texas Dream Act, which allows undocumented immigrant students to pay in-state college tuition rates, had yet to emerge. Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick promised while campaigning that he would work to repeal the act. The bill could part of legislation that is reserved for priorities set by the lieutenant governor.

All bills can be seen on the Texas Legislature site. Here’s a list of other noteworthy legislation filed Monday: 

Guns

State Reps. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, and James White, R-Woodville, filed legislation, House Bill 106 and House Bill 164, respectively, that would allow Texans to openly carry handheld guns. 

House Bill 176, filed by Rep. Tim Kleinschmidt, R-Lexington, would create the “Second Amendment Preservation Act,” which would say a federal law “that infringes on a law-abiding citizen’s right to keep and bear arms under the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution or Section 23, Article I, Texas Constitution, is invalid and not enforceable in this state.” 

Transportation

Senate Joint Resolution 12 and Senate Bill 139, filed by Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, would eliminate diversions from the state highway fund to the Department of Public Safety to ensure those funds are only used on road construction. Currently, part of the state highway fund is paying for state highway police. 

Health

Senate Bill 66, filed by Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, would require schools to stock EpiPens, and that employees are trained in how to use the medical devices that combat serious allergic reactions.

Senate Bill 96 and Senate Bill 97, also filed by Hinojosa, would introduce regulations of vapor products, or  e-cigarettes, in Texas. SB 96 prohibits the use of vapor products on school property, while SB 97 would apply many of the regulations on cigarettes to vapor products.

House Bill 113, filed by Rep. Allen Fletcher, R-Cypress, would make it illegal to perform an abortion based on the sex of the child.

House Bill 116, filed by Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, would expand Medicaid eligibility in the state. 

Education

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, filed several higher education related bills. Senate Bill 24 would increase the orientation training for university system regents, while Senate Bill 42 would prevent the governor from appointing a student regent if that person did not submit an application to the university or its student government. Senate Bill 23, also filed by Zaffirini, would make pre-kindergarten available to all 4-year-olds in Texas and make half-day pre-K available to 3-year olds who meet certain at-risk measures.

Senate Bill 150, filed by Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, would fund 64 construction and renovation projects at higher education institutions across the state. It would cost $2.86 billion.

House Bill 138, filed by Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, would stop independent school districts from banning schools from posting the Ten Commandments in classrooms. 

Voting

House Bill 76, filed by Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, would allow citizens to register to vote online. 

Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, filed three bills in an attempt to increase civic engagement in Texas. Senate Bill 141 would create a voter education program in Texas high schools, Senate Bill 142 would allow deputy registrars to receive their training online, and Senate Bill 143 would notify voters who were rejected while registering of what mistakes they made on their registration forms. 

House Bill 111, filed by Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, would create same-day voter registration. 

Energy and Environment

Senate Bill 109, filed by Sen.-elect Van Taylor, R-Plano, establishes new deadlines for processing water rights permits in Texas. In a statement on Monday, Taylor said the bill was aimed at bureaucracy that is preventing parts of North Texas from accessing water.

House Bill 224, filed by Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, would change the name of the Railroad Commission of Texas to the “Texas Energy Resources Commission.” Similar legislation has failed in the past.

Other

House Bill 55, filed by Rep. Armando “Mando” Martinez, D-Weslaco, would allow money from the Texas Enterprise Fund to go to veterans hospitals in the state. The Texas Enterprise Fund became embroiled in controversy this past election season, when it was revealed that several recipients of the fund never formally submitted applications.

House Bill 92, filed by Rep. James White, R-Woodville, would change the legal definition of an “illegal knife.” 

House Bill 150, filed by Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, would nix daylight savings time in Texas.

House Bill 161, filed by Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, would allow counties to house prisoners in tents.  

There’s plenty more, some good, some bad, some bat$#!+ crazy, some blatantly unconstitutional, many with no hope of ever getting a committee hearing. As always, I’ll do what I can to keep track of ’em as we go. The Chron, Stace, Grits, Juanita, Newsdesk, and the Observer have more.

