Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas


How Texas Voted On Prop 6, and What it Could Mean for the Water Plan

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

How Hundreds of ‘Significant Hazard’ Dams Escape State Inspection in Texas

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.

Photo from TCEQ

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 here and part three here.

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.

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No, You Can’t Keep a Pet Deer in Texas

Texas game wardens prevent deer like this one from being hunted illegally.

Photo by flickr user focus-ur-life

Texas game wardens prevent deer like this one from being hunted illegally.

And Other Observations from Game Warden Field Notes

With each new edition of Game Warden Field Notes, a semi-regular release from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, we get a small peek into the day-to-day experience of Texas’ game wardens.

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.

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Despite the Drought, Texans Are Still Tubing

A shallow stretch of the Frio River.

Photo by flickr user mlhradio

A shallow stretch of the Frio River.

To his surprise, Jerry Bates has had a busy summer.

Bates owns Frio River Outfitters & Happy Hollow Grocery in Concan, a small Hill Country community 90 minutes west of San Antonio. In addition to selling basic groceries and camping equipment, Happy Hollow’s main business is renting out tubes and kayaks to tourists on the Frio River.

Bates’ livelihood depends on the Frio, and even though the river has been down, business is up.

“It’s been probably one of the busiest summers we’ve ever had,” he said. “Which is amazing, because the river levels are pretty low right now.”

The low levels are a consequence of Texas’ drought, which continues to dry up bodies of water throughout the state. That includes rivers like the Guadalupe, Comal, San Marcos, and Brazos, all of which are popular tubing destinations. Continue Reading

A Tale of Two Counties: How Drilling Makes Some Flush With Cash

Fracking in Texas.

Photo by Flickr user www_ukberri_net

Fracking in Texas.

But for Those Outside the Boom, It’s Business as Usual

It’s been over four years since a drilling company first drilled for (and hit) oil and gas in the Eagle Ford Shale. Since then, the region has become an economic engine for Texas, and to some degree, the country.

While the region has seen several downsides to the current drilling boom, especially from traffic, accidents and water demands, a look at what the boom has done for coffers in the region shows just how rapidly things have changed.

Drillers have permitted over 10,000 wells, spending billions to get to the oil and gas. Over half a million barrels of oil are now being produced each day, supporting over a hundred thousand jobs.

A Closer Look at Economic Impact

StateImpact Texas recently analyzed data from the State Comptroller’s Office, which records the sales tax allocation history for most of Texas’ cities and counties. The more sales tax a municipality collects, the more goods and services it has sold. The results painted a vivid picture of just how much money is flowing through the Eagle Ford region. Continue Reading

After Rice Farmers Cut Off Last Year, Water Use Cut in Half in Central Texas

Charts by LCRA

Without most rice farming, municipal use made up a much greater share of LCRA water in 2012.

In 2012, for the first time in history, most rice farmers on the Lower Colorado River in South Texas were cut off from water for irrigation. According to an emergency drought plan, there wasn’t enough water in the Highland Lakes of Buchanan and Travis to send water downstream. In the months since, those lakes have continued to drop, and this year rice farmers were cut off once again. New numbers from the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) show just how much was at stake in the decisions to withhold water: if normal amounts had been sent downstream for rice farming, the lakes could very well have dropped to their lowest levels in history.

Dry conditions persist in many parts of Texas, now in a third year of drought. While Central Texas had a relatively good 2012 rain-wise, it didn’t do much for the Highland Lakes. Inflows were below average for most of the year, and the LCRA says that so far this year, inflows are looking more like they did in 2011, which were the lowest ever recorded.

In a typical year, agricultural use makes up more than twice the amount of water as municipal use on the Lower Colorado. But last year, after cutting off most rice farmers downstream, that situation was reversed. Without most rice farming, water use in Central Texas was nearly cut in half last year, going down 45 percent from 2011. Continue Reading

Why Texas Cattle Ranching Continues to Decline

Ranchers and farmers were undeniably the worst-hit when it came to the Texas drought of 2011. After over $7 billion in losses in the agricultural sector that year (with most of those losses in cattle and cotton), some never recovered. Over a million head of cattle were sold out of the state in 2011, and ranching hasn’t made a comeback since:

Graph by USDA

As of January 1, cattle and calf numbers were at their lowest levels since 1967, with a drop of 11 percent in beef cattle from the year before. Earlier this year, the Cargill Beef Processing Plant in Plainview closed, laying off 2,000 employees. That was about ten percent of the town’s population.

As the drought that began in October 2010 persists in most of the Western half of the state, there’s good reason to worry that another dry year will be devastating for many Texas ranchers.

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Natural Gas Exports to Mexico Skyrocket

Photo by Mose Buchele for StateImpact Texas

The Mexican border. More and more pipelines are being built to bring natural gas from Texas into Mexico.

When the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced that it would issue a permit to export liquified natural gas to new markets from a facility in Texas recently, the news was greeted as a game changer. Opening international markets could drive the price of natural gas up domestically, spur a new rush to drill for gas, and stimulate some parts of the economy while disrupting others.

Despite all that excitement, a second, quieter, natural gas export boom is already taking place right under our noses. Mexico is importing a record amount of natural gas to create electricity and feed its growing industrial base. Eighty percent of all the gas Mexico imports comes from the United States, and 60 percent comes directly from pipelines in Texas.

“That’s something that most people probably haven’t been aware of,” David Blackmon, an industry consultant and natural gas advocate told StateImpact Texas. “We’ve always exported natural gas into Mexico, so this whole debate over whether we can export it in liquid form rather than pipelines has always kind of befuddled me.”

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Carbon From Power Plants Down as Coal Continues to Decline

Graph by EIA

Carbon emissisions from power generation are down in the U.S., to their lowest levels in nearly twenty years, and Texas is partly to thank.

A new analysis from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reports that “energy-related” carbon emissions have been declining every year (with the exception of 2010) since 2007. That’s when the drilling processes known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” and horizontal drilling started opening up large domestic sources of natural gas and oil. Texas was the incubator for that technology, and home to the first natural gas-from-fracking boom in the Barnett Shale.

As that natural gas has become easier to drill, its price has gone down, and has been steadily replacing coal for power generation. Natural gas has about half the carbon emissions of coal, and far fewer air pollutants. It’s the least carbon-intensive fossil fuel, according to the EIA. Continue Reading

By the Numbers: Texas’ Long Heat Wave

Photo by Mose Buchele

In Austin, a work of guerrilla art predicted the gradual desertification of Texas at the height of the 2011 drought.

On Tuesday, we reported on how multiple years of unusually warm weather in Texas has changed attitudes about what’s hot and what’s not.

In a nutshell: people are starting to think of hotter-than-average weather as the new normal here in Texas. This year is a case-in-point: thanks to a warmer-than-usual winter, 2012 is currently on track to be the 4th hottest year (in terms of average temperatures) in Texas. But many people, shell