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The great state of Texas

EPA asked to investigate TCEQ’s water permitting process

Need to keep an eye on this.

The Environmental Protection Agency says an informal investigation is underway after more than two dozen environmental advocacy groups submitted a petition against the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The petition alleges that state regulators are not doing enough to protect water quality in Texas, as is federally required.

The environmental groups are asking the federal agency to step in and repair Texas’ “broken system” of issuing permits to control water pollution, saying the state has made it too easy for industries to contaminate its water.

“We really feel that the TCEQ regulations, frankly, are not sufficient to ensure clean water,” said Annalisa Peace, executive director of Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, an environmental protection nonprofit based in San Antonio.

Historically, the TCEQ has been criticized for being a “reluctant” regulator and for being industry friendly. Many environmental groups have been pushing for permitting transparency, opportunities for more community input, and accountability of the state agency.

The Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, Environmental Integrity Project, Sierra Club, Clean Water Action, Public Citizen and 16 other groups filed the petition in 2021, stating that Texas has a major water pollution problem with state rivers, lakes and estuaries “so polluted they are considered impaired under the federal Clean Water Act.”

The Clean Water Act is a 1972 law designed to reduce pollution in America’s waterways. According to the petition, the state’s water permitting process does not recognize people who use waterways for recreational purposes, such as fishing or kayaking, to petition for a contested court hearing — only those who own land nearby.

The petition also states that industries are not required to document “the economic or social necessity of projects.” Environment advocates believe companies should provide documentation that shows there are no other options to their projects that could avoid pollution of the waters in order to obtain permits.

“They are the ones who are wanting to pollute the environment,” Eric Allmon, an attorney representing the petitioners, said about the industry. “The applicant should bear the burden of demonstrating compliance.”

Allmon said the EPA’s informal investigation is a preliminary step that determines whether there is any merit to the allegations from environmental advocates before the agency formally reviews the TCEQ’s track record on enforcing water quality standards.

[…]

If the EPA concludes that TCEQ is not enforcing the Clean Water Act, then the federal agency can proceed with a formal investigation and could revoke TCEQ’s authority to regulate water quality. The TCEQ would have 90 days to fix the problems or lose its authority.

I confess that I look at this with at least as much trepidation as any other emotion. Sure, this could end up with the TCEQ actually doing more to protect Texas’ waters. It could also end up with Ken Paxton filing a lawsuit against the EPA that ultimately results in SCOTUS doing serious damage to the Clean Water Act and/or the EPA itself. I have no trouble believing that the TCEQ has at best been half-assing this job, and I don’t want to tell these groups to be ruled by fear. But in the current climate, with the courts being what they are and a state government that has no interest in serving the public, we have to take this kind of thing into consideration. I hope I’m being way too pessimistic.

Never underestimate the power of ducks

I don’t track “favorite stories” for a given year, but if I did, this would be a lock to make it for this year.

Alicia Rowe, an Austin therapist, first came across news of her death in a British tabloid.

The Daily Mail UK had run a story online about how her parents, Kathleen and George Rowe, had been sued for feeding the neighborhood ducks after feuding with their homeowners’ association in Cypress.

The article offered zero ambiguity about her demise: “Texas couple who began feeding neighborhood ducks to cope with loss of only daughter are sued for (up to) $250,000 by HOA for causing a nuisance and are forced to sell home to cover costs,” read the article’s headline.

Alicia, who is in her 30s, was the Rowes’ only child.

She stared at the article in shock. Then she wondered how she had died. She had her suspicions.

When she texted friends about the surreal development, they quickly found that versions of the story, which first ran in the Houston Chronicle in July, were everywhere: Alicia had also died in the Washington Post and in Business Insider India and in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. The rash of stories had all come out roughly five months earlier, and thoughts about what people who knew her parents imagined had happened to her – what they were still thinking – niggled at the corner of her mind.

So she called the Houston Chronicle reporter who broke the story, and the reporter called Kathleen and George Rowe’s lawyer, who called Kathleen.

“She wanted me to communicate her apologies,” the lawyer, Richard Weaver, told the Chronicle shortly afterward. “She reiterated her words to me. And it was that she had lost her daughter. When she told me she’d lost her daughter, I thought she’d passed away.”

Five months had passed, Kathleen and her lawyer had spoken to additional outlets and no one had asked for a correction.

Alicia had cut off contact with her mother years ago; she was estranged, not dead. The misunderstanding, by multiple parties (for the original story, the Chronicle had also spoken with Kathleen about the “loss” of her daughter), had landed everyone involved in a predicament. Newspapers, as a rule, don’t use euphemisms to talk about death.

[…]

A Chronicle tool charting how many people are visiting its website showed 83 people read the story in the month after the correction was issued. More than 100,000 readers had viewed the Chronicle story in the months prior.

That’s why the Chronicle proposed this followup story about her predicament, Alicia agreed. “It’s this weird intersection of media, family trauma and how fast information gets around,” she said.

Alicia said the last time she was on speaking terms with her mother was roughly six years ago.

“There was a lot of both physical and emotional abuse in my home growing up,” she said. Alicia said she was often manipulated through lies and misleading information, while being presented to those outside the family as the problem child in order to garner sympathy. That pattern led her to ask her mother to cease contact.

Soon after, her mother started telling neighbors that her daughter had “passed,” Alicia said. “She had taken down all the photos of me in the house and had planted a memorial garden to me in the backyard. I had this series of letters, basically saying, ‘If you want people to not think you are dead, you need to come back and talk to us and tell everybody that you are not dead.’”

She no longer had a copy of the letters, and Kathleen did not return phone calls about the factual dispute.

Alicia said that she had a hunch why her mom had told her lawyer and the media that she started feeding ducks after the loss of her only child: “to have a reason why she’s not following the rules.”

“It’s kind of hard to be mad at the lady with a dead daughter that just wants to feed the ducks, right?”

Hard to beat a story that contains family estrangement, newspaper style guides, and ducks. My first thought when I saw this was that surely I had blogged about the original article and this woman’s duck-feeding parents and their legal issues. But that was not the case, though I did blog about a different duck feeding matter. Instead, I had blathered about it on the radio, which is why it stuck in my mind. One way or the other, I am just drawn to a good duck tale.

This article also contained an update on the original:

Kathleen and George did not respond to calls for comment on this story. They were not home at duck-feeding time on a recent Tuesday. The ducks that had once lined up outside their porch, craning their necks to see the owners, were also gone. In their place was a “Sale Pending” sign and a lockbox on the door. The couple was moving out. On Jan. 19, their lawsuit with their HOA in the masterplanned neighborhood of Bridgeland settled.

I don’t have anything to add to that. If you read that original story, whatever you may have thought about the main characters and their HOA, now you know more.

Somehow, Texas could lose a state park

You wouldn’t think that would be possible, but you would be wrong.

Texas is at risk of losing a state park forever.

Fairfield Lake State Park, an 1,800-acre gem overlooking a beautiful 2,400-acre lake, nestled within the convergence of three Texas ecoregions – the Post Oak Savannah, Piney Woods and Blackland Prairies – and along the bustling I-45 corridor between Houston and DFW, could be lost to private development if a deal is not reached soon to continue the park’s existence.

“We are absolutely, clearly in dire straits of losing our park,” Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission chairman Arch “Beaver” Aplin III said during a recent briefing at a commission work session.

Texas owns most of its state parks, but not Fairfield Lake.

The lake was created in 1969 by Dallas Power and Light Company, Texas Electric Service Company and Texas Power and Light Company to cool the coal plant, Big Brown. Those three companies merged and eventually became TXU Energy, which eventually conveyed the property to Luminant, a sister company under Vistra Corp. The park property has been leased to the state since 1971, free of cost.

In 2018, Big Brown shut down and Vistra Corp/Luminant gave TPWD a two-year notice that it was going to end the lease. Since then, the lease has been extended, allowing the park to continue operations after 2020.

The park was put up publicly for sale in 2021, and the entire property, (the TPWD park, lake and additional land totaling more than 5,000 acres) is currently under contract with a private developer out of Dallas, Todd Interests. The lease with TPWD can be terminated with 120 days of notice and the park could close as early as this month. Public access to the lake would end, too.

[…]

Despite the hope to buy and eventually expand the park, TPWD remains in a challenging position. The property is under contract and chairman Aplin said during the commission work session that the buyer is intent on canceling the lease. Todd Interests did not respond to a request for comment.

“It’s all hands on deck, it’s very important to us,” Aplin said.

“The irony here of this being our centennial-year celebration and losing one of our gem state parks, is just absolutely unacceptable to me. Everyone has my word that we will work as hard as we can, but we can only deal with the cards that we’ve been dealt.”

Rep. Ken King (R), chair of the Texas House of Representatives’ culture, recreation and tourism committee during the 2021-22 session, vowed to not let this park go away quietly.

“Texas Power and Light was a regulated utility. Vistra is now going to sell the property they’ve acquired since. They’re not a regulated utility… There’s almost $70 million of taxpayer-funded improvements on this property. If they were still a tax-regulated utility, that money would have to go back to the ratepayers. That’s not how this works, now. They’re going to make a huge profit at the expense of the state of Texas. I think it is categorically wrong, and I’m going to fight it the whole way,” he told the commission.

Losing a park like this to private development would be unprecedented. “To our knowledge, we have not closed any sites,” a TPWD spokesperson said.

Fairfield Lake State Park is in Freestone County, between Buffalo and Corsicana off I-45, so closer to Dallas than Houston. As the story notes, the TPWD didn’t have the money to afford the property when it came on the market, but after the passage of prop 5 in 2019, which allocated more funds to TPWD via sales taxes on various sporting goods, it could try again now, but it may be too late. I’d suggest the Lege get involved, but it may be too late for that as well. If that’s the case, the Lege could still pass a law to require some level of public access to this land and the lake, and could put restrictions on any sales like it in the future. There are ways to at least mitigate this and learn from the experience, so I hope they will do that. We’ll see.

(If you’re trying to remember where you’ve heard the name Arch “Beaver” Aplin before, he’s the co-founder of Buc-ee’s.)

Winter storm 2023

I don’t know if this one will get a name, but I can imagine what a lot of folks are calling it.

Thousands of frustrated Texans shivered in their homes Thursday after more than a day without power, including many in the state capital, as an icy winter storm that has been blamed for at least 10 traffic deaths lingered across much of the southern U.S.

Even as temperatures finally pushed above freezing in Austin — and were expected to climb past 50 degrees (10 Celsius) on Friday — the relief will be just in time for an Arctic front to drop from Canada and threaten northern states. New England in particular is forecast to see the coldest weather in decades, with wind chills that could dive lower than minus 50.

Across Texas, 430,000 customers lacked power Thursday, according to PowerOutage.us. But the failures were most widespread in Austin, where frustration mounted among more than 156,000 customers over 24 hours after their electricity went out, which for many also meant their heat. Power failures have affected about 30% of customers in the city of nearly a million at any given time since Wednesday.

[…]

For many Texans, it was the second time in three years that a February freeze — temperatures were in the 30s Thursday with wind chills below freezing — caused prolonged outages and uncertainty over when the lights would come back on.

As outages dragged on, city officials came under mounting criticism for not providing estimates of when power would be restored and for neglecting to hold a news conference until Thursday. Mayor Kirk Watson said Thursday the city would review communication protocols for future disasters.

Austin Energy at one point estimated that all power would be restored by Friday evening, then later stated Thursday that full restoration would now take “longer than initially anticipated.” Soon after, Watson tweeted, “This is a dynamic situation and change is inevitable but Austin Energy must give folks clear and accurate info so they can plan accordingly.”

Unlike the 2021 blackouts in Texas, when hundreds of people died after the state’s grid was pushed to the brink of total failure because of a lack of generation, the outages in Austin this time were largely the result of frozen equipment and ice-burdened trees and limbs falling on power lines. The city’s utility warned all power may not be restored until Friday as ice continued causing outages even as repairs were finished elsewhere.

“It feels like two steps forward and three steps back,” said Jackie Sargent, general manager of Austin Energy.

School systems in the Dallas and Austin area, plus many in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Memphis, Tennessee, closed Thursday as snow, sleet and freezing rain continued to push through. Public transportation in Dallas also experienced “major delays” early Thursday, according to a statement from Dallas Area Rapid Transit.

The weather has been lousy here in Houston, but it has not been freezing, so we have escaped the worst of this. I feel so bad for everyone in the affected areas. The story says that so far seven people have died on the roads as a result of this storm.