News flash: Greg Abbott wants to sue the EPA again

Nobody could have foreseen this!

Foretelling a new environmental battle between state and federal regulators, Attorney General Greg Abbott on Monday demanded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency back down from a proposal to expand the definition of federal waters to include seasonal and rain-dependent waterways.

The proposal “is without adequate scientific and economic justification and, if finalized, would erode private property rights and have devastating effects on the landowners of Texas,” he wrote as part of a public comment period on the proposal, threatening to sue if it’s not withdrawn.

EPA officials say the proposal would stiffen penalties for polluting such waterways. More than 11 million Texans, including many in Central Texas, get drinking water from sources that depend, in part, on the intermittent streams.

“It’s important to protect the whole network of streams that flow into rivers and oceans,” said Ellen Gilinsky, a senior adviser for water at the federal agency. “This rule ensures clean waters for Texans to drink and recreate in, clean water for businesses, and clean water for farmers.”

Texas Commission on Environmental Quality spokesman Terry Clawson said the state agency is “concerned that EPA’s proposed rule expands its jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act without Congressional approval.” A spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office said it had consulted with the TCEQ before filing its letter Monday.

Hey, if you can’t count on the TCEQ to look out for your best interests, who can you count on? And who needs to worry about having a sufficient quantity of clean water in Texas?

David Foster, who heads the Texas office of the advocacy group Clean Water Action, said the state environmental agency has shown little appetite for regulating the waterways. He cited permits that had been issued by the agency to subdivisions seeking to discharge treated sewage into intermittent Hill Country creeks that feed the Barton Springs portion of the Edwards Aquifer.

[…]

“We need a federal backstop,” Foster said. “I shudder to think how the political leadership in this state would regulate these waterways.”

I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t, which is of course the problem. Abbott’s brief is here, for those of you with a more legalistic eye than I have. I wonder if he’s recycling arguments in this case as he has in others. If so, it’s the greenest thing he’s ever done. Clean Water Action and PDiddie have more.

On “potty water”

I have three things to say about this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The other reason why Huy Fong won’t move to Texas

In a word, water.

Huy Fong Foods, which is staying put for now, is different from Toyota and other companies that have recently been wooed or moved to Texas. It is an agribusiness, relying on thousands of tons of local fresh chiles to operate. And in rapidly growing Texas, where the population is approaching 90 percent urban, some farming advocates complain that agriculture is being left behind in the scramble to accommodate growth. That is especially true when it comes to water policy, water planning specialists say.

“One of the dominant water management strategies for meeting future water supply needs is a conversion away from agriculture” in Texas and most of the West, said Bill Mullican, a former state water planner in Texas who now writes plans for nearby states.

With that in mind, he said, “if you’re going to bring agribusiness to Texas, I would think that you want to focus on those activities that were not water-dependent or at least heavily water-dependent.”

[…]

Most of the stories of Texas agriculture recently have been about high-profile closings and economic losses in the midst of drought, including the loss of a Cargill beef processing plant that employed more than 2,000 people in the Panhandle and the decimation of the Gulf Coast rice processing industry.

Some legislators have suggested that certain crops should not be grown in Texas at all. As the reservoirs that supply both Austin and rice farmers downstream continue to shrink, Austin-area lawmakers argue that growing rice requires too much water, and that those who live and do business alongside the reservoirs have more economic muscle. Along the Brazos River basin, Texas regulators prioritized cities and power plants over rice growers when the river’s users were asked to cut back.

“You already hear in the political realm, ‘Well, agriculture uses 95 percent of the water. We just need to turn the irrigation wells off,’” said Darren Hudson, an agricultural economist at Texas Tech University. “Those conflicts are going to just intensify.”

Villalba has suggested that the red jalapeño peppers needed to supply Huy Fong could be grown in the Rio Grande Valley. But the water rights system there, the result of a court case from the 1950s, prioritizes municipal use over agriculture.

