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July 10th, 2010:

Nightly News Update: This Guest Aggrepost Just In!

While Kuff is getting in touch with Mother Nature, I’ll add an occasional aggregation of other stories that might be somewhere close to the sort of thing Kuff might add to the blog in order to keep things a tad more timely. Yeah, so it also gives me an excuse to sorta break my own hiatus from blogging on current events. I got no complaints.

And since we’re early into Kuff’s Thoreau-esque expedition, much of the Houston-centric news is covered fairly well for today. So for the first guest-aggregation blogpost, it gets very DFW-like. Suffer patiently with it. Tomorrow’s posts might all be from the greater Ottawa metroplex for all you know.

» FWST: Drilling dispute has hidden conflict: Who’s going to run Texas? (Mitchell Schnurman)
Schnurman offers the think-piece on the topic of drilling, with a pivot of the attention from the spill still ongoing in the Gulf to the way we manage hydraulic fracturing in the Barnett Shale. The hook is a recent EPA hearing, where over 600 residents turned out to voice their opinions.

One particular item that caught my attention:

The scope of the EPA study is a bit unnerving, given the amount of fracking that’s already occurred. Plus, it won’t be completed for 21/2 years.

Some questions listed by the EPA: How are well casings constructed? How is dirty fracking fluid managed? What are the gaps in current knowledge?

Sounds like basic stuff — facts that really should have been settled long ago.

The Barnett Shale has about 14,000 gas wells, and we’re now asking what we don’t know about the environmental impact?

Parker County Judge Mark Riley, one of dozens of speakers at the hearing, blamed the states and the gas industry for the current crisis in confidence.

“The states just haven’t been responsive to citizens,” Riley said.

Parker County is not exactly known for being a hotbed of liberal environmental activism and Judge Riley is of the Republican persuasion. So those concerns should reverberate a little bit. If nothing else, it should be interesting to see if there’s something faster than a tectonic shift in voting habits that go with the frustration that people have with the changing energy landscape encircling them.

» DMN: Flower Mound gas drilling plan pits property rights against safety concerns
» FWST: New lines for wind energy spark anger in North Texas

Consider this the case of two transmission lines. In the case of Flower Mound, the situation is part and parcel of the above concerns with drilling in the Barnett Shale. But in both cases, the lines are starting to bump up against more developed areas. In the case of Wise County (second article), the complaints are reported as more aesthetic.

As a point of reminder, Flower Mound has just come out of some contentious city elections with drilling issues at the top of the worry list. It wasn’t a runaway win, by any means, but the candidates favoring stricter local controls on drilling did manage to win. Carrying over from the final point above, it’s not necessarily a given that these translate into more partisan splits. Or, even if there is an electoral shift within the locales immediately impacted, there’s still a lot of other areas that may have a corresponding reaction that balances it out. “Wait and see” may be the operative set of instructions, but to borrow the words of the wise sage, Ted “Theodore” Logan“Do you know when the Mongols ruled China?” strange things are afoot underneath the Flower Mound 7-11.

And in news that Kuff might not have bothered to comment on, new samples of Stryper songs from their next release are now available.

Saturday video break: Vacation

This is approximately how I feel about being in nature:

But for better or for worse, it’s where I’m gonna be for the next few days. Barring anything unexpected, I will have little to no Internet connectivity during this time. (Yes, I’m quivering at the thought, but I’m trying to be brave.) I’ve got posts scheduled to publish for the duration, which will end Wednesday night, so there will be some updates even without me being there. Isn’t technology grand? See you Thursday.

Renew Houston submits petitions

Renew Houston has submitted signatures to get its drainage improvement proposition on the ballot this November.

Renew Houston, a group of influential local engineers, has collected more than 30,000 signatures in a push to seek voter approval for an $8 billion initiative — and a monthly drainage fee – to better prevent flooding across the city.

For an average Houston homeowner with a 5,000-square-foot lot and a 2,500-square-foot home, the fee would be about $5 a month.

Here’s the Renew Houston press release on this. For background and details about what Renew Houston is proposing, see John, Perry, Tory, Neil, and me. My impression of this idea and plan is a favorable one, and as things stand now I would vote for it. But of course many people are not so inclined – I expect this to be a tough campaign for them, especially if there is an organized and funded opposition. What are these people going to say?

“On days like today, I think it’s obvious why we need some improvements,” said Allen Watson, an engineer and board member of the Metropolitan Transit Authority who is involved in the campaign. He was referring to the street flooding that has enveloped various parts of the city amid heavy rainfall in the past week. “It’s obvious why we need some improvements. The drainage systems are old.”

