Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

water

Climate change is bad for Texas

In case you were wondering.

Climate change has made the Texas heat worse, with less relief as nighttime temperatures warm, a report from the state’s climatologist published Thursday found.

Climate data also show that the state is experiencing extreme rainfall — especially in eastern Texas — bigger storm surges as seas rise along the Gulf Coast and more flooding from hurricanes strengthened by a warming ocean, the report says.

Those trends are expected to accelerate in the next 15 years, according to the report, which analyzes extreme weather risks for the state and was last updated in 2019. The report was funded in part by Texas 2036, a nonpartisan economic policy nonprofit group named for the state’s upcoming bicentennial.

The average annual temperature in Texas is expected to be 3 degrees warmer by 2036 than the average of the 1950s, the report found. The number of 100-degree days is expected to nearly double compared with 2000-2018, especially in urban areas.

“From here on out, it’s going to be very unusual that we ever have a year as mild as a typical year during the 20th century,” said John Nielsen-Gammon, the Texas state climatologist who authored the report. “Just about all of them are going to be warmer.”

A hotter Texas will threaten public health, squeeze the state’s water supply, strain the electric grid and push more species toward extinction, experts told The Texas Tribune.

Read the rest, or see the Texas 2036 page for more. I don’t have anything useful to add here. Either you see this as an existential problem and there’s very little time to take the necessary action to make it less bad, or you’re part of the problem. Up to you.

Yes, the wastewater is also pointing to a COVID surge

In case you were wondering.

There is more COVID-19 in the city’s wastewater system now than at any time in the pandemic, city officials said Wednesday, the latest warning that the virus is spreading at an unprecedented rate.

Dr. David Persse, the city’s health authority, said there is more than three times as much virus in the system as there was last July. The volume also is higher than in January, during the most recent spike. Persse said that wastewater data, a precursor to other data points, show the surge will only grow worse in the coming weeks.

“We are at a level of virus in the wastewater that we have never seen before,” Persse said. “The wastewater predicts what we’ll see in the positivity (rate) by two weeks, which predicts what we’ll see in hospitalizations by about two weeks.”

[…]

The findings came during a news conference in which the city announced it will partner with Harris County and up to 17 school districts to vaccinate students over 12 and their families every Saturday in August, an effort they are calling “Super Saturday.” The inoculations will occur in school buildings throughout the region.

Persse described the state of the surge in stark terms, pointing to dire situations in area hospitals and rising cases and hospitalizations. The Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital declared an “internal disaster” Sunday night amid a nursing shortage and an influx of patients, circumstances officials said are occurring in other area hospitals, as well.

Texas Medical Center CEO Bill McKeon earlier this week said the region is “headed for dark times,” and the hospital system has exceeded its base intensive care capacity, opening unused wards to care for new patients.

“If you are currently unvaccinated, you need to consider that you represent a potential danger to yourself, and others, and most particularly your own family,” Persse said. “If you are not vaccinated… your chances getting through this without having to become either vaccinated or infected, is essentially zero.”

Just over 64 percent of Houstonians over 12 have received their first dose of the vaccine, according to city data, and 54.3 percent are fully vaccinated. The numbers among youth residents are more paltry, though: 28.1 percent of 12-17-year-old Houston residents are fully vaccinated, and 38.5 percent have received their first dose.

“If your child is 12 or older, stop and get them the shot,” said Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House II. “Increasing vaccination rates among our communities will help ease the worries of our families and their children returning to school.”

This is another one from earlier in the month, as things were really starting to get bad. We are familiar with this project, and it has been a big success. I just wish it had better news for us, but this is where we are. Getting more of those 12-and-older kids vaccinated would make a big difference as well, so I hope that effort is successful. We’re on our own, so we’d better act accordingly.

City victory in water rights lawsuit upheld

Some good news.

A split Texas appeals court ruled Wednesday that a state law that would have stripped Houston of its interest in an unbuilt water reservoir was unconstitutionally retroactive, siding with a lower court that protected the city’s interests.

Two justices on a three justice panel upheld Houston’s 70% interest in water rights at an unbuilt reservoir on Allens Creek, which has suffered numerous setbacks since permits were first issued decades ago to the city and its partner, the Brazos River Authority. The court said that a law passed by the Texas Legislaturein 2019 to transfer the city’s interests to that partner would have impaired the city’s long-term plans related to the water project and that the partner hasn’t shown an overriding public interest in finishing the project that would overcome those concerns.

Just because the city wasn’t acting with urgency to develop the project doesn’t mean the Legislature had shown an overriding interest in upending previously granted rights through the passage of HB 2846, the court said. For instance, while the Legislature was seemingly acting in the public interest when it moved to strip the city of its rights and force a transfer of interest to the BRA, the justices said that decision failed to show how the beleaguered project would necessarily be completed faster since it had already undergone repeated setbacks and was facing years of work before ground could be broken anyway.

[…]

The city described the majority’s decision as a win with bigger implications for municipalities in the Lone Star State and said the ruling allows the city to avoid the forced sale of its “irreplaceable” surface water rights to the BRA without the option to replace the water.

“This a very important victory for Houston and all Texas cities and towns. Fresh water is an irreplaceable resource and the city has for years carefully planned and acquired scarce and very valuable water rights to ensure that the city, its residents and businesses have sufficient water resources to enable the city to grow and prosper in this century and beyond,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said. “House Bill 2846 punished the city’s foresight and endangered Houston’s and all Texas cities’ water supplies and future growth. No city would have been safe had the bill been allowed to withstand constitutional scrutiny. The city will continue to fight to protect the city’s irreplaceable resources.”

The permits for the project were first granted in 2000, when the Legislature gave the project a deadline for construction to begin by 2018. After Houston and the BRA received a $20 million loan to take on the project together, it was hit with numerous setbacks, leading to an extension of that 2018 deadline by the Legislature that gave them until 2025 to finish the project.

When no progress was made by 2019, lawmakers held legislative hearings and ultimately passed HB 2846.

Houston sued that same year, and the district court granted declaratory relief that the law was unconstitutional, void and unenforceable.

A Brazos River Authority spokesperson said it plans to appeal the appeals court decision.

See here and here for the background. The majority opinion is here, the dissent is here, and the case history is here. Not much for me to add except I hope the city wins the next appeal, too.

The COVID wastewater tracking project has been a big success

This has been one of the best things to come out of this interminable and miserable COVID experience.

Lauren Stadler’s environmental engineering students always pose the same question at the beginning of a semester: “What happens to water in the toilet after you flush?”

Historically, humans have worked to quickly dispose and eradicate their own waste, which can carry diseases.

But an area’s waste creates a snapshot of who is there and what they’ve been exposed to, said Stadler, a wastewater engineer and environmental microbiologist at Rice University. She’s working with the Houston Health Department and Baylor College of Medicine’s TAILOR program to find SARS-CoV-2 in the city’s wastewater.

Stadler’s hunt has revealed variants in particular areas, heightening the city’s urgency to procure resources — COVID tests, informational meetings, advertising and now vaccine sites — in an effort to quash them before they proliferate.

“The beauty and challenge of wastewater is that it represents a pool of sample — we’ll never get an individual person’s SARS-CoV-2 strain, but a mixture of everyone in that population,” Stadler said. “We can find a population level of emergence of mutations that might be unique to Houston.”

[…]

Variant tracking has become an important part of the wastewater analysis process, Stadler said.

In February, the city and its research partners began seeing a quick emergence of the B.1.1.7 variant, which is now the dominant variant in the area. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 21,000 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant have been detected in nationwide.