On Twitter, I’ve seen a lot of people talking about the trees on their streets and the sound they make as they collapse under the weight of the ice on them. The Trib covered this as well.

All day and all night after the ice storm struck, Austin residents listened for the cracks, splinters and crashes. Each crack of a falling limb could shut the power off — if their home hadn’t gone dark already.

“It’s a really, really thick layer of ice,” said Jonathan Motsinger, the Central Texas operations department head for Texas A&M Forest Service. “Trees can only support weight to a certain extent, and then they fail.”

Across the Texas Hill Country this week, trees snapped under the weight of ice that accumulated during multiple days of freezing rain. Some of the most iconic trees were among the most severely damaged: live oaks (some of them hundreds of years old), ashe junipers (the scourge of allergy sufferers during “cedar fever” season), cedar elms. As their branches gave way, they took neighboring power lines with them.

“The amount of weight that has accumulated on the vegetation is probably historic, extreme,” Austin Energy general manager Jackie Sargent said during a Thursday press conference.

Ice can increase the weight of tree branches up to 30 times, said Kerri Dunn, a communications manager for Oncor. The utility reported that almost 143,000 of its customers in North, Central and West Texas were without power Thursday afternoon.

“The amount of weight that has accumulated on the vegetation is probably historic, extreme,” Austin Energy general manager Jackie Sargent said during a Thursday press conference.

Ice can increase the weight of tree branches up to 30 times, said Kerri Dunn, a communications manager for Oncor. The utility reported that almost 143,000 of its customers in North, Central and West Texas were without power Thursday afternoon.

[…]

Austin has almost 34 million trees in the city, according to an online tree census maintained by Texas A&M Forest Service and the U.S. Forest Service.

“It’s a big point of pride,” said Keith Mars, who oversees the city of Austin’s Community Tree Preservation Division.

Mars said that shade from the trees saves Austin residents millions of dollars a year in energy costs by cooling homes during hot summer days.

“Trees are infrastructure,” Mars said. “How much maintenance and how much care we provide, so that [the trees] can continue providing those other benefits, is the kind of tradeoff that we all have.”

I don’t really have a point to make here. I hope everyone who has had to endure this week’s terrible weather has made it through all right, and that there are enough trees left over to keep things shaded. The Austi Chronicle has more.

Project Unloaded

I approve of this.

Jordan Phan spoke into the camera in a Tik Tok post with background music and several hash tags.

“I’ve spent the summer researching whether guns make us more or less safe, and the unfortunate truth is that guns make us all less safe,” the college sophomore said, listing several facts about women’s safety and domestic violence. “Guns are rarely used to protect, but often used to kill.”

The post was part of a wider campaign for a group called Project Unloaded. Instead of pushing for policy change or working with at-risk youth in neighborhoods, the organization aims to save lives and tackle gun violence by changing America’s gun culture — starting with young people on social media.

“I felt there was a missing piece in the larger movement to prevent gun violence, ” said Nina Vinik, the organization’s founder and executive director.

Most people think guns make them safer, she said, but research indicates the opposite is true.

“That myth is really at the core of America’s gun culture,” said Vinik, a Chicago lawyer. “We’re out to change the cultural narrative, to bust that myth and create a new narrative that guns make us less safe.”

The group launched a social media campaign called SNUG – Safer Not Using Guns – roughly a year ago in Houston and Milwaukee. It has since expanded into ten more cities, according to the organization, and the message has reached more than a million people on Tik Tok and Snapchat.

The campaign is meant for young people because their opinions and views are still changing. It includes partnerships with young Tik Tok influencers and Instagram posts loaded with statistics about the risks associated with firearms.

For example: Firearm-related injuries are the leading cause of death for American children and adolescents; suicide rates are four times higher for young people with guns at home; families in gun-owning homes are more than twice as likely to die by homicide.

[…]

Nearly a third of young people have had personal experience with gun violence, according to a report released in September by Project Unloaded. Black and Hispanic youth are more impacted than their peers.

The report found, too, that teens and young adults ranked gun violence as a bigger issue than abortion access or climate change. Half of the respondents in the survey said they think about school shootings every week.

The survey also discovered that young people changed their minds about gun ownership after reviewing facts about firearm risk.

“Gun violence is having a devastating impact on this generation of young people, and Gen Z is at the forefront of culture change,” Vinik said. “We’re talking directly to teens and really empowering this generation to be the ones to kind of propel that cultural change.”

While gun-related policies stall in the legislature, Hoyt said he hopes to help drive a cultural change by equipping people with information.

“We want to make sure we’re providing people all the facts we have, but we also don’t want to tell them exactly what to do,” he said. “Each person on their own has to decide.”

You can learn more about Project Unloaded here, and I presume on TikTok; as an Old Person, I don’t use that particular app, but I’m sure their target audience does. Founder Vinik talks a bit later about finding ways to make change that doesn’t rely on elected officials. Changing, or at least affecting, the culture is a great way to do that, but at some point the legislative and judicial processes need to be addressed as well. Putting out an effective message that can later help drive electoral behavior is a great way to start. I wish them all the best.

More on the collegiate TikTok bans

An interesting perspective from a professor in Texas.

The bans have come in states where governors, like Texas’s Greg Abbott, have blocked TikTok from state-issued computers and phones. Employers can generally exercise control over how employees use the equipment they issue to them. The move to block TikTok on public university networks, however, crosses a line. It represents a different type of government regulation, one that hinders these institutions’ missions.

The bans limit university researchers’ abilities to learn more about TikTok’s powerful algorithm and data-collection efforts, the very problems officials have cited. Professors will struggle to find ways to educate students about the app as well.

Many, as my students suggested, will simply shift from the campus Wi-Fi to their data plans and resume using TikTok on campus. In this regard, the network bans create inequality, allowing those who can afford better data plans more free expression protections, while failing to address the original problem.

Crucially, TikTok isn’t just a place to learn how to do the griddy. It has more than 200 million users in the U.S., and many of them are exercising free-speech rights to protest and communicate ideas about matters of public concern. When the government singles out one app and blocks it on public university networks, it is picking and choosing who can speak and how they do so. The esteem and perceived value of the speech tool should not factor into whether the government can limit access to it.

The Supreme Court has generally found these types of restrictions unconstitutional. Justices struck down a North Carolina law in 2017 that banned registered sex offenders from using social media. They reasoned, “The Court must exercise extreme caution before suggesting that the First Amendment provides scant protection for access to vast networks in that medium.” Years earlier, the court struck down a law that criminalized digital child pornography. It reasoned lawmakers “may not suppress lawful speech as the means to suppress unlawful speech.”

Nearly a century ago, the first instance in which the Supreme Court struck down a law because it conflicted with the First Amendment came in a case that involved a blanket ban by government officials on a single newspaper. The newspaper was a scourge to its community. It printed falsehoods and damaged people’s reputations. Still, justices reasoned the First Amendment generally does not allow the government to block an information outlet because it threatens the “morals, peace, and good order” of the community.

Each of these laws, while put in place by well-meaning government officials, limited protected expression in their efforts to halt dangerous content. The First Amendment, however, generally doesn’t allow government officials to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Any limitation on expression must only address a clearly stated government interest and nothing else.

So, what is the government interest in blocking TikTok? Perhaps the most coherent statement of TikTok’s perceived national-security threat came from FBI Director Chris Wray in December. He emphasized, because of China’s practice of maintaining influence in the workings of private firms who do business in the country, Chinese officials might manipulate the app’s powerful recommendation algorithm in ways that distort the ideas Americans encounter. American TikTok users might see pro-China messages, for example, while negative information might be blocked. He also averred to TikTok’s ability to collect data on users and create access to information on users’ phones.

The University of Texas’s news release from earlier this week parroted these concerns, noting, “TikTok harvests vast amounts of data from its users’ devices—including when, where and how they conduct internet activity—and offers this trove of potentially sensitive information to the Chinese government.”

These are valid concerns, but apps such as Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and YouTube also harvest vast amounts of data about users. Their algorithms do far more than simply supply information. Facebook’s and YouTube’s algorithms, for example, have both been found to encourage right-wing extremism. They are, as Wray and Texas’ news release lamented regarding TikTok, distorting the ideas Americans encounter. Why aren’t we blocking them, too? The obvious answer is that none of these companies are owned by a Chinese firm. But can’t firms such as Meta, Twitter, and Google execute the same harms officials have listed from within the U.S.?

See here and here for the background. The author didn’t say where he teaches, but Google suggests he’s a journalism prof at SMU, which has no compunction to follow suit as it’s a private school. The main thing I took away from this is the possibility that someone at one of these schools, or multiple someones aiming for a class action, could file a First Amendment lawsuit to overturn the bans. The distinction between enacting a workplace ban on (basically) company-owned devices and a more general ban at a university seems clear to me. Whether anyone will take this up or not I couldn’t say – filing a federal lawsuit is no small thing. But it could happen, so we’ll keep an eye out for that.

PUC makes an attempt to fix the grid

People are skeptical.

The Public Utility Commission voted Thursday to make a substantial change to the state’s electricity market in a controversial effort to get the whole system to be more reliable. The agency said it will let the Legislature review its plan before moving forward with putting it in place.

The idea, known as the “performance credit mechanism,” is a first-of-its-kind proposal. It’s meant to help produce enough power when extreme heat or cold drives up demand and electricity production drops for various reasons — such as a lack of sun or wind to produce renewable energy or equipment breakdowns at gas- or coal-fired power plants.

Under the new concept, which still has many details to work out, companies such as NRG would commit to being available to produce more energy during those tight times. The companies would sell credits to electricity retailers such as Gexa Energy, municipal utilities and co-ops that sell power to homes and businesses.

The credits are designed to give power generators an added income stream and make building new power plants worthwhile.

Theoretically, the credits help retailers and customers by smoothing out volatile price spikes when demand is high — but there’s wide disagreement over whether this will happen in practice. Some electricity providers filed for bankruptcy after the 2021 winter storm because they had to pay so much for power.

Critics of the plan say the idea is risky because it wasn’t properly analyzed and has never been tested in another place. Members of the Senate Committee on Business and Commerce wrote to the PUC in December that they had “significant concern” about whether the proposal would work.

[…]

Experts disagree on whether the performance credits will actually convince power companies to build more natural gas plants, which are dirtier than wind and solar energy but can be turned on at any time. Some say new plants will be built anyway. Others say companies can simply use the credits to make more money from their existing plants without building more.

Michele Richmond, executive director of Texas Competitive Power Advocates, wrote in her comments to the commission that the group’s members were “ready to bring more than 4,500 [megawatts] of additional generation” to the state grid if the new system were adopted. That would be enough to power 900,000 homes. The group’s members include Calpine, Luminant and NRG.

If the PUC doesn’t change the market, there won’t be enough reason to invest in building new power generation facilities and keep operating existing facilities, she wrote.

The Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club was among groups that asked the PUC to spend more time considering whether the new credits are the best solution “before making fundamental changes to our market that would increase costs to consumers,” as Conservation Director Cyrus Reed wrote.

The independent market monitor, Potomac Economics, which is paid by the PUC to watch the market for manipulation and look for potential improvements, does not support the idea. The group believes enough corrections have been made already to make sure the grid is reliable.

Still others, such as Alison Silverstein, a former senior adviser at the PUC and the Texas Public Power Association, which is made up of municipal-owned utilities, cautioned that there wasn’t enough reliable information and analysis about the proposed credits to make such a significant decision.

The grid’s reliability must improve, Silverstein wrote to the PUC, but “we cannot do so at any cost, and we cannot do so using poorly understood, poorly-analyzed, or unproven market mechanisms to address unclear problem definitions and goals.”

Silverstein added: “If the commission makes a bad decision on … market reform due to haste, erroneous problem definition, sloppy analysis or misguided rationalizations, all Texans will bear the consequences for years through higher electric costs, lower reliability, and a slower economy, and millions of lower income Texans will suffer degraded health and comfort as they sacrifice to pay their electric bills.”

See here for some background. The PUC unanimously approved the plan, which was spearheaded by Greg Abbott’s appointed Chair. I sure don’t know enough to say whether this will work or not. It sounds like it could, but there’s more than enough uncertainty to make it a risky proposition. I get the argument against waiting for more data, but I have to wonder if there were some other ideas with greater certainty that could have been used in the meantime. Not much to do but hope for the best now, and maybe take the idea of “accountability” more seriously in the next election. The Chron, whose headline says that electricity prices are likely to rise under this plan, has more.

UT bans TikTok on campus WiFi

This feels like a bit of an overreaction to me, but we’ll see if others follow suit.

