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The great state of Texas

The Democratic Club of The Woodlands

Yes, there are Democrats in The Woodlands. That should not come as a surprise to anyone.

Residents of The Woodlands who identify as Democrats often say they feel out of place or unwelcome in Republican-dominated Montgomery County. Some have relayed stories of not expressing their political views in public to others to avoid unpleasant encounters. Others claim their election-year yard signs touting Democratic candidates have been vandalized or obscured by dozens of signs for Republican candidates.

Those experiences were one reason that a group of local women and mothers formed the Democratic Club of The Woodlands in June of 2018, said Robin Fulford, the club’s president and co-founder. Fulford said she helped form the club with Jennifer Blackman as a way to empower local residents to be politically active, as a way to educate people on issues and candidates and to do voter outreach in a county that rarely sees a Democratic candidate challenge for local or state offices.

[…]

The club has members from both Harris and Montgomery counties, due in part to The Woodlands being located in both counties. Entering into the 2020 presidential election year, the club is stepping up their efforts on many fronts, said Teresa Kenney, the media director for the club.

“We have heard a lot of stories from (Democratic) residents of not feeling welcome,” Kenney said. “When I first moved here, there was a lot of whispering about politics. We are no longer whispering. I think Robin is giving people a voice.”

Fulford said the club wants to be a place for Democrats to meet and learn about Democratic candidates outside of an “echo chamber,” but also to do things in their community to show others of different political persuasions that Democrats are not the enemy and are regular people who work, raise families and care about the community like others do.

“First and foremost, we want to serve as a place for voter education. We do not want our voters to be uneducated. That is number one, and we’ve done it successfully. At our very first meeting, we had (2018 Lt. Governor candidate) Mike Collier speak,” Fulford said. “We also wanted to be a place for Democrats to connect with each other. A lot of times when we talk to people, they say, ‘we feel alone here.’ It is important they know they are not (alone). We do have meetings, we do volunteer work in our community, and we do different things in the community so people don’t just see Democrats as these people you have a fictional picture of. We are your neighbors; we work, we play, we worship here with you. We’re part of the fabric of the community.”

The connection part, the ability to feel that you’re not alone in this seemingly hostile environment, is the key. It’s something that happens all around the country, and it’s important both for the locals who are able to connect, and for the outsiders who otherwise wouldn’t know those folks are there. There’s a reason why the “Austin is a blue dot in a sea of red” trope has been pushed for so long by state Republicans. It not only marginalizes Democrats as a whole, it serves to isolate and demoralize Dems in other parts of the state where it turns out they actually weren’t outnumbered at all. It also serves to dismiss the significant presence of Democrats in Texas to the rest of the world, which is why it has always grated my nerves when I have seen fellow Dems elsewhere echo the idea.

So let’s celebrate groups like the Democratic Club of The Woodlands, for giving people in that area a place to congregate and know that they are not alone, for reminding the rest of us that we exist everywhere and should be taken seriously everywhere, and for doing their part to make Texas blue. I do believe that there is a turnout boost effect from knowing you’re not alone and that your vote matters even if there’s no local representative that really represents you. A blue Montgomery County may be a long way off, but a somewhat less red Montgomery County is already happening, and an important piece of the puzzle going forward. If you live in or near The Woodlands, check these folks out.

Our slowing population growth

Noted for the record.

Texas remains one of the fastest growing states in the U.S., but a report published by the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank showed a significant reduction in the number of people moving to Texas since 2015. That’s left employers — who are already having a difficult time finding workers amid historically low unemployment rates — in an even tougher position.

Since 2016, the share of population growth in Texas from people moving to the state is half of what it was previously. Each of Texas’ four largest metro areas — Houston, San Antonio, Austin and Dallas — has experienced a reduction in domestic migration and overall population growth.

“We’ve seen really good growth, and yet we’re seeing slowing of migration — and that’s not because we’re less attractive. It’s because outside of Texas, things are also very good,” said Keith Phillips, senior economist at the San Antonio branch of the Dallas Federal Reserve.

In other words, the so-called Texas Miracle — the state’s unrivaled ability to create jobs and economic opportunity — now has rivals. Nationwide, most workers can find jobs if they want them, making a cross-country move to Texas in search of a paycheck less appealing.

In the five years from July 1, 2010, through July 1, 2015, Texas saw more than 138,000 people on average move to the state each year from elsewhere in the country. But from July 2015 to July 2018, Texas added just under 96,000 people each year from domestic migration — a 31 percent annual drop, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

[…]

Some industries — such as information technology — have a harder time finding workers than others.

David Heard, CEO of TechBloc, the San Antonio technology industry group, said the city has had difficulty standing out to potential workers among cities across the nation with promising tech industries, such as Nashville, Tenn., or Columbus, Ohio.

With tech workers in demand in metro areas across the nation, the decision often comes down to which city offers the best quality of life, Heard said.

“These people tend to get paid well,” he said. “Wherever they go, they’re in demand, so the issue is about how being competitive on salary and having job availability often aren’t what charge their decision. It really comes down to lifestyle issues.”

Most cities looking to attract tech workers and other “creatives” have been following the same gospel — investing in public and cultural amenities such as lush parks and concert halls to lure talent — for nearly two decades. The slowdown in migration to Texas makes the challenges for tech companies even more daunting.

The Dallas Fed projects that around 90,500 Americans will migrate to Texas from elsewhere in the country in 2019. That tops the 82,500 people who migrated to Texas last year, but it’s down from the years following the Great Recession, when 123,000 people on average came to the state annually.

“Domestic migration is usually an indication of employment opportunities or a lack thereof,” Lloyd Potter, Texas’ state demographer, said. “Essentially, it’s an indicator of a slowdown of at least one sector of the economy … The confusing aspect of it is that we have very low unemployment.”

Potter said the decline in people moving to Texas is difficult to parse because of the differing regional economies across the state.

We’ve talked about some of this before, in the context of Houston’s slowing population growth and the Latino population growth engine that keeps our state moving forward. I think it’s unlikely that these trends will continue over the longer term, but it’s always worth keeping an eye on this stuff and thinking about what underlying causes there may be. And it’s another reminder that a complete and accurate Census count is vital, because otherwise we’re just guessing. Sure would be a bad idea to let the Trump administration screw that up.

The disappearing Pecos cantaloupe

A very Texas story.

Beto Mandujano jabbed his kitchen knife through the rough, yellow rind of the Pecos cantaloupe he had scooped from the ground. The melon’s dense flesh glistened with juice, its color a deep orange.

Many Texans swear these cantaloupes are the best anyone can find. But today, Pecos cantaloupes are on the verge of extinction. Mandujano and his two brothers are the last farmers selling them on a large scale.

A number of factors explain this decline. The most recent, obvious culprit is oil.

Pecos, a city of roughly 10,000 on the eastern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert, feels like a middle-of-nowhere boomtown. People see unfamiliar faces in Walmart. They steer cautiously among big trucks barreling down their small country roads.

Industry is redefining this place, as it has many Texas towns before it. Oil and gas equipment stands on hot, dusty, empty fields. Farming and ranching once central to the Pecos region now seem to have faded into the background.

Texas farmers harvested nearly 10,000 acres of cantaloupe in 2000, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That fell to 1,300 acres in 2017.

Around Pecos, harvested acreage plummeted from more than 2,000 in 1969 to roughly a tenth of that amount in 2017. The Mandujanos planted 260 acres of the crop this year, along with other produce.

For a century, farmers planted cantaloupes around Pecos. Like Fredericksburg peaches, or East Texas tomatoes, their reputation was linked to the land.

“It’s a part of Pecos,” 86-year-old resident Carolyn McNeil said. “Pecos cantaloupes.”

It’s an interesting story, and among other things you will learn that cantaloupes are categorized as vegetables. We like cantaloupe at our house, though I can’t honestly say that we’ve had Pecos cantaloupes. Be that as it may, I hope this family and their crop find a way to keep going.

The children will count us

Great idea for something that shouldn’t have to be the case.

Teresa Flores knows the costs of a census undercount as well as anyone.

As the executive director of the Hidalgo County Head Start Program, one of the area’s most underfunded services, she watched low funding after a 2010 undercount cap the program’s maximum enrollment around 3,600 students.

More than 14,000 other children could qualify for the program, Flores estimates, but she barely has enough money to maintain the current level of enrollment — even with additional state grants.

Many of her students come from immigrant and non-English speaking households, two groups that are among the hardest to count in Texas. Though the efforts to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census form failed, she’s spoken with families who still fear inquires into their citizenship. But as someone with a long-established role in the community, Flores said she’s been able to relieve anxieties about sending information to the government and correct misinformation. By herself though, she can’t do that for everyone.