Now that the team has gathered data and built a sustainable process, Stadler said they are using this information to forecast future pandemics. “Taking wastewater data, you can predict positivity rates and forecast infection burdens — it has this predictive power essentially. It’ll be very important to identify areas in the city experiencing increases in infection, and we can direct resources.”

The wastewater analysis team works with public works employees to collect weekly samples from nearly 200 sites across the city.

“I think they see this as a monitoring tool beyond the pandemic, and we see it as well,” Stadler said. “Hopefully, when SARS-CoV-2 is behind us, we will be able to monitor for an endemic virus, like flu. We can use wastewater monitoring to look for other viruses, bacterial pathogens and other pathogens of concern.”

See here and here for recent entries. I don’t have much to add, just my admiration for everyone involved and the knowledge they have gained. This was a simple and inexpensive innovation, and it will yield public health benefits for years to come. Kudos to all.

How our water systems failed during the freeze

Good analysis of something that has received far less attention than the blackouts that resulted during the freeze. Which is interesting because the blackouts were the main cause of the water outages and resulting boil notices. And the fix here is relatively simple.

There generally are two sources of drinking water in Texas: underground wells and surface water, drawn from lakes, rivers and reservoirs. Both require pumps to move the water to storage tanks, purification plants and out to customers. And pumps require power.

In Houston, most drinking water is pulled from lakes Houston, Conroe and Livingston. The city’s issues during the freeze began at the Northeast Water Purification Plant, one of its three primary treatment facilities, where some of its generators did not turn on as designed that Monday, Feb. 15, Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

Internal reports, emails and texts obtained through public information requests by the Chronicle illuminate the problems. The emergency generator failures reduced the plant to about 20 or 30 percent of its normal capacity, according to situational reports from the Office of Emergency Management. This started a drop in pressure that workers struggled to halt.

NRG, which operates the generators, was supposed to be able to start them remotely. The generators were providing power to the grid when it collapsed, which caused them to trip offline, the company said. NRG employees taught Public Works officials how to reset them by phone. The city also had left two breakers in the wrong position prior to the storm, complicating the efforts to switch to back-up power, according to Houston Public Works. The power was restored three hours after it went out.

“Nearly lost the water system,” [Houston Public Works Director Carol] Haddock texted another city official later that afternoon, “but recovered it sort of.”

Meanwhile, eight of 40 city-operated generators failed at wells that pull water from underground. Though workers tested the generators monthly, checking their oil and fuel, Haddock told state lawmakers earlier this month the machines “were not prepared for starting in 12 degrees.”

One froze and was not functional again until temperatures rose. Another at the Katy Addicks well started initially before its supercharger failed. Others had mechanical issues related to the cold.

City staff chased outages with portable generators, recalled Phillip Goodwin, Houston Public Works’ regulatory compliance director. As power came on in one place, it would go out somewhere else in the system.

Water pressure in the city dropped, and by late Tuesday Houston officials saw a few readings below the state-mandated levels.

Haddock texted Turner at 8:13 p.m.: “I can tell you we are doing everything humanly possible.”

Some 13 hours later, Turner announced a boil water advisory was in effect, per Texas Commission on Environmental Quality requirements when water pressure drops too low.

It would be four days before the water was declared safe to drink. Dallas never needed a boil notice; the advisories in San Antonio and Austin lasted longer than Houston’s.

Turner said the bottom line is that the generators did not work as intended. He has instructed his departments to review what went wrong and build more “resiliency and redundancy” into the system.

“When you have power outages of that magnitude, it’s going to impact your systems across the board,” Turner said. “We have to put ourselves in the best position to prevent it from reoccurring, or at least at that magnitude.”

[…]

At the peak Friday, more than 1,800 of some 7,000 public water systems were under boil water advisories. Hurricane Harvey, by comparison, prompted some 200 systems to issue boil advisories, said TCEQ Executive Director Toby Baker. Houston was not one of them.

The TCEQ, which monitors boil notices and provides emergency assistance, plans to survey and hold roundtables with local providers to figure out what went wrong. They are forming a group to look at helping water systems get listed as critical infrastructure with electricity providers, among other issues.

Public Utility Commission rules say water facilities may be defined as “critical load” like hospitals, but the water utility must notify its electricity provider and be deemed eligible.

I certainly would have thought that water systems would be considered critical infrastructure. It would have saved a lot of trouble if the water treatment plants around the state had not lost power during the freeze. That might have caused more homes to lose power, perhaps, but if we’re forcing the power plants to weatherize then maybe that will be less of an issue. Requiring backup generators and a regular schedule for testing and maintaining them would also help. HB2275 would create a grant fund for infrastructure fixes – there may of course be some federal money coming as well, but we can’t count on that just yet – and I guess it’s up to the TCEQ to decide if water systems are “critical infrastructure” or not.

I mean, look, most of us were able to get by for a couple of days with the boil notices and maybe using melted snow as flush water. We won’t have the latter during a summer power-and-water outage, but never mind that for now. All I’m saying is that for a state that loves to brag about luring businesses here, this is some bad advertising for us. We have plenty of other challenges right now, many of them being perpetuated by the Lege. We should try not to add to them.

Consent decree to fix sewers finalized

All done.

A federal judge on Wednesday signed off on a deal between Houston and federal regulators that will require the city to spend an estimated $2 billion over the next 15 years to upgrade its troubled sanitary sewer system.

Judge Charles Eskridge of the Southern District of Texas approved the consent decree — an agreement negotiated by city and Environmental Protection Agency officials to address the hundreds of sewage overflows around Houston that occur each year — over opposition from local nonprofit Bayou City Waterkeeper. The environmental advocacy group had sought to focus the agreement more on low-income communities, where a disproportionate share of the city’s sewer spills occur.

The approval ends a long-running issue for the city dating back to the administration of Turner’s predecessor, Annise Parker. A few years before Turner took office in 2016, EPA officials began negotiating the deal with Parker’s administration instead of suing the city for violating the Clean Water Act through its sewer overflows, which frequently send waste spilling into local streams and bayous.

Under the agreement, the city will adopt a more aggressive schedule for cleaning and repairing its lift stations, treatment plants and 5,500 miles of sewer pipes. Residents likely will see their water bills rise to help cover the new costs, which are expected to total $2 billion beyond what the city otherwise had planned to spend.

It is not clear when the rate increases will kick in, though residential water rates already have gone up 12.5 percent over the last four years and are scheduled to rise another 1.5 percent next week, when the city’s annual adjustment for inflation and population growth takes effect.

[…]

Kristen Schlemmer, Bayou City Waterkeeper’s legal director, said the nonprofit would “diligently monitor the city’s compliance with the consent decree” and take future legal action if it fails to uphold the agreement.

“This consent decree represents an important first step to giving Houston residents a real solution to the sewage problems we see and smell after every major rain,” Schlemmer said in a statement. “But it falls short in one key respect: it does nothing to help our low-income neighbors fix problems that lead to sewage backing up into their homes, pooling in the yards where their children play, and dirtying our local bayous and creeks.”

See here for the previous update; there are further links in that post if you want to go farther back. Remember how we all lost water during and after the freeze, even if your pipes didn’t bust? Among the other benefits of this consent decree, updating the sewer system should help with that. If the Biden infrastructure bill passes, I would assume that should have some funding for water and sewer projects as well; what if any effect it might have on this consent decree is a question I can’t answer. Anyway, this has been about a decade in the making, and it’s about time.

On informing the public during an emergency

Another thing the state didn’t do well.