The University of Texas at Austin has blocked access to the video-sharing app TikTok on its Wi-Fi and wired networks in response to Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent directive requiring all state agencies to remove the app from government-issued devices, according to an email sent to students Tuesday.

“The university is taking these important steps to eliminate risks to information contained in the university’s network and to our critical infrastructure,” UT-Austin technology adviser Jeff Neyland wrote in the email. “As outlined in the governor’s directive, TikTok harvests vast amounts of data from its users’ devices — including when, where and how they conduct internet activity — and offers this trove of potentially sensitive information to the Chinese government.”

[…]

Abbott’s Dec. 7 directive stated that all state agencies must ban employees from downloading or using the app on government-issued devices, including cellphones, laptops and desktops, with exceptions for law enforcement agencies. He also directed the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas Department of Information Resources to create a plan to guide state agencies on how to handle the use of TikTok on personal devices, including those that have access to a state employee’s email account or connect to a state agency network. That plan was to be distributed to state agencies by Jan. 15.

Each state agency is expected to create its own policy regarding the use of TikTok on personal devices by Feb. 15.

The ban could have broad impacts particularly at universities serving college-age students, a key demographic that uses the app. University admissions departments have used it to connect with prospective students, and many athletics departments have used TikTok to promote sporting events and teams. It’s also unclear how the ban will impact faculty who research the app or professors who teach in areas such as communications or public relations, in which TikTok is a heavily used medium.

See here for the background. As the Chron notes, students will still be able to access TikTok off campus, but I’m sure this will cause a whole lot of complaining. It’s not clear to me that this is necessary to comply with Abbott’s previous directive, but I presume UT’s lawyers have given the matter some consideration and I’d take their conclusions over mine. Other big public universities have not yet announced anything, though on my earlier post a commenter who works at a Texas public university said that their school has done something similar. This will be very interesting to see.

There are a couple of big questions here. One is whether the TEA will weigh in on the matter for Texas public schools, or if it will be left up to individual districts. Far as I know, HISD has not taken any such action, and as it happens they have their own TikTok account. The other thing is how this might affect the ability of athletes to make NIL (name, image, likeness) money for themselves. NCAA athletes with a significant social media presence can earn a ton of money for themselves. If this starts to affect recruiting, you can be sure that people will hear about it. Even if the TEA takes action in the public schools, it’s not likely to have much effect since the UIL still bans athletes from making NIL money, but if this really does cause a ripple then anything can happen. Like I said, very much worth keeping an eye on this.

UPDATE: As of later in the day, Texas A&M and TSU have followed suit and implemented similar bans. That certainly lends credence to the “no it wasn’t an overreaction” thesis. UH had not taken any action as of this publication.

UPDATE: The University of North Texas joins in, as do all of the other schools in the UT system.

More on our future doctor shortage

This is unsustainable.

Abortion restrictions have forced Texas obstetrician-gynecology residency programs to send young doctors out of the state to learn about pregnancy termination, a burdensome process educators say is another example of abortion bans undermining reproductive health care.

At least one Houston-area program, the University of Texas Medical Branch, began sending residents out of state this year, to a partner institution in Oregon. Two other local programs, Baylor College of Medicine and Houston Methodist, said they still are working out arrangements for their own out-of-state rotations. McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston declined to comment on its plans.

The changes follow revised requirements from the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, the standard-bearer for residency programs, which maintains that abortion training is essential for providing comprehensive reproductive health care. Requirements updated in September say OB-GYN programs in states that ban the procedure “must provide access to this clinical experience in a different jurisdiction where it is lawful,” with exceptions for residents who choose to opt out.

Experts, however, say it takes month of coordination to arrange a temporary rotation in another state, leaving some inexperienced physicians with few options.

“There is no question that the restrictions in place following the Dobbs decision pose a risk to the training of up to 45 percent of OB-GYN residents who are training in states where abortion care is restricted,” said Dr. AnnaMarie Connolly, chief of education and academic affairs at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. “The joint efforts of ACOG … and countless residencies in protected states are directly addressing this risk to medical education and training.”

[…]

Arranging an out-of-state rotation is a logistical feat, Steinauer said, as it takes up to nine months to develop a plan for housing, airfare, training permits and other needs.

The university also takes on additional costs. To send two UTMB residents to Oregon for two weeks, it costs $5,216 for housing, $1,689 for airfare and airport transportation, $240 for parking and $370 for training permits, according to documents obtained through an open records request. The Ryan program is paying $1,500 for each resident, while the university picks up the remaining expenses, documents show.

There also is a strain on the host institution, said Dr. Aileen Gariepy, director of complex family planning at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City. Some programs that offer abortion care may only have the capacity to accommodate their own residents. With a small number of programs left to take on a crush of new learners, “we may be doing a disservice to the training needs of all of our trainees,” she said.

She noted that Weill Cornell does not have the space yet to take on residents from its affiliate institution, Houston Methodist, which has approached the school about an out-of-state rotation.

“This kind of legislative interference in medical care is unprecedented,” she said. “We didn’t have a plan for that.”

[…]

Beyond the immediate challenge of meeting accreditation requirements, some educators publicly have expressed concern that abortion laws will make it harder for Texas to attract and retain OB-GYNs.

Out of nine publicly funded OB-GYN residency programs in Texas, six saw a drop in applicants from 2020 to 2021, the year SB8 was enacted, according to documents obtained by the Chronicle. Seven of those programs saw a drop in applicants in 2022.

Experts caution against drawing conclusions based on those trends. Yaklic noted that the number of graduates interested in OB-GYN programs often fluctuates, and recent changes to the application process may have influenced the data.

Still, at UTMB, many applicants have asked about abortion training during interviews, he said. Even before the Dobbs decision, earlier abortion restrictions caused medical school graduates to favor states that allow the procedure.

See here for some background. It’s certainly possible that we’ll more or less get acclimated to how things are now and the system will limp along as degraded but basically functional, with the bulk of the cost being borne by the people with the least power and fewest resources. It’s also possible, as noted in the comments, that the Lege could pass a bill to outlaw out-of-state abortion training for medical students in Texas, and then we’ll see how bad things can get. All I’m saying is that our state’s forced-birth laws are going to have a negative effect on overall health care, and we are already starting to see it happen.

Universal Studios to open a theme park in Frisco

Of interest, at least to those in the target demographic.

Another major development is coming to Frisco.

City business leaders on Wednesday morning announced that a new Universal Studios theme park is planning to come to the booming Collin County suburb.

The park will be a kids-themed park with immersive experiences and rides involving Universal movies, leaders said.

Universal operates five theme parks and several more resorts.

The Frisco park will sit on 97 acres near the Dallas North Tollway and Panther Creek Parkway. The park will be about one-fourth of the size of Universal’s main theme parks, officials said. The Frisco park will be “a scale appropriate for our young family audience,” officials said at the press conference.

Officials did not announce an expected opening date.

It’s been a few years, but I’ve been to the Universal Studios park in Florida. It was fun – I was there as part of a business trip, which these things are quite conducive to. This one will be pitched a little differently, per the Dallas Observer.

The new park will be built on the northeast corner of Dallas North Tollway and Panther Creek Parkway, just a few miles east of the Grandscape entertainment and shopping district in The Colony. The 97-acre park, tentatively named Universal Kids Florida, will be “a one-of-a-kind theme park, unlike any other in the world, specifically designed to inspire fun for families with young children,” according to a statement released by Universal Parks & Resorts.

“We have a portfolio of terrific attractions that appeal to young families around the world and we had an idea to bring all those together and create a destination that is specifically designed to appeal to families with young children,” said Mark Woodbury, chairman and chief executive officer of Universal Parks & Recreation at Wednesday’s press conference after revealing the first artist’s rendering of the new theme park. “That’s what you’re seeing in this illustration now, and that’s what we hope to bring to Frisco.”

Universal’s new Frisco location will also have an adjacent hotel themed to the park’s kid-friendly design, with room for expansion for future attractions and services. Universal released an artist’s rendering of an overview of the theme park showing possible attractions. These include a boat ride on a lake at the center of the property, a land with a medieval castle, a visitors center and playground space that looks similar to buildings in the film Jurassic Park and the Netflix kids’ animated series Camp Cretaceous, based on the Jurassic Park and Jurassic World films.

Woodbury described the park as “a lush landscape environment [with] four or five themed lands, each one of them full of attractions, interactive experiences, discovery experiences, exploration, learning opportunities and just a rich, rich experience for families to enjoy together.”

So far, neither the city of Frisco nor Universal have released any further details regarding construction or a possible opening date, nor which movie or television properties and attractions will be included in the new theme park concept. Universal noted in its statement that the park is “intended to have a completely different look, feel and scale than Universal’s existing parks and will appeal to a new audience for the brand.”

The new Universal Studios concept in Frisco is aimed at younger visitors, and will be the first American expansion made by the theme park in the almost 33 years since Universal Studios Florida opened in Orlando.

Click over the see the artist’s rendering. I have to assume that the name will have “Texas” in it and not “Florida”, because that would just be weird. But who knows. It will surely be a few years before this thing opens. What do you think, is this something you’ll be first in line to experience or something you’ll avoid like the plague? TPR, the Chron, the Current, and CultureMap have more.

Nobody knows the state of the gas supply in Texas

That can be a problem during freezes. You know, like the one we had over Christmas.

As questions continue to swirl about widespread outages Atmos Energy customers experienced in North Texas and beyond last week, the opacity of Texas’ sprawling natural gas industry is being scrutinized.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Wednesday called for the Texas attorney general and the chief regulatory agency of the state’s natural gas industry to investigate Atmos Energy for the outages in Grand Prairie and elsewhere.

The Railroad Commission opened an investigation Tuesday. No timeline for any findings has been provided, and Atmos Energy continued to avoid answering basic questions about what led to service outages, including questions The Dallas Morning News sent to the utility Thursday.

But some answers might have been available already if Texas had an independent market monitor for natural gas akin to what is in place for Texas’ electric grid. Following the deadly 2021 February freeze, ERCOT, the power grid operator, has also proposed the idea of a so-called gas desk to provide real-time information on the resource.

[…]

Austin-based energy expert Doug Lewin said the opacity of Texas’ natural gas system remains a problem for Texas’ energy system. While the public can see in real time how much electricity is being generated, consumed and the price, none of that can be said for Texas’ lightly regulated gas industry.

ERCOT’s former interim CEO Brad Jones proposed creating a “gas desk’’ after he took the reins of the power grid operator following the dismissal of most of its leadership in the aftermath of the February 2021 deadly winter storm that killed more than 200 Texans.

Natural gas outages contributed in part to the vast outages that plagued the state during the freeze. And the Legislature, in a sweeping grid overhaul bill, set up a confidential body designed to foster honest cooperation and intercommunication between the power industry and the natural gas industry.

But no further action was taken to strengthen the transparency of the natural gas industry, which provides fuel on a global scale. While Texas’ oil and gas industry is vast, it enjoys lax regulations and is overseen by the exas Railroad Commission, an agency some argue is only in place to serve the industry it regulates.

“There effectively is no regulator of the intrastate gas system,” Lewin said.

Creating a so-called gas desk would be the bare minimum Texas could do, Lewin said.

“If we don’t do that, then the policymakers, the legislators are just telling the state of Texas, ‘Sorry, you’re on your own. Y’all better go buy generators,’” Lewin said.

But the idea of a gas desk has already faced pushback from legislators. At a Dec. 5 meeting of the Texas House State Affairs Committee in which legislators were questioning the ongoing power grid redesign, Corpus Christi Rep. Todd Hunter told the head of that process, Public Utility Chairman Peter Lake, that he would have a lot less pushback on his proposed untested market model if he could assure the gas desk idea was dropped.

“If you say yes, there are a lot of questions that will just disappear,” Hunter said.

Lake did not make any assurances.

That story was from December 30, so adjust your inner calendars accordingly. I assume Rep. Hunter pushed back on the gas desk idea because his benefactors in the industry squeezed him about it. If that’s not the case then someone will have to explain to me where that reluctance came from. It sure seems like a sensible idea, and given that the Railroad Commission isn’t interested in doing this on their own initiative, it would be up to the Lege to make them. I would not hold my breath in anticipation of that, of course. We were assured that the grid was fixed, so what more do you want? KERA and the Chron have more.

Texas Department of Agriculture sort of recognizes climate change

It’s a start, I guess.

On the heels of a historic drought that devastated crops from the High Plains to South Texas, a new Texas Department of Agriculture report released Tuesday linked climate change with food insecurity and identified it as a potential threat to the state’s food supply.