“Agriculture is basically the user of last resort. They get what water is not for cities,” said Ray Prewett, the executive vice president of the Texas Vegetable Association, which is based in the border city of Mission. Even before the drought, agriculture in the region had suffered because of dwindling water supplies and urbanization, Prewett said. Farmers have found it more profitable to sell their water rights to growing cities, and to shift to dryland farming, which pays more in crop insurance.

Water for cities is also much more highly valued than irrigation water, according to the 2012 state water plan. The plan forecasts a shortfall of 260,000 acre-feet of agricultural water in the Rio Grande region by 2060, resulting in a loss of $48 million and 655 jobs. The water deficit for municipal users in the region is slightly above that, but its estimated impact is much greater — $2.2 billion and 54,000 jobs lost.

[…]

While chiles are a relatively drought-tolerant crop, requiring far less water than rice, other issues the agricultural industry faces could create problems. Ben Villalon, a well-known horticulturalist from Texas A&M University dubbed “Dr. Pepper” for his expertise in growing chiles, said chiles are largely gone from Texas because of higher labor costs and the difficulty of finding farm workers. Most Texas Republicans favor immigration policies that could further tighten the farm labor supply.

“It’s a sinking boat,” Villalon said. “They’ll never make it. The money’s just not there. It’s not profitable anymore.” Huy Fong’s pepper supplier has used mechanization and other techniques to cut costs, and in 2011, chile yields per acre were almost 10 times higher in California than in Texas.

See here for prior Sriracha blogging. I don’t really have a point to make about this, I just thought it was a useful perspective that hasn’t exactly been prominent amid the drama and the flood of Texas-versus-California stories. Besides, there’s nothing new to report since the Texas delegation visited the plant last week – the city of Irwindale still hasn’t taken action that might force Huy Fong’s hand, and may yet delay that decision again for at least another week – so here’s a picture of Rep. Jason Villalba in a hairnet to keep you amused until there is something new to note.

Give up the green

Note: From time to time, I solicit guest posts from various individuals on different topics. While I like to think I know a little something about a lot of things, I’m fortunate to be acquainted with a number of people who know a whole lot about certain topics, and who are willing to share some of that knowledge here.

We clip it, bag it, throw it away, feed it, love it, hate it, fight with it, protect it, brag on it and curse it. Our lush green lawns suck up a preposterous amount of our time, energy, money and water supplies. That’s why Texas – still facing major water woes – is the perfect place to open a national discussion on the need to give up this ridiculous obsession.

Lawn care is big business in the United States. According to Ted Steinberg, the author of American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn, Americans spend a massive $40 billion on their lawns every year. Texas, famous for its big suburbs full of big homes surrounded by big lawns, surely makes up a large portion of that total.

The sheer volume of water used for lawn upkeep is even more incredible. According to a Texas Water Development Board study, 259 Texas cities between 2004 and 2008 used an annual total of about 96.7 billion gallons of water outdoors – 80 to 90 percent of which is estimated to have been used to maintain lawns and plants. To put that into perspective, picture all the water that runs over Niagara Falls during a 40-hour workweek. Now imagine that same amount poured into our yards. Just in Texas.

This tremendous wastefulness has continued during a time of scarcity. Texas, already drier than most of the rest of the U.S. to begin with, is in the middle of one of its worst droughts in history. But the lawn care industry is humming along and, along with agriculture, remains a major source of water consumption. (Of course, we don’t eat the grass; it goes into a landfill, but not until after we’ve dumped an estimated 22 inches of water on it, according to the Texas Water Resources Institute.)

In many ways, Texas has adeptly handled water shortages in recent years. Cities like San Antonio are leading the way in municipal conservation efforts, and Texas voters in 2013 overwhelmingly approved a plan to take $2 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund to fund water supply projects. We’re faring considerably better than states like California, where several communities are on the verge of running out of water, and other parts of the world like China.

Still, we drop enough fresh, potable water into our yards every day to make T. Boone Pickens blush.

We must cast aside our vanity-fueled insistence that lush lawns are a fixture of our modern lifestyle. There’s no good reason to plant thirstier varieties of grass, like St. Augustine, instead of hardier types like native buffalograss. Incorporating xeriscaping, or dry landscaping, into more lawns would also help reduce water use.