As millions of Texans fought to survive brutal winter weather without power and water, Gov. Greg Abbott told residents Wednesday to search for emergency warming shelters on Google and to call 311 for additional assistance.

The only problem: Many people lacked internet access, cellphone service and the ability to watch the governor’s press conferences. When the power went out, the state suddenly lost the ability to provide essential information to people desperately in need of help.

“Telling people to Google it is not OK. It’s the result of non-imaginative or non-planning in general, and it’s very, very unfortunate,” said Dr. Irwin Redlener, a senior research scholar for Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness. “And I think there needs to be some accountability for why they hadn’t made the infrastructure more resilient, and also why they hadn’t planned for a situation where the power’s out.”

During natural disasters and other humanitarian crises, the Texas Division of Emergency Management can use the national Emergency Alert System to share important updates, including for weather events, with Texans in specific areas. Impacted residents of the state would immediately receive a cellphone notification through that system with basic information like boil water notices or updates on when power might be restored.

But according to residents and lawmakers around the state, TDEM failed to provide such emergency alerts during this crisis, effectively leaving Texans without the kind of information necessary for living through a disaster. Instead, Abbott and TDEM officials encouraged people to search for resources on social media or Google.

[…]

Although many state officials blamed the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the state’s power grid operator, for a lack of warning about prolonged outages, Texans pointed out that the extreme weather conditions should have warranted emergency messages anyway.

“Even if they didn’t know the power outages were coming, just the temperatures alone should have been enough to have massive warnings to people of what is possible,” [Austin resident Suzanne] Wallen said. “The icing of trees and the icing of power lines, all of that is kind of basic dangerous weather information.”

Communicating the right information to people in a timely manner often becomes a life or death situation during disasters like this, Redlener said. Especially when people lose access to clean water, they need to know immediately that they should stop drinking their tap water before boiling it.

And even though TDEM may not have been prepared to send out emergency alerts before people started losing power, the state agency still could have shared information through the national alert system when the situation became dire for people across Texas.

“From so many different perspectives, this is an example of a very poorly planned disaster response, and there’s all kinds of things that could have been better, including the communication issues,” Redlener said.

We received numerous alerts from the city of Houston and Harris County, before and during the disaster. There were automated calls to the landline and to our cells, plus emergency alerts on the cell and emails. Not all of these worked during power and Internet or cellular outages, but a lot of people still have good old-fashioned landlines (ours is now VOIP and so less useful at these times, but we still had those other methods). If power and cable are down, AM/FM radio still works. There were plenty of options available to the state, and there’s no reason why a lot of information couldn’t have been broadcast by all available means well in advance of the freeze. Space City Weather was warning about arctic conditions five days in advance of Monday’s frigid temps. Not everyone will get the message, of course, and not all who do will heed it, but a lot more could have been done. It’s of a piece with the overall lack of planning to keep the electric grid up and running in the first place.

Even worse than all that is stuff like this.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said his office has heard from the White House during this week’s winter freeze, but Gov. Greg Abbott has not reached out at all.

The mayor first raised the lack of communication in an interview Friday morning with MSNBC, telling Stephanie Ruhle he had not heard from the governor’s office as millions went without power and water this week.

“I have not talked to the governor at any time during this crisis,” Turner said. “I have not talked to the governor, but we’re pushing forward.”

At a press conference later Friday morning, Turner said the state has sent National Guard troops to help staff a warming center at the George R. Brown Convention Center. The Texas Department of Transportation also has been “very, very helpful,” the mayor said.

“Between TxDOT and the National Guard, they have provided some assistance,” Turner said.

Asked whether he or his staff has reached out to Abbott, Turner said: “I have been very laser-focused on dealing with the situation right here in the city of Houston. The White House has reached out to me several times, and we’ve had those communications.”

It’s not just Mayor Turner and Houston that have been ignored by Greg Abbott. San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, along with Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, and Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins have said the same thing. I don’t even know what to think about that. I have no idea what Abbott is doing. He was actually pretty visible during Hurricane Harvey, so it’s not like he doesn’t know how to do this sort of thing, and he surely knows that being out in front of an emergency and being visibly in charge and helping others is a boon to one’s image (unlike some other politicians I could name). But by far the bulk of the heavy lifting is being done by local officials and third parties. It’s beyond bizarre.

HISD schools closed Monday and Tuesday

More effects of the storm.

Houston ISD plans to remain closed Monday and Tuesday, then hold online-only classes for the last three days of next week, as the district manages the fallout from water and power issues caused by freezing temperatures.

HISD officials announced the schedule Friday as employees continued to survey damage to the district’s 260 campuses and the city of Houston remained under a boil-water advisory expected to stretch to at least Sunday.

At the same time, the leaders of a few suburban Houston districts, including Katy, Klein and La Porte ISDs, announced plans to resume in-person classes Monday. While parts of those districts remain under a boil-water advisory, they are expected to face fewer water issues heading into next week compared to HISD.

In an interview Friday morning with CNN, HISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said district officials remained “very concerned” with water problems that could impact campuses next week. HISD could use unboiled water to flush toilets and run sinks, but the district would need to boil water for drinking and food preparation.

“If the water issue hasn’t been resolved, we can’t (reopen campuses),” Lathan said.

Safety is the first priority, and if the schools can’t open safely then they can’t open. This has other effects, mostly with food service for the students who need it, but there’s no real choice. Hopefully everything will be ready for the following week. What HISD and other districts will do to make up for the lost time, I have no idea. I’m guessing there will be some guidance from the state, but we’ll see.

And speaking of the rest of the state:

The winter storm delivered another blow for parents, teachers and students already struggling to get through this academic year, as COVID-19 has destabilized the lives of many Texans. Already students were failing multiple classes learning virtually, feeling increasingly anxious and depressed, and worrying about their loved ones. Now, some families still don’t have power or water and some schools, given the damage to facilities, are unsure when they are going to be able to take students back in person.

Districts across the state are surveying their buildings and finding broken pipes, soaked classrooms and other major property damage, as rising temperatures thaw pipes. The Texas Education Agency said school districts still dealing with electricity outages and other issues next week can apply for waivers to provide completely virtual instruction or, in some cases, close completely.

The destruction may indefinitely delay in-person instruction — and more crucially may prevent schools from serving as immediate lifelines for their most vulnerable families. As temperatures plummeted over the last week, many schools could not serve as warming centers for their communities as they have done during past disasters. Some also could not distribute free meals to students, with staff members unable to leave their homes and refrigerators full of spoiled food.

The state doesn’t provide funds for building construction and repair – the districts do that themselves, via their capital budgets and bond issuances – so this is going to cause further need in many districts. The forthcoming federal COVID relief package, which will provide money for local and state governments, may help with this, but the state may need to find a way to assist as well. If this isn’t an issue in the legislative session already, it needs to become one.

We also have to worry about water

Hopefully not for too much longer.

On Friday, as the ice melted and lights flickered back on in homes and businesses across the state, Texans were melting snow into their toilet tanks and mopping up water from busted pipes.

The state’s power outage disaster had firmly transitioned into a water crisis.

The state’s power grid operators declared the worst is behind us, as most Texans have their power restored and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas is no longer calling for forced outages. They said residents can resume normal consumption of electricity.

But about half of the states’ population is still battling water infrastructure problems because of the cold weather — made worse as temperatures ticked up above freezing leading to pipes and water lines bursting.

For Texans who do have water, millions are being told to boil it before consuming in cities across the state including Houston, San Antonio, Austin, Fort Worth, Arlington, Galveston and Corpus Christi.