The food access study, coordinated by the TDA and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, notes that “climate instability” is strongly associated with soil loss, water quality, droughts, fires, floods and other environmental disasters. 2022 was one of the driest years on record for Texas, and about 49% of the state was still in drought conditions at the end of December. The drought resulted in failed crops, low yields for farmers and diminished grazing, which forced ranchers to cull their cattle and led to the highest amount of livestock sales — nearly $2.7 million — in more than a decade.

“From the agricultural perspective, concerns were expressed regarding droughts, drying up of artisanal wells, water use restrictions, fire threats and dangerous conditions for farm workers,” the report says.

Extended dry periods devastated Texas’ agricultural production, said Victor Murphy, a climate service program manager with the National Weather Service.

“We’re seeing longer periods without any precipitation, then when it does come, it’s in shorter, more intense bursts,” he said.

In total, Texas received a similar amount of precipitation in 2022 as in 2021, but most of that precipitation came all at once at the end of the summer.

Much of the state went through the worst of the drought conditions from June to August, during the high heat of the summer while plants are still growing. This was a sharp contrast to the torrential rainfall totals that followed. At the end of August, the Dallas-Fort Worth area was hit with a 1,000-year flood that brought 13 inches of rainfall in 18 hours.

[…]

The report recommends several actions, including having farmers work alongside researchers and policymakers, creating more food forests that allow trees to restore soil health and improve water quality, and strengthening bonds between local farmers and businesses to boost the farm-to-school infrastructure.

The report, which was submitted to the Texas Legislature on Dec. 31, also points to other factors that are making it harder for Texans to access and afford food, such as wages falling behind rising costs of living and lack of access to food in rural areas. Another issue is organizations being unaware of others with similar goals; for example, the report notes that certain grocers are interested in expanding delivery services into rural markets, while several food banks have acquired trucks to do the same.

The study includes suggestions that lawmakers could consider to help more Texans have consistent food access, such as expanding online and delivery options for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program participants and allowing more stores to accept those benefits.

Lawmakers have already filed some bills to address food insecurity during this year’s legislative session. State Rep. Shawn Thierry, D-Houston, filed House Bill 1118, which would offer tax credits to grocery stores that open in food deserts.

There’s no link to the report in the story, and I couldn’t find anything obvious on the TDA homepage or Twitter feed, so you’ll have to take what this story gives you. I wouldn’t expect the Lege to do much about this – they’re no more likely to care about the food insecurity of poor folks than they are about climate change – but at least they’ve been told about it.

Don’t Musk my rural Texas

For your perusal.

In August 2021, a handful of Bastrop County residents noticed something big unfolding on quiet Walker Watson Road.

The two-lane road, about a quarter-mile long from end to end, bisects cow pastures, corn fields and woods. It’s lined by 15 homesteads, most on lots of 1 acre or more. Farmers have lived there for generations. Other residents are newcomers looking to escape the hassles of city life.

What they had in common was an appreciation for the area’s peacefulness.

Then the cement trucks, backhoes and tractors arrived.

Seemingly overnight, an 80,000-square-foot warehouse and on-site modular homes for employee went up on the south side of the road, towering over the fields. The construction frenzy brought noise at all hours, light pollution and heavy traffic.

Residents soon learned that the newcomer was The Boring Co., a tunnel firm owned by Elon Musk, one of the richest men on Earth.

One year later, the commercial rocket company SpaceX, another Musk-owned firm, started building a 521,000-square-foot structure across the street from The Boring Co. property.

Emails between SpaceX and Bastrop County officials indicate that the company plans to build a manufacturing plant at the site for Starlink, a subsidiary that’s creating a global broadband internet network via satellites. Construction began in May 2022.

Neighbors say the companies have created nuisances besides noise and strong nighttime lighting, including water runoff spilling onto the roadway. Records obtained by the Express-News back up those claims. The documents also reveal that the companies have pressured Bastrop County officials to approve numerous permits at breakneck speed, and that The Boring Co. has been cited for two code violations and issued three warnings of noncompliance.

On June 22 of this year, then-county engineer Robert Pugh complained in a letter to Bastrop County Commissioner Clara Beckett about the heavy demands both companies had placed on the county’s Development Services Department, which has a dozen employees in engineering and development-related jobs.

Pugh wrote that staff had been “regularly hounded” by Boring Co. and Starlink employees and consultants to “expedite and approve permit applications that are incomplete and not in compliance with the Commissioners Court (CC) regulations.”

[…]

“Sooner or later, I knew either my health or urban sprawl would take this little spot of nature away from me. I never dreamed it would be industry,” said Lynn Collier, who owns a ranch on the road with her two brothers. “I never dreamed that a factory would just come and buy all this up.”

So far, The Boring Co. has dug a tunnel between the two companies’ properties — which total about 100 acres — and built a miniature neighborhood on its site, complete with a soon-to-open Montessori school.

Collier sees strong similarities between her corner of Bastrop County and Boca Chica, near Brownsville in South Texas, where SpaceX has snapped up many residential properties near its spaceport. The company ceremoniously renamed the community “Starbase.” The Boring Co. has offered to buy out homeowners in Bastrop County, too.

“If you are someplace in rural Texas, and somebody has enough money, they just take over,” she said. “If it can happen here, it could happen anywhere.”

I’m not a rural person, and I would have expected there to be a lot of growth and construction in Bastrop County because of its proximity to Travis County. As someone who has driven to Austin via State Highway 71, which goes through Bastrop, for over 30 years, anyone can tell you that it is vastly different than it used to be. I don’t doubt that things are more frenetic than ever and that this can be chaotic and unpleasant for residents there. I also don’t doubt that anyone in Elon Musk’s orbit will do whatever they can to game things in his companies’ favor, whatever the cost to others may be. I don’t have any prescriptions here, I just thought this was an interesting read. Good luck to all those that have to deal with this.

Thirty million Texans

We reach another milestone.

Fueled by migration to the state from other parts of the country, Texas crossed a new population threshold this year: It is now home to 30 million people.

New estimates released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau put the state’s population as of July 1 at 30,029,572 following years of steady growth. This makes Texas the only state, other than California, with a population of more than 30 million.

The state’s population has been on an upward trajectory for decades, accompanied by demographic shifts that have reshaped everything from its politics to its classrooms as people of color have powered its growth.

Texas’ population increased by 470,708 people since July 2021, the largest gain in the nation. Texas regularly holds that top spot on the bureau’s annual population updates. Roughly half of that growth came from net domestic migration — the number of people coming to Texas from other states — while the other half was split almost evenly between net international migration and natural increase, which is the difference between births and deaths.

The state’s source of population gains often fluctuates year to year. The bureau’s estimates from 2010-19 showed Texas’ growth based on natural increase and net migration, including both domestic and international, were close to even over the decade.

I imagine that between the pandemic and Trump-instituted restrictions, the numbers for international migration have trended down. We’ll see how that affects the next decade.

On a related note, looking at the historic Census figures for Texas, thirty years ago the average State House member in Texas represented about 120K people. Twenty years ago that would have still been less than 150K people. Now that State Rep has 200K constituents, and rising. A State Senator now represents nearly one million people. We’re not going to do anything about that, but we really ought to think about it. Just putting it out there.

The Uvalde bus driver who helped save shooting victims’ lives

Great reporting.

When Uvalde school bus driver Sylvia Uriegas got the call on May 24 to report to Robb Elementary, she had no idea about the horror she was approaching.

With nothing but a rudimentary first aid kit filled mostly with Band Aids, Uriegas had been called to the scene of one of the nation’s worst mass school shootings — with no training for the important role she would play as the chaotic scene unfolded.

When Uriegas and two other bus drivers, who were taking kids to a field trip at a nearby park, reached the school, the streets were swarmed with law enforcement and parents. The central office dispatcher who asked her to report to the school had warned of an “emergency” — but said no more.

With her normal path to the building blocked, Uriegas backed her bus up and found another route. The two other school buses followed. Another driver opened her door and asked a bystander what was happening. Only then did they learn that there was an active shooter inside Robb.

Ultimately, Uriegas’ bus became a makeshift ambulance that carried kids with gunshot wounds to the hospital.

“We’re not first responders,” Uriegas said. “But then we were.”

Her experience echoes many of the stories from Uvalde on that day. Chaos, unclear chains of command and confusion about protocol prevented an effective response that could have saved at least a few of the 19 children and two teachers slain by the lone gunman. Police waited 77 minutes after the shooter entered the school before they stormed the classroom where he was holed up with dying children and teachers.

Once the classroom was breached, officials lacked the resources and coordination needed to provide the proper medical response.

Though Uriegas did save lives, it made her aware of a glaring hole in the district’s school safety plan.

“I could have gone in knowing a little bit better,” Uriegas said. “But we’ve never been trained.”

Other than speaking at school board meetings asking for better training, she kept her thoughts and feelings to herself, knowing what she saw and experienced could not compare to the parents who had lost children, and the survivors themselves.

But when she ran into some of the family members of slain 9-year-old Jackie Cazares, they urged her to tell the story from the driver’s seat — the full scope of all that had gone wrong, of the mishandling and lack of preparedness needed to be made public, they said.

As the passage of time and the levity of the holidays pushes the tragedy from the headlines, Uriegas and the families don’t want complacency to set in, for Uvalde to forget just how unprepared it had been.

So Uriegas has decided to tell her story.

And you should read it. One infuriating detail is that neither Uriegas nor other bus drivers who helped ferry traumatized children to the reunification center after the shooting received any counseling provided by the school district. She got some for herself anyway, and is still very much dealing with her own post-traumatic stress. All I can say is God bless you, Sylvia Uriegas, and your fellow bus drivers. Please do keep telling your stories.

ERCOT makes it through, with an assist from the feds

In case you were wondering.

A day after ERCOT asked the U.S. Department of Energy for an emergency order allowing its generators to bypass emissions standards to stave off potential outages, Texas’ electric grid met demand with ease on Saturday.

The grid operator’s worst-case-scenario did not come to pass, and with weather continuing to warm over the weekend, it seems unlikely the system will experience issues.

Temperatures rose to 39 degrees in Houston on Saturday, nearly 10 degrees higher than Friday. Demand reached a high of about 65,753 megawatts at 7:50 a.m., and at the same time, about 74,252 megawatts of power were available. One megawatt is enough to power about 200 homes during severe temperature events.

By 4 p.m. ERCOT officials said there was 27,876 more megawatts committed by generators than the forecasted demand.

The forecasted demand was much more accurate Saturday than it was Thursday night and Friday, when ERCOT’s demand forecast was at times more than 10,000 megawatts — or 2 million homes’ worth of power — less than what actual demand came onto the grid. Friday morning, demand reached 74,000 megawatts, a new winter record.

That unexpected and record-seasonal-high demand, along with a series of generation failures, led ERCOT officials to ask the U.S. Department of Energy on Friday to issue an emergency order that would allow natural-gas and coal-powered generators to bypass federal emissions standards in order to generate as much power as possible.

ERCOT CEO Pablo Vegas wrote to the agency that there were about 11,000 megawatts of outages among thermal generators that use coal and natural gas as fuel, 4,000 megawatts among wind generators and 1,700 megawatts of solar units that were “outaged or derated” due to the freezing weather. One megawatt is

“Most of these units are expected to return to service over the next 24 hours. However, if these units do not return to service, or if ERCOT experiences additional generating unit outages, it is possible that ERCOT may need to curtail some amount of firm load this evening, tomorrow morning, or possibly tomorrow evening or Sunday morning, in order to maintain the security of the ERCOT system,” Vegas wrote.

In plainer language, that meant if those units stay offline, and if other units trip offline, ERCOT might have ordered local utility providers to rotate power outages Friday evening, Saturday morning, Saturday evening or Sunday morning.

[…]

In a statement, ERCOT officials said the request for emergency powers was taken as a precautionary measure and “would allow generators to promptly respond if conditions warranted.”

“ERCOT has sufficient generation to meet demand. Every available on-demand generation resource is contributing electricity to the grid during this extreme cold weather event,” ERCOT officials wrote.

However, thanks to warming weather and seemingly stable generation, those emergency measures will likely be avoided this weekend.

The issue was not of insufficient power being generated or power suppliers being knocked offline because of the cold, but that the electricity retailers underestimated the demand for power, and would have had to buy more at much higher prices. Reporter Shelby Webb explained that in this Twitter thread from December 23. It’s great that we made it through without widespread power outages, and it’s even better that we made it through without having to pollute more to do it, but this was not a success of the current setup. It was luck. Anyone who points at this freeze and claims a victory for “fixing the grid” is at best misinformed.

