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What kind of laws might have helped mitigate our recent violent incidents?

The DMN asks a good question.

Texas politicians are looking anew at ways to reduce gun violence in the wake of the recent mass shootings in El Paso and Odessa. Dozens of policies, from the piecemeal to the comprehensive, have been proposed.

But would any have applied to the four massacres Texans have experienced since November 2017? The Dallas Morning News sought to answer this question by breaking down the circumstances behind some of the shootings to learn which preventive measures, criminal penalties or enforcement mechanisms would have applied in each case.

The News then compared these measures to the proposals Texas elected officials are now discussing and have proposed in the past, in addition to similar laws in other states. Here’s what we found.

In order, they suggest the following:

Midland-Odessa shooting: Private gun sales
El Paso shooting: Welfare checks and red flag laws
Santa Fe shooting: Child access prevention laws
Sutherland Springs: Domestic violence laws

To me, “gun control” is a lot like cyber security. You can’t just do one thing and expect it to be sufficient. Any robust cyber security program in an enterprise includes patching, vulnerability scans, firewalls, intrusion detection, anti-virus software, a control framework, incident detection and response, and so much more. There’s overlap and redundancy, with the philosophy being that if one thing doesn’t do it the next thing will. This article is a good illustration of how the metaphor applies to gun violence. There is no one single solution. There are many tactics and strategies that work together. We need to understand that or we’ll never make any progress.

Abbott’s gun suggestions

Weak leader makes timid proposals. Film at 11.

Gov. Greg Abbott called for the Texas Legislature to consider laws that would make it easier for private gun sellers to perform voluntary background checks on buyers — declining to go as far as other Republicans in backing mandatory ones — in one of a series of recommendations released Thursday.

The safety action report, which comes after a town hall Abbott convened last month to discuss possible solutions in the wake of recent mass shootings in El Paso and Odessa, contains nearly a dozen recommendations to the Legislature, which won’t meet again until 2021 — after the next election.

Select committees in the Texas House and Senate will meet to review and discuss the recommendations in the meantime. It remains to be seen what kind of legislation could come from the report.

Abbott has indicated he has no plans to call a special session, despite calls from a growing chorus of Democratic lawmakers, saying he wants to avoid “hastily” called votes that split along party lines. Instead, earlier this month, he issued a handful of executive orders meant to strengthen the statewide suspicious activity reporting system.

[…]

The 13-page report recommends laws that would speed up the reporting of criminal convictions, crack down on people who illegally buy or possess guns and impose a lifetime ban on convicted felons purchasing firearms.

But the report makes no mention of background checks for private sales between strangers, as Lt. Gov Dan Patrick suggested last week when he side-stepped traditional party lines and the National Rifle Association.

Texas has faced five major mass shootings in the past three years — including two last month. In early August, 22 people were killed by a lone gunman who drove hours to at an El Paso Walmart. At the end of the month, seven died when a shooter went on a spree as he drove through Odessa and Midland.

Ed Scruggs, president of the board of directors for Texas Gun Sense, said it’s “mystifying” how few of Abbott’s recommendations relate to what happened in those shootings.

“The failure to strongly support closing the private sales loophole is mystifying because both the governor and lieutenant governor expressed discomfort what that hole in the system and speculated about how it could be abused,” Scruggs said. “We saw how it was abused in Odessa, so I am really surprised we didn’t see anything more direct on that.”

Here’s the report. It’s not that these are bad ideas, but most of them are reactive – stiffer penalties, better reporting of criminal convictions – and the more proactive ones are presented as things the Lege “may want to consider” rather than as priorities Abbott himself wants to see get done. I mean, unless Abbott calls a special session, as only he can do, the next time any of this will be relevant will be a year and a half from now, and who knows what might be going on then. Not taking immediate action is wiggle room for Abbott and Dan Patrick to let everyone else get distracted and lose focus. Abbott doesn’t want to take real action. He’ll do what he thinks he needs to do to take the heat off, and then he’ll be on to the things he actually wants to do. That’s what this is about. The Trib has more.