The state is accelerating efforts to restore water to Texans, Gov. Greg Abbott said at a Friday press conference. The state will connect overloaded local facilities with other labs to expedite clean-water testing efforts and grow the number of plumbers available to fix broken pipes, he said.

More than 1,180 public water systems in 160 counties reported disruptions from the winter storms, affecting 14.6 million people as of Friday morning, according to a spokesperson for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Reduced water pressure — due to pump failures and increased demand from burst pipes and millions of people dripping their faucets for days on end — is the root of the problem for many of these infrastructure problems. Reduced water pressure can lead to harmful bacteria growing in the water. Other times, power outages have prevented treatment centers from properly treating water.

“When the pressure drops significantly you can’t maintain water quality standards,” Texas Water Foundation CEO Sarah Rountree Schlessinger said. “You got to have that energy come back online … then, allow for sufficient time for pressurization, and then for water quality testing to occur.”

Water pressure improved noticeably at our house from Friday to Saturday – it feels pretty close to normal now, though I can’t say for certain. There’s likely a lot of stress on the system as well, as people who are newly back in their powered homes are showering and washing dishes and laundry. It’s hard to resist, but do try to keep your usage modest for the next few days.

Of course, if your pipes are busted, you’re not using any water anyway.

City and county leaders on Friday said tens of thousands of area residents and business owners suffered burst water pipes or other damage from the winter storm this week, with the resulting property damage likely costing tens of millions of dollars.

The Harris County engineer’s office estimated 55,000 homes in unincorporated portions of the county likely have pipe damage. The city reported it has received some 4,900 calls to its 311 system for water breaks, a figure officials said likely pales in comparison to the number of residents who have not reported the damage to City Hall.

“That number is higher, probably much higher,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said, adding that many people — including himself and some City Council members — shut off their water without calling the city. “There are still breaks that exist in our city that have yet to be reported, and the water is still running.”

With power restored to nearly all residents, County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the most serious problems remain access to water and food.

“We’ve been in touch with the major grocery stores, and they said the supply chains will catch up by this weekend,” Hidalgo said. “The issue, of course, is hoarding. So, I’ve been asking folks to only purchase what they need for their own families.”

Turner has said the city will work with the county to launch a fund to help residents confront the costs of repairing their pipes and the damage water has done to their homes, though details on that fund have not been announced yet.

The major disaster declaration may help with that as well. We dealt with busted pipes on Thursday – we were fortunate that our regular plumber put his regular customers at the top of his priority list, and that meant he could deal with us. We had something like nine cracked pipes, all under the house, all now replaced. Not cheap, but we’re in a position to be able to afford it. (The total amount was less than the deductible on our homeowners insurance, so it was all on us to pay, in case you were wondering.) Lots of people are going to need help with their repairs, and they should get it with as little resistance or red tape as possible.

We should also remember, it can always be worse.

Residents of San Angelo, a West Texas city in the Concho Valley, have gone days without safe drinking water after city officials discovered industrial chemicals contaminated the water system.

The crisis — which stretches into at least its fifth day Friday — in the city of 101,000 people has left residents frustrated and scared after the city told them Monday night to cease all uses of water other than flushing their toilets. They were also told that first boiling the water before use would not make it usable and, instead, only more dangerous.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality found the water, which smelled like chemicals or mothballs, is contaminated with benzene, acetone, naphthalene and other chemicals consistent with industrial production.

That story is from Monday, before we all froze solid. I’m sure the frigid weather, and the fact that you can’t fix water than has benzene in it by boiling it, has made the situation that much worse. I don’t know how things are today in San Angelo, but I sure hope those folks are getting the help they need.

The “public service” part of being a public servant

It’s not that hard, though obviously some people make it look easier than others.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez [flew] to Houston [Friday] with more than $2 million to help Texas recover from a week of catastrophic blackouts and water outages.

“I’ll be flying to Texas today to visit with Houston Rep. Sylvia Garcia to distribute supplies and help amplify needs & solutions,” Ocasio-Cortez said on Friday morning.

Earlier in the week, Ocasio-Cortez sent out fundraising appeals to her massive campaign donor network and her nearly 13 million social media followers.

“Please chip in what you can afford today and 100% of your donation will automatically be split between these organizations on the ground providing immediate relief,” the fundraising pitch said.

Those organizations include the Houston Food Bank, the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, The Bridge Homeless Recovery Center, Family Eldercare, Feeding Texas, Corazon Ministries, Central Texas Food Bank, North Texas Food Bank and Food Bank of the Rio Grande Valley.

Very nice. Also of note:

Astros third baseman Alex Bregman and his wife, Reagan, are partnering with the Astros Foundation and Brothers Produce to distribute 18,000 cases of water on Saturday at the Astros Youth Academy.

The event will be a drive-through and a limit of two cases of water per car is in place. Distribution will begin at 9 a.m. and last until cases run out.

The Astros Youth Academy is located at 2801 S. Victory Drive.

Also very nice. And one more:

My point here is that one of the defenses of Ted Cruz that was put forth by various sycophants is that he’s just a plain ol’ US Senator, he doesn’t actually do anything, so why shouldn’t he go off to Cancun for a couple of days while everyone else is freezing in the dark with no potable water? He’s useless and impotent, and no one will miss him. I mean, they’re not wrong in their characterization of Ted Cruz, but they are definitely wrong about the potential for good that someone who is not at all like Ted Cruz can do. You don’t even have to be a public servant to do good, you just have to want to do good and find a way to do it. It’s not that hard, if you’re not like Ted Cruz.

UPDATE: Okay, I stand corrected. Ted Cruz can be good for something after all.

Country music artist Kacey Musgraves is trying to channel the anger over Sen. Ted Cruz’s widely criticized Cancun jaunt into relief for his constituents suffering through Texas’ snowmageddon.

The Lone Star State-based singer is selling a T-shirt on her website to raise money for those affected by the freeze while letting purchasers proudly proclaim just how they feel about the state’s widely reviled junior senator.

The tee is a white ringer with the phrase “Cruzin’ for a bruzin’” printed in bold black letters on the front.

“Regardless if you support him, you gotta admit Cancun was a bad look and that this is funny AF,” Musgraves wrote in an Instagram post revealing the design. “I’m HALFWAY to raising $100k for Texans who really need it. All proceeds are being donated.”

They are on sale through tomorrow, so buy one quickly, while they last.

Winter storm/blackout/boil water situation, Day 439

I may be a bit off in my counting of the days, but it’s close enough. Between my house and my in-laws’ house, I have had power for maybe 14 hours total since Monday morning, with a bit more time for Internet thanks to a backup battery we have here that we can plug the cable modem and Eero router into. For obvious reasons, I’m not able to stay on top of the news as a result. The blackouts will continue for at least another day or so, the water needs to be boiled until further notice, we have a cracked water pipe but at least it’s under the house and not inside a wall and we may try to wrap some plumber’s tape on it while we wait in line to get it fixed, but all things considered we are fine. So many people are so much worse off, it’s heartbreaking and infuriating. If there’s anything you can do to help someone in need – friend, neighbor, complete stranger – please do so. We’re all in this together.

With that in mind, allow me to offer a hearty Fuck You to Rick Perry, for suggesting that all of the suffering and deprivation are a justifiable price that we should be willing to pay for not having a more regulated power generation system. I am truly at a loss for words here. May we all remember this in 2022, when we get to vote on who runs our state.