If Gov. Rick Perry can talk about marijuana in the same tones as President Obama, surely we can have a meaningful conversation about the other kind of grass, too.

Mustafa Tameez (@mustafatameez) is Founder and Managing Director of Outreach Strategists, a Houston based communications and public affairs firm. He is also a contributor for the Houston Chronicle, the Texas Tribune, and co-hosts a FOX26 Sunday morning show, “The Round Up.” This post was originally published on Trib Talk.

(Ed. note: Charles here. When I talk about water conservation, this is exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about. Putting aside the question of how we landscape our yards, it’s insane to use this much clean, drinkable water on grass, especially since much of it gets wasted anyway. If we’re going to get serious about managing our future water needs, this is one of the fatter targets out there. Some cities like El Paso have by necessity led the way on this, but at some point state action will be required. Until then, we should at least be aware of this. We can spend a lot of money generating the water we need, or we can use less and spend less.)

Maybe we don’t need that much more water

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

It’s like the drought never really went away

If it ever did go away it didn’t go far, because here it is again.

Even as light rain moved through the region Thursday, Houston officially slipped back into a moderate drought.

Although most areas only recorded a few hundredths of an inch of rain, it nevertheless was the first measurable precipitation much of the city has received in more than three weeks.

The rain-free second half of April capped a very dry spring, pushing nearly all of the region back into a moderate drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The drought is more severe to the west of the metro area.

[…]

Houston has only received a little more than 7 inches of rain this year, which is less than half the city’s normal total of 15 inches through early May.

However forecasters believe the city is unlikely to suffer a repeat of the catastrophically dry summer of 2011, which killed millions of trees in the area and forced widespread water rationing.

“If it was not for the current strong El Niño signal coming along over the Tropical Pacific, I indeed would be very concerned that another 2011 type drought could occur over the metro area due to the very dry soil west of the area,” [ImpactWeather forecaster Fred] Schmude said. “Fortunately, the upcoming El Niño is starting to shuffle the flow pattern around a bit more which should allow for more rain producing systems as we move into the late spring and summer months.”

Any time 2011 is being invoked as a comparison, even in a “not as bad as” way, it’s not a good thing. The fact remains that much of the state has been in a multi-year drought, while our state leaders remain in denial about the underlying factors. It’s a scary place to be.

Brazoria looks at desalinization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Chron overview of Ag Commissioner race

It’s mostly about Kinky and pot, because what else is there to talk about?

Democrat Kinky Friedman is attempting to add a little spice to the crowded agriculture commissioner race by being the lone candidate to advocate legalizing marijuana and tapping it as a new state cash crop.

Of the eight candidates jostling to replace Republican Todd Staples as agriculture commissioner, only Friedman of Kerrville supports legalizing marijuana and taxing it for state revenue. He wants Texas to move quickly before other states follow Washington and Colorado’s lead and legalize the drug for recreational use, which could deprive the Lone Star State of potential revenue, like the $578 million in tax revenue that Colorado expects from first-year sales.

“Texas will be the dinosaur dragged in by the tail,” Friedman said. “We will be the caboose on the train.”

Friedman’s comments on legalizing marijuana follow those voiced by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis, who called for legalizing the drug for medical use and possibly decriminalizing it.

And Republican Gov. Rick Perry who told the World Economics Forum in Davos, Switzerland, that he signed laws putting the state on the path to decriminalization, and suggested that all states, under the 10th Amendment, have the right to decide how to handle the herb.

But other agricultural commissioner candidates from both major political parties were reluctant to voice those types of sentiments, preferring to focus on top priorities like illegal immigration and improved water infrastructure.

“Pot doesn’t really matter,” said Hugh Asa Fitzsimons III, another Democratic candidate for agriculture commissioner. “What matters is if you have any water.”

Cleburne farmer Jim Hogan, also seeking the Democratic primary nod, said he understands the arguments for legalization, and he said he could favor a shift in emphasis from punishment to rehabilitation for Texas drug users.