Red flag

This seems like maybe it’s a problem.

A report out Wednesday by the San Antonio Express-News found that a gun owner in Texas had sent more than 100 pages of racist and violent letters to the Texas Attorney General’s office threatening to kill undocumented immigrants over the course of a year and a half, and that nothing was done to stop him or to communicate the threat to local authorities.

“We will open fire on these thugs,” the white man who allegedly sent the messages wrote in an email to the office. “It will be a bloodbath.”

Over the same period, local officers in San Antonio responded to 911 calls made by and about the man, and visited his house, on at least 35 occasions. However, because he had never seemingly committed a crime, police did not arrest him or take legal action. Nearby neighbors told the Express-News that the man’s home is covered in security cameras and that he often emerged holding a shotgun.

When alerted by a reporter at the Express-News of the threats made to the Attorney General’s Office, the police force did respond. “Since you’ve made us aware of those threats, our fusion center and our mental health unit have reached out to the AG’s office and are trying to work something to make a case against [the alleged suspect Ralph] Pulliam,” Sargent Michelle Ramos told the paper. “They’re going to investigate that.”

The threats and lack of communication by Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to local police takes on a new light in the wake of two mass shootings in Odessa and El Paso. The El Paso shooter had long written about his hatred for immigrants and his mother had reportedly called the police before the shooting because she did not think her son should own a gun.

“These messages are clearly threats of deadly force against San Antonians based solely on the color of their skin,” wrote State Representative Trey Martinez Fischer in a letter to Paxton. “It is deeply alarming to me that despite the large volume and explicit nature of the messages from Mr. Pulliam, the Office of Attorney General has taken so long to cooperate with local law enforcement.”

The story was published in the print edition of the Sunday Chronicle, but there’s no link for it yet on the Chron site and the E-N story is behind the paywall, so this is the best I can do. Do bear in mind that Ken Paxton has been actively encouraging people like this to report their complaints to his office, so it’s no wonder he’s being tight lipped about this. Dude’s one of his best customers. In the meantime, while we hope this guy doesn’t follow through on any of the many threats of violence he has made, let’s see if any of our Republican leaders, who have been trying to convince us that they might actually Do Something this time, will at least voice support for disarming this guy. I’m not going to hold my breath.

Greg Abbott is not going to take action on gun violence

Why would he? It’s not who he is.

When Gov. Greg Abbott first convened the new Texas Safety Commission last month after the El Paso shooting, he brought with him a stack of papers and wasted little time directing the media’s attention to it.

“In the aftermath of the horrific shooting in Santa Fe, we had discussions just like what we are having today,” Abbott said, holding up thick, paper-clipped packets for the cameras. “Those discussions weren’t just for show and for people to go off into the sunset and do nothing. They led to more than 20 laws being signed by me to make sure that the state of Texas was a better, safer place, including our schools for our children.”

The intended message was clear: He had been here before, and it led to results. But over a year later — with two more mass shootings rocking the state just weeks apart — the pressure that the second-term Republican governor faces to do more to keep Texans safe is higher than ever. And the political divisions are just as intense, as Abbott seeks to navigate between an increasingly influential gun control movement and those in his own party who demand that he hold the line on gun rights.

“My impression is the governor’s in a tight spot … because the majority legislative coalition doesn’t really give anyone on that side a chance to move on this,” said Ed Scruggs, the board vice chair of Texas Gun Sense who has participated in both the post-Santa Fe and post-El Paso roundtables. “They’ve been absolutists for so long that it’s very, very difficult. I really can tell you that the governor wants to do something to prevent this, but politically what is possible — he may be the only one who knows that.”

[…]

However, with Abbott’s response to the shootings still in the roundtable phase, skepticism runs amok. In addition to leaving a trail of gleeful social media posts about Texas gun culture in recent years — tweets that have routinely resurfaced after recent mass shootings in the state — Abbott has overseen a dramatic expansion of gun rights in Texas, from an open carry law in 2016 to the slew of new laws that went into effect Sunday loosening firearms restrictions. And for gun control advocates, the memory is still fresh of Abbott asking lawmakers after the Santa Fe shooting to consider a “red flag” law that would allow local officials to take guns away from people if a judge declares them a danger — only to back away from the idea amid an intraparty backlash.

