Kate Galbraith reported on clean energy for The New York Times from 2008 to 2009, serving as the lead writer for the Times' Green blog. She began her career at The Economist in 2000 and spent 2005 to 2007 in Austin as the magazine's Southwest correspondent. A Nieman fellow in journalism at Harvard University from 2007 to 2008, she has an undergraduate degree in English from Harvard and a master's degree from the London School of Economics.
AMARILLO — By an interstate overpass along the languid Canadian River near Amarillo, off-road vehicles zooming by are a common sight.
“They get in the river and run up and down it,” said Gene Wilde, a professor of biology at Texas Tech University. It’s legal, he said, but “they’re not supposed to get in the water. Technically, if there was a federal marshal out here, that is harassing the fish.”
Wilde has reason to care: The Arkansas River shiner — not a beer but a small, silvery minnow — likes to spawn in this river, with its sandy shores. The fish, which is no longer found in Arkansas, has a prime spot on the federal government’s list of threatened species. Drought diminished the river — and the fish — so badly two years ago that Wilde and others collected shiners to take to a hatchery in Oklahoma.
But the Canadian’s challenges go well beyond off-roaders bumping through delicate habitat. The river itself is “pretty puny,” said Kent Satterwhite, general manager of the Canadian River Municipal Water Authority, which supplies water for Panhandle cities and industries. Despite its name, the authority now gets its water from the Ogallala Aquifer, and two years ago it spent tens of millions of dollars to buy more Ogallala rights from the oil billionaire T. Boone Pickens. Continue Reading →
A device that transmits information on soil moisture in a cornfield belonging to David Ford (standing) a farmer near the Texas Panhandle town of Dumas. He is participating in a water-saving demonstration project.
DUMAS — Deep in the Texas Panhandle, where the decline of the Ogallala Aquifer has left farmers fearful for their future, Harold Grall is hoping his field of tiny green corn plants will survive with minimal watering.
“We’re doing everything that we know possible that we can do to conserve water,” Grall, a corn farmer, said as his pickup bounced toward the 120-acre field.
He planted the cornfield later than most, in an effort to capture more summer rainfall and reduce the need for Ogallala water. He also did not water it before planting the corn seeds, a risky move for land parched after three years of drought.
Grall’s cornfield is part of a closely watched demonstration project aimed at showing farmers how to use less irrigation water on their crops. It was put together by a groundwater authority in the Panhandle that strictly limits the amount of Ogallala water each farmer can pump. The project reflects the harsh reality that has taken hold across the drought-stricken state: farmers, who account for more than half of the water used in Texas, must learn to do more with less, just like cities and industrial plants. Continue Reading →
Roy Thornhill Sr. (center) voices his concern as residents of the City of Blue Mound, Texas, gather at their community center, on Monday, March 4, 2013. The small North Texas City of Blue Mound held a town hall meeting on Monday, March 4, for its residents to sign a petition against what they say are unjustifiably high water rate increases.
Officials in the North Texas town of Blue Mound and the town’s representative in the state House say they are upset and baffled by Gov. Rick Perry’s veto of a bill that would have made it easier for Blue Mound to gain control of its water system.
The town’s water is provided by a private company, Monarch Utilities, a subsidiary of SouthWest Water Company. Officials in Blue Mound, which is north of Fort Worth and home to about 2,400 people, have complained that they have considerably higher water rates than the town’s neighbors. House Bill 1160, sponsored by State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, would have made it easier for Blue Mound to obtain the right to run its system.
Perry vetoed the bill on Friday. “At a time when infrastructure is a focus for our growing state, this bill would provide a disincentive for development by private utilities,” the governor said in a statement accompanying the veto. He noted there is also “pending litigation directly related to this issue.” Continue Reading →
The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday issued a unanimous ruling for Oklahoma over a North Texas water district in a case over delivery of water from the Red River.
The case, Tarrant Regional Water District v. Herrmann, Rudolf J. et al, pitted fast-growing North Texas against the state of Oklahoma. The Tarrant Regional Water District, which serves Fort Worth and other North Texas communities, wanted to buy water from Oklahoma reservoirs, but Oklahoma passed laws that effectively meant it wouldn’t sell.
The Tarrant district sued six years ago and has spent $6 million on the lawsuit, according to water district spokesman Chad Lorance. On Thursday, the Supreme Court upheld a ruling from the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Continue Reading →
LULING — Amid the dry weeds on a 470-acre ranch here, a rusted head of steel pokes up, a vestige of an oil well abandoned decades ago. Across the field stand two huge, old wooden oil tanks, one of them tilting like a smokestack on the Titanic.
“Basically I get 61 acres here I can’t do anything with,” said Stuart Carter, the landowner, who is in a legal dispute with the oil producer operating on part of his ranch over who should clean up the site. Carter fears that the oil well, probably dating to the 1930s, could create a pathway for saltwater or oil to contaminate the groundwater.
