It Will Take an Insane Amount of Rain Before the Highland Lakes Recover

Lake Travis is heading towards its lowest levels in history if we have a dry fall.

Photo courtesy of the LCRA

Lake Travis is heading towards its lowest levels in history if we have a dry fall.

Central Texas is having a pretty decent year, rain-wise. We’re sitting just below normal. And it’s been a good week, too: early Thursday, one part of Austin got over seven inches of rain.

So much rain fell over downtown Austin that the statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan along Lady Bird Lake looked like he was walking on water. It brought back memories of the Halloween floods last fall — back then Stevie was standing in water waist-deep. But these big rain events all have something in common: They really haven’t fallen where we need them most.

“The watershed that helps our water supplies isn’t here in Austin; it’s way up into the counties to the north of us. It’s the drainage that goes into Lakes Buchanan and Travis,” says John Hoffman, Executive Vice President of Water for the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA).

Hoffman says while the areas around the lakes got some decent rain earlier this summer, other than that it’s been pretty dry up there. So while Lake Austin is getting doused, the creekbeds that go into the Highland Lakes can stay relatively dry. Lake Travis has risen over a foot this week, and could go up another foot today. But it’s still nearly 40 feet below where it should be, and lower than it was a month ago.

And it’s not just where the water is falling that’s preventing the lakes from recovering. It’s the condition of the ground that it’s falling on. Continue Reading

What Can Texas Do About Roads Damaged by Drilling?

Truck traffic on FM 81 in the Eagle Ford Shale formation area.

Photo courtesy Texas Department of Transportation.

Truck traffic on FM 81 in the Eagle Ford Shale formation area.

The Texas Department of Transportation gave an update Wednesday on their current measures to repair damaged rural roads in the Eagle Ford Shale.

During a Texas Senate Transportation Committee on Transportation hearing, TxDOT highlighted a $500-million solution enacted by the state to rehabilitate damaged roads linked to heavy oil and gas related traffic in the natural gas hot spot.

John Barton, deputy executive director of TxDOT, broke down exactly how the funds are being used. “We took $225 million and directed it to projects based on the criteria that was established in that bill [HB1025] that asks us to look at the safety in the [road] network.”

TxDOT inspected roadway conditions such as width and truck traffic volume. Continue Reading

Despite Some Rain, Drought Still Grips Texas Towns

A car tire lays exposed in the dried lake bottom at Lake Abillene near Abilene, Texas.

EPA/LARRY W. SMITH /LANDOV

A car tire lays exposed in the dried lake bottom at Lake Abillene near Abilene, Texas.

Summer brought no relief from drought in many parts of Northwest Texas. But storms related to Hurricane Odile could bring some much needed rain. The region, like much of Texas, has been struggling with drought for years. Now some communities there are now faced with a difficult task: find new water, or go dry.

Take the small Texas town of Gordon. Kenneth Epperson works for the Water Department there. By the end of August, the town had about four months of water left for close to 800 users. So he’s looking at his options, one of which is possibly getting water from a local rancher who has a lake on his land and bring it to the town treatment plant via pipeline.

Gordon is just one of many towns facing the prospect of running dry, and because the crisis is regional, stretching across city and county lines, officials are needing to get creative when considering new supplies. ”You know, all over, this northwest Texas is kind of in a bind,” Epperson says.

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Cooler Summer Bites Into Public Utility Revenues

Austin Energy earns 40 percent of its revenue in the summer months

flickr.com/pyxopotamus

Austin Energy earns 40 percent of its revenue in the summer months

Aside from the month of August, this summer has been relatively cool as far as Texas summers go. That’s a welcome change of pace for those who live here, but it’s brought an unanticipated gap in revenue for some electricity providers.

Take Austin Energy. At the start of the year, the city-owned utility was expecting to bring in around $654 million in base revenue from energy used by customers.  Since then, it has reduced that estimate by about $16.5 million.

“That’s the impact the cooler weather has had. It’s to the tune of 16 and a half million,” says Carlos Cordova, a spokesperson for Austin Energy.

The utility makes 40 percent of its annual revenue in the four hottest months of the year that’s June, July August and September. This year all those months, except August, have seen lower than average AC use and peak electric demand.

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Fatigue Linked To Dozens Of Fatal Crashes Involving Oilfield Workers

From Houston Public Media:

The Three Rivers ISD school bus was totaled in this accident in January 2014, after a fracking crew driver fell asleep and hit the bus. Three workers in a commercial van were killed; but the children were safe.

Texas DPS photo

The Three Rivers ISD school bus was totaled in this accident in January 2014, after a fracking crew driver fell asleep and hit the bus. Three workers in a commercial van were killed; but the children were safe.

State Highway 72 cuts through the heart of the Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas. The two-lane artery links oil boomtowns like Kenedy and Tilden to the Three Rivers Valero refinery. Local residents call the highway “Death Row.”

“Every week someone dies, just about,” says Steve Alaniz, a construction manager based in Three Rivers. “There’s so many guys that work nights, and there’s so many people getting up early. Everybody’s in a hurry. The roads aren’t big enough for this kind of traffic.”