“I would say I am more cynical about Greg Abbott’s leadership than I am optimistic,” said Peter Ambler, executive director of the gun control group Giffords, who participated in the safety commission meeting in El Paso. “However, I do think there’s a path forward on gun safety legislation. I think that means that Abbott is gonna have to get out of the NRA’s box and take a leadership position that is basically a repudiation of what he’s done in the past and where he’s been in the past.”

Remember first and foremost that the Legislature is not in session, and barring the very unlikely calling of a special session, there’s nothing that can be done in Texas except talk and study until 2021. But look, Greg Abbott believes in more guns and fewer restrictions on them. That’s what he has pushed for, that’s what he advocates, that’s what he is. He may be feeling some political pressure to Do Something about gun violence now, though I’d say that’s more a concern for Republican legislators and Congressfolk losing races than for his own political fortunes, but he also feels a lot of pressure to hold fast against such action. Why would he go along with what Democrats want? It makes no sense, and it collides with everything Abbott has done as a politician. When that changes (spoiler alert: it won’t), let me know. The Chron, the Chron editorial board, Erica Greider, Texas Monthly, the Texas Signal, and the Observer have more.

The Lege will not take any action on guns

By all means, keep calling for a special session to address the issue. Just do keep in mind who holds all the cards.

At least 17 Texas state lawmakers are asking Gov. Greg Abbott to call a special session to address gun violence following a mass shooting in El Paso that left 22 dead and dozens injured.

The list includes four state representatives from San Antonio, including Roland Gutierrez, Diego Bernal, Leo Pacheco and Ina Minjarez.

“Our state leadership has failed to be proactive and adopt laws that would allow gun safety,” said Gutierrez, who has secured more than 500 signatures in a related online petition. “All Texans should feel safe in their communities. Every year we lose too many to gun violence. Over 3,353 gun-related deaths occur in Texas each year. One death is too many – time for change.”

Others on the list are: state Rep. Shawn Thierry, D-Houston; state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin; state Rep. Michelle Beckley, D-Carrollton; state Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth; state Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston; state Rep. Victoria Neave, D-Dallas; state Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin; state Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood; state Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City; state Rep. Vikki Goodwin, D-Austin; state Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo; state Sen. Beverly Powell, D-Fort Worth and state Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston.

In case you didn’t read through that whole list, none of the legislators in question are Republicans. That tells you everything you need to know.

(To be fair, there are other political reasons why there won’t be a special session.)

After the massacre of 22 people at an El Paso Walmart by an attacker with a military-style rifle, Texas’ Republican leadership is still unlikely to push for gun restrictions in a state that has long embraced firearms and has nearly 1.4 million handgun license holders, experts and advocates on both sides of the gun issue say. The shooting comes nearly 21 months after the Sutherland Springs massacre that killed more than two dozen people and more than a year after the Santa Fe shooting that killed 10.

“When Texas Republicans look at these massacres, they don’t blame guns, or gun laws. They blame people. They may blame institutions, schools, families, mental health, but not guns,” said Mark Jones, political science professor at Rice University. “If a school massacre and a church massacre didn’t change people’s opinion, the El Paso massacre isn’t going to.”

[…]

Abbott met last week with Democratic lawmakers from El Paso who have pushed for gun control and said he wants to keep guns away from “deranged killers.” Abbott said the state should battle hate, racism and terrorism, but made no mention of gun restrictions.

“Our job is to keep Texans safe,” Abbott said. “We take that job seriously. We will act swiftly and aggressively to address it.”

Abbott said he will meet with experts this month to discuss how Texas can respond – much as he did after shootings in Sutherland Springs and Santa Fe.