In looking for new approaches to census engagement — ones that residents can trust — the Hidalgo County committee focused on getting a complete count of the area’s population is increasingly targeting its outreach toward an unconventional group of residents: children and teenagers.

“When parents come and sign their children in and out, we’re able to speak with them about their participation,” Flores said. “Children could be the best people to continue those conversations all night long once they get home, and ease those concerns on a long-term basis.”

[…]

Victoria Le isn’t sure whether her parents filled out census forms in 2010. But after working on a complete count campaign at her school, the 18-year-old said she’s making sure they do this time.

Le is a recent graduate of Alief Early College High School in southwest Houston, where she and 15 other students spent months researching new approaches to fighting an undercount and marketing those plans to hard to count residents. Their work was initially regarded by other students as nothing more than a minor passion project, Le said.

Then the group threw its first major event last spring, where students competed for prizes as they learned more about the census and ways to get their families engaged.

“It was just an insane success,” said Jordan Carswell, the program’s director. “When people see half the student body showing up and going completely crazy over census games, they start asking questions. They knew how to get their peers energized, and when you see how passionate they are about it, it’s hard to not to feel the same way.”

Carswell said the campaign came together when Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner asked him to get students involved with census engagement. Alief ISD is part of Houston and Harris County’s joint $4 million effort to achieve an accurate count. There’s also a coalition of more than 50 local nonprofits and organizations working with them to mobilize communities.

I think this is both great and awful. It’s great that there’s such creativity and commitment to getting as full and accurate a Census count as possible. It’s awful that our Legislature refused to offer any help to cities to achieve that. That has left cities like Houston and others to their own devices, because what else can they do? There was a time when everyone agreed that the Census was important, and getting it right was vital to all of our interests. The only way forward from here is to elect more people who still think that way.

Big Bend yields a new dinosaur species

Cool.

A new, more primitive species of dinosaur was discovered at Big Bend National Park this week.

The fossil of the new specials, Aquilarhinus palimentus, was unearthed in the 1980s by Texas Tech University Professor Tom Lehman. But because the bones were so “badly weathered and stuck together,” it was not until recently that researchers could analyze it, according to a release from the park.

Earlier research concluded the fossil was related to the Gryposaurus genus, or duck-billed dinosaurs. New research shows the fossil is linked to a more primitive species that is helping researchers draw conclusions about how this species of dinosaurs evolved over time, according to the release.

“Its existence adds another piece of evidence to the growing hypothesis, still up in the air, that the group began in the southwestern area of the U.S.,” lead author Dr. Albert Prieto-Márquez from the Institut Català de Paleontologia Miquel Crusafont, near Barcelona, said in the release.

The full report is here, with a more readable summary here and here. As we know, Texas is a rich source of fossils, from various paleontological eras. May it ever serve as a fruitful source of discovery.

How anti-choicers have won even as they’ve lost

The number of clinics that provide abortion care in Texas will never be what it was before HB2 was passed, despite the SCOTUS ruling that struck it down.

Right there with them

It’s been three years since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down parts of Texas’ controversial abortion law – and yet, most of the clinics forced to close after it first passed haven’t reopened.

The law, known as House Bill 2, was seen as one of the most restrictive crackdowns on abortion clinics in the country. It required clinics to operate like surgical centers and that doctors performing abortions have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital.

Like many other clinics across the state, the Planned Parenthood in San Angelo found the new requirements almost impossible to comply with. Shortly after the law passed, the clinic closed its doors.

“I really do miss it,” said Susanne Fernandez, who managed the clinic for more than two decades. “[We] were helping women be seen for their needs.”

The former clinic looks a lot like it used to, Fernandez said on a visit to the building earlier this month. The only difference is it’s been painted gray.

“Even the blocks in front of the building that have inscriptions on them, they are all still there,” she said. “They are just covered up.”

The clinic was the last abortion provider in that part of West Texas, a mostly rural, expansive part of the state, hundreds of miles away from any major city.

Fernandez said she knew many of the women the clinic served – who were largely low-income – would be greatly affected by its closure.

“The last day was sad; it was somber,” she said. “We did a lot of cleaning up. We all knew that was it.”

Fernandez said she still runs into women who used to come to the clinic.

“There is that thing in the back of your mind – where did these women go?” she said. “Where do they go now? I don’t believe a lot of them found any other health care afterward.”

I guarantee you, the legislators who voted for HB2 have never given that a single thought, and neither have the “pro-life” zealots who enable them. The unsung villain in all this is, as is so often the case, the Fifth Circuit, which not only overruled the district court that had sided with the plaintiffs, they also removed the temporary restraining order, thus allowing HB2 to be enforced while the case was being litigated. The upshot of that was that Texas got to put a lot of clinics out of business with what in the end was an unconstitutional law. See what I mean about winning even as they lose? There will never be a just remedy for this wrong.

UT’s new tuition policy

Nice.

Seeking to make college more affordable, the University of Texas will use some of its oil money to dramatically expand the financial aid it offers to low- and middle-income undergraduates on its flagship Austin campus.

The system’s governing board approved a special $160 million distribution from its endowment Tuesday, which school officials expect will fully cover the tuition and fees of students whose families earn up to $65,000 in adjusted gross income a year starting in 2020. The funding, which will be used to create a new financial aid endowment, will also let UT-Austin alleviate tuition costs for students whose families earn up to $125,000 annually, if they demonstrate financial need.

“Our main focus at the UT system is our students. That’s it, that’s what we’re in business for is to provide an affordable, accessible education for our students,” board Chair Kevin Eltife said in an interview after the vote. “We all know the struggles that hardworking families are having putting their kids through school. What we’ve done here is repurposed an endowment into another endowment that will provide tuition assistance to a lot of the working families in Texas.”

The funding marks a significant expansion for UT-Austin, which currently has a financial aid initiative that guarantees free tuition to students whose families earn up to $30,000 a year. The median household income in Texas was just over $59,200 in 2017, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

School officials estimate about a quarter of its undergraduates from Texas — 8,600 students — would have their tuition fully paid under the new plan, and an additional 5,700 would receive financial aid from it. The program will not pay for students’ living expenses, which were estimated to be around $17,000 for the 2019-20 academic year. Tuition and fees averaged $10,314 for Texas residents.

This is good, and a decent number of students will benefit from this policy. Remember, though, the main reason why tuition is as high as it is now, not just at UT but at all Texas public universities, is because the Republican-controlled Legislature deregulated tuition in 2003, as a way to help balance the budget by spending less on higher ed. You can see what happened next. It’s great that UT’s endowment allows them to take this step, but UT-Austin is just one school. If we really want to fix this, it’s going to take a lot more than this.

If it weren’t for Latino population growth…

Texas would have a lot less growth overall.

The gap between Texas’ Hispanic and white populations continued to narrow last year when the state gained almost nine Hispanic residents for every additional white resident.

With Hispanics expected to become the largest population group in Texas as soon as 2022, new population estimates released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau showed the Hispanic population climbed to nearly 11.4 million — an annual gain of 214,736 through July 2018 and an increase of 1.9 million since 2010.

The white population, meanwhile, grew by just 24,075 last year. Texas still has a bigger white population — up to 11.9 million last year — but it has only grown by roughly 484,000 since 2010. The white population’s growth has been so sluggish this decade that it barely surpassed total growth among Asian Texans, who make up a tiny share of the total population, in the same time period.

The estimates come as lawmakers begin to sharpen their focus on the 2021 redistricting cycle, when they’ll have to redraw the state’s congressional and legislative maps to account for population growth. And they highlight the extent to which the demographics of the state continue to shift against the Republican Party.

The African-American and Asian-American populations grew by a bit more, and a bit less, than the white population, respectively. The Latino growth was more than half of the entire total. On the plus side, if you rig the Census n a way that allows for a large undercount of the Latino population, you can mostly pretend none of this is happening. So there’s that.

Maybe rural counties don’t want hospitals

That’s what the evidence says.

The voters of Fayette County have spoken, and they’ve said that they don’t need a hospital in this rural community of 322,000 people, one hour southeast of Austin — or at least not enough to pay for it. In a landslide vote Thursday night, county residents overwhelmingly rejected a proposition to create a taxing district for St. Mark’s Medical Center in La Grange, which would have kept the deeply indebted hospital open for the foreseeable future. As the polls closed, it was clear that the idea of propping up the institution with public money didn’t have a snowball’s chance in Central Texas. The final tally was 1,360 for, 5,600 against.