The Christmas Bird Count

If you’re looking for a little holiday project

For the 123rd year in a row, the Christmas Bird Count is happening all over the country. Bird enthusiasts and nature lovers head outside, take a census of birds in their area and report what they’ve found to the National Audubon Society, a nonprofit conservation organization.

Always planned around the holidays, the count has been called the longest running citizen science project in the world.

Recently, though, the project has shown a drop in some bird populations. Last year’s Christmas counts in Texas showed the biggest rate of decline in bird numbers in 14 years, according to a report from the Audubon Society.

Texas bird counts now “have had five years in a row where declining species out-numbered increasing species,” the study says. “Ninety-one species (24%) were at their lowest level for the decade.”

[…]

But there may also be reasons unique to Texas that explain a sudden drop in numbers.

“The lack of birds has become readily apparent and left many wondering the same thing – ‘Where Have All the Birds Gone?'” writes birder Noreen Baker as part of Travis Audubon’s Ask-a-Birder project.

Baker was responding to a question from Wes Renick, manager of Wild Birds Unlimited, who says people are noticing fewer birds at their backyard feeders and bird baths.

The reasons, Baker speculates, could include recent drought and the 2021 winter storm, which “did kill birds over a large area.”

Less troubling reasons for this year’s decline in Texas bird sightings could be that there has been more food available in other states that has postponed or slowed bird migrations through Texas.

The point is that we need more data, and that’s where you can come in. You can help your local Audubon group do its count for the year – go here for the Houston area and here for Central Texas to learn more. Links for other areas are there as well. The counting goes through January 5, so go click now if you want to participate.

It’s winter surge time again

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, though I think you already suspected this.


COVID-19 cases are rising across Texas two weeks after the Thanksgiving holiday, echoing last year’s surge of the omicron variant.

There are more than 18,000 positive cases across the state this week, up from a little over 7,000 the week of Thanksgiving.

“Thanksgiving this year was kind of like PTSD,” said epidemiologist Katelyn Jetelina, author of Your Local Epidemiologist. “I think all of us epidemiologists were holding our breath, just to make sure this was going to be a regular Thanksgiving.”

While hospitalizations and deaths are still low thanks to COVID-19 vaccinations and the updated bivalent booster that targets omicron, cases have been steadily climbing since November.

The change this year, Jetelina said, is the combination of flu, RSV, and now COVID. The Texas Department of State Health Services reports the intensity of influenza-like illness has remained “very high” in the past few weeks, with an increase in the number of influenza outbreaks and more than 28,000 positive flu tests in the week ending in Dec. 3.

“RSV and flu are just back with vengeance,” she said. “We’re starting to get a sneak peek of what this new normal is.”

Other states, like New York, have issued a health advisory to encourage people to mask indoors while cases are high. Jetelina said it’s important to think about protecting the most vulnerable members of the community, like the elderly and folks who are immunocompromised.

“I’m going to have 90-year-old people at my house for Christmas this year,” she said. “That, to me, means I am wearing an N-95 mask in public everywhere I go the week before Christmas. It helps ensure I don’t miss the event because I’m sick, but it also helps break that transmission chain so I don’t bring it to my grandparents.”

She says it’s not too late to get vaccinated to protect against COVID and the flu.

“I’m tired, everyone’s tired, [but] the virus isn’t tired of us,” she said.

We saw this coming in October, and we know what a “tripledemic” is. The virus levels in the wastewater are high. You know what I’m going to tell you: Get your bivalent booster and your flu shot. Wear that mask in crowded indoor spaces. Isolate yourself if you feel sick. Think about the high-risk people in your life. We’re not in 2020 any more, and the current dominant strains are thankfully not as virulent as delta was. You really can do a lot to maximize your safety while giving up very little. But you have to actually do it.

No, really, are we emotionally prepared for this freeze?

Ready or not, here it comes.

State officials warned residents Wednesday to prepare their homes and vehicles for the coming freeze while trying to reassure on-edge Texans that the electric grid will stay online.

Temperatures are expected to plummet Thursday into single digits — with even lower wind chills. Leaders urged residents to check their car tires and batteries to be sure no one gets stranded on the road, to burn wood or gas inside only if there’s proper ventilation, and to insulate pipes.

“This is a dangerous storm coming our way,” said Nim Kidd, chief of the Texas Division of Emergency Management. “The temperatures will be extremely cold and the winds will be high, which will generate some very dangerous wind chills.”

Forecasters predicted life-threatening minus-10-degree wind chills in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and wind chills as low as minus 30 degrees in the Panhandle, Kidd said. Aside from light precipitation in the Panhandle, the state was expected to stay dry.

The lack of concerns over icy roads and infrastructure makes this a different threat than the 2021 Winter Storm Uri, which overwhelmed the state’s main electric grid and killed hundreds of people. Officials are promising that, this time, the power will stay on.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the grid that powers most of Texas, and the Public Utility Council made improvements after Uri, such as ensuring natural gas-fired plants have additional sources of fuel on site and improving communications among electricity regulators, oil and gas regulators, and the Texas Division of Emergency Management.

“The grid is ready and reliable,” said Peter Lake, chair of the Public Utility Commission, which regulates grid operators, on Wednesday. “We expect to have sufficient generation to meet demand throughout this entire winter weather event.”

ERCOT officials expected power demand to be highest from Thursday night through Saturday morning. The peak — near 70,000 megawatts — was predicted Friday morning, when grid operators expected to have nearly 85,000 megawatts of supply if all goes as planned.

“We do expect to have sufficient generation supply to meet the forecasted demands,” said Pablo Vegas, ERCOT’s president and CEO.

Of course, in an extreme scenario, the grid could still face rolling blackouts or tight conditions, and ERCOT could still issue a conservation notice. There may also be local power outages that have nothing to do with the viability of the power grid, caused by things such as wind knocking trees onto power lines.

See here for the background. We’ll find out soon enough. You’ll forgive me, and millions of other Texans, if we remain skeptical. I hope you all stay warm and safe, and that we have a good long time before we have to worry like this again.

Now is a great time to buy a Christmas tree

Procrastinators rejoice.

When it came to buying a Christmas tree in Houston it paid off to procrastinate.

Prices, already high last year, jumped further this year as retailers sought to lock in supplies despite increases spurred by skyrocketing fertilizer and fuel costs. But that strategy appears to have overestimated demand, leaving many tree sellers with stock they are now hustling to sell down before the holiday passes and glorious trees become plain old mulch.

In a survey of wholesale Christmas tree growers across the U.S., every grower surveyed said that the cost of growing and selling Christmas trees has gone up from last year, according to the Real Christmas Tree Board, an industry research group. As a result, more than 70 percent said they increased their prices from 5 percent to 15 percent, and another 16 percent said price increases would be even higher.

That held true in Texas, where Stan Reed, executive secretary of the Texas Christmas Tree Growers Association, said fuel and fertilizer fed the increases. There are only about 150 farms in Texas that can grow varieties of pines, cypress and red cedar that are used as Christmas trees, according to Reed. Other popular trees, such as fir and spruce, are imported from North Carolina, Michigan, Oregon and Wisconsin.

Reed said a seller importing 600 trees from Oregon paid $10,000 this year, compared to about $6,000 last year, making each tree just under $7 more expensive to import.

Buying from farms or lots that source from within the state may be cheaper, but even at those locations the increased price of fertilizer has tacked on an additional costs to be passed on to consumers. Global fertilizer costs have soared over the past year, rising 80 percent in 2021 and another 30 percent in the first half of 2022, according to the World Bank.

But while those higher prices were passed along to shoppers earlier in the season, many Houston tree sellers have launched deep discounts in the past week or so. At Houston Garden Centers, which has more than 20 locations around Houston, Christmas trees are half off. And Buchanan’s Native Plants in the Heights started giving away trees Monday.

Those free trees are first-come, first-served, so don’t wait too much longer. There were some drought-related issues last year that also contributed to a tight tree supply and more incentive to stock up for this year. However we got here, if you’ve been holding out to wait for a bargain, this is your time. I hope your kids forgive you for making them wait.

New Land Commissioner, same screw job for Houston and Harris County

I didn’t expect any different. I’m still mad about it.

(Probably) Not Dawn Buckingham

When akewayLakeway Republican Dawn Buckingham jumps from the Texas Senate to the helm of the state General Land Office next month, she will inherit control of the state’s Hurricane Harvey recovery, a slow-moving multibillion-dollar effort to help Southeast Texas recover from the 2017 storm and prepare for future ones.

With two weeks left in his term, outgoing Land Commissioner George P. Bush remains at odds with Houston and Harris County officials over two key issues: the state agency’s efforts to seize funds from the city’s beleaguered housing recovery programs, and the distribution of billions in federal aid meant to protect storm-vulnerable areas against future damage — none of which is going to Houston, thus far.

In an interview this week, Buckingham, who easily defeated Democrat Jay Kleberg in last month’s midterm election, made clear she will continue steering the Harvey recovery in much the same manner as Bush, with no plans to redistribute the mitigation aid so Houston and Harris County receive a bigger slice, as local officials had hoped.

Buckingham said the agency also would continue its ongoing efforts to recoup from the city nearly $141 million earmarked for housing recovery, small business grants and various nonprofit services, a move spurred by the city’s failure to meet key spending benchmarks over the summer. The GLO plans to put the money into its own program focused on rebuilding Harvey-damaged single-family homes in Houston, which previously was run by the city before it ceded control to the state agency last year.

“What we’re seeing is, they haven’t been able to meet their own metrics,” Buckingham said. “And so, I think with the limited amount of time that these resources are available, and the limited amount of recovery that’s happened at this point, we’re anticipating that there’s going to be a redirection of funds.”

The feud between the General Land Office and city of Houston erupted in April 2020, when Bush informed Mayor Sylvester Turner he planned to take over the city’s entire $1.3 billion recovery program, arguing his agency could pick up the pace. After a legal skirmish, the two sides struck a deal in early 2021, with Turner relinquishing control of Houston’s sluggish single-family housing program, leaving the city with some $835 million to continue its other initiatives, including a more successful effort to build affordable multifamily housing.

As part of the deal, the city and GLO agreed on spending benchmarks to measure the city’s progress on each of its remaining programs. This summer, the GLO notified the city it had missed the mark on seven of its nine programs, spending nearly $100 million less than it should have, according to a July letter from Deputy Land Commissioner Mark Havens. As a result, the agency in October laid out its plan to recover about $141 million from the city, pending approval from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Houston officials long have accused the Land Office of providing opaque oversight that has obstructed their recovery progress, a charge the GLO denies. City leaders also say their programs prioritize low-income, disabled and senior residents, which they say is harder and slower but necessary to ensure the most vulnerable storm victims are not left behind.

In the latest $141 million dispute, the city’s housing director, Keith Bynam, has said the Land Office is painting a misleading picture by overlooking factors beyond the city’s control, such as adverse economic conditions and the city’s inability to spend money on three of its programs for about eight months while it was under a GLO audit.

[…]

A Chronicle investigation found the GLO’s initial $1 billion distribution went disproportionately to inland counties that, by the state’s own measure, are less vulnerable to natural disasters than coastal counties that received little or no funding.

HUD also found the Land Office discriminated against communities of color when it denied aid to Houston and Harris County, with scoring criteria that steered funds away from diverse urban centers and toward projects in whiter, more rural counties, according to the federal agency.

GLO officials have disputed the finding and rejected calls from federal housing officials to negotiate a settlement with Houston-area officials. The agency has also ignored an initial HUD deadline to come into compliance with civil rights protections, along with a subsequent letter over the summer from HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge, who said she may refer the matter to the Department of Justice if Texas did not reach a voluntary agreement within 60 days.

Havens said the Land Office has not heard from HUD or the Justice Department since. Turner spokeswoman Mary Benton said the city also had yet to hear from the Biden administration, though the mayor on Thursday sent Fudge a follow-up letter urging her to step in.

“More than 9 months have passed since HUD issued the (discrimination finding) and yet GLO and the State of Texas, to our knowledge, have taken no steps to come into compliance,” Turner wrote. “…It is imperative, now, more than ever, that HUD immediately exercise its enforcement authority and compel GLO to come into compliance with” the findings.