Those meetings resulted in Abbott issuing a 43-page report with proposals for more armed guards in schools, boosting mental health screenings, new restrictions on home gun storage, and consideration of red flag laws.

Gun rights supporters immediately pushed back on anything that could be interpreted as restricting gun ownership, and the Legislature’s Republican majority pivoted to expanding run rights. The only victory gun control supporters could claim was a small item in a $250 billion state budget: $1 million for a public awareness campaign on safe gun storage at home.

“They made things worse,” said Gyl Switzer, executive director of Texas Gun Sense. “I went naively into the session thinking ‘Progress here we come.’ But we ran head on into this idea that more guns make us safer.”

Well, more armed guards in schools, in churches, at WalMart, and now after Midland/Odessa, in cars and on the roads. Maybe if we station an armed guard on every street corner, inside every shop and restaurant, and on every floor of every office building in America, we’ll finally be safe from gun violence. We won’t have time to do anything else because we’ll need literally everyone to serve as all those armed guards, but hey, at least we’ll have done something that the Greg Abbotts and Matt Schaefers of the world can abide. Alternately, we can vote them out and elect people who want to do more rational, sensible, and effective things to curb gun violence. Decisions, decisions.

Our all-important metro areas

Another look at the trouble Republicans face in Texas now.

The key to Texas’ political future is whether it finally follows the geographic realignment that has transformed the politics of many other states over the past quarter century.

Across the country, Republicans since the 1980s have demonstrated increasing strength among voters who live in exurbs at the edge of the nation’s metropolitan centers or beyond them entirely in small-town and rural communities. Democrats, in turn, have extended their historic dominance of the nation’s urban cores into improved performance in inner suburbs, many of them well educated and racially diverse.

Both sides of this dynamic have accelerated under Trump, whose open appeals to voters uneasy about racial, cultural and economic change have swelled GOP margins outside the metropolitan areas while alienating many traditionally center-right suburban voters.

In Texas, only half of this equation has played out. In presidential elections since 2000, Republicans have consistently won more than two-thirds of the vote for the two parties in 199 mostly white nonmetropolitan counties across the state, according to a study by [Richard] Murray and Renee Cross, senior director of the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs. (Trump in 2016 swelled that number to three-fourths.) The GOP has attracted dominant majorities from those areas in other races, from the Senate and US House to the governorship and state legislative contests. Democrats consistently amassed big majorities in 28 mostly Latino South Texas counties, but they have composed only a very small share of the statewide vote.

The key to the GOP’s dominance of the state is that through most of this century it has also commanded majorities in the 27 counties that make up the state’s four biggest metropolitan areas: Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio and Austin. Demographically similar places in states along the coasts and in the upper Midwest have moved consistently toward the Democrats since Bill Clinton’s era. But in Texas, Republicans still carried 53% to 59% of the vote in those metropolitan counties in the four presidential races from 2000 through 2012, Murray and Cross found.

In the Trump era, though, that metro strength has wavered for the GOP. In 2016, Hillary Clinton narrowly beat Trump across the 27 counties in Texas’ four major metropolitan areas. Then in 2018, Democrat O’Rourke carried over 54% of the vote in them in his narrow loss to Sen. Ted Cruz, Murray and Cross found. O’Rourke won each of the largest metro areas, the first time any Democrat on the top of the ticket had carried all four since native son Lyndon B. Johnson routed Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential race, according to Murray and Cross.

Looking just at the state’s five largest urban counties — Harris (Houston), Travis (Austin), Bexar (San Antonio), Tarrant (Fort Worth) and Dallas — the change is even more stark. In 2012, Obama won them by a combined 131,000 votes. By 2016, Clinton expanded the Democratic margin across those five counties to 562,000 votes. In 2018, O’Rourke won those counties by a combined 790,000 votes, about six times more than Obama did in 2012. Along the way, Democrats ousted Republican US House incumbents in suburban Houston and Dallas seats and made substantial gains in municipal and state house elections across most of the major metro areas.

“We have now turned every major metropolitan area blue,” says Glenn Smith, a longtime Democratic strategist in the state.