“I’m very proud of the grassroots effort that stood against the taxes,” Deborah Frank, the chair of Fayette County’s Republican Party and a member of Concerned Taxpayers of Fayette County PAC, told the Observer Friday. Her group swiftly mobilized an opposition campaign against the proposition after it was put on the ballot in April, holding public meetings and distributing yard signs reading “NO NEW TAXES.” Their message: People here are already taxed enough and shouldn’t be forced to bail out a private institution simply because it’s made what they see as bad financial decisions.

Voters apparently took the message to heart.

The resounding loss is expected to push the 65-bed hospital, which is at least $14 million in debt, even closer to financial collapse. And it comes at a time when the headwinds against rural hospitals in Texas are especially strong.

Across the state, roughly 20 rural hospitals have shuttered since 2013 — casualties of low patient volumes, stingy Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement rates, and the burden of operating in Texas, which has more uninsured people than any other state. Seventy-five more are at risk of closing down.

One point to note: I have no idea where that “rural community of 322,000 people” figure comes from. Fayette County had 24,554 people as of the 2010 Census, and while it’s been growing over the past few decades, I’m pretty sure it hasn’t grown that much since then. I don’t live in La Grange and I don’t know anything about St. Mark’s Medical Center, so maybe it was a fiscally sound decision to not try to prop it up with a taxing district. I do know that if I lived in La Grange and faced the prospect having to travel 20 miles to Smithville or 26 miles the other direction to Columbus to find an emergency room, I’d be a little concerned about the risks to my health going forward. But hey, at least their taxes won’t go up.

Schlitterbahn sold

End of an era, as another iconic family-owned Texas business is sold to a non-Texas firm.

Schlitterbahn Waterparks and Resorts — which has dealt with a gruesome death, indictments and financial troubles in recent years — is selling a chunk of its holdings.

Ohio-based Cedar Fair Entertainment Co. has an agreement with the owners of Schlitterbahn to purchase the company’s New Braunfels park and resort property as well as their Galveston park for $261 million, subject to certain adjustments.

“It’s important to know that Cedar Fair values Schlitterbahn’s character and brand promise,” the Henry family — Schlitterbahn’s owners — said in a statement. “They have committed to not only keeping Schlitterbahn awesome but helping us grow!”

Richard Zimmerman, Cedar Fair’s president and CEO, said the company is “very excited about the opportunity to bring these two award-winning Texas water parks into the Cedar Fair family.”

“These properties represent new markets for us with attractive demographics in the growing Central Texas region, and they align with our strategy to identify compelling opportunities to accelerate our growth and profitability,” he said in a statement.

That’s Schlitterbahn and Whataburger all in the same week, y’all. As we know, the Schlitterbahn has had some trouble in recent years, though at least the criminal charges that were filed have been dismissed. It sounds like the family had been looking to sell for awhile, as they were having cash flow problems that caused some planned new parks to not happen. They are retaining the South Padre park, which will be rebranded. I hope the new owners can get everything back to its old glory, and I hope the Henry family can get themselves back on their feet. The Current has more.

Well, now we’ve all heard of Waskom

Congratulations, I guess.

Five Old Dudes In Search Of An Audience

Five men this week declared a small town in East Texas a “sanctuary city for the unborn,” commandeering the language of the movement for immigrant rights to counter the reproductive freedom of women.

There are no abortion clinics in Waskom, a city of about 2,200, which lies on the border with Louisiana. But the all-male, all-white City Council decided unanimously Tuesday that prohibiting abortion was necessary as a preventive measure.

The municipal prohibition, which plainly contradicts the judgments of the U.S. Supreme Court, joins statewide bans on abortion sweeping the country in the wake of the solidification of a conservative majority on the nation’s top court. In Texas, abortion already is banned after 20 weeks. Now, a bill awaiting the governor’s signature would require doctors in the state to treat “a child born alive after an abortion,” which happens rarely.

Supporters of the city ordinance say it is the first of its kind in the Lone Star State.

The legislation was modeled on a measure embraced 7 to 1 in March by the City Council of Roswell, New Mexico, which is best known as the site of a purported UFO crash in 1947. Roswell’s move to declare its support for “fetal life” was accompanied by a measure characterizing it as a “Second Amendment Sanctuary City,” in opposition to legislation advanced by the state legislature that expands background checks for private gun sales.

Waskom residents said they were unconcerned by the prospect of a costly legal fight over the abortion measure because, according to local media, “they say God will take care of them.”

[…]

Before the Tuesday vote, Waskom’s mayor told council members that the city lacked the resources to engage in a lengthy legal battle over the legislation, the instigation of which is the professed aim of the ordinance.

“Most likely we will wind up getting sued if this is passed,” the mayor, Jesse Moore, said. “It could go to the Supreme Court.”

That prospect would present fiscal challenges for the city, lawmakers acknowledged.

“We don’t have the possible millions of dollars that it would take to take it to that level,” said alderman Jimmy Dale Moore, who nevertheless voted for the ordinance. “We can’t pay those kind of attorney’s fees. The city don’t have the money.”

Pointing to a member of the crowd gathered to watch the proceedings, the mayor advised, “Save your nickels and pennies,” eliciting chuckles from the public.

“We may need them,” he said.

Maybe you could ask the people of Farmers Branch about their experiences paying for round after round of costly litigation after passing a blatantly illegal ordinance. But, as I say to my own kids, some lessons just need to be learned the hard way. Think Progress has more.

Sorry, Smithville

Their loss would be Houston’s gain.

MD Anderson Cancer Center will relocate its nearly 50-year-old research facility near Austin to Houston, a decision that’s upset business and political leaders in the central Texas area.

Bastrop County Judge Paul Pape has gone so far as to try to enlist Gov. Greg Abbott’s influence to convince MD Anderson to keep its Science Park in Smithville, site of Jim Allison’s earliest immune system research that last year culminated in the Nobel Prize.

“We need your help in saving an institution that is vital to Bastrop County,” Pape wrote Abbott in a letter, dated May 14. “Considerations are pending that might move this department to Houston. Please don’t let that happen.”

MD Anderson officials Friday met with employees to provide more specifics on the plan, which calls for the park to be shut down in two years. They said the decision is already final.

The officials said the Science Park will be integrated into MD Anderson’s south campus, where the system has built six new research buildings in the last 15 years and will build another as part of the touted TMC3 initiative, which will unite the cancer center, Baylor College of Medicine, the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and the Texas A&M University Health Science Center on 30 acres of Texas Medical Center land.

In an email, MD Anderson President Dr. Peter Pisters said the decision was made now because the Smithville facilities “are at the end of their lifespan” and necessary renovations would cost more than $100 million. MD Anderson’s investment in TMC3 is expected to cost at least that much.

[…]

The park, established by the Texas Legislature in 1972, opened in 1977 on land acquired from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Formally dedicated as a research center for the study of cancer’s causes and prevention, it has an annual operating budget of $13 million. Its scientists last year brought in nearly $15 million in federal and state grants.

I feel more for Smithville and Bastrop County than I do for The Woodlands – it’s smaller and is less likely to have some similar entity waiting in the wings to fill the empty space. That said, if MD Anderson thinks it makes sense to consolidate the two locations, it’s hard to say why they’d be wrong. Greg Abbott is a weak leader who doesn’t do anything that isn’t politically advantageous. It’s not clear to me why he’d get involved. But you never know with Abbott, so we’ll just have to wait and see.

Sea levels rise, property values drop

Cool, cool, cool.

Sea level rise has cost Texas homeowners $76.4 million in potential property value, with Galveston hit the hardest, a new study released Tuesday found.

First Street Foundation and Columbia University analysts examined about 3 million coastal properties in Texas. Using a combination of real estate transactions and tidal flooding exposure, they found that from 2005 to 2017, homes in Galveston lost $9.1 million in potential value, followed by Jamaica Beach (which lost $8.6. million) and the Bolivar Peninsula ($8.1 million). It’s not necessarily that these coastal homes decreased in value by these amounts, the authors say, but that they didn’t appreciate as much as similar homes not exposed to tidal flooding. Researchers factored in square footage, proximity to amenities and economic trends like the 2008 housing recession.

First Street Foundation analyzed 18 coastal states from Maine to Texas, calculating a total $15.9 billion loss due to tidal flooding driven by sea level rise. The New York-based nonprofit studies the impacts of sea level rise and flooding. The report was released as the nation on Monday observed Earth Day.

“Sea level rise is not creeping up at the same rate, it’s accelerating,” said Jeremy Porter, a Columbia University professor and First Street Foundation statistical consultant. “This is an early indicator of what’s to come and the loss is already in the billions of dollars.”

