Crews work to dislodge a barge from Longhorn Dam, the dam that creates Lady Bird Lake in downtown Austin.
A lot of people who walk or drive past Lady Bird Lake in downtown Austin probably assume it’s a natural feature. They appreciate the trails and parks that line the lake’s 416 acres, unaware of the series of floodgates on the Longhorn Dam that hold its waters in. But recent flooding along the waterway has called attention to longstanding mechanical problems at the dam, problems that the City of Austin is aware of, but hasn’t found the money to address.
While its been called the “jewel in the crown” of Austin, Lady Bird Lake was created to serve a utilitarian purpose: to provide water for a now-decommissioned gas power plant in the Holly neighborhood of East Austin. Because of its connection to the power plant, the dam is operated under the supervision of Austin Energy, the city’s publicly-owned electric utility. Built in 1960, the floodgates on Longhorn Dam have stored and released water from the lake for over 50 years. Now that age is showing.
“There’s been a lack of maintenance on the dam for the last 15 years,” Dennis Hipp, a recently-retired Austin Energy employee tells StateImpact Texas. “It’s steadily gotten worse and it’s to the point now where it’s going to start doing some damage. [Both] upstream and down.”
After 20 earthquakes in a month, will state regulators respond?
State Oil and Gas Regulator Says No Changes Needed After Latest Earthquake Swarm
After twenty minor earthquakes in a month, residents in the small towns of Azle and Springtown outside of Fort Worth are understandably confused about why their once-stable region is now trembling on a near-daily basis.
Teachers in the Azle school district are taking a page from the California playbook and holding earthquake drills for students. Inspectors are making regular visits to the earthen Eagle Mountain Lake dam, as well as others in the area, checking for damage. (So far they’ve found none.) And locals like Rebecca Williams are constantly looking at their own homes for damage. So far she’s found cracks in her home, driveway and in a retaining wall in her backyard.
The quakes have been small, below the threshold that is known to cause significant damage. But they’ve unnerved residents like Williams, who moved out to Eagle Mountain Lake looking for some peace and quiet.
“You can actually see my house rocking from side to side,” Williams says. She was at home when the largest of the quakes (magnitude 3.6) struck on the evening of November 19th. “I tried to get up and run downstairs,” she says. “And for a moment, I couldn’t run, because the house was shaking so bad!”
In September, the most recent month for the data, drillers in Texas pulled about 2.7 million barrels of oil a day from the earth, most of it from the state’s two hottest shale plays, in the Eagle Ford region in South Texas and the Permian Basin in the west.
“The Permian’s already producing over a million barrels a day of oil, and the Eagle Ford’s up to about 650,000 barrels per day. And so it appears to be only a matter of time before we have two oil fields in Texas producing — by themselves — a million barrels per day,” Tom Tunstall, Director of the Center for Community and Business Research at University of Texas at San Antonio tells StateImpact Texas.
But the current 2.7 million barrel per day figure figure is “record-breaking” only in terms of government records. The fact is that Texas pumped far more oil in the early seventies, but the EIA simply did not keep track of daily oil production back then. According to historical annual data, provided to StateImpact Texas by the EIA, the Texas oil boom peaked in 1972, when drillers pumped around 3.4 million barrels a day on average from Texas oil fields.
Still, if trends continue, experts say the new boom could rival the previous one in a matter of years. Continue Reading →
A map of reported Anthrax cases in Texas, by county. Map by Michael Marks
Texas is cattle country: there are nearly 13 million cows wandering through Texas, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. That’s over 14 percent of the country’s total cattle population.
And our bovine friends have some company: there are also approximately 1.3 million goats, nearly one million horses, and 3.6 million deer.
So if just one grazing animal died of a lethal and highly transmittable disease, there would be cause for concern that large numbers of animals could be at risk.
You might have heard that there was a national “Stand Down” yesterday – a day designated to create safety awareness at oil and gas sites in Texas and the rest of the country.
The Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration has been holding these throughout the year, calling on companies to have workers stop for part of the day and focus on safety and training to help reduce accidents in the oil and gas industry. Those accidents have been on the rise, with the number of fatalities more than doubling in the last four years and reaching their highest level in a decade.
“Too many workers are dying in the oil and gas drilling industry,” Dr. David Michaels said at the event in Houston. “Employers need to ensure that jobs are planned out, everyone has adequate training in all aspects of safety and workers need to be part of the planning.”
But chances are the “Stand Down” didn’t catch your eye. Instead you probably read the many headlines about a gas pipeline explosion in Ellis County.