Yet that, of course, still wasn’t enough for O’Rourke to overcome Cruz’s huge advantages in smaller nonmetro communities. That outcome underscores the equation facing Texas Democrats in 2020 and beyond: They must reduce the GOP’s towering margins outside of the major metropolitan areas and/or expand their own advantage inside the metro centers.

Few in either party give Democrats much chance to record many gains outside of metro Texas, especially given Trump’s national strength with such voters. O’Rourke campaigned heavily in Texas’ smaller counties and made very limited inroads there, even relative to Clinton’s abysmal performance in 2016. Exit polls conducted for a consortium of media organizations including CNN found that O’Rourke carried just 26% of white voters without a college education, only a minuscule improvement from the 21% Clinton won in Texas in 2016.

O’Rourke’s very limited rural gains have convinced many Texas Democrats that while they can’t entirely abandon smaller parts of the state, their new votes are most likely to come from the metropolitan centers.

“It’s a matter of emphasis,” says Smith, a senior adviser to the liberal group Progress Texas. “You’ve got to do urban/ suburban areas first. You’ve got to maximize your advantage there.”

The stakes in the struggle for Texas’ big metro areas are rising because they are growing so fast. While the four major metro areas cast about 60% of the statewide votes in the 1996 presidential election, that rose to about 69% in 2016 and 2018, Murray and Cross found. Murray expects the number to cross 70% in 2020.

And the concentration of Texas’ population into its biggest metropolitan areas shows no signs of slackening. The Texas Demographic Center, the official state demographer, projects that 70% of the state’s population growth through 2050 will settle in just 10 large metropolitan counties. Those include the big five urban centers that O’Rourke carried as well as five adjacent suburban counties; those adjacent counties still leaned toward the GOP in 2018 but by a much smaller cumulative margin than in the past. Overall, O’Rourke won the 10 counties expected to account for the preponderance of the state’s future growth by a combined nearly 700,000 votes.

We’ve been talking about this literally since the ink was still wet on the 2018 election results. I touched on it again more recently, referring to a “100 to 150-county strategy” for the eventual Democratic nominee for Senate. None of this is rocket science. Run up the score in the big urban areas – winning Harris County by at least 300K total votes should be the (very reachable) target – via emphasizing voter registration, canvassing apartments, and voters who turned out in 2008 and/or 2012 but not 2016. Keep doing what we’ve been doing in the adjacent suburbs, those that are trending blue (Fort Bend, Williamson, Hays), those that are still getting there (Collin, Denton, Brazoria), and those that need to have the curve bent (Montgomery, Comal, Guadalupe). Plan and implement a real grassroots outreach in the Latino border/Valley counties. We all know the drill, and we learned plenty from the 2018 experience, we just need to build on it.

The less-intuitive piece I’d add on is a push in the midsize cities, where there was also some evidence of Democratic growth. Waco, Lubbock, College Station, Abilene, Amarillo, Killeen, San Angelo, Midland, Odessa, etc etc etc. There are some low-key legislative pickup opportunities in some of these places to begin with. My theory is that these places feature increasingly diverse populations with a decent number of college graduates, and overall have more in common with the big urban and suburban counties than they do with the small rural ones. Some of these places will offer better opportunities than others, but they are all worth investing in. Again, this is not complicated. We’ve seen the data, we will definitely have the resources, we just need to do the thing.

This is our most “run everywhere” election ever

We already knew this, and have quantified it in a number of ways, but it’s still worth taking a moment to marvel at the surge of Democratic candidates this year.

Lisa Seger

Before she could talk about her campaign for the Texas House of Representatives, Lisa Seger needed to check on her goats. Seger, who lives with her husband and 30 goats on a farm 40 minutes outside of Houston, had a doe in the maternity stall that was due any minute. “Spring is kidding season,” she explained.