Early on the morning of January 30, a Three Rivers school bus was pulling into an RV park off Highway 72, when a van filled with oilfield workers employed by Compass Well Services plowed into the bus’s rear end. Alaniz was one of the first on the scene. He found the students safe at the front of the bus, thanks to school district policy in response to the heavy traffic. Continue Reading

Research Links Drilling Activities to Water Contamination in North Texas

The study explored different scenarios that may have accounted for elevated methane in the groundwater.

Used with permission from Thomas Darrah, OSU

The study explored different scenarios that may have accounted for elevated methane in the groundwater.

For years, some residents of Parker County in North Texas have believed that nearby gas drilling was responsible for high levels of methane in neighborhood water wells. Research published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences appears to back that up.

The study looked at water contamination in Texas and Pennsylvania. It suggests that faulty cement jobs on drilling wells could be at fault in North Texas. Cement is poured between the rock wall and the steel tubing of oil and gas wells to block contaminants.

“We think either there isn’t enough cement in this location or more likely there are cracks or imperfections in that cement. That’s what allowed the strong gas to move up through the well and then out into peoples drinking water,” says Robert Jackson, a professor of environmental sciences at Stanford, who co-authored of the study.

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UPDATED: Four Earthquakes Rattled Texas Last Week, Another on Sunday

After 20 earthquakes in a month, will state regulators respond?

Photo: OLIVER BERG DPA/LANDOV

Regulators are trying to craft rules to respond to the dramatic uptick in quakes.

It was a shaky week in Texas last week with three small earthquakes rattling the Dallas-Fort Worth area and a slightly more powerful quake detected in South Texas.

The first quake measuring magnitude 2.4 struck near Arlington. It prompted some residents to call 9-11 after feeling their houses shake and hearing “explosions,” according to the  the Forth Worth Star Telegram.

Earthquakes are often accompanied by loud “booms,” something that has become a source of anxiety in newly quake-prone parts of the state.

The quake coincided with a water main break that morning that left about a dozen homes without water. The City of Arlington tells StateImpact Texas that the water main break was not caused by the earthquake.

On Thursday, a second quake hit North Texas this one measuring 2.9. It was centered near an elementary school in Irving.

The South Texas quake was the strongest of the three. It measured 3.2 and was centered about two miles southeast of Charlotte. It struck on Wednesday, but was not reported by the USGS until Thursday.

A fourth quake again rattled Arlington on Friday evening, it measured 2.5.

All of the quakes happened in parts of the state with extensive oil and gas drilling activity.

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What an On-Again, Off-Again El Niño Means For Texas

For El Nino to fully appear, the ocean temperature must change the atmosphere.

Photo by Mose Buchele

For El Nino to fully appear, the ocean temperature must enter a feedback loop with the atmosphere.

Earlier this year Lower Colorado River Authority meteorologist Bob Rose, liked what he was seeing in the forecast.

“I’m optimistic that we will get into a pattern of above normal rainfall this fall continuing into next winter and possibly into next spring as well,” he said in April.

But since then things changed.

After much ado, the El Niño predicted by many meteorologists hasn’t quite showed itself in the form rainfall yet. While there’s still a chance it could strengthen before the summer’s end, it’s not likely it will meet its initial forecasted fury.

“El Niño, while it looked like it was really starting to ramp up, and would really start to develop in September. It actually took a pause in July,” he says.

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Audubon Society: Over One Hundred Texas Birds at Risk From Climate Change

The endangered golden cheeked warbler could be at even greater risk, depending on what climate change does to its habitat.

Photo Courtesy of TPWD

The endangered golden-cheeked warbler could be at even greater risk, depending on what climate change does to its habitat.

Over three hundred species of birds are at risk from climate change in North America, according to a report from the National Audubon Society. Many of them can be found in Texas.

Brian Trusty, Executive Director of Audubon Texas, says the study has identified over one hundred Texas species that run the risk of losing significant habitat due to climate change (see below for details on this list).

These are birds species that “will see a significant change and or reduction of the climate suitable habitat over the next 10, 40 or 60 years,”  Trusty tells StateImpact Texas.

The report used projected migration paths to determine the fate of bird species. It also pulled from bird “census” data, like the Christmas Bird Count, to determine traditional nesting ranges, and preferred weather conditions of bird species.

“We were utilizing over a hundred years collected from data to pinpoint the suitable climate areas of the home ranges of those species,” says Trusty.

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How Advances in Tech and Research Could Help Confront Future Drought

Climatologists could one day predict the viability of soil by measuring and forecasting moisture levels.

Photo courtesy of the LCRA

Climatologists could one day predict the viability of soil by measuring and forecasting moisture levels.

A couple years ago UT Professor Zong-Liang Yang was at a conference on extreme weather in the Netherlands. It was 2012, just one year after the worst single-year drought in Texas history.

When it came to discussing extreme weather, Texas seemed like a good place to be.  He suggested to colleagues that their next conference should take place in the Lone Star State.

Two years later, he and dozens of some of the world’s leading climate experts from 10 different countries have descended upon UT-Austin to talk about improving our ability to forecast and prepare for extreme weather. They seem confident that they’re making progress.

That might come as a surprise considering how often meteorologists appear to get it wrong, but Yang points out that forecasting is a science that’s made massive leaps in the past fifty years.

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