Critics point out that engineers involved in educating voters and bankrolling the drainage campaign stand to make money on projects that the referendum would pay for if it passes. Engineers have countered that they are best suited to educate the public about the problem, just as doctors may educate people about a problem they can make money treating.

Norman Adams, an activist who was among the leaders of a successful fight against a scuttled drainage fee plan during the Lee Brown administration, said voters are likely to reject such a “rain tax” in this political climate.

“Voters will see this as an additional property tax, and voters are so upset with property taxes now that it will be absolutely opposed,” he said.

My understanding is that Renew Houston’s plan differs significantly from the Brown plan, mostly because of its pay-as-you-go nature, but I’ll need to do a deeper review to be able to fully explain that. Be that as it may, it seems to me that if you oppose Renew Houston’s proposal, then you must either think the status quo is fine – that is, that Houston’s drainage system is adequate as is, and that the CIP process is sufficient to make needed repairs and improvements – or that there’s a better way of funding drainage improvement projects than Renew Houston’s plan. So let me ask that question directly to Norman Adams or anyone else who opposes the Renew Houston plan: Do you believe Houston’s drainage system is adequate, and that the mechanism we have now for maintenance of it is sufficient? If not, what is your preferred alternative? I would hope that in any future coverage of this campaign, those questions are asked of the opposition.

Anyway. The story notes that both the anti-red light camera forces and the Mayor White term limits commission are planning to submit their petition signatures as well, so depending on what the City Secretary has to say, we may have an even more crowded ballot this November. Mayor Parker has also indicated her support for the Renew Houston plan, which is the first time she has done so – see this KUHF story from earlier in the week for an example of what she had been saying previously, before the petition signatures were submitted. Finally, the Ultimate Memorial blog discusses how Renew Houston is making its pitch to neighborhoods.

Several area Super Neighborhood councils have discussed the issue. And though none have given their full support, they do find the interesting enough to ask for more information and more time to discuss.

Ed Browne, a Memorial City District Drainage Coalition founder, recommends that all super neighborhoods and organizations raise three issues when RENEW representatives come speak to their groups so that the political action committee endorsing the proposed fee understands the need for fundamental changes in the way business is done in Houston.

There must be no more unwarranted variances given to developers by the city of Houston, he said. The city must enforce its ordinance that requires detention. And there needs to be an end to “grandfathering.”

Good questions all. That’s a discussion worth having, and one I look forward to.

UPDATE: John Coby has more.

Bad projections

Just go read this Trib story about how the Texas Education Agency’s Texas Projection Measure, which purports to measure student academic growth as a way to evaluate school districts, is basically a load of hooey. It was the subject of that House Public Education Committee hearing that TEA Commissioner Robert Scott blew off and left his underlings to twist in the wind last week. When you’re done with that, go read Rick Casey‘s last two columns. As a result of all this negative attention, Commissioner Scott says the TEA may suspend the use of TPM. I say if we’re going to have accountability – and we should! – let’s do it right, and do it in a way that we can have confidence in that respects the work that our teachers and principals and students and everyone else who works with them do.

Grits on the CCSI

Scott Henson got the same information I did about the HPD “Chronic Consumer Stabilization Initiative” pilot program, and as always his take is worth reading. In that post, he pointed to this Malcolm Gladwell article that puts this initiative into a larger context, and which is also well worth your time. Also, he got a response from Harris County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Alan Bernstein to her earlier post about his visit to the HCSO and the jails, which he added as an update at the bottom. Check ’em out.

Pflugerville solar farm

This sounds promising.

A startup solar energy company with corporate backing from India has won tax breaks from the City of Pflugerville and is near a similar agreement with the Elgin school district to build a 60-megawatt solar plant.

The plant would be large enough to provide electricity to all the homes in Pflugerville and, if it were built today, would be the largest in the United States.

RRE Austin Solar could break ground by the end of the summer on the $230 million plant on 600 or so acres of rural land about a dozen miles east of Pflugerville.


The two Indian companies want to do strictly solar farms in the United States, [Angelos Angelou, an Austin-based consultant on the project] said, with a goal of installing enough solar farms across the country in coming years to generate 600 megawatts at any given time, assuming favorable weather conditions.

Nationwide, the installed solar photovoltaic capacity in the United States is roughly 90 megawatts, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.

There’s a tax break that the startup is seeking from Travis County before it begins construction, which I figure it will probably get. What interested me in this story is that no one was quoted opposing the project. I hope it doesn’t have the same problems that the Marfa solar farm has.