If elected, the 47-year-old Seger, a sustainable agriculture proponent who got into farming after reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, would likely be the only member of the legislature with her own brand of yogurt. But what makes her so unusual in the state’s third district isn’t her background, it’s her party—Seger is the first Democratic candidate to run for the seat since 2010, when the Republican incumbent Cecil Bell Jr. was first elected. Seger’s state senator also ran unopposed in her last election.

“I couldn’t remember the last time I was even able to vote for a Democrat in one of our elections here,” Seger says.

In West Texas, two millennial friends, Armando Gamboa, a 25-year-old from Odessa, and 24-year-old Spencer Bounds of Midland, decided to run for neighboring state house districts where Democrats have been AWOL for at least a decade. No one has run in Gamboa’s district since 2004; Bounds’ opponent is a 50-year incumbent who last faced a Democrat in 2008.

Seger, Gamboa, and Bounds are part of a trend. Call it the “Virginia Effect”: A little more than a year after the inauguration, Democrats in deep-red districts are running for office at a historic clip, determined to find and turn out progressive voters in places where no one has competed in years. It’s a sign that the enthusiasm that swept progressive activists in the first year of the Trump administration and led the party to big gains in the Old Dominion and elsewhere in 2017 is still burning heading into the midterm elections. These local races, flying mostly under the radar, could also give a party struggling for relevance in large swaths of the country a quiet boost this fall.

I should note to begin that my wife is friends with Seger, and we are regular buyers of her farm’s goat cheese. Let’s be clear that Seger, Gamboa, and Bounds are running in really tough districts – Donald Trump got 75.2% in HD03, 70.3% in HD81 (the one in Odessa), and 75.7% in HD82 (Midland, and yes that’s Tom Craddick’s district). I don’t know what set of circumstances might be needed to win one of these races, but it would not be something I would expect. That said, there are three obvious reasons why what these folks are doing is important:

– Their odds of winning may be minimal, but they are still greater than zero. You can’t beat something with nothing, and having no candidate to run is the definition of “nothing”.

– Having local candidates to vote for – remember, everyone will have a Democratic Congressional candidate on their ballot this year as well – gives people in these “can’t remember the last time I had a Democrat to vote for” places a reason to show up and vote. Beto O’Rourke is doing a great job getting out to places that seldom if ever get visited by a Democratic candidate, but it’s still the case that someone in Odessa or Midland or the nether regions of Montgomery County is more likely to have their door knocked by one of these three. If we want Beto and maybe some other statewide candidates to win, they’re going to have to do better in these places than previous Dems have done as well as better in the big cities.

– Long term, of course, things can and do change – remember, Republicans were once an extreme minority in Texas. They built up their base one election at a time, competing and eventually winning in places where they had once not existed. There’s no reason why Democrats can’t do well in the not-quite-as-big cities like they do in the big cities, but it’s not going to happen by itself.

That latter point about the medium-sized cities is one I’ve mentioned before – I mentioned it and covered a lot of this same ground in that Rural Dems post – and one I think deserves a lot more thought and effort, but I don’t want to sidetrack this post. What I do want to do to finish this up is to note that right now, Democratic legislative candidates are not doing so hot in fundraising. Some of that as I noted before is due to late entrances, some is due to the zealous focus on the Congressional races as well as Beto’s butt-kicking in that department, and some of it is because the rest of us aren’t paying much attention to State House races. Which, not to state the obvious, we need to do a lot more of, since the Lege is where the really bad stuff will happen if the Republicans have the numbers and the wingnut concentration to run amok again.

So let me put forth a modest suggestion to the big-money types that exist in Democratic politics here: Put together a pool of money to distribute to these lower-profile candidates running in unusual places, so they can at least pay for some campaign materials and maybe hire a manager or the like. I’m thinking something like $50K per candidate, which once you subtract out the incumbents and the candidates in higher-profile races who are already on track to raise plenty of their own money, would probably require $3-4 million all together. That’s actually not much at all in the grand scheme of things – I mean, Sen. John Whitmire could pay for that by himself, twice over – but it could make a real difference in the performance of these candidates as a group, which again would be a boon for Beto and probably more than a few Congressional hopefuls. If nothing else, it would be a loud signal that we’re not screwing around this year. Everyone likes to talk about the examples that Virginia and Alabama set for us in recent months. It would be nice if we did more than just talk about it.