On the subject of ERCOT and the system we do have, let me key in on one part of this conversation with energy expert Joshua Rhodes about why things are the way they are here.

TM: When it comes to frozen wells and wind turbines, or other infrastructure that is physically affected by the cold, are there preventative measures that could have been taken, such as winterizing?

JR: There are plenty of oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania and North Dakota. It gets a lot colder there than it does here, even today. There are ways of producing gas. All of that infrastructure is site-specific. I would assume it’s more expensive. We could winterize wind turbines better but it would cost more money. We can winterize pipes on power plants, but it would cost more money. We have to decide, what level of risk are we willing to take and what are we willing to pay for?

TM: How could this have been prevented?

JR: Could we have built a grid that would have fared better during this time? Of course we could have. But we could also build a car that could survive every crash you could possibly throw at it, but it would be very expensive and not many people would probably be able to afford it. At some point we do a cost-benefit analysis of how much risk we are willing to take. We have never had weather like this thrown at us, so it’s not surprising to me that we don’t have infrastructure that can support it.

There are no snow plows out on the road. They’d be handy right now, of course, but we don’t use them very often. We don’t have that capability in the state generally because we don’t want to pay for it. We may decide now as a society that we do, but that’s a conversation we’re going to have to have with our collective self, if you will.

I thought Rhodes was way too deferential to the power generation industry overall, but this here is nearly as tone deaf as Perry’s idiocy. Yeah, sure, we can’t prepare for every possible contingency, but surely we can all recognize that a risk that leaves millions of people without power for multiple days in the midst of freezing temperatures is one that we ought to consider mitigating. As someone who works in cyberdefense at a large company, I can assure you we mitigate the hell out of much smaller risks than that. Actual rolling blackouts that leave a modest number of people without power for a couple of hours at a time is one thing. This was very much not that. Worse, it had already happened ten years ago and was studied at the time, yet nothing of any substance was done. This is a heads-must-roll situation. Anyone who doesn’t see it that way is part of the problem.

There’s a lot more out there but I only have so much battery life on the laptop. Stay safe, stay warm, and boil that water – if you have it – until told otherwise.

Finally, a bit of good COVID news

Naturally, it comes from the wastewater.

Researchers who study sewage to monitor the pandemic are detecting less virus in Houston than they have in months, a positive signal that could indicate a forthcoming drop in new COVID-19 cases, doctors said.

The amount of viral load has declined at 28 out of 38 wastewater treatment plants across the city for the first time in five months, said Dr. Paul Klotman, president and CEO of Baylor College of Medicine. He announced the good news during a Friday video update.

“It’s actually a big drop,” Klotman said. “What that means is, in 7 to 10 days, I think we’re going to see a pretty dramatic drop in the number of new cases.”

[…]

Other indicators show signs of improvement. The Houston area’s R(t) value has dipped below 1 for the first time in weeks, meaning community spread is slowing. The test positivity rate for the Texas Medical Center hospital systems dipped from 13.2% last week to 12.7% this week, Klotman said, and the weekly average of COVID-19 hospitalizations is beginning to plateau.

See here, here, and here for the background. As we know, people shed virus in feces and urine, so tracking virus levels in wastewater is a pretty good tool for determining what the true status is and where hotspots are forming. If this is the start of a trend, we’ll see infection and hospitalization levels – not to mention deaths – start to decline rapidly in the next few weeks. Keep wearing your masks and avoiding indoor gatherings, as that’s been our best defense so far, and get that vaccine when you can.

Still waiting on that sewer consent decree

Should be ready soon, once the federal court signs off on it.

Help finally could be on the way in the form of an agreement between the city of Houston and the Environmental Protection Agency aimed at upgrading the city’s embattled sewer system.

The proposal would cost an estimated $2 billion over 15 years and could increase water rates as soon as next spring.

Houston’s hundreds of sewage overflows each year, often caused by broken or clogged pipes, contaminate streams in violation of the Clean Water Act, and drew the EPA’s attention a decade ago.

Rather than fight the violations in court, the city and EPA negotiated a “consent decree” mandating actions Houston must take to reduce spills across its more than 6,200 miles of sewers, 384 lift stations and 39 treatment plants.

City Council approved the agreement last year. Federal officials spent months responding to comments on the proposal, and then, in August, asked a federal judge to approve the document and put it into effect. No ruling has been issued.

“After its review of the motion to enter, we expect that the court will approve entry of the consent decree,” said Houston Public Works spokeswoman Erin Jones.

The nonprofit Bayou City Waterkeeper has asked the court to withhold its approval until the agreement is improved, arguing that, among other deficiencies, it does not sufficiently address historical inequities.

A Houston Chronicle analysis four years ago found that a disproportionate share of the city’s sewer spills occur in low-income communities of color. And an analysis of Houston 311 service requests from the last two years shows historically Black southside neighborhoods such as South Park, South Acres and Sunnyside are among the most likely to report sewer problems even though high-income neighborhoods, in general, are more likely to call 311.

Kristen Schlemmer, Waterkeeper’s legal director, said her group feels the decree is needed but that it must deliberately prioritize repairs in historically neglected communities and require more transparency about the spills that occur there.

“What we would have liked to see the city do is to start with the impact on low-income communities and communities of color and craft its consent decree around that,” she said. “Instead they came up with their whole plan and when we raised the issue of environmental injustices, they’re like, ‘Well, completely incidentally, we’re addressing some of those issues.’”

EPA officials declined comment, citing the pending court action. In court filings, attorneys for Houston and state and federal regulators have said the decree is citywide and will not overlook any area. They also have noted that it requires the city to publish annual reports on the decree’s implementation and monthly reports tallying the location of each spill.

“Low-income communities are not being neglected,” one August filing stated. “Rather, low-income communities, especially those communities with higher numbers of (spills) and aging infrastructure, are being addressed with the ‘worst first’ prioritization.”

The decree would force Houston to clean its 5,500 miles of gravity-driven sewer pipes every decade, to carry out more preventative cleanings in problem areas, and to emphasize its program to educate residents not to invite blockages by pouring grease, oil and other fats down the drain.

The agreement would mandate a more aggressive schedule for assessing, cleaning and repairing the city’s sewer system, and prioritizes fixes in nine areas that experience voluminous spills during rainstorms, including the area around Mama Seafood.

See here, here, here, and here for the background. This will likely cause your water bill to go up, though we don’t know yet by how much. That wouldn’t be necessary now if we had been doing this all along, but here we are. If you don’t like it, go build yourself a time machine and travel back to, I don’t know, 1985 or so and yell at Kathy Whitmire about it. Otherwise, just know that there will be fewer sewer overflows in the future. That’s worth a few extra bucks a month on your water bill.

We really can track COVID-19 through wastewater

This is terrific news.

Researchers with the city, Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine were able to sniff out a potential second outbreak of COVID-19 at a homeless shelter in downtown Houston earlier this year by looking down its drains instead of in people’s noses, health officials said Thursday.

Quashing the resurgence at the Star of Hope Men’s Shelter earlier this year was one of the first successes of an effort to track the novel coronavirus through wastewater, city officials said Thursday. The initiative, one of several occurring around the country, attempts to spot outbreaks by sampling water at city treatment facilities, which could help officials tailor their testing and prevention efforts to specific neighborhoods.

To date, the results from testing wastewater largely have aligned with those from nasal swab testing, said Dr. Loren Hopkins, the city’s chief environmental science officer. That has increased the confidence that the wastewater sampling is accurate. The benefit, she said, is that wastewater tests produce quicker results.