Abandoned oil field equipment is a common problem in Texas, which is home to vast numbers of old wells that were never properly sealed. Some remain from the heady decades of the early- to mid-20th century, before current standards kicked in. In recent decades, regulators have worked to plug the old wells so they do not act as a conduit for liquid pollutants to enter groundwater. But some fear that the recent surge in oil drilling, brought about by the modern practice of hydraulic fracturing, will set off worrisome encounters with the old wells.
“Not every unplugged well leads to pollution, but a high percentage of wells that are left unplugged do present pollution hazards,” said Scott Anderson, an oil and gas expert based in Austin with the Environmental Defense Fund. Continue Reading →
Just as Gov. Rick Perry and lawmakers finalize plans to spend $2 billion on water-supply projects around the state, a court decision could force Texas to rethink its water-planning process.
Last week, Texas’ 11th Court of Appeals ruled that two regional plans feeding into the 2012 state water plan — a 300-page document that underlies the Legislature’s new water initiatives — contained conflicting recommendations.
In the case, Texas Water Development Board v. Ward Timber, the appellate court upheld a lower court’s decision and ruled against the Texas Water Development Board, the architect of the state water plan.
It ruled in favor of landowners concerned about the proposed construction of a reservoir on their property, and urged the water board to come up with a “a more considered plan.”
The water board could appeal to the Texas Supreme Court. But if the ruling is upheld, the upshot, according to some water experts, is that Texas’ water planning process is now far more open to legal challenges. Continue Reading →
The lead oil and gas regulator in Texas passed new rules for fracking and drilling wells today. (Photo of a Cabot natural gas drill at a fracking site in Pennsylvania.)
The Texas Railroad Commission passed a long-awaited rule on Friday to strengthen the construction of oil and gas wells.
The rule, known as the “well-integrity rule,” passed by a unanimous vote among the three commissioners. It will take effect next January, and will update the commission’s requirements for the process of drilling wells, putting pipe down them and cementing things in place.
“We are sending a strong message to the rest of the states and the federal government that we are doing things right in Texas,” said Commissioner David Porter, in comments shortly before the rule was adopted.
The rule also contains some new requirements for hydraulic fracturing, the water-intensive rock-breaking process that takes place after the well is drilled. Continue Reading →
If lawmakers do not act soon, the agency that regulates oil and gas in Texas could disappear.
A legislative review of that agency, the Texas Railroad Commission, failed this session, and a measure that would keep the agency alive until 2015 or later doesn’t include any reference to the agency.
“It means the Railroad Commission will go away,” said state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton.
Bonnen chairs the Sunset Advisory Commission, which is charged with periodically assessing and renewing the charters of state agencies. The RRC’s “sunset” legislation failed in 2011, and lawmakers extended the life of the agency until this year. It didn’t work; the legislation that would have renewed the agency’s charter and made additional changes has already failed again.
What’s more, House Bill 1675, this year’s version of the “safety net” that rescued the RRC and other agencies last year, doesn’t include the Railroad Commission this time. Unless lawmakers add it in the final days of the session, the agency will go out of business. Continue Reading →
The Ogallala Aquifer suffered its second-worst drop since at least 2000 in a large swath of the Texas Panhandle, new measurements show.
The closely watched figures, published this week by the High Plains Underground Water Conservation District, cover a 16-county area stretching from south of Lubbock to Amarillo. The Ogallala wells measured by the district experienced an average drop of 1.87 feet from 2012 to 2013. That makes it one of the five or 10 worst drops in the district’s more than 60-year history, said Bill Mullican, a hydrogeologist with the district.
“There are some pretty remarkable declines,” Mullican said. One well in the western part of the water district, he said, dropped 19 feet over the year.
The vast majority of Texas is enduring a drought, but the Panhandle has been especially hard hit, causing farmers to pump more water to make up for the lack of rain. That depletes the amount of water stored in the aquifer over the long term, which means future generations will find less water to pump to grow crops.
Growing up on Long Island in New York, Diana Davids Hinton never thought much about oil drilling. “The closest we got to oil and gas was the local Exxon station,” she says.
But upon moving to the Midland-Odessa area in 1973, “I learned it sure wasn’t easy to do 19th-century British history in the middle of Texas,” said Hinton, whowrote her dissertation on the seventh Earl of Carlisle, a 19th-century Briton. So she made the natural move to study oil, and she found herself in the midst of one of the great boom-and-bust cycles of all time.
As a history professor at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin, she has co-written two books on the colorful history of Texas oil. Another one on the Barnett Shale is under contract with TCU Press and, she hopes, will be out on the shelves in two years. Yet another project on Texas’ post-World War IIpetroleum historyis also in the works.
She spoke with the Tribune about how the current boom compares to the past and how the Railroad Commission of Texas — whose name lawmakers failed to change this session — came to regulate oil in the first place.