Thursday morning, a construction crew at a Chevon natural gas pipeline just outside the small town of Milford was “performing excavation activities,” according to the company, when a 10-inch liquified gas pipeline was ruptured. The black smoke reached all the way to Dallas, some 50 miles away. Continue Reading →
Dried up mud from the lake bottom at Lake Arrowhead State Park near Wichita Falls, Texas, September 2013.
Even if Rains Return, Climate Change Still Puts Texas Water Supplies at Risk
After years of drought, the city of Wichita Falls in North Texas is going to Stage 4 water restrictions this week, which bans all outdoor watering: No car washes. No more city water for golf courses. And no watering your lawn, of course. It’s the first time the city has moved to this stage, declaring a “drought disaster.”
While a lack of rainfall is certainly to blame for the sorry state of reservoirs in the region, it isn’t the only culprit. Evaporation has also played a big part in making the drought so destructive.
Map by Texas Water Development Board
Reservoir levels across the Western half of Texas remain dangerously low.
A typical year in Wichita Falls will see around 28 days with temperatures of a hundred degrees or higher. In 2011, they had 100 days over 100 degrees.
“Think about that for a minute,” Rusell Schreiber, Public Works Director, said while announcing the new restrictions this week. “That’s over three months of temperatures over a hundred degrees. One-fourth of the entire year.”
All that heat leads to more evaporation in the large, shallow reservoirs of North and West Texas. And it’s not limited to that region. Last year, the Highland Lakes, reservoirs for the city of Austin, lost more water to evaporation than the entire city used from them over the whole year. Continue Reading →
How Texas counties voted on Prop 6. Counties in Blue passed the measure; Counties in Red voted against it. Map by Matt Wilson/StateImpact.
There wasn’t much nail-biting on either side of the Proposition 6 debate as people watched the votes come in on Tuesday. The measure, which will move $2 billion dollars from the state’s Rainy Day Fund to start a fund for water projects, won approval from over 73 percent of the state.
But as poll watchers began digging into the turnout, competing versions of what those numbers mean for the future of water in Texas began to take shape.
Speaker of the House Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, led the Water Texas PAC, which spent nearly two million dollars to promote the measure, pointed to the broad base of support to call the victory a triumph for bi-partisanship and coalition building.
“Small businesses, manufacturing, the energy industry, farmers and ranchers all came together very strongly,” said Straus at his PAC’s election night party.
Opponents of the measure say the way people voted points to a looming confrontation between water-rich rural areas and thirsty urban consumers. Continue Reading →
A photo of a rusted out pipe taken during a TCEQ inspection of a dam. This picture is now used in dam safety workshops presented by TCEQ.
This is part two of a series devoted to looking at the infrastructure of dams in Texas, and what can be done to improve it. You can find part one hereand part threehere.
In 2008, the Texas State Auditor’s office released the kind of report that keeps public officials awake at night. It found that state regulators were not ensuring the proper maintenance of thousands of dams in Texas. The audit found that state inspectors had never visited hundreds of dams that could cause loss of life if they failed.
The Dam Safety Program with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is in charge of inspecting the state’s dams. Warren Samuelson, the program’s manager, says that his department has added staff and made progress since that audit was issued.
“At the end of 2011 we had all of them… except a handful that we couldn’t get into. We were able to look at all of these high and significant hazard dams,” Samuelson told StateImpact Texas.
Usually these include exactly what you might expect: hunters shooting game from their vehicles, anglers exceeding catch limits, and so on. But the field notes are also worth reading because of the occasional unexpected gems like these:
In San Patricio County, a game warden received a call about someone keeping a family of deer as pets. When the warden arrived at the scene, the homeowner claimed that “he knew this day would come,” before leading the warden to the pen where he kept the deer. The deer were relocated to a more suitable habitat.
A Henderson County man accidentally shot a deer out of season in October of 2010. Even though he was only 50 yards away, he claimed to have mistaken the deer for a dog.
On Sept. 4, 2011 in Harris County, two game wardens were contacted by a distressed waterfront restaurant owner. Apparently, a 76-foot catamaran had run into his restaurant’s dock. The dock was dislodged from the establishment, causing some of his property to fall in the water. When the wardens caught up to the catamaran, the boat’s operator was unable to explain why he had hit the dock. To the surprise of no one, he was arrested for boating while intoxicated.
StateImpact Texas categorized every Game Warden Field Notes entry dating back to 2010 in order to illustrate the most common offenses that wardens encounter.