“Ultimately, the goal is to develop an early warning system allowing the health department to identify the city’s COVID-19 hot spots sooner and put measures in place to the slow the spread of this virus,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

People shed the virus through feces, regardless of whether they experience symptoms. The city was able to detect the virus in the shelter by placing a sampler on the manhole outside the facility after its initial outbreak of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus.

The ability to home in on a single building still is limited, Hopkins said. City officials have deployed that strategy for the shelter and the Harris County Jail, and they are trying to acquire more equipment to expand the effort in the fall. The health department plans to begin testing long-term care facilities, for example.

[…]

So far, there has been a strong correlation between the viral load in the wastewater and the positivity rates by nasal tests, so the method has not unearthed large swaths of the virus that have gone undetected by tests. Still, that correlation has increased confidence that the wastewater analysis is accurate and can be used as a bellwether for future outbreaks.

From Sept. 7 to Sept. 14, for example, scientists found the virus was increasing in a statistically significant way in the communities served by the Tidwell Timber, Upper Brays and Forest Cove treatment plants, among others, while decreasing in District 23, White Oak and Homestead.

That information, coupled with the local positivity rate and other factors, helped the health department decide where to send strike teams to test people, conduct outreach and provide education about the virus. The city said the wastewater study has resulted in more testing at several congregant living centers.

See here and here for the background. This method is extra useful because it provides a more focused view of where the cases are clustering, and the testing is faster, so the response to the test results is also faster. If we are ever going to get a handle on this disease, especially before there’s a vaccine but also after one is available, it’s going to come from technology like this that gives a real-time and location-specific view of where the virus is happening. We should be rooting for this to ramp up as much and as quickly as possible. Kudos to all for making this happen. The Press has more.

When Houston is more like Austin

In a climate sense. Which is to say, drier because of climate change.

A new study predicts that Texas’ climate is going to get drastically drier because of climate change. The journal Earth’s Future recently published the study looking at historical drought records, and it projected that the second half of the 21st century could be Texas’ driest of the last thousand years.

One of the study’s authors, Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon, spoke with Texas Standard host David Brown on Tuesday about the future of the states’ climate and water supply.

“Conditions, on average, would be drier than we’re used to, and when we get extreme droughts, those will be drier as well,” he said.

Nielsen-Gammon said that could initiate a westward shift in the state’s climate – meaning, San Angelo’s climate becomes more like Midland’s; Houston’s climate becomes more like Austin’s, and so forth.

Reducing carbon emissions is the long-term solution to the problem that comes from a warming planet. But Nielsen-Gammon said that requires massive changes on a global scale that haven’t happened yet.

So Texans would be wise to prepare for drier conditions. And that includes planning for possible water shortages.

I’ve blogged about water issues and the challenges our state faces, as it sits at the crosswords of rapid growth, climate change, and a lot of people living in very dry places to begin with. Water conservation, wastewater recycling, desalinization, and on and on. The challenges we already face will be greatly exacerbated by climate change, and it’s going to change the state at a fundamental level.

The study highlighted a slew of looming problems for the state’s water supply. First, climate change will lead to even more megadroughts. In the latter half of the century, those droughts are likely to be worse than any of those previously on record.

“Our study shows that the drier conditions expected in the latter half of the 21st century could be drier than any of those megadroughts, depending on how you measure dryness,” lead researcher and A&M professor John Nielsen-Gammon wrote in a press release.

Second, the higher temperatures brought about by climate change will lead to more evaporation from the surface lakes that many parts of the state rely on. This problem will be particularly pronounced for Dallas, which relies entirely on surface water for its water supply, the study says.

Third, the state’s population is continuing to grow — from just under 30 million now to a projected more than 50 million in 2070 — meaning the demand for water will go up as the state gets drier.

“We’re warming up the atmosphere; that’s been happening and is projected to make the droughts more severe, but in cities like Austin, Dallas, Houston, the Rio Grande Valley and San Antonio, we know that populations are continuing to grow at a rapid pace,” said Jay Banner, a professor at UT-Austin who co-authored the study.

Merry Klonower, a spokesperson for the Texas Water Development Board, which offers water planning assistance to municipalities, said that each of 16 regional water planning areas throughout the state is required to take into account population projections for the next 50 years when making water supply decisions.

“And if there is a shortage, then the very next step is they have to determine how they are going to meet their water supply needs for that growing population,” she said. “So we have been doing this since the ’90s and it is a very robust process. So the state is well-prepared and is looking at future populations and water supply needs for municipalities.”

I’m sure we have been preparing and planning for years, but I’m also pretty sure we’ve been underestimating the scope of the problem all along. I mean, if we took it with an appropriate level of seriousness, we’d have a very different set of government leaders in place and would have had a much different set of priorities in this state. It’s still not too late to try to reduce the effects of climate change, but every day that passes is one day less we have for that, and one day closer to the future studies like this predict. What are we going to do about that?

The reopening metric we should be heeding

From Twitter:

Here’s that link:

Abstract

We report a time course of SARS-CoV-2 RNA concentrations in primary sewage sludge during the Spring COVID-19 outbreak in a northeastern U.S. metropolitan area. SARS-CoV-2 RNA was detected in all environmental samples and, when adjusted for the time lag, the virus RNA concentrations were highly correlated with the COVID-19 epidemiological curve (R2=0.99) and local hospital admissions (R2=0.99). SARS-CoV-2 RNA concentrations were a seven-day leading indicator ahead of compiled COVID-19 testing data and led local hospital admissions data by three days. Decisions to implement or relax public health measures and restrictions require timely information on outbreak dynamics in a community.

Introduction

The most common metric followed to track the progression of the COVID-19 epidemic within communities is derived from testing symptomatic cases and evaluating the number of positive tests over time.1 However, tracking positive tests is a lagging indicator for the epidemic progression.2, 3 Testing is largely prompted by symptoms, which may take up to five days to present4, and individuals can shed virus prior to exhibiting symptoms. There is a pressing need for additional methods for early sentinel surveillance and real-time estimations of community disease burden so that public health authorities may modulate and plan epidemic responses accordingly.

SARS-CoV-2 RNA is present in the stool of COVID-19 patients5-7 and has recently been documented in raw wastewater.8-10 Thus, monitoring raw wastewater (sewage) within a community’s collection system can potentially provide information on the prevalence and dynamics of infection for entire populations.11 When municipal raw wastewater discharges into treatment facilities, solids are settled and collected into a matrix called (primary) sewage sludge, which has been shown to contain a broad diversity of human viruses including commonly circulating coronavirus strains.12 Primary sludge provides a well-mixed and concentrated sample that may be advantageous for monitoring SARS-CoV-2. As viral shedding can occur before cases are detected, we hypothesize that the time course of SARS-CoV-2 RNA concentrations in primary sewage sludge is a leading indicator of outbreak dynamics within a community served by the treatment plant.

So in plain English, if you know what the level of SARS-CoV-2 is in your municipal wastewater, you will have a very accurate predictor of the new COVID-19 case rate in your community. And guess what? The city of Houston is tracking this very data. I don’t know if it’s being published anywhere, but it sure could shed some light on how things are really going around here. Other cities should be doing this as well – if they aren’t doing it already, they need to start – and that information should be collected and published at the state level as well. What are we waiting for?

From the “Shit happens” department

I apologize, I couldn’t help myself.

City health officials and Rice University scientists have begun testing Houston wastewater samples for COVID-19, a process they hope will reveal the true spread of the new coronavirus as clinical testing continues to lag.