Sea level off the coast of Texas is up to 18 inches higher than it was in 1950, and it’s accelerating, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

For Texas, depending on the location, sea level rises 2 to 7 millimeters per year, said John Nielsen-Gammon, state climatologist at Texas A&M University. This is mostly due to sinking land as a result of the pumping of large volumes of groundwater and oil and gas, he said.

And the expectation is that global sea level rise will continue to increase, he said. “It’s not at all clear at this point by how much because we don’t have a lot of experience with ice shells collapsing, but the range is anywhere from continued 3 to 5 millimeters per year up to total sea level rise of 1 to 2 meters by the year 2100.”

Sure is a good thing global warming is a hoax, isn’t it? You can see the study details here. And you might consider buying your next house on higher ground.

Injunction ordered in Skull Creek lawsuit

Hope this helps.

Three months after the waters of Skull Creek first turned black, a Travis County state district judge issued a temporary injunction Tuesday against Inland Environmental and Remediation and David Polston, its president, requiring the company to stop accepting waste and halt any further polluting of the creek.

The injunction prevents Polston from storing or processing any waste at the company’s site near Altair, just south of Columbus, in a manner that “causes, suffers, or allows discharge into or adjacent to waters” in the state. The agreement – reached between the Texas attorney general’s office, the Lower Colorado River Authority and Polston’s lawyers – also requires the defendants to “abate and contain all spills and discharges at the site” and start removing and properly disposing of waste.

Inland processes oil and gas drilling waste and turns it manufactured products like road base, according to its website. Its site is adjacent to Skull Creek, which flows for more than 10 miles before emptying into the Colorado River, which ultimately flows into Matagorda Bay, a popular fishing and boating spot on Texas’ Gulf Coast.

Under the injunction, every Monday Polston is required to submit progress reports to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the LCRA and the attorney general’s office detailing the actions Inland has taken to comply with the injunction’s stipulations. They include assessing the extent of the contamination, removing road base material along the creek and creating a detailed inventory and a map of all waste at the site.

“I hope I have not left any doubt in your mind as to how serious I am taking this – the court is taking it,” Judge Dustin Howell told lawyers on Tuesday. “Certainly, having heard the day of evidence that I heard yesterday, it’s obvious that there is something that needs to be addressed here.”

See here for the background. This is just an injunction pending the outcome of the lawsuit, for which the court set a January 2020 date to proceed. Be sure to check out the Colorado County Citizen for ongoing coverage of this issue.

What’s going on in Skull Creek?

Here’s a story from a couple of weeks ago that you may have missed. I know I missed it until it was pointed out to me.

For more than two months, the waters of Skull Creek have flowed black, its surface covered in an iridescent sheen. Yellowed fish skeletons line the pebbled banks of the Colorado River tributary, and a dizzying chemical odor hangs in the air.

The odor is so strong that Julie Schmidt says she can smell it inside her house.

She and her husband bought 10 acres along the creek in December with visions of an idyllic country upbringing for their children, ages 10 and 2. Now, she isn’t sure they should play outside.

“Last summer, you could go into the creek behind the house and it was crystal clear. You could play in it, you could fish,” said Schmidt, who moved from nearby Garwood and has lived in Colorado County her entire life. “Now you don’t want to touch it. You pick up a rock, turn it upside down, and it’s completely black.”

Locals and elected officials in this small southeast Texas community near the intersection of Interstate 10 and Texas 71 say the source of the problem is obvious: an oil and gas waste recycling facility near the creek that is owned by Columbus-based Inland Environmental and Remediation. Although Inland has denied wrongdoing, the Texas attorney general sued the company Friday — 10 weeks after citizens first began complaining — alleging the company illegally discharged industrial waste into the creek and stored that waste without a permit.

On Friday, a state district court in Travis County granted a temporary restraining order against the company and its president, David Polston, saying he must “cease and prevent all discharges of waste” from the site into state waters.

The state’s lawsuit seeks monetary damages of up to $1 million.

The Texas Railroad Commission ordered the facility to stop storing oil and gas waste in 2017 as a result of a bankruptcy court reorganization. (The permit was held by Boundary Ventures, a company at the same location that lists Polston as its president and director.)

Records obtained by The Texas Tribune show that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality dispatched inspectors to the facility Feb. 10 — the same day that Colorado County Judge Ty Prause says he made a formal complaint — and hand delivered a letter two days later demanding that Polston take immediate action to halt the discharge of waste into the creek. The letter described conditions at the facility as an “imminent threat and substantial endangerment to human health and/or the environment.”

But Prause, the county’s chief executive, said the agency left him and other officials in the dark for weeks about the origins of the pungent substance and what guidance he should give to his constituents to protect themselves.

“It’s hard to imagine that the state agencies in charge of protecting our environment and natural resources in Texas would not act quicker to tell people that live on this creek whether there’s a threat to their health or their livestock,” said Prause, who oversees emergency response for the county.

I encourage you to read the rest. Most of the coverage of this story has come from the Colorado County Citizen, with reporting by my friend and former blogging colleague Vince Leibowitz, who was the one to alert me to all this. Their first story, about the appearance of the black water and dead fish, is here, datelined February 15. The litigation referred to in the Trib story is ongoing, and I hope it will help uncover the truth about what happened, and hold the parties responsible for it to account. As Leibowitz wrote in an editorial, the “alphabet soup” of state agencies that have authority here have not been doing a good job, with the exception for the most part of the Railroad Commission. I don’t know what it’s going to take to figure out and clean up a big toxic waste spill like this, but we sure need to get on it.

Texas’ uncertain nuclear future

Sometimes I forget that Texas has nuclear plants.

By the standards of the U.S. nuclear energy industry, Texas’s two nuclear plants are fairly new. Neither one is more than three decades old, while many nuclear sites across the country are nearing the five-decade mark.

But as the economics of nuclear power in this country continue to slide, even the futures of the South Texas Project, near Bay City, and Comanche Peak, located 60 miles southwest of Dallas, are far from certain.

When Manan Ahuja, senior director of North American power at the research arm of credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s, recently updated his firm’s list of nuclear plants at risk of closing, he listed both Texas plants at “moderate” risk of closing as early as 2030 – despite the fact that NRG Energy recently renewed its operating license for the South Texas Project for another 20 years.

Ahuja explained that while the plants were “of a much more recent vintage,” low power prices in Texas and state regulators’ policy of not paying plants for their ability to ease power shortages at times of high demand or for generating carbon-free energy – like other states have done – left the two facilities vulnerable.

“It’s a game of chicken. Do you sit around and wait for those high prices, which could happen this summer because there’s been some (coal plant) retirements,” he said. “The prices are fairly weak, even in a fairly hot July last summer.”

Both NRG and Vistra Energy, which operates Comanche Peak, maintain the plants are economic and have no plans to close them.

“Given Comanche Peak is one of the youngest plants in the country, significant decisions on license renewal are a few years away, but the plant is currently well-positioned, and we have no plans to close the it prematurely,” a Vistra spokesman said in an email.

The situation in Texas mirrors one states across the country are grappling with, as nuclear power plants face increased pressure to reduce costs to compete with a surge of cheap natural gas and increasingly efficient wind turbines and solar plants.

I don’t know how serious that threat is, but it’s worth at least thinking about. I’ve always been of the opinion that nuclear power needs to be in the mix, as it is not carbon-generating, but it is surprisingly expensive and of course there are other risks associated with these plants. Given how prices for wind and solar are falling, and the vast potential for both in Texas, I would not advocate more nuclear power here, but neither do I want to see these existing plants mothballed or underused before their time. Whatever we can do to burn less coal is a good thing.

State sues over Deer Park fire

Too big to ignore.

Late Friday, the state of Texas sued Intercontinental Terminals — the Houston-based company whose petrochemical storage facility in the suburb of Deer Park caught fire last weekend and burned for days, sending a dramatic plume of black smoke over the nation’s fourth-largest city.

The lawsuit, filed in state district court on behalf of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, alleges that air pollution released during the fire is a violation of the Texas Clean Air Act.

It seeks a permanent injunction and civil penalties that “could exceed $100,000.”

“The state of Texas works hard to maintain good air quality and will hold ITC accountable for the damage it has done to our environment,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a statement. “ITC has a history of environmental violations, and this latest incident is especially disturbing and frightening. No company can be allowed to disrupt lives and put public health and safety at risk.”

Were you able to read that statement with a straight face? Then read this.