I don’t have the energy to catalog the entire Story So Far, but the two most recent entries are here and here. While I can believe that the city may have performed poorly with the housing recovery program, the GLO has no credibility with me and doesn’t deserve anyone’s benefit of the doubt. I would be delighted to see HUD hand their files over to the Justice Department for a full on investigation of their discriminatory practices; indeed, I will be deeply annoyed if that doesn’t happen given their continued non-responsiveness to HUD’s demands. In the meantime, I continue to fantasize about a time when Harris County and the city of Houston are not targeted for harm by our state government. I hope to live long enough to see it.

Are we emotionally prepared for the oncoming freeze?

That’s the real question at this point.

ERCOT on Friday notified power generators in Texas that they need to be online and ready to provide power during an expected wave of cold air that could drop overnight temperatures into the 20s late next week.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the state’s nonprofit grid operator, issued the notice effective Dec. 22-26, though officials said they expect there will be enough power to meet demand.

The state’s power grid has been bolstered since a February 2021 winter storm knocked out power to large parts of Texas for several days and was linked to about 200 deaths. During that storm, demand for power soared while power generation equipment froze, knocking several producers offline.

“As we monitor weather conditions, we want to assure Texans that the grid is resilient and reliable,” said Pablo Vegas, ERCOT President and CEO. “We will keep the public informed as weather conditions change throughout the coming week.”

The coming burst of cold isn’t expected to be as strong as what was seen during the 2021 freeze, according to Space City Weather.

“While we will continue to watch this forecast very closely, we do not believe that the intensity, duration, or impacts of the cold will rival what we saw in 2021, which saw mid or low teens for lows,” wrote Space City Weather meteorologist Matt Lanza.

In the wake of the historic storm almost two years ago, state officials forced ERCOT to improve the power grid and make it less likely to falter in severe weather.

[…]

Ed Hirs, an energy fellow with the University of Houston, said those changes still fall short of larger market concepts he said could strengthen the grid’s reliability. The Public Utility Commission, which oversees ERCOT, is reviewing proposals for doing that and is expected to vote on a proposal recommendation at its Jan. 12 meeting. The Texas Legislature will debate the recommendation and other options during the 2023 legislative session.

“It takes more than 20 months to fix something broken over 12 years of underinvestment,” he said. “We’ll find out if the Band-Aids the PUC put in place will hold.”

That’s where I am right now, as I remember the forty-plus hours that we went without power in February of 2021. My family was pretty well equipped to handle the cold – not “fuck off to Cancun” privileged, but we were never in any real danger. Even with that, it was very unpleasant. We had our pipes bust in 13 places – thankfully, we were able to get a plumber out quickly to fix that – we lost a Meyer lemon tree that had produced a lot of fruit over the years, and it was just damn traumatic on the girls. I’m a little in denial about this freeze coming in, for reasons I can’t quite grasp other than I’m an idiot and this is how I cope with stuff like this. If the grid does fail in spectacular fashion again, the one thing we have learned is that there won’t be any political consequences for it. There’s never an election around when you really need one. Anyway, I hope we all manage to stay warm this time, with the exception of Greg Abbott and everyone on his campaign staff. The rest of you, bundle up and hope for the best. TPR, Reform Austin, and the Trib have more.

More battery power coming

Now here is something that might actually help the grid.

Robert Conrad approves

A surge of new battery projects is expected to come online on Texas and California’s power grids, as developers seek to store the excess electricity produced by those state’s sprawling wind and solar farms.

The Department of Energy estimates 21 gigawatts of batteries will be hooked into U.S. power grids before 2026, more than two and half times what is currently in operation. In Texas they are expecting 7.9 gigawatts of batteries to be built.

The boom in battery development comes as weather dependent wind and solar energy become an increasingly large part of the U.S. power grid, requiring a power source to step in quickly when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining.

Since the rise of renewables over the past decade, natural gas turbines have shouldered a lot of that load. But as lithium ion battery prices have come down in recent years – at the same time natural gas prices have increased – power utilities are increasingly looking to that technology to fill the gaps.

“What you’re seeing here is a technology starting to reach its inflection point,” said Ryan Katofsy, managing director at the trade group Advanced Energy Economy. “Costs are down, performance is improved. There’s more awareness of the qualities (batteries) provide.”

The boom coincides with increasing concern around the reliability of the U.S. power grid amid changing weather patterns linked to climate change. Texas suffered a days long blackout in 2021 after a  historic winter storm caused power plants and natural gas wells to freeze up. Batteries could theoretically help fill the gap when power plants go down, said Michael Webber, an energy professor at the University of Texas.

But driving investor interest is a Texas power market where wind energy in the panhandle and West Texas frequently exceeds the capacity of transmission lines running east to the state’s population centers, he said. If a power company can store electricity in off peak hours and then deploy it when power demand is at its highest, there is profit to be made.

“You get these opportunities for big swings in price from low to high,” Webber said. “We’re going to build batteries all over, quite frankly.”

[…]

And many more projects could be coming, with 79 gigawatts worth of projects listed as pending by the grid operator’s Electric Reliability Council of Texas. Many of those projects have yet to secure financing or other milestones but they represent one third of all the generation in development on ERCOT’s grid right now.

You can thank the Inflation Reduction Act, also known as the bipartisan infrastructure bill, for that last item. There are still other issues to be solved but this is a good starting point. I don’t expect much from the Legislature, but as long as they stay out of the way it ought to be all right.

Quantifying the abortion ban harm

These stories will keep on coming.

Usually, articles in medical journals are about science; they bring data to their readers, who can use them to provide evidence-based care to their patients.

But sometimes, evidence is an expression of grief or even rage. A recent journal article, “Maternal Morbidity and Fetal Outcomes Among Pregnant Women at 22 Weeks’ Gestation or Less with Complications in 2 Texas Hospitals After Legislation on Abortion,” contains such evidence.

To understand this article, you need to know that any number of complications can threaten a pregnancy, such as rupture of the bag of water around the baby, preterm labor, or heavy bleeding. When those complications arise before 22 weeks of gestation— before the age of viability when a fetus can live outside of a uterus—the standard of medical care is to offer a patient termination of pregnancy as an option. Women who continue pregnancy in these situations take on significant risks to their own health, and because of the early gestation, the chance for a healthy baby is very, very low.

However, in September 2021, Texas adopted two measures, S.B. 4 and S.B. 8, which instituted punitive actions against anyone providing abortion. These laws took effect before the Supreme Court decision ended Roe v. Wade. And all of a sudden, termination of pregnancy became impossible in Texas unless and until there was an “immediate threat to maternal life.”

The journal article, published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, describes the experience of two large Texas hospitals over a period of eight months following that legislation. The authors, who care for patients at those hospitals, describe how their hospitals managed 28 women who presented at less than 22 weeks’ gestation with serious complications following the ban on abortion.

Without the ability to offer abortion to their patients, all 28 women were managed expectantly. This is a medical way of saying that they waited for something terrible to happen. That wait lasted, on average, nine days.

During that nine days of waiting, here is what was achieved for the babies: 27 of the patients had loss of the fetus in utero or the death of the infant shortly after delivery. Of the entire cohort, one baby remained alive, still in the NICU at time of the journal article’s publication, with a long list of complications from extreme prematurity, including bleeding in the brain, brain swelling, damage to intestines, chronic lung disease. and liver dysfunction. If a baby survives these complications, they often result in permanent, lifelong illnesses.

During those nine days of waiting for an immediate threat to maternal life, here is what happened to the women of that cohort: Most of them went into labor, or had a stillbirth, which meant the medical team could then legally intervene and empty the uterus. Fifty-seven percent of those pregnant women had some sort of complication, and for about a third of them, it was serious enough to require intensive-care admission, surgery, or a second admission to the hospital. One of the 28 patients ended up with a hysterectomy, which means she will never carry a pregnancy again. The authors of the article estimate, based on their pre-September practice, that about half of those maternal complications would have been avoided if immediate abortion had been offered as a choice. But of course, post-September in Texas, these women didn’t get a choice.

I’ll say again, it’s just a matter of time before some nice white suburban lady who already has kids dies as a result of not being able to get proper medical care following a similar instance. I’d love to tell the woman who was forced to have a hysterectomy to sue the state of Texas for that, but I don’t know that any deserving target of such a lawsuit would be allowed to be named as a defendant. You know what the refrain is for this song.

DPS asks to be rewarded for its abject failure at Uvalde

I like to think that I don’t get easily shocked, but this did it to me.

The Texas Department of Public Safety wants $1.2 billion to turn its training center north of Austin into a full-time statewide law enforcement academy — starting with a state-of-the-art active-shooter facility that would need a nearly half-billion-dollar investment from Texas taxpayers next year.

“You play like you practice,” DPS Director Steve McCraw told budget officials last month. “You need to practice in a real environment.”

If approved, the requested $466.6 million “down payment,” as McCraw called it, in the state’s 2024-25 budget — which won’t be finalized until the middle of next year — would be the start of a six-year proposal to turn the nearly 200-acre Williamson County DPS Tactical Training Center complex in Florence into a Texas law enforcement academy for use by agencies across the state, he said.

The $1.2 billion project figure does not appear in the agency’s legislative appropriations request, which comes at a time when agencies are making their bids for a share of a historic state cash surplus in the next biennium — and against the backdrop of an emotional debate over what the state needs to do to prevent more mass killings.

A “state-of-the-art” active-shooter facility would be built with the first round of funding next year and could be used “right off the bat,” independent of the rest of the proposed upgrades, to immediately enhance active-shooter response by Texas law enforcement, McCraw said in a brief presentation before the Texas Legislative Budget Board on Oct. 4.

If fully funded over the next three budget cycles, the training academy would cost $1.2 billion and eventually include dormitories, a cafeteria and other elements, McCraw said.

“It’s a cost we recognize as a cost that can’t be borne in any one session. It takes time to build it,” McCraw said of the proposed academy.

He did not specify whether the center would charge fees for other law enforcement agencies to use the facility, if it would draw down any federal funding or what it would cost to run the center beyond the six-year construction budget.

DPS officials did not respond to repeated requests for a copy of the proposed plans for the active-shooter facility or the larger multiyear proposal for the academy, information about whether additional land purchases would be needed or the breakdown of the cost estimate for the upgrades.

The proposed active-shooter facility was part of a presentation made by McCraw to captains at the Texas Highway Patrol, an arm of the DPS, according to meeting minutes obtained by The Texas Tribune. The minutes said the facility would include the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training program — an active-shooter response training system developed 20 years ago at Texas State University in San Marcos that has been the national standard for active-shooter training for a decade.

[…]

Pete Blair, executive director of the ALERRT center at Texas State, said his San Marcos facility is used for several types of first-responder training as well as active-shooter training on site.

Blair hasn’t seen the DPS plans for the proposed site but said a facility that would be considered state of the art might include reconfigurable walls, cameras and similar technological upgrades.

That’s the sort of technology that would be found at facilities like the federal Military Operations in Urban Terrain facility in Quantico, Virginia, which has 17 structures including a school scenario. Another of the nation’s top-tier facilities is at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers Glynco campus, a 1,600-acre facility near Brunswick, Georgia.

Most of the quarter-million first responders the Texas ALERRT center has worked with in the past two decades were trained somewhere besides the Texas State center in San Marcos, Blair said.

“I will say there is a need for training facilities across the state,” Blair said. “We’ve always had more demand than we have money to provide training. So every cycle, it’s been a situation of us having to put departments on the waitlist and say, ‘We’re coming to you, but it’s going to be a while.’”

Here’s my proposal for DPS active shooter training: A single PowerPoint slide that says “Don’t stand around with your thumb up your ass while kids are being murdered.” I can deliver that for a lot less than $1.2 billion, and the results can’t possibly be any worse than what we already had. The idea that we could turn mass shooter situations into a growth industry is just…I can’t. I’m going to go eat some pie. Reform Austin.

Our property tax system is soooooooo awesome!

How awesome is it? So awesome you don’t even have to live here to get a tax break.

Herschel Walker, the former Dallas Cowboys running back and Republican candidate running for a U.S. Senate seat in Georgia, is slated to get a tax break on his $3 million residence in a Dallas-Fort Worth suburb — potentially running afoul of Texas tax law.

According to Tarrant County property and tax records, Walker claimed a homestead exemption on his four-bedroom home in Westlake in 2021 and is expected to do so again this year — even after he registered to vote in Georgia last year. Walker has since voted in two elections there, CNN reported.

The exemption saved Walker more than $1,200 on his property tax bill last year, records from the Tarrant County tax assessor-collector show, and would net him more than $1,500 in savings this year.

Walker’s Texas homestead exemption might also raise questions about his Senate run in Georgia. He is in a runoff with U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, the Democratic incumbent, in a race to determine just how tightly Democrats will control the Senate for the next two years. The U.S. Constitution requires officeholders to live in the state in which they’re elected.