“If I was a judge and a woman (charged with possession of marijuana) had three kids, I couldn’t send her to prison,” Hogan said. “I could have her rehabilitated, maybe.”

None of the five Republicans in the race gave support to Perry’s comments or bucked their party’s hard line stance against drug possession or legalization.

I ran interviews last week with Friedman and Fitzsimons. Pot is a worthwhile issue to discuss, and I support Friedman’s position on it, but as Fitzsimons says it’s all secondary to water. Sure would have been nice to have seen what some of the Republican candidates have to say about that in a story like this. It also might have been worthwhile to mention the Republican candidates’ self-interested hypocrisy on receiving federal agriculture subsidies. But hey, no one’s really paying attention to a race like this anyway, am I right?

The D-word is back

It’s never really gone away since 2009.

Locked in a seemingly endless cycle of droughts and brief reprieves, the Houston region has quietly slipped back into yet another drought.

Since December Houston has received less than half its normal rainfall. That’s a pattern present since 2009, a period when the city racked up a deficit of 56 inches, nearly five feet less rain that it normally would have collected.

And there is little relief in sight, meteorologists say.

Cold temperatures this winter have masked drought conditions. Before last weekend’s warm-up, the city of Houston was experiencing its seventh-coldest winter on record, according to the National Weather Service. This has limited the evaporation rate of water that has reached the ground.

As a result, reservoir and aquifer supplies in the Houston region are generally fine, said John Nielsen-Gammon, the Texas state climatologist.

The imprint of a drought lies within the region’s soils all the same, say forecasters with the U.S. Drought Monitor. Nearly all of Harris County was classified as being in a state of “moderate” drought in the most recent report, and parts of Brazoria County have fallen into a “severe” drought.

“The main issue is a future one, the amount of moisture in the ground come May and June.” said Nielsen-Gammon, an atmospheric scientist at Texas A&M University. “If rainfall stays light through then, the ground will dry out fairly quickly and water use will go up. Ranchers would produce less hay than normal.”

Basically, we’ve had below average rainfall in the Houston area since Hurricane Ike. It was at its worst in 2011, of course, and there have been periods of high precipitation that have taken us out of drought classification temporarily, but for the past five years it’s been drier than usual. It’s even worse in other parts of the state. The next couple of months don’t look any better, though the good news is that long-range forecasts suggest an El Niño will develop in the fall, bringing wetter than usual conditions for next winter. Hopefully we haven’t all crumbled to dust by then. The Chron’s Weather Blog has more.

We need to take better care of our water

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Less drought

Good news.

Drought map as of Dec 3

Drought map as of Dec 3

After near-normal rainfall during the spring and summer, this fall a number of drought-ending storm systems began to sweep across Texas, particularly the eastern half of the state.

“Drought conditions have ended in most of East and Southeast Texas,” said John Nielsen-Gammon, the state climatologist and a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University. “It’s been a recovery for the part of the state along and east of I-35. The western half of the state is still for the most part mired in drought.”

Texas was last this free of drought at the end of November 2010. After that time, the state began feeling the effects of the great drought of 2011, which peaked in early October 2011. At the time 99 percent of the state was in a “severe” or worse drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Today, about 20 percent of Texas is in a “severe” or worse drought, and 47 percent is in at least a “moderate” drought.

Houston has been drought-free since late October. The region has seen a substantial recovery in most areas, including, recently, lake levels. Lake Conroe, for example, is up to 199.5 feet, just below its full pool of 201 feet. The lake was last this high in late 2010.

“The primary lingering effects of the drought are dead trees and damaged pastures,” Nielsen-Gammon said.

You can see the difference in the drought map. I hope we keep getting enough rain to make that map even less colorful. The news isn’t all good. Lake Travis is still in bad shape, and as we know plenty of cities in West Texas and the Panhandle are facing severe long-term problems. And even if we get enough water going forward to completely alleviate the current situation, nothing can be done about all of the trees that were lost. But we’re in a much better place now than we were two years ago, and for that we are thankful.