Conservation is still the best water plan

The state of Texas needs to do better at it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Desalinization and power plants

The Trib has another story about desalinization in Texas, and reading it brings up a point that I don’t think gets enough attention.

KBH Desalinization Facility

Interest in desalination surged more than a decade ago, when the technology became more efficient and cost-competitive, according to Jorge Arroyo, a desalination specialist with the Texas Water Development Board. But the severe drought of the past two years has triggered extra calls to his office. Texas holds 2.7 billion acre-feet of brackish groundwater — which translates to roughly 150 times the amount of water the state uses annually — in addition to some brackish surface water. The state water plan finalized this year envisions Texas deriving 3.4 percent of its water supply from desalination in 2060. (It is less than 1 percent now.)

Environmentalists argue that desalination is not a silver bullet because it is energy-intensive and requires disposal of the concentrated salts in a way that avoids contaminating fresh water. Texas should first focus on conservation and the reuse of wastewater, said Amy Hardberger, a water specialist with the Environmental Defense Fund.

“What needs to be avoided is the, ‘Oh, we’ll just get more’ mentality,” she said.

But getting more is what many Texans want. Odessa, which draws water from dangerously low surface reservoirs, is considering a desalination plant that could ultimately become bigger than the one in El Paso. (Odessa’s deadline for proposals is next week.)

Separately, a planned power plant near Odessa is studying prices for the technology. John Ragan, the head of Texas operations for NRG Energy, envisions natural gas power plants along the coast that desalinate water overnight when they are not needed for electricity. Residents near the half-full Highland Lakes in Central Texas say that desalination could reduce the water-supply burden on the lakes. Texas Tech University aims to begin wind-powered desalination research later this year, in the West Texas town of Seminole.

See here for previous blogging about desalinization. Coal-fired power plants use a lot of water. Natural gas plants use a lot less than coal plants, though they still use a lot. Renewable energy – wind and solar – pretty much don’t need water at all. See this Texas Water Development Board report about power generation and water usage through the year 2060 for more. Desalinization needs to be part of the mix in Texas – we have more than enough brackish water to supply the entire state – but desalinization requires a lot of power, and power generation, at least as we do it today, requires a lot of water. Everybody understands that greenhouse gas and climate change implications of renewable energy versus coal and gas, but the water use implications are as important. The more we invest in renewable energy the better off we’ll be in more ways than we might think.

Dry, not drought

Yippie!

It’s official: According to the latest iteration of the U.S. Drought Monitor just released, the drought is over for most of eastern Harris County.

Here’s the picture:

Compare that to where we were at the beginning of the year and be amazed. But don’t get too cocky. Look at the chart accompanying the current picture and note that as of this time last year, 12.52% of the state – slightly more than double what is the case now – was in no drought, and none of the state was in an Exceptional drought; only 7.78% was in Extreme drought. Then it stopped raining for nearly a year, and you saw what happened. We’re still in a La Nina situation, and though we have bucked the odds so far, there’s no guarantee that will continue. Another dry spell and we’ll all be cooked.

Another way of saying we still have a way to go to catch up is to look at lake levels, especially in Central and West Texas.

There simply hasn’t been enough rain—and, more critically, not enough runoff—to recover from brutally dry and hot 2011. In the case of West Texas, there hasn’t been enough rain in years to bring up key reservoirs. And the outlook for 2012, given the lingering La Nina pattern, is not great.

Midland, Odessa and San Angelo, in fact, find themselves in precisely the same position they were in last year: two of their three drinking-water lakes are dry and the third, O.H. Ivie, is declining rapidly. At current usage levels, the cities could run out of Ivie water by January 2013. New watering restrictions will buy the cities another 90 to 120 days, enough time to build a pipeline to groundwater in Ward County.

Odessa does have some other options, but they’re not cheap and they may have unknown long term effects. Conservation, which includes encouraging people to use less water by pricing it appropriately, is never a bad idea.