The TCEQ, the agency responsible for protecting the state’s environment and public health, has been criticized for letting large corporate polluters off with a slap on the wrist. An analysis of its enforcement record by an environmental nonprofit found that the agency imposed penalties on violators in just 3 percent of cases. ITC appears to have benefitted from the lax enforcement. In 2016, for instance, the company released more than 1,500 pounds of benzene — a carcinogenic chemical — for over five days and failed to notify the state agency within the mandated 24-hour deadline. The fine: roughly $4,000.

I’m just saying. Maybe some day when there aren’t new fires breaking out every time an old fire gets put out, we can get to the bottom of what happened here. And then sue these assholes out of existence. More broadly, maybe we can demand that our state take enforcement of environmental regulations seriously. If they had done so before, maybe we wouldn’t be in this position now. The Chron has more.

Hogs in the city

Too close, y’all. Too close.

If you have noticed more feral hogs in your Houston-area neighborhood recently, you are not alone. Neighbors across the Greater Houston report the wild animals are more frequently making their way into their subdivisions and streets, leaving properties destroyed in their wake.

The Houston area is not unfamiliar with the battle between feral hogs and residents; last year the Chronicle reported hogs were disrupting neighbors in Liberty and San Jacinto counties; taking over Spring, Tomball and Cypress areas and driving neighbors in the Woodlands insane. 

The hog epidemic is a problem particularly in Texas; the state’s estimated feral hog populations are in excess of 1.5 million, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

In 2017, feral hogs created an estimated economic toll exceeding $1.5 billion in the U.S. In Texas, it is estimated they cause $52 million in agricultural damages every year, according to the Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute.

Steven Horelica, co-owner of Deep South Trapping, a Texas-based hog trapping business, said the Houston area has seen a significant increase in feral hog sightings. He has trapped pigs all over suburban areas in Houston, including Kingwood, Missouri City, Cypress and Liberty.

Over the last few years, the number of hogs he has trapped has increased significantly, from 742 in all of 2016 to 1387 in 2018. So far in 2019, he has already caught 306 hogs.

“Instead of being out in rural agricultural land, they are starting to move into subdivisions and cities,” Horelica said. “It is starting to affect everybody, not just farmers or ranchers.”

Now to be sure, feral hogs have been seen in Kingwood and the Woodlands, as well as western Harris County, for several years. They’re just getting more numerous, which is pretty much the core competency of these buggers. And unlike in rural areas, shooting them with automatic weapons from helicopters is frowned upon in the suburbs. All I know is if they ever make it into downtown Houston, we may as well surrender and hand over control of the state to them. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

Space force!

Yippie.

Not the real Space Force

Gov. Greg Abbott wants the U.S. Space Force headquarters to be at Ellington Airport.

In a letter to President Donald Trump, Abbott said Texas has the universities and human capital needed to support a Space Force and pitched the location next door to NASA’s home for human spaceflight.

“Houston has supported the aerospace, aviation and defense industries for decades, giving it a workforce that can get the Space Command headquarters up and running as fast as possible,” he wrote.

[…]

“Houston, Texas, home of the Astros and the Rockets, has earned its ‘Space City’ nickname,” Abbott wrote. ” … I hope you will agree with me that the Space Command belongs in Space
City.”

Trump signed Space Policy Directive-4 on Feb. 19, calling on the secretary of defense to develop a legislative proposal establishing the Space Force as the sixth branch of the Armed Forces. The Space Force will initially be established within the Department of the Air Force.

The Department of Defense has since sent a bill to Congress. According to CNN, the bill seeks 200 people and $72 million to establish a headquarters for the Space Force.

On the one hand, I’m happy to have stuff come to Houston. If anyplace is appropriate for this, Ellington Field is. I just have a hard time taking the whole thing seriously. But hey, we’ll see.

Port Arthur

The Harvey-damaged industrial town is trying to draw new residents while holding onto the ones it has now.

Port Arthur may be surrounded by prosperous oil refineries, but the city itself faces challenges. The refineries employ fewer workers than they once did, and those they do hire come from all over. The city’s unemployment rate stood near 8 percent in November, more than twice that of the state, and the median household income is $33,000 a year, well below the average for Texas.

Some residents worry about the air they breathe in the shadow of so much industry. On top of it all, the city is reeling from 2017’s Hurricane Harvey, which affected an estimated 80 percent of its households.

The mayor worries people are not sticking around. Between 2000 and 2010, Port Arthur’s population fell by 4,000, to a total of 54,000. And though 2017 estimates show a slight uptick, some think the number will dip below 50,000 in next year’s census — a change that would make the city ineligible for certain federal grants.

While some residents have come back to try and turn around Port Arthur, drawn by family and a sense of community pride, some seem discouraged by the state of things.

[…]

On a Tuesday in November, Mayor Derrick Freeman sits on the dais. He is African American, as are the other six city council members. The major topic of discussion is fixing the city’s roads. By Freeman’s count, 340 miles of roadway need repair, at a cost of $1 million per mile. The city this year plans to spend $14 million, nearly a quarter of its $65 million operating budget, he said.

About one-third of that budget comes from industry agreements. The refineries in Port Arthur sit outside city limits. They have deals with the city to pay certain amounts in lieu of annexation, which could potentially bring Port Arthur more revenue but, as Freeman said, would also require taking on more responsibility, liability and staff.

Port Arthur still has a tax base that other local governments would envy, said Steven Craig, professor of economics at the University of Houston. Valero and Total overall reported adjusted net incomes of $2.2 and $10.6 billion, respectively, in 2017. What matters is how the local governments spend what they get.

“The question is: can you change your town or do you have to embrace what you have?” Craig said. “In some sense, I think the industrial towns that do the best they can to help the people they have are the ones that actually do sort of change.”

It’s a good story, and I’m rooting for them to meet their challenges. The main thing I wish I knew that I still don’t after reading this is what the overall quality of life is in Port Arthur. It’s big enough to have some city amenities like restaurants and an arts scene, but with less traffic and lower housing costs. That ought to be the draw of a town this size, which is also on the coast and not too far from Houston and the Louisiana casinos. What’s the elevator pitch for Port Arthur, and what’s the vision for its future? That’s what I would want to know.

We can make the end of coal in Texas happen

It’s already happening. It just needs a bit of a boost.

Texas might have the perfect environment to quit coal for good.

Texas is one of the only places—potentially in the world—where the natural patterns of wind and sun could produce power around the clock, according to new research from Rice University.

Scientists found that between wind energy from West Texas and the Gulf Coast, and solar energy across the state, Texas could meet a significant portion of its electricity demand from renewable power without extensive battery storage. The reason: These sources generate power at different times of day, meaning that coordinating them could replace production from coal-fired plants.

“There is no where else in the world better positioned to operate without coal than Texas is,” said Dan Cohan an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University who co-authored the report with a student, Joanna Slusarewicz. “Wind and solar are easily capable of picking up the slack.”

[…]

Coal still generates about 25 percent of the state’s power, but its share is shrinking. Since 2007, coal used in generating electricity has decreased 36 percent. Last year, Vistra Energy of Dallas shut down three coal-fired plants in Texas, citing changing economics in the power industry that make it difficult for coal to compete.

Texas has more than 20,000 megawatts of installed wind capacity, which could rise to 38,000 megawatts by 2030, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Solar energy, however, has developed much more slowly in Texas, despite the abundance of sunshine. Texas installed about 2,500 megawatts of solar capacity in 2018.

The research article is here. Texas has done well generating wind energy, but needs to step it up with solar. The Lege could provide some incentives for this, so maybe mention to your State Rep the next time you call their office that this would be a productive thing to do.

Our increasingly non-dry state

There are now only five counties in Texas where you can’t buy alcohol.

On Election Day in Stanton, just north of Midland, Ron Black was skeptical that a particular measure on the ballot would pass.

“Well, I think at first it was uh, nobody thought it would go through because they’ve tried it so many times, you know. I can’t tell you how many times it’s gone to the ballot,” Black said.

Black manages the Lawrence Brothers grocery in Stanton. The vote was whether to keep Stanton dry – that is to prohibit the sale of alcohol – or to allow the sale of beer and wine at stores like Black’s. But to his surprise, Stanton went wet after all. And it’s part of a long-term trend that’s washing over Texas.

To put it in perspective: in 1996, there were 53 dry counties in Texas. By 2011 that number dropped to 25. And as of Election Day when Stanton, the seat of Martin County went wet, there are now just five dry counties in Texas – in a state whose attitudes toward alcohol have always been complex, but tended to be more conservative than the country as a whole.

“Texas is slightly earlier than the nation and slightly later than the nation in terms of how long its Prohibition was enforced,” said Brendan Payne, a history professor at North Greenville University and an expert in Prohibition in Texas.