The city-led effort makes use of studies that show traces of the virus can be found in human feces. By testing samples of sewage collected at the city’s wastewater treatment plants, officials hope to uncover the scale of the outbreak in Houston and, perhaps, locate hotspots undetected by in-person tests.

“It’s an evolving field. We hope that it will help give us just more information on where the virus is and how much of it is out there,” said Loren Hopkins, a Rice University statistics professor who also serves as the health department’s chief environmental science officer.

[…]

For now, plant workers are collecting wastewater samples across a 24-hour period once a week, before sending them to Rice and health department officials who then analyze the samples for COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus.

If successful, the project will reveal COVID-19 trends over a span of weeks and months in certain areas of Houston and citywide, Hopkins said. Though less precise than directly testing people for the coronavirus, the analysis will produce case estimates that include people who lack symptoms, because asymptomatic people still shed the virus in their stool. And because workers at the treatment plants are collecting samples across a 24-hour period, the results may provide a more accurate snapshot than the number of positive in-person test results, Hopkins said, because that data is impaired by days-long delays in receiving results.

Where the data may prove especially useful, experts said, is in locations where wastewater samples indicate the virus has spread more widely than clinical testing has revealed. Officials can then direct more testing to those areas, including through a mobile unit that launched earlier this week.

This is an attempt to address the serious gap between our need for testing and our capacity for testing. We hope it will help identify trends and emerging hot spots more quickly and effectively. It’s something that’s not been done before, and who knows if it will work the way we want. It’s surely worth a try.

City wins water rights lawsuit

A bit of pre-holiday good news.

A Travis County state district judge on Friday tossed a state law that would force the city of Houston to sell its water rights in a proposed reservoir west of Simonton.

The law, which breezed through the Legislature last session and was signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott, requires the city to sell its rights in the proposed Allens Creek Reservoir by the end of the year for up to $23 million.

The city sued the state and the Brazos River Authority in July, claiming the law was unconstitutional in part because it violates prohibitions on retroactive laws and on forced sales of municipal property that have a public use.

In a ruling issued Friday evening, state district Judge Karin Crump of the 250th District Court agreed with the city’s interpretation, finding the law violates several provisions of the Texas Constitution and Local Government Code.

Crump ruled that the law constitutes a forced sale and “changes the legal consequences of acts completed before the bill’s effective date without sufficient findings to justify passage” of the bill.

See here for the background, and see here for a statement from Mayor Turner on the ruling. I don’t see any other coverage, so I have no idea if there will be an appeal, but I agreed with the lawsuit and I’m glad to see this outcome. Let’s hope it sticks.

Consent decree to fix sewers approved

As we have discussed before, there are concerns about how the extra cost of this decree will affect low-income residents.

Houston is facing a federal mandate to upgrade its embattled sanitary sewer system, stirring concerns among advocates and civic leaders that the estimated $2 billion bill — and the higher rates required to pay it — could overburden low-income families.

The average city sewer bill already exceeds what the Environmental Protection Agency considers affordable for more than 113,500 Houston families, Houston Public Works and Census Bureau data show. That could rise to more than a quarter of all Houston households if sewer costs increase by 19 percent.

Such a hike is unlikely to happen overnight, but the average city water bill has risen 17 percent in the last six years via annual increases for inflation alone.

Mayor Sylvester Turner has not said how much bills are expected to rise as a result of the consent decree, citing a pending rate study, but repeatedly has said costs will remain “well below” the EPA threshold.

Experts, however, say that guideline — which aims to keep annual sewer charges below 2 percent of the citywide median household income — has been “discredited” in large part because it obscures the burden on poor families.

In Houston, for instance, sewer charges could more than double and still remain below the EPA threshold. That is in part because the city’s rates today are modest: A 2017 American Water Works Association report ranked Houston’s average bills and their affordability roughly in the middle of the nation’s 25 largest cities.

“The intellectual case for using median household income as the exclusive determinant of affordability has collapsed,” said Tracy Mehan, AWWA director of government affairs. “What about the employment rate? What about the 50 percent of the population that’s ignored at median levels?”

Adam Krantz, CEO of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, of which Houston is a member, agreed.

“There is really very little underpinning that 2 percent,” he said. “That being said, it’s what has driven consent decrees in virtually every major city across the country. This needs to be done on a more sensitive basis in terms of what really is affordable.”

[…]

A 2016 Houston Chronicle analysis found that neighborhoods most likely to experience sewer spills were disproportionately home to low-income and minority residents, and 77016 matches that. The area — where 97 percent of residents are black or Hispanic and the median income is a third lower than the citywide figure — tallied the third-highest count of spills from 2009 to 2016.

“Separate and apart from the consent decree, we need to address SSOs (sanitary sewer overflows),” Turner said last week. “And there’s no question many of those SSOs are occurring in low-income, minority neighborhoods.”

See here, here, and here for the background. I don’t know how to address the issue of what poorer people are charged, but past studies suggest that a more strongly tiered rate structure that charged high-volume water users more proportionally would be a good starting point. Maybe spend some money helping low-income people conserve water and thus keep their bills as low as possible. No matter what, this is a long-overdue step, and the benefit of reducing sewer spills will go heavily to those same neighborhoods. We just need to help mitigate the negative effects on them. Council has officially approved the agreement, so now is the time to figure the rest of this out.

Houston sues over water rights

This could be interesting.

The city of Houston sued the state and the Brazos River Authority Monday, seeking to block the implementation of a new law that would force the city to sell its water rights in a proposed reservoir west of Simonton to the river authority, a decree the city says is unconstitutional.

The law, which sailed through the Legislature this spring and was signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott on June 2 over Mayor Sylvester Turner’s objections, requires Houston to sell its rights in the proposed Allens Creek Reservoir by the end of this year for up to $23 million.

The law’s backers argue Houston has developed its water rights in the Trinity and San Jacinto river basins so thoroughly that it has no urgent need and no immediate plan to build the reservoir, whereas huge petrochemical plants along the Lower Brazos have skipped expansions due to a lack of water resources.

The river authority argued it was ready and able to tackle the project immediately, and that it would charge roughly half what the city would charge for the water.

[…]

The city argues the law is unconstitutional in part because it violates prohibitions on retroactive laws and on forced sales of municipal property that have a public use.

You can see the city’s press release here. Mayor Turner has been threatening to sue since the bill (HB 28146) was passed. Note that this bill took effect immediately, which means that it passed with a two-thirds majority in each chamber. As a Houston taxpayer, I support this suit and agree with Mayor Turner’s argument that the city is not being adequately compensated for its investment. I don’t know enough about the law, or about how often the Brazos River Authority or similar agency has done this before, to guess how this may go. I’ll keep an eye on it.

We have a consent decree

It appears to be a done deal.

Houston would add $2 billion to its planned sewer system improvements over the next 15 years under a proposed deal with state and federal regulators that is expected to produce higher water bills as soon as next year.

The Environmental Protection Agency has long been concerned that Houston’s cracked, clogged or flooded sewer pipes spill waste into yards and streets hundreds of times each year, contaminating local streams in violation of the Clean Water Act. Eighty percent of area waterways fall short of water quality standards for fecal bacteria.

Rather than sue the city over these long-running problems, the EPA initiated negotiations nearly a decade ago, hoping to produce a “consent decree” specifying projects and procedures Houston would use to reduce spills by upgrading pipes, improving maintenance and educating the public on how to avoid clogging the city’s more than 6,000 miles of sewers, 390 lift stations and 39 treatment plants.