Still more drought may be coming

Just what you wanted to hear, right? There is at least the chance of some good news, however.

The drought that has plagued Texas is virtually certain to continue at least until early summer, climate experts said on Tuesday at a conference in Fort Worth. But what happens after that is anyone’s guess.

The main cause of the drought, the most intense in recorded Texas history, is back-to-back episodes of La Niña, a Pacific Ocean phenomenon that almost always brings dry conditions to the state. The bad news is that, based on the historical record, there is a 40 percent chance of La Niña returning for a third consecutive year, according to Klaus Wolter, a research associate with the Earth Research Laboratory at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

That record consists of 10 instances over the past century in which La Niña has appeared for two years in a row (normally it does not recur). However, Wolter emphasized, 10 episodes is a fairly limited data set. And — here’s the good news — the other six times, an El Niño has followed the two La Niñas, bringing unusually wet weather.

“If we were to switch to El Niño next summer, the record of the last decade would indeed favor an end of the 2010-2012 drought,” according to Wolter.

That would be nice if it happened, because the aquifers really need the rain.

NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, or GRACE, satellites are unique because rather than measuring light on wavelengths, they measure gravity based on mass variations, making them sensitive to changes in water on or below the Earth’s surface, no matter how deep, NASA hydrologist Matthew Rodell explained.

Scientists took that data and combined it with other information to create a numerical model that simulates the water redistribution after it rains. They then were able to conclude that the aquifers are at lows seen only 2 percent of the time since 1948, when mapping began.

“People rely on groundwater, especially in times like this when it’s dry, because groundwater provides a reserve of water when it doesn’t rain,” Rodell said. “But we’re in a deficit now. We’re drawing down our bank account.”

It doesn’t look like those supplies will be replenished by rain in the coming months, Fuchs said. The La Nina weather pattern currently cooling the Pacific Ocean typically causes warmer, drier weather in Texas and other parts of the South. The best hope for rain, he believes, will be in the spring.

“The likelihood of recovery or any substantial improvements is probably not going to be there,” Fuchs said.

That Trib story above says that the city of Odessa has received about three-quarters of a inch of rain all year. You can see why they might be a little desperate. Better root for El Niño to pay us a visit, and the sooner the better.

Not a drop to drink

I have two questions regarding this Trib story about the dire drought situation in Odessa.

The city of Odessa, facing a dire drought situation, is looking to an unlikely example for help in finding water: the desert city of El Paso.

Water pressure in Odessa dropped in August, and residents can only water their lawns during the dark of night. Two of the three lakes the city normally relies on for water are almost completely dry. The other is less than 25 percent full and is expected to run out late next year, said Guy Andrews, director of economic development for the Odessa Chamber of Commerce.

But a few hundred miles farther west, El Paso’s half-million residents have plenty of water even though they live in the middle of the Chihuahua Desert, thanks to a massive desalinization plant and a successful 20-year-old conservation program.

Odessa is apparently a good candidate for a desalinization plant. They sit on top of a lot of brackish water, which is less salty than ocean water and thus less expensive to turn into fresh water. The story says that the Odessa Development Corporation, which is the entity investigating this, is seeking to raise up to $50 million from private investors and hopes to have a plant up and running in the next two to three years. Which makes me wonder, what exactly happens in the meantime if that third lake runs dry? What other sources of water do they have?

Also, as the story notes, El Paso has been aggressively promoting water conservation, which has resulted in them not being particularly affected by the current drought. The desalinization plant treats 27 million gallons of water a day, which is nearly 10 billion gallons a year, while the conservation efforts save another four billion gallons a year. What if anything is Odessa doing, or has it been doing, to push conservation? Restricting when you can water your lawn is one thing, but as El Paso has shown, providing incentives to get rid of them altogether and replace them with plants that need less water is better. (Tiered pricing is also a good idea.) What has Odessa been doing to prepare itself for this day? The story doesn’t say. Does anybody know?