Under Texas law, homeowners can claim a homestead exemption — which exempts a certain amount of a home’s value from taxation — only on their primary residence. But homeowners may continue to claim the exemption if they “do not establish a principal residence elsewhere … intend to return to the home … [and] are away less than two years,” according to the state comptroller’s office.

Walker bought the house in Westlake in 2011, according to Tarrant County appraisal records. He has claimed the exemption on his Texas home since 2012, records show, allowing him to pay a lower tax bill toward the city of Westlake and Keller Independent School District. School districts make up the bulk of any given Texas homeowner’s tax bill.

So, um, anyone feel like filing a complaint? I can only imagine what a spectacle an attempt to enforce the law in this instance might turn into. The DMN has more.

The cryptomining surge in rural counties

Here’s one possible answer to that question I posed the other day.

Jacob Rodriguez was driving a John Deere tractor in a West Texas cotton field when he received a phone call that would change his life.

“I was pulling a 59-foot air seeder … and at the same time I was on the phone having my interview,” Rodriguez, 29, said.

On the other end of the phone early this year were representatives from a new business that was coming to Dickens County, a community of around 2,000 people an hour east of Lubbock.

By March, Rodriguez had quit farming cotton — something he called “just another job” — and began training to work in a cryptocurrency mine.

The county had exactly what London-based Argo Blockchain was looking for: plenty of open land and easy access to affordable power, thanks to a large wind farm built there more than a decade ago.

Texas political leaders have been promoting the state as a destination for companies producing bitcoin and other digital currencies, touting the state’s reputation for low taxes and cheap power. Around 30 have come in the past decade, and dozens more have expressed interest in moving to Texas.

But instead of moving to the state’s large urban areas — which have the extensive infrastructure and large workforce that attracts most relocating companies — cryptocurrency companies have largely done the opposite and located in rural areas, according to Lee Bratcher, president of the Texas Blockchain Council, a group promoting crypto growth and innovation.

Crypto companies have been welcomed by many small towns hungry for an economic boost. Argo Blockchain opened its 125,000-square-foot Helios facility in Dickens County in May and hired a couple dozen locals, including Rodriguez. It has also added $17 million to the local tax base, according to Kevin Brendle, the county judge. The county’s overall assessed property tax value is $283 million, he said.

That economic infusion has allowed Dickens County to cut county property taxes by around 1.5%, give small raises to county staff, and purchase new equipment for the sheriff’s office and for road and bridge improvements.

“The end result is enhanced services to the community,” Brendle said. “We’re going to be able to do a better job of serving them, and we’ll be able to be competitive in our wages.”

In Milam County, northeast of Austin, a large crypto facility owned by Riot Blockchain that opened in 2020 has added hundreds of new jobs and millions of dollars for the local tax base, according to County Judge Steve Young. He said the boost in taxes has allowed the county government to pay for basic services such as road improvements. When the crypto company needed to employ contractors for various projects, it hired locally, he added.

See here for my question. The article notes that the recent crackdown on crypto mining in China has led to opportunities in places like Texas to pick up the slack. The Republican obsession with cryptocurrency and the fact that these places are locating in rural areas makes a lot of sense politically. And of course, as always, there’s this:

Many rural counties are offering crypto companies tax breaks to lure them to their communities. Milam County, which lost its biggest employer — an Alcoa aluminum plant that employed nearly 1,000 people at its peak and closed in 2008 — offered Riot Blockchain a 45% discount on local taxes for 10 years, said Young, the county judge.

“Businesses are typically not going to come to your county unless you’re willing to give them a tax abatement,” Young said.

Crypto companies still add millions of dollars to the local tax base, Young said, and in Milam County, Riot Blockchain also helped rebuild the local animal shelter and installed new lights at local sports fields.

On the other side of the state, Brendle said Argo Blockchain has committed to refurbishing the county-owned public pool, which closed more than a decade ago.

Brendle and Young both said local residents didn’t oppose the new businesses but had lots of questions about cryptocurrency and whether outsiders would flock to their rural counties.

“When they first came here, people had no idea what it was — neither did I,” Young said. “As it’s gone forward, the county as a whole has started to get a grasp of what’s going on and clearly appreciates the fact that they’re out there providing jobs, enhancing county services, hiring local contractors for the most part and spending a ton of money here. It’s a huge benefit to the county.”

Dig down far enough, there’s always a tax break. Look, I hope this works out well for these communities. Rural Texas has been losing population for a variety of reasons, and they could use the economic boost. I remain skeptical of cryptocurrency as a long-term endeavor, and I remain very worried about the demand it puts on our power grid, but there’s not much I can do about that. All I can say is that the last Big Economic Thing that happened in rural Texas was the private prison industry, and I really hope this turns out better all around than that. You’ll forgive me, I hope, if I will need to see it to believe it.

NOTE: This is the time of year when I clear out some posts that have been sitting in my Drafts while other more important news items got blogged about. This one was from early October, well before the crash of FTX. I’ll have a separate post about that shortly; the news hook for that is what prompted me to finally publish this one.

Still rough times for oysters

Continuing from earlier in the year.

Tuesday marks the start of Texas’ commercial and recreational oyster season, but the bulk of the state’s oyster reefs are already closed for harvesting. This follows last year’s season during which the majority of reefs were closed by mid-December, leading to a clash between industry stakeholders and state wildlife officials over how to manage the resource.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) closes reefs if samples come back with too many small oysters or too few oysters overall. The idea is to give oysters time to recover and repopulate.

This year, 20 of the state’s 29 oyster harvesting areas are closed for the start of the season on November 1.

“What we as an agency have tried to do at the start of this season, with some of these thresholds, is to find a balance between understanding the economic hardship that this causes, but also doing what’s best to conserve the oyster population for the future,” said Christopher Steffen, a natural resource specialist with TPWD.

Oysters grow about one inch a year, and have to reach three inches before they can be legally harvested. Steffen said though there weren’t enough oysters above market size in their samples to open the reefs, the samples showed oysters have been recovering.

“We’re pretty fortunate in the sense that we do have quite a bit of undersized oysters, which is good for the future,” Steffen said. “We are seeing a lot of spat, which are the small oysters that settle on the substrate. And then some of the spat leftover from last year that’s grown into that two to three-inch size range.”

Oysters are extremely sensitive to changes in water quality, and Steffan said the drought in much of the state could put further pressure on them in the coming months.

In the past decade, Texas oysters have endured multiple hurricanes, drought, and heavy rainfall.

“It just takes time for those populations to rebound,” said Steffen, adding that they serve important ecological functions, such as preventing shoreline erosion and filtering water.

See here for some background. There are actually a few more harvesting areas open now than there were at the beginning of 2021, though that’s probably not much of a comfort to the fishers. Hope for better conditions, and remind the incoming Legislature that climate change is a problem we’re going to deal with one way or another whether they want to or not, I guess. The Chron and the Observer have more.

Our future doctor shortage

Putting a pin in this.

As reported by Jan Hoffman for The New York Times, in order to satisfy their prerequisites for specialty board certification, OB-GYN physicians in post-graduate medical residency programs must comply with national requirements, which include training in the performance of abortions. Such training is considered essential—and characterized as a  “core procedure”—for OB-GYN doctors, in order to properly treat common medical conditions such as miscarriage, infections, and other complications to pregnancy. And in order to receive accreditation, those medical residency programs—typically administered through schools of public health and occurring in hospitals or clinics—must provide that training.

But ever since a radical conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court overruled the right to abortion previously guaranteed by Roe v. Wade in June, several Republican-dominated states have passed laws prohibiting abortion and criminalizing its practice by physicians. As a direct result, residency programs that routinely provided their residents with training in abortion care are faced with a dilemma.

As Hoffman observes:

If they continue to provide abortion training in states where the procedure is now outlawed, they could be prosecuted. If they don’t offer it, they risk losing their accreditation, which in turn would render their residents ineligible to receive specialty board certification and imperil recruitment of faculty and medical students.

The absolute necessity of such training for OB-GYN doctors was recently reaffirmed by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME). There is no exception for states whose Republican legislatures and governors have seen fit to transform the procedure into a criminal offense, although, as Hoffman reports, the guidelines permit a medical resident to “opt out” of such training for “religious or moral reasons.” Under the Council’s guidelines, a physician may also complete such instruction by serving a clinical rotation in a facility located in a state that permits doctors to perform abortions, but both hospital program directors and medical residents interviewed for The Times report expressed the fear that broadly drafted forced-birth laws in Republican-dominated states could still subject them to criminal prosecution.

[…]

For physicians seeking to complete their residencies in states that have or will soon criminalize the performance of abortions, the allowance for “out-of-state” training comes with an array of practical obstacles, from varying licensing and malpractice insurance regulations to housing costs. Hoffman reports that as consequence, physicians have begun to avoid placements in states where abortion is or will soon be illegal. She cites one physician who had been “courted” to join a Wisconsin medical residence program’s faculty who ultimately turned them down, citing the state’s abortion ban.

But the more worrying trend for those who may need OB-GYN care in Republican states is the growing reluctance of medical students to practice in those states.

Hoffman reports:

That is among the reasons that many medical students have said they are applying only to programs where abortion is legal. Public health experts predict that in a few years, patients in abortion-prohibited states, where the ranks of obstetricians are already shrinking, will experience even greater barriers to reproductive health care.

The reasons for this are practical, at least in part: An aspiring OB-GYN resident has little incentive to apply to a program that is not accredited. As Hoffman reports, the ACMGE explored the option of using “simulation” techniques such as virtual instruction or performance of “mock” abortions on models (and even papayas) to provide such training and concluded they were insufficient.  Even those medical students who desire to treat patients in the poorest of these “red-state” areas have balked when they find their programs do not have sufficient resources to place them for out-of-state training.

The effects of all this are as predictable as they are ominous for anyone seeking OB-GYN care in Republican-led states: Because of the very real threat of potential criminal prosecution, many of the most qualified and talented medical students will naturally apply tor OB-GYN residency programs in states where abortion is legal; in turn, those programs become more selective, admitting only the top students.  Meanwhile, students who simply may wish to practice OB-GYN in a “red state” are disincentivized to do so, by barriers to accreditation or the simple expense and logistics of obtaining such training out of their chosen state.

Finally, as Hoffman notes, the prohibitions against abortion in “red” states have deterred medical students pursuing careers in those states even in fields other than OB-GYN. She cites a study of third- and fourth-year medical students conducted for The Lancet Americas which interviewed those students about their preferred career placements; 60% wouldn’t apply to programs in forced-birth states. And “more than three-quarters of 500 responses” were from students pursuing specialties that were NOT obstetrics and gynecology.

Maybe it doesn’t play out this way. Maybe between elections and societal pressure, we get enough relaxation of the current forced-birth legislation to mitigate this effect. Maybe the effect only really hits poor people, so it never becomes a “real” issue to the Legislature. Maybe we just wind up with more Republican doctors. Who knows? Like I said, I’m putting a pin in this so that if five years from now the news in Texas is about how hard it’s becoming to find doctors in parts of the state where that previously had not been a problem, or how the major medical centers in Texas are having a hard time getting new interns and residents, we’ll be able to say we saw it coming. At least, some of us saw it coming.

The surge in mail order abortion pills

We’ll see how long this lasts. We know the Lege is going to take aim at it.

Requests for mail-order abortion pills continued to spike in Texas, nearly doubling this summer after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, according to new research.

Texas saw the sixth highest jump in weekly requests among states reviewed, according to the study, which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The state is among a handful that now prohibit abortions in almost all cases, following the court’s decision to roll back federal abortion protections.

Mail-order abortion requests were already rising dramatically in Texas amid the state’s six-week abortion ban, which took effect last September. The new research found that Aid Access, the Austrian nonprofit that ships abortion pills to consumers in the U.S., received an average of 5.5 requests per week, per 100,000 Texans of reproductive age through August, up from 2.9 between September and June. There are about seven million women of reproductive age in the state.

The study provides further evidence that Texans are finding ways to access abortion even under the state’s strict new laws. Moreover, Abigail Aiken, an associate professor of public policy at the University of Texas Austin and the paper’s lead author, said requests for abortion pills increased in states even where abortions remain legal, suggesting that people are also getting more comfortable in general with the idea of managing their own abortions.

“I think it’s an unintended and kind of ironic consequence of abortion bans,” Aiken said. “They often actually illuminate the idea of self-managed abortion for people because it gets talked about in the media and people hear about it through social media platforms.”