Mayor Sylvester Turner announced Tuesday that talks have been completed; his office expects the item to reach a city council vote as early as July 17.

“It’s good for the city of Houston,” Turner said. “I am proud to have resolved this long-standing problem in a way that will fix problems that have challenged our city for decades and will bring enhanced services to future ratepayers for decades to come.”

The deal would prioritize fixes in nine areas that experience voluminous spills during rainstorms. In an effort to reduce the more numerous spills that are a chronic problem when the skies are clear, the agreement would mandate a more aggressive schedule for assessing and repairing the city’s sewer system.

Houston also would commit to clean and inspect its 127,000 manholes and 5,500 miles of gravity-driven pipes every decade, to carry out more preventative cleanings in problem areas, and to emphasize its program to educate residents not to pour grease, oil and other fats down the drain.

[…]

It is unclear how much water bills would rise as a result of the federal decree. The city has begun a rate study that will incorporate the consent decree and other factors and suggest new rates to take effect in July 2020.

Some council members were told in preliminary briefings this spring that rates would rise about 4 percent in each year of the agreement, resulting in an increase of more than 70 percent by the end of the 15-year term, though Turner professed ignorance at that figure Tuesday. Other cities under comparable decrees, including San Antonio, will double their rates during their agreements.

Turner stressed that the projected overall cost of the deal is “substantially less” than the $5 billion to $7 billion the EPA was demanding in the Obama administration’s final year.

Despite the mayor holding a news conference to announce the agreement, the Turner administration considers the decree confidential, distributing it only to the elected council members and topping it with a memo that mentions fines for those who disclose its contents.

See here, here, and here for the background. I don’t understand the reason for keeping the decree secret. I’ll be happy if Council pushes back against that. As for water rates going up as a result, well, we should have been doing this a long time ago, and last I checked fixing broken things isn’t free. I’ll say again, how much is a lower level of fecal bacteria in your water worth to you? It’s worth a gradually increasing water bill to me.

We’re about to find out how much we’ll pay to fix Houston’s sewer system

Be prepared.

Houston would ramp up spending on its sewer system by $2 billion over 15 years under a proposed deal with state and federal regulators that is expected to produce higher water bills as soon as next year.

The Environmental Protection Agency has long been concerned that Houston’s cracked, clogged or flooded sewer pipes spill waste into yards and streets hundreds of times each year, contaminating local streams in violation of the Clean Water Act. Eighty percent of area waterways fall short of water quality standards for fecal bacteria.

Rather than sue the city over these long-running problems, the EPA initiated negotiations six years ago, hoping to produce a “consent decree” specifying projects and procedures Houston would use to reduce spills by upgrading pipes, improving maintenance and educating the public on how to avoid clogging the city’s more than 6,000 miles of sewers.

Mayor Sylvester Turner’s staff now are briefing City Council members on the terms of the proposal, which could reach a council vote in April. The mayor said in a brief interview Friday he wanted to speak with all council members before discussing details of the deal publicly, but four people who received the briefings confirmed the deal’s length and projected cost. EPA officials declined to comment.

How much residents’ water bills would rise remains hazy. The city will soon begin a rate study, as it does every five years, that will incorporate the consent decree and other factors and suggest new rates to take effect in July 2020. Turner said rates would stay well within EPA guidelines designed to avoid burdening poor residents, though a 2016 Houston Chronicle analysis showed significant rate hikes would still comply with that framework.

Councilman Greg Travis said he was told the decree would add 4 percent to rates each year of the agreement, resulting in a more than 70 percent increase by the end of the 15-year term. It’s unclear whether that figure included assumptions about inflation and population growth, which drive automatic rate increases each spring. Some other cities under comparable decrees, including San Antonio, will double their rates during their agreements.

Still, the mayor stressed that the projected overall cost of the deal is “substantially less” than the $5 billion to $7 billion the EPA was demanding in the Obama administration’s final year. City officials made an anti-regulation argument to the Trump administration — “You cannot run our city from D.C., and you can’t impose on us costs that the people themselves have to bear” — and it succeeded, Turner told the West Houston Association at a luncheon last week.

“We’ll finally move forward with something that’s in the best interest of the city of Houston, something that will not cost us nearly as much, and something I believe will be the best deal that any city has received anywhere in the country,” Turner told the crowd.

See here and here for the background. This is what happens when maintenance is deferred for too long, though as noted in my earlier link, both Mayors White and Parker took steps to address the problem. Just please keep in mind that this is a problem of very long standing, and it’s one that affects us all, though it most definitely affects some more than others. And if you hear anyone complain about the forthcoming hike in water rates, please feel free to ask them what level of fecal bacteria in their water is acceptable to them, and how much they would pay to mitigate that.

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

We may be about to find out.

Federal and state authorities sued the city of Houston over its long-running struggle to limit sewage spills on Friday, marking the beginning of the end of a years-long negotiation that could force the city to invest billions to upgrade its sprawling treatment system.

Houston’s “failure to properly operate and maintain” its 6,700 miles of sewer pipes, nearly 400 lift stations and 40 treatment plants caused thousands of “unpermitted and illegal discharges of pollutants” due to broken or blocked pipes dating back to 2005, the suit states. The city also recorded numerous incidents when its sewer plants released water with higher than allowable concentrations of waste into area waterways, the filing states.

The lawsuit by the Department of Justice on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality wants a judge to force Houston to comply with the Clean Water Act and Texas Water Code — typical orders include upgrading pipes, ramping up maintenance and educating the public on how to avoid clogging city pipes — and to assess civil penalties that could reach $53,000 per day, depending on when each violation occurred.

[…]

The filing was spurred by the intervention of a local nonprofit, Bayou City Waterkeeper, which announced in July that it planned to sue the city over the same violations and which filed its own lawsuit on Friday mirroring the EPA’s claims. It states that the city has reported more than 9,300 sewer spills in the last five years alone.

“The city’s unauthorized discharges have had a detrimental effect on, and pose an ongoing threat to, water quality and public health in the Houston area and have caused significant damage to the waters that Waterkeeper’s members use and enjoy,” the nonprofit’s filing states.

Waterkeeper’s July announcement was required by the Clean Water Act, which mandates that citizens or citizen groups planning to sue under the law give 60 days’ notice, in part to allow the EPA or its state counterparts to take their own actions.

See here for the background. This has been going on for a long time, and the city has been in negotiation for a resolution to this. How much it will all cost remains the big question. The one thing I can say for certain is that no one is going to like it. As a reminder, consider this:

Upon taking office in 2004, former mayor Bill White locked utility revenues into a dedicated fund, raised water rates 10 percent, tied future rates to inflation, and refinanced the debt. That was not enough to prevent the debt mountain from risking a utility credit downgrade by 2010, when former mayor Annise Parker took office, so she passed a 28 percent rate hike.

Remember how much some people bitched and moaned about that rate hike? Get ready to experience it all again.

One for the road

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

Best mugshot ever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MUDs and debt

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

BagOfMoney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stuck in the MUD

Tricky things, these municipal utility districts.

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

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

The vote was unanimous – 2-0.

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The zebra mussels keep invading

Can anything stop them?

Zebra mussel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clean Power Plan can proceed for now

Good.

ERCOT

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Dealing with climate change whether you believe in it or not

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

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

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

[…]

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

But even at the Hereford feedlot, things have changed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The inevitable latest lawsuit against the EPA

As night follows the day.

ERCOT

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Droughts will always be with us

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paxton asks judge to block EPA water rules in Texas

The basic story:

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

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

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

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

Hempstead landfill clarification

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

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

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