[…]

But the real shift toward dry county extinction came from the passage of House Bill 1199 during the Texas legislative Session in 2003.

“That is what revolutionized our alcohol laws,” said John Hatch, president of Texas Petition Strategies. To hold a wet-dry election in Texas prior to 2003, you had to get signatures from 35 percent of a jurisdiction’s registered voters, each of which had to sign their name exactly as it appeared on their voter ID card, with their voter ID number. And you only had 30 days to do it. It was more difficult to get booze on the ballot than an actual candidate. Hatch asked the legislature to change the law.

“They gave us everything we asked for,” Hatch said. “We went from needing 35 percent of all voters to 35 percent of the last election for governor. So it made it a lot more manageable. We doubled the amount of time from 30 days to 60 days. We made the signature requirement the same as any other petition: if you sign your name “Michael Marks,” that’s good enough.”

A flood of elections followed. In the 15 years preceding the law, there were about 150 wet-dry elections statewide. In the 15 years following the law, there were close to 950 elections. Nearly 80 percent of those went wet.

Fascinating. I’ve noted a few of these elections over the years – Lubbock County, whose dryness I experienced as a visitor in the 80s, was a big one – but I didn’t realize how close to extinction the notion of a dry county was. It’ll be interesting to see how much longer the last five holdouts hang on. Congratulations to the people of Martin County. Please celebrate responsibly.

How legal pot affects Texas

It has many effects.

In just two weeks in October, the legal landscape for marijuana use in North America changed dramatically.

First, Canada opened sales of legalized pot for recreational use, and then Mexico’s high court delivered a definitive ruling that citizens have the right to possess the weed for their personal use. That leaves Texas virtually surrounded by states that allow marijuana for medical use — but not for recreational purposes — as well as being sandwiched between two neighboring countries that have liberalized their stance on personal usage of the drug.

And while the Lone Star State is a long way from following the example of Canada and Mexico, there seems to be growing support for at least reducing stiff criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of the weed. Currently, possession of less than two ounces of marijuana is a class B misdemeanor, punishable by a six-month jail term and a $2,000 fine.

“Even in Texas, public opinion seems to have shifted from criminalization to at least decriminalization, with strengthening support for legalization,” said Nora Demleitner, a professor at Washington and Lee University School of Law in Virginia and the lead author of the textbook “Sentencing: Law and Policy.”

[…]

Despite the criminal penalties, Texas has two of the Top 10 consumer cities in the country. Houston occupies the fourth spot with an estimated 21 metric tons of weed consumed last year, after New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, according to the 2018 Cannabis Price Index from the German company Seedo, which tracks the market around the world. Dallas is number seven with 15 metric tons.

That high demand in Houston and elsewhere in Texas, some experts say, is not being met by traditional drug smuggling networks alone.

“Today in Texas, consumers easily find a wider variety of cannabis products than a few years ago coming from all over the place,” said Dean Becker, a Baker Institute contributing expert in drug policy.

Becker explained that states like Colorado, California and Oregon are growing more than their markets can absorb, and smugglers are flourishing moving the merchandise to other marketplaces. Mexico, he said, isn’t the main Texas supplier anymore as their producers are struggling to compete with the higher quality of U.S. grown products.

[…]

“The cannabis industry is a job creator, which Mexico and Canada realize, and it also cuts into the portfolio of criminals by making its use and sale a legitimate business that (creates) jobs and revenue,” said Grissom, the former federal prosecutor.

Grissom says Colorado is a good example, which reported total cannabis sales of $1.5 billion in 2017, and a staggering $5.7 billion since sales began in January 2014, according to the Colorado Department of Revenue.

“These funds did not go to criminals but to entrepreneurs who created over 20,000 new full-time jobs that paid a living wage as well as a new source of (tax) revenue for the state,” he said.

Overall, “the nascent U.S. cannabis market is already double the size of Canada’s, at $8.5 billion dollars,” said Brad Alexander, a senior adviser at McGuireWoods Consulting, a public policy advisory firm headquartered in Washington, D.C. He predicts that by 2022, this market could top $20 billion.

As the story notes, multiple DAs, mostly in big counties, are now de-emphasizing pot prosecutions, and Texas legalized – in a very limited way – a form of medical marijuana. Greg Abbott has made some comments recently about supporting a reduction in penalties for possession, but I’ll believe that when I see an anointed bill that is supposed to accomplish that. As for the prospects for legalization, I’ll just note that the arguments for it – economic benefit, especially as we are currently losing business from Texans who want to engage in it to neighboring states – sound an awful lot to me like the perennial arguments for expanded gambling. I don’t need to tell you how successful that pursuit has been. I think some small reforms by the Lege, with broader reforms pushed at the county level, will happen. Beyond that, keep your hopes in check.

The dino turtles of Buffalo Bayou

I love this story.

The creature didn’t growl and didn’t need to.

The alligator snapping turtle held menace enough in its massive, gaping jaws, which ended in a sharp beak poised like the fangs of an agitated rattlesnake. Its long, plump claws dug into the sand above thorny, wrinkled skin and a deeply-ridged carapace about the size of a large dinner platter.

Wildlife biologist Eric Munscher has wrangled bigger alligator snappers than the young, 42-pound male he hauled onto land Saturday with help from two assistants. But every one he finds matters, because he’s studying the species in a part of Houston so unlikely it has become the talk of the turtle world.

During the past two years, Munscher and his team have tagged 60 alligator snappers — officially Macrochelys temminckii — in an area no one expected to find them, along a nine-mile stretch of Buffalo Bayou.

Munscher, who leads the Turtle Survival Alliance’s North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group, does not want to reveal exact study locations, to protect what he believes may be the largest population of alligator snapping turtles in Texas, and potentially one of the largest anywhere. And he believes the turtles have survived not in spite of, but because of, their heavily populated, citified surroundings. “They lucked into the whole metro thing,” he said. “It’s a good habitat, surprisingly, with a riparian shelf where females can climb up and lay eggs.”

Buffalo Bayou’s opaque brown waters have long yielded other scary-looking predators, including prehistoric-looking alligator gars and the occasional, actual gator. And there are plenty of other reasons not to swim there, including possible bacterial pollution.

“Nobody in their right mind would think of Buffalo Bayou as a refuge,” said Jordan Gray, a former Houston zookeeper and a collaborator on the study who now works at the Turtle Survival Alliance’s headquarters in Charleston, S.C. “It’s not this pristine habitat like the Upper Trinity River, but that’s what makes it so cool, to find this gem of a population.”

[…]

Munscher discovered the bayou’s turtles almost by accident through his day job with SWCA Environmental Consultants, while he was surveying wildlife across one of the city’s large parks. He put out turtle traps near the end of the study, not expecting to find anything special, and was astonished to haul up six alligator snappers.

Those first critters ranged from a 3-pound juvenile to a 96-pound male that could be 80 years old, which suggested an active breeding population.

Munscher contacted Texas Parks & Wildlife, which had not included Harris County in a previous survey of alligator snappers across East Texas, and secured a grant to purchase equipment for a long-term population study in Buffalo Bayou and associated watersheds of Harris and Fort Bend Counties. He is trapping, tagging and releasing turtles at least once a month — a task he plans to continue for 10 years.

“It’s an unheard of study for the species,” he said. “We want to do it because it’s such an unheard of habitat … . If you find a lot of turtles, it means they’re doing pretty well. Nobody’s done anything to them yet; they don’t have a lot of predation going on. We study them over time to see how and why they’re doing so well.”

The largest turtle species in the U.S. and largest hard-shelled turtles in the world, alligator snappers are native to swamps and rivers from Florida to southern Illinois. Experts can’t say how many of them still exist, but they know numbers have declined significantly in the past century, and conservationists have petitioned to have alligator snappers added to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Endangered Species list.

There’s a lot more, so go read the rest. The last time I blogged about alligator snapping turtles, it was because of a story that painted them as in dire straits as a species. This story is a much more pleasant surprise. I hope Munscher and crew find a thriving population in the Bayou.

No cannabis for you

Good luck getting your hands on medical marijuana in Texas.

It’s been about a year since the first legally grown marijuana plants were harvested in Texas for their medicinal oils. But since then, fewer than 600 patients have seen any benefit out of the estimated 150,000 who suffer uncontrollable epileptic seizures that the medicine is meant to help.

Roughly 45 doctors, mostly concentrated in urban areas, have signed up to prescribe the cannabidiol. Just three companies in Central Texas have been licensed to distribute the drug. One doesn’t seem to have opened its doors, and another reports losing money with such a small client base.