[…]

Mail-order abortion requests were already rising dramatically in Texas amid the state’s six-week abortion ban, which took effect last September. The new research found that Aid Access, the Austrian nonprofit that ships abortion pills to consumers in the U.S., received an average of 5.5 requests per week, per 100,000 Texans of reproductive age through August, up from 2.9 between September and June. There are about seven million women of reproductive age in the state.

The study provides further evidence that Texans are finding ways to access abortion even under the state’s strict new laws. Moreover, Abigail Aiken, an associate professor of public policy at the University of Texas Austin and the paper’s lead author, said requests for abortion pills increased in states even where abortions remain legal, suggesting that people are also getting more comfortable in general with the idea of managing their own abortions.

“I think it’s an unintended and kind of ironic consequence of abortion bans,” Aiken said. “They often actually illuminate the idea of self-managed abortion for people because it gets talked about in the media and people hear about it through social media platforms.”

I’m glad that people are finding ways, but as helpful as Aid Access is, it’s inherently fragile. Draconian measures may be required to damage its ability to provide its service, but I have no doubt that the forced birth contingent will be all in on such measures. It’s just a matter of when they hit on the right tactic, which they did with SB8 for doctor-provided abortions. And of course, while the medication can cover most of the early abortions, it’s the ones that come later in pregnancy, the ones that are the result of a pregnancy gone wrong and which threaten the health of the mother that remain. The accompanying horror stories – it’s also just a matter of time before some nice white suburban lady who already has a couple of kids dies as a result of being unable to get a medically necessary abortion in a timely manner – will stay with us for the longer term. The Trib and Texas Public Radio have more.

By the way, the grid is still not fixed

In case you were wondering.

A federal assessment indicates the Texas electricity grid remains almost as vulnerable to extreme winter weather as it was when it nearly collapsed during a prolonged deep freeze in February 2021 — although state utility regulators contend the analysis is flawed.

“The (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) report contained inaccuracies and ERCOT has called on the agency to correct the report,” said Rich Parsons, a spokesperson for the Public Utility Commission of Texas.

The Public Utility Commission oversees the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the state’s power grid.

Mary O’Driscoll, a spokesperson for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, released an updated version of the agency’s assessment late Tuesday, but it drew the same conclusion as the original version dated Oct. 20 in terms of a potential shortfall during extreme winter conditions.

According to the document, the ability of the ERCOT grid to handle extreme winter weather along the lines of what hit the state in February 2021 appears to be only marginally better, despite more than 18 months of effort to make the grid more dependable — as well as assurances from state regulators, and from Gov. Greg Abbott, that it is significantly improved.

Consumer demand for electricity on the Texas grid could exceed available generation capacity by 18,100 megawatts under a winter scenario similar to what triggered the 2021 disaster, the report says.

[…]

The federal assessment indicates the ERCOT grid will have more than enough generating capacity this winter under typical weather conditions.

“Basically, what (the federal energy commission) is saying is if we get weather conditions like in February ’21, we would have close to a repeat of what happened,” said Doug Lewin, president of Austin-based energy consulting company Stoic Energy.

The federal agency “is sounding the alarm very clearly,” Lewin said. “The risk that existed (in February 2021), for all intents and purposes, is about the same heading into this winter.”

FERC had issued an initial report last November that criticized the lack of weatherization in the grid. I was unable to locate a copy of this report, but I’m sure it will turn up online. To be sure, we don’t expect weather conditions this winter to be like what we got in February 2021. But we didn’t really expect that either – at least, I’d say that while most of us knew it was going to be colder than usual, we were blithely unaware of the disaster potential – and we know from recent history that sooner or later another storm like that is going to pass through. As was the case following the 1989 and 2011 storms, it’s just a matter of whether we did anything about it. So far, not so much.

Drought is not good for pumpkins

Sorry, kids.

This year’s hot, dry weather has wreaked havoc on Texas agriculture, and the state’s pumpkin crop has not been spared. Farmers and agricultural experts say that drop in supply has translated into higher prices for pumpkins popular for display and jack-o’-lantern carving this fall.

“We didn’t have not even half as many pumpkins on the vine as we should have [this year],” pumpkin farmer Chris Hacker told KUT. “They’re not turning out as good as previous years.”

Hacker grows pumpkins on 150 acres in Knox County, between Dallas and Lubbock. He says his crop relies on irrigated water to thrive. But even with that supply, the extreme heat stopped pumpkins from growing.

Pumpkin flowers, he said, become difficult for insects to pollinate in extreme heat, so fewer of them grow into the beloved seasonal gourds.

“The pollen just wasn’t working the way it should,” Hacker said. “If you have too many days over 95 degrees consistently, then the pollen just goes stale. No matter how many bees you got out in the field working, it just doesn’t work.”

In Floyd County, the state’s top-pumpkin growing region, growers have also reported below average yields, according to the Texas Agrilife Crop and Weather Report.

“This year was a lot like 2011 in that we were starting to get 100 degree days early in May … and we had them all summer,” Jerry Coplen, an AgriLife Extension agent in Knox County, said.

Texas is not a big pumpkin producer compared to some other states. According to the Agrilife report, Illinois produces 90% of the nation’s pumpkin harvest, if you include pumpkins grown for food.

But when it comes to specialty “ornamental” pumpkins used for seasonal display, the drop in local or statewide production can still impact prices, Coplen said.

Any time the year 2011 is invoked in a weather-related story, it’s bad news. Hope things are better next year.

The Corpus Christi desalination plant fight

This ought to be interesting.

Texas regulators issued an environmental permit Thursday for the Port of Corpus Christi to build what could become the state’s first seawater desalination plant — but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency may refuse to accept it.

The state permit for a desalination plant on Harbor Island represents the culmination of years of business strategy, political maneuvering and lawyering effort on behalf of the port, which wants to build a large-scale facility to convert seawater from the Gulf of Mexico into freshwater. The marine desalination plant is expected to cost at least half a billion dollars to construct; an estimate provided to the Texas Water Development Board puts the cost at more than $800 million.

Environmental groups have fought the project for four years on the grounds that wastewater from the plant could harm sensitive coastal ecosystems.

Now the port also will have to spar with the EPA, which can refuse to recognize the state permit on the grounds that it doesn’t comply with the Clean Water Act. The federal agency is concerned that Texas’ permit may not be sufficient to protect aquatic life and water quality, according to letters obtained by The Texas Tribune, and that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality did not send the permit to the EPA for federal review.

The dispute centers on what type of permit is required: The EPA believes the desalination plant needs a “major” environmental permit — which requires EPA review — while TCEQ says the facility should be considered a minor project, which does not require federal review.

“If the TCEQ issues [the permit] without responding to the EPA … the EPA’s position will be that it is not a validly issued [permit],” Earthea Nance, regional administrator for the EPA’s Dallas-based Region 6, wrote in a Sept. 2 letter to TCEQ Commissioner Jon Niermann. Some experts speculated that the EPA may sue the TCEQ to determine whether Texas is legally obligated to consult the EPA on such seawater desalination permits.

TCEQ commissioners on Thursday seemed to dismiss the EPA’s concerns. Commissioner Bobby Janecka said he considered the federal agency’s objections but called them “outside our window of decision” on whether to issue the permit.

The Harbor Island plant is one of five marine desalination facilities proposed for Corpus Christi Bay — all racing to be the first built in Texas. Two are proposed by the Port of Corpus Christi and two by the city of Corpus Christi. (The port and the city have soured on one another as partners on desalination.) The fifth plant was proposed by a now bankrupt plastics company, which has since been taken over by Corpus Christi Polymers.

Water demand in the Corpus Christi region’s water planning area — pushed by a growing population and a boom in manufacturing and petrochemical facilities that need water to cool their plants — is expected to outstrip supply by more than 31,000 acre-feet, or about 10 billion gallons, by the end of the decade if new water sources are not secured, according to the state’s water plan.

The water planning area — made up of 11 counties in South Texas’ Nueces River Basin along the coast — projects that 70% of its new water resources will have to come from desalination plants by 2030.

“The potential for water independence from these kinds of facilities is very big,” said Manish Kumar, an associate professor of environmental and chemical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, who has worked on and advised desalination projects. “The significance is huge, because we have the coastline, we have energy and in many places, we have a need for high-quality water.”

While Texas already has more than 50 plants that desalinate brackish groundwater into freshwater, according to a state database, seawater desalination is much more technically difficult, energy intensive and expensive to achieve on a large scale because ocean water is much saltier than brackish groundwater.

The seawater plants also give less bang for buck: Marine desalination plants are able to convert around 40% to 50% of seawater into freshwater, while groundwater desalination plants convert closer to 80%, Kumar said. The remaining water — made saltier by removing most of the now fresh water — is discharged as waste.

There’s a lot more, so read the rest. The environmental groups stress that they are not opposed to desalination, but they don’t think the TCEQ has done enough to ensure that the wastewater will be disposed of safely – basically, they want it dumped farther out into the Gulf of Mexico, where it can be more easily dispersed. I don’t know how much that might add to the cost of the project, or how big an effect it might have on future projects. I do know that the lawsuit that will result if the EPA decides this is a “major” project and requires their review will be another opportunity for the right-wing legal machine to attack the regulatory state, and I would rather that be avoided if possible. We’ll see how it goes.

UPDATE: I drafted this a couple of weeks ago, and more recently a lawsuit has been filed by residents of a historically Black neighborhood in Corpus Christi to stop this construction on the grounds that it violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. We’ll see how that goes.

Is this just the calm before the next COVID wave?

Things look good now, at least in the Houston area, but COVID never sleeps.

As the U.S. heads into a third pandemic winter, the first hints are emerging that another possible surge of COVID-19 infections could be on its way.

So far, no national surge has started yet. The number of people getting infected, hospitalized and dying from COVID in the U.S. has been gently declining from a fairly high plateau.

But as the weather cools and people start spending more time inside, where the virus spreads more easily, the risks of a resurgence increase.

The first hint of what could be in store is what’s happening in Europe. Infections have been rising in many European countries, including the U.K., France, and Italy.

“In the past, what’s happened in Europe often has been a harbinger for what’s about to happen in the United States,” says Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. “So I think the bottom line message for us in this country is: We have to be prepared for what they are beginning to see in Europe.”

Several computer models are projecting that COVID infections will continue to recede at least through the end of the year. But researchers stress there are many uncertainties that could change that, such as whether more infectious variants start to spread fast in the U.S.

In fact, scientists are watching a menagerie of new omicron subvariants that have emerged recently that appear to be even better at dodging immunity.

“We look around the world and see countries such as Germany and France are seeing increases as we speak,” says Lauren Ancel Meyers, director of the UT COVID-19 Modeling Consortium at the University of Texas at Austin. “That gives me pause. It adds uncertainty about what we can expect in the coming weeks and the coming months.”

However, it’s not certain the U.S. experience will echo Europe’s, says Justin Lessler, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina who helps run the COVID-19 Scenario Modeling Hub.

That’s because it’s not clear whether Europe’s rising cases are related to people’s greater susceptibility to new subvariants they’ve not yet been exposed to. In addition, different countries have different levels of immunity.

“If it is mostly just behavioral changes and climate, we might be able to avoid similar upticks if there is broad uptake of the bivalent vaccine,” Lessler says. “If it is immune escape across several variants with convergent evolution, the outlook for the U.S. may be more concerning.”

In fact, some researchers say the U.S. is already starting to see early signs of that. For example, the levels of virus being detected in wastewater are up in some parts of the country, such in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Vermont and other parts of the Northeast. That could an early-warning sign of what’s coming, though overall the virus is declining nationally.

“It’s really too early to say something big is happening, but it’s something that we’re keeping an eye on,” says Amy Kirby, national wastewater surveillance program lead at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But infections and even hospitalizations have started rising in some of the same parts of New England, as well as some other northern areas, such as the Pacific Northwest, according to Dr. David Rubin, the director of the PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, which tracks the pandemic.

“We’re seeing the northern rim of the country beginning to show some evidence of increasing transmission,” Rubin says. “The winter resurgence is beginning.”

As the story notes, we’re overall in a much better place because there’s a lot more immunity thanks to vaccinations and our previous high rate of infections. The COVID levels in wastewater here is low now, and while we’re hardly a leader in vaccinations, we at least have warmer winters so there are still plenty of opportunities to be outside, and fewer times where you have to be congregated inside. But also, not nearly enough people have had their bivalent boosters yet, and there are concerns about the flu season. So, you know, remain appropriately cautious – masking in places where you used to have to mask is still an excellent idea – and get those shots.