“The way to assure the Compassionate Use Program has a future is by expanding access to more patients,” said Morris Denton, CEO of Compassionate Cultivation in the Austin area. “The worst thing that can happen is nothing gets done, because then we set the program back.”

Texas’ therapeutic marijuana program is among the strictest in the nation, giving only patients with intractable epilepsy access to cannabidiol that’s low in THC, the element that gives pot users a high.

[…]

The Texas Compassionate Use Act became law in 2015, but the rollout has been slow and rocky.

Despite getting more than 40 applications, the Texas Department of Public Safety licensed just three companies last year to distribute cannabidiol, the minimum number allowed by the law.

Patients need sign-off from two doctors to use the marijuana-derived oil. But so far, fewer than 50 certified epileptologists and neurologists have registered to participate. None is in the Rio Grande Valley or West Texas, records show, meaning patients there must travel far to see a qualified physician.

Some doctors are reluctant to enroll because Texas law requires they prescribe the drug instead of recommending it, a phrase other states use to sidestep federal marijuana prohibitions, advocates said. So far, 574 patients have been issued prescriptions, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety, which oversees the program.

See here for some background, and here for a map of where the registered doctors are. If you live west of San Antonio, it’s Amarillo or nothing. There will be bills introduced to expand medical marijuana in Texas – Sen. Jose Menendez has already filed one such bill – and they may have a chance to get through. Greg Abbott has softened his stance, both party platforms are calling for marijuana reform, there’s popular support, and so forth. It’s just that it’s not easy to get any bill passed, and if a given bill isn’t a priority then it will be in line behind those that are. I don’t think there’s much in the way of opposition to expanding medical marijuana, and maybe to some other reforms, but I don’t think it’s a priority, either.

Whatabout that styrofoam?

Texas’ favorite fast food chain is being asked to make changes to how it serves its food.

Activists are pressuring San Antonio-based Whataburger to end its use of foam cups and containers in favor of materials friendlier to the environment.

More than 50,000 people have signed a petition calling on the popular fast-food chain to stop using polystyrene foam, commonly known as Styrofoam, in its cups and food containers, Environment Texas Executive Director Luke Metzger said.

The petition was delivered Monday to Whataburger’s San Antonio headquarters and to restaurants in Austin and Corpus Christi by representatives for Environment Texas, Surfrider Foundation’s Texas Coastal Bend chapter and Care2.com.

“We think that they can find a good solution that meets customers’ needs but moves away from such harmful products,” Metzger said outside Whataburger’s headquarters on the North Side.

Whataburger, which has more than 800 stores in 10 states, said it is looking at alternatives to Styrofoam cups “that keep drinks at the right temperature, but we have a lot to consider from a quality and supply perspective when meeting our customers’ expectations.

“In the meantime, we continue to urge customers to properly dispose of our cups,” the company said in a statement.

[…]

McDonald’s pledged to phase out foam cups by the end of the year. Dunkin’ Donuts said earlier this year it would replace its foam cups in favor of double-walled paper cups by 2020. Starbucks Coffee Co. announced plans in July to eliminate the use of single-use plastic straws in favor of strawless lids or straws made from other materials by 2020.

“Companies are very conscious of their brand,” Metzger said. “They’re, of course, wanting to keep their customers. And that’s why I think we’re going to see companies like Whataburger hopefully join the ranks of McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts and do the right thing here.”

Whataburger is talking to Environment Texas and the others about this, as they should. It’s a simple request, for a clear purpose, to do what others are now doing. Whataburger may have some questions, and they would surely need to phase in a change like this over time, but I can’t think of any reason why they wouldn’t want to do it. I hope they make that decision soon.

Rural counties and AirBnB

It’s working well for them.

Texans running Airbnb rentals in rural counties earned $20.6 million in supplemental income in the last 12 months with 169,000 guests, according to a new report from the hospitality company.

These results represent a growth rate double that of urban counties, the report added, citing a trend of more guests wanting to visit more than just Texas’ big cities.

The company said that while the Texas hotel industry is booming, most of this growth is concentrated in the four major metro areas, making Airbnb sometimes the only lodging option outside of these cities and suburbs.

You can see a copy of that report here. As CultureMap Austin notes, some of the biggest beneficiaries are counties in the Hill Country, which makes sense. I’m happy for these rural counties, but none of this changes my mind about the need for cities to be able to regulate AirBnB locally. AirBnB my be having a significant and mostly positive effect in some parts of the state, but it will have an even bigger impact of a more-unknown effect on those cities. At the very least, let’s not pre-emptively foreclose on any tools that cities will need to manage their own interests.

Trump trade war troubles

I have three things to say about this.

There’s a Chinese proverb: Sow melons, reap melons. Sow beans, reap beans.

In other words, expect tit for tat.

President Donald Trump — and by extension many of the nation’s farmers — is seeing that lesson in action after he launched a bevy of tariffs against China on Friday, prompting the People’s Republic to retaliate with its own tariffs on imports from the United States. Among those American goods are some key Texas exports, including cotton, corn and sorghum. Some of the Chinese goods targeted in Trump’s tariffs are vital parts for Texas’ agriculture industry, such as livestock equipment.

“No question, it’s going to hurt,” said Gene Hall, a spokesperson for the Texas Farm Bureau.

[…]

“You couldn’t pick a worse time for agriculture to be in a trade dispute,” said Hall, the Texas Farm Bureau spokesperson, pointing to a 50 percent decline in agricultural income since 2013. He said the farm bureau always supports negotiating trade disputes over gratuitous tariffs — but that many farmers hope the president’s actions will force China, which has historically acted in ways that have harmed Texas agriculture, to the negotiating table.

“There is some patience in the agricultural community for what the president’s doing, but there is some angst as well,” Hall said.

1. Clearly, the well of “Trump Supporters Continue To Support Trump Even Though He Keeps Doing Things They Don’t Like” stories has not yet run dry.

2. I’ve been keeping an eye on Trump’s approval rating among Republicans for signs that they may be less engaged than usual in November. While Democrats are super enthusiastic, Republicans have stuck with their man, which if nothing else has kept the bottom from falling out. I wonder sometimes if Trump’s high levels of approval among Republicans is in part a sign that the GOP has shrunk, so that the disapprovers are mostly not calling themselves Republicans any more, but I have no way to know that. I feel pretty confident saying that Dems will turn out in stronger numbers than usual this year. I have no idea yet where turnout will be on the R side. I’m still hoping for something like 2006, but there’s no real evidence of that at this time.

3. Gotta say, after all the harm that has been inflicted on so many people by Trump, the fact that his staunchest supporters are feeling the pain as well gives me no small measure of grim satisfaction. Maybe if they feel enough of it, we’ll finally be able to get the country back on the right track.

Austin drops its bag ban

What choice did they have?

The City of Austin says it will no longer enforce a ban on single-use plastic bags at most retail outlets, following a state Supreme Court ruling last month that struck down Laredo’s bag ban.

The court ruled Laredo’s ban was at odds with state law, but urged the Legislature to pass more specific laws to allow similar bans in the future.

The Texas Health and Safety Code says that local governments in Texas may not “prohibit or restrict, for solid waste management purposes, the sale or use of a container or package in a manner not authorized by state law.” Opponents of bag bans argued that language makes the bans illegal, and the court agreed, saying state lawmakers haven’t effectively defined how plastic bags fit into that regulatory framework.

[…]

“Following the recent ruling from the Texas Supreme Court, the City will not enforce our current rules,” a city spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “While it’s disappointing that the City is losing a tool to help protect the environment, we are also confident that the Austin community will continue to do their best to minimize plastic bag waste. Meanwhile, the City of Austin will continue to educate Austinites about the benefits of bringing reuseable bags with them every time they shop.”

Austin officials say prohibiting retailers from giving away disposable plastic bags helped reduce litter, save wildlife and stop bags from clogging up storm drains.

“The people of Austin have gotten used to this. Not a single job was lost. Not a single business was harmed,” said Andrew Dobbs with Texas Campaign for the Environment. “We hope businesses and residents of this city will continue to do what works, regardless of what the Texas Supreme Court says.”

See here for the background. AG Ken Paxton has sent a letter to the other cities that had similar ordinances warning them they need to do the same, and I’m sure they will. The good news here, if you want to be optimistic, is that this was a statutory ruling, not a constitutional one. Which is to say, the Lege could fix this by amending the law in question. That’s not going to happen without a massive change in the type of legislator we elect, but it is possible, and something we can work towards.

What the Texas State Aquarium is up to after Harvey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Too many people don’t get sick leave

From the CPPP:

All Texans should be able to care for themselves or a loved one if they get sick, regardless of what kind of job they do or how much they earn. Approximately 4.3 million Texas workers – or 40 percent of the total workforce – lack access to paid sick days, and it’s estimated that between 39 and 44 percent of private sector workers in the U.S. are not able to earn paid sick days.

Paid sick days are also a public health issue. When people are forced to go to work sick, everyone—employers, coworkers, and customers—is worse off. Children also face the consequences when their classmates come to school sick because their parents can’t afford to take the day off to care for them. Texas public employers, cities, and our state should work to implement paid sick days policies, which will improve the financial stability and health of all Texans.

Our new policy brief examines the inadequate access to paid sick days in Texas and highlights how businesses and families can thrive when workers are able to earn paid sick days. Across the country, there is growing momentum and support for city, county, and statewide paid sick days policies, which require employers to provide a certain number of paid sick days to workers each year based on the number of hours worked. To date, 44 cities, counties, states, and Washington, D.C. have passed paid sick days policies.

Everyone gets sick, and everyone should have the ability to earn paid sick days. A multi-city or statewide policy would ensure a high-quality standard so that all workers are able to care for themselves or a family member.

You can read the report here. I agree with this of course, as a matter of public health and of basic humanity, but as we know we live in a state where the business interests and Republican elected officials vehemently oppose the idea. The city of Austin has passed an ordinance to require sick leave, and the city of Dallas is poised to vote on a similar measure, but neither of those will matter if the current lawsuit or the sure-to-come legislation to preempt such ordinances succeed. You know what I’m going to say before I say it, but I’m going to say it anyway: Nothing will change until we change who we elect. If you’re fine with being surrounded by sick people in the course of your daily life, then keep doing what you’re doing. Otherwise, you might consider fighting for something better.

TDCJ, here’s your moment in the sexual harassment spotlight

Please learn from it.

More than a decade after a sexual assault scandal rocked the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the agency is still a “boys’ club” plagued by sexual harassment and a culture that makes it difficult for women to get promoted despite efforts to bring them into the ranks, according to more than a dozen current and former employees.

Three of the 10 highest-paid employees in the prison system and about 25 percent of wardens are women, according to a Houston Chronicle analysis of 2017 state data.

But female officers also have to contend with harassment from coworkers, masturbating inmates and fear of retaliation if they complain, according to lawsuits, state records and interviews.

“You think it’s the inmates you have to worry about,” said one former employee, who asked not to be identified, “but it’s actually the people you work with.”

Some women told the Chronicle of enduring lewd comments or inappropriate contact from co-workers. One female employee said she and other women guards picked jobs working around inmates to avoid having contact with the men who supervised them.

The latest allegations come amid the rise of the #MeToo movement, which has focused a national spotlight on allegations of sexual abuse and harassment. And they follow a $250,000 settlement reached by the department last year in a lawsuit accusing a male lieutenant of raping an officer he supervised — a claim reminiscent of former assistant director Sammy Buentello, who retired in 2004 amid criminal charges and a high-dollar lawsuit by multiple women accusing him of sexual harassment and assault.

[…]

More than 44 percent of TDCJ employees are female, but those numbers include administrative assistants, librarians, attorneys and the high-ranking officials overseeing it all.

Even fewer guards — just 38 percent of the more than 22,000 corrections officers —are women.

Higher ranks are even more male-dominated. About 27 percent of sergeants are women. Moving up, about 25 percent of captains, 26 percent of lieutenants, and just 21 percent of majors and assistant wardens are women.

“You just have a culture of indifference, the good-old-boy system as they call it,” said Lance Lowry, a Huntsville corrections officer and former union president. “And the numbers clearly reflect that. If 38 percent of the officers are female, 38 percent of the sergeants should be, too.”

The disparity in promotions corresponds to a disparity in the average pay, with women earning about $2,700 a year less than men throughout the department, according to 2017 data.

As the story notes, this is not the first time TDCJ has had these issues, and even with all the attention being paid to sexual harassment in the workplace, the odds are it won’t be the last time, too. It’s a long and detailed piece, so go read the whole thing, and then contemplate the fact that an enterprising reporter could point her notebook at just about any major workplace, inside or outside of government, and come away with a similar tale. That is, after all, what this is all about. Grits has more.

Rio Seco

This is not good.

By KmusserOwn work, Elevation data from SRTM, drainage basin from GTOPO [1], U.S. stream from the National Atlas [2], all other features from Vector Map., CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Mario Rosales, who farms 365 acres along the Rio Grande, knows the river is in bad shape this year. It has already dried to a dusty ribbon of sand in some parts, and most of the water that does flow is diverted to irrigate crops, including Rosales’ fields of wheat, oats, alfalfa and New Mexico’s beloved chilies.

Because last winter’s mountain snowpack was the second-lowest on record, even that irrigation water may run out at the end of July, three months earlier than usual. But Rosales isn’t worried. He is sure that the summer thunderstorms, known here as the monsoon, will come.

“Sooner or later, we’ll get the water,” he said.

The monsoon rains he is counting on are notoriously unpredictable, however. So he and many of the other farmers who work 62,000 acres along 140 miles of the Rio Grande in central New Mexico may get by — or they may not.

“Nobody’s got a whole lot of water,” said David Gensler, the hydrologist for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, whose job is to manage the river water that is delivered to Rosales and the others through diversion dams, canals and ditches. “If we use it up early in the season and don’t get any rain further on, the whole thing’s going to crash.”

Parts of the state got some much-needed rain this week, which may help Gensler extend his irrigation water a bit. But whatever happens this spring and summer, the long-term outlook for the river is clouded by climate change.

The Rio Grande is a classic “feast or famine” river, with a dry year or two typically followed by a couple of wet years that allow for recovery. If warming temperatures brought on by greenhouse gas emissions make wet years less wet and dry years even drier, as scientists anticipate, year-to-year recovery will become more difficult.

“The effect of long-term warming is to make it harder to count on snowmelt runoff in wet times,” said David S. Gutzler, a climate scientist at the University of New Mexico. “And it makes the dry times much harder than they used to be.”

Nothing to worry about, I’m sure. I mean, that part of the river isn’t even in Texas. I’m sure it will all be fine.

Remember the (gross mismanagement by George P. Bush’s Land Office at the) Alamo

Maybe remember this in November.

As the election season rolls on, keep this in mind when Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush opens his mouth: The officeholder from the state’s best-known political family certainly knows how to spin a story.

Back in February, Bush was in a noisy Republican primary fight with his predecessor, Jerry Patterson. Among other things, Patterson is an Alamo buff. He has made it abundantly clear that he thinks Bush has mismanaged things at that monument. And he got some support of that view from a draft of an internal audit critical of the “structure and funding model” at the Alamo put in place by the General Land Office.

“Internal” is an important word in the previous sentence. That draft audit — along with the final version that came out this week — was issued by the internal auditor in Bush’s own agency. That’s what internal auditors are supposed to do, to tell you when there’s spinach on your teeth, toilet paper stuck to your shoe, oddities in your accounting and so on.

They point things out to management. Management is supposed to clean things up.

The draft audit was first revealed by the Austin American-Statesman in early February, and other reporters caught up with the land commissioner to see what he thought about it. “I can’t really comment on the document,” Bush said at the time. “I cannot disclose, but we do have evidence that it was a doctored memo.”

Here’s the lead paragraph from the draft audit — also the lead paragraph of the final audit:

“GLO should reconsider the structure and funding model it uses for operating the Alamo. A contractor performs the daily operations, but it uses state resources to do this, as it does not have its own funds or other assets. This is an unusual situation that has created complexity and a lack of clarity regarding the nature and the use of the funds used for Alamo operations. It is also the root cause of several of the observations in this report.”

[…]

Auditors typically give space to the people and organizations under the microscope, a place to make arguments, to disagree or to point out things the auditors might have missed. In this audit, the top line sort of slams the door: “Management concurs with the recommendations.”

Here’s a copy of the audit report, with more recent news coverage from the Statesman and the Chron. You have to admire the gall it takes to claim that an audit report by his own agency, signed off by his own management, is “fake news”, but that’s how stupid Baby Bush thinks you are. Here’s the key takeaway:

Bush faces Democrat Miguel Suazo in the fall. Suazo said Thursday the audit “clearly demonstrates that George P. Bush is in over his head and lacks the competence to manage our state’s most historic landmark.”

There’s a reason why Jerry Patterson came out of retirement to try to win his old job back. I hope you’re still committed to bringing change to the GLO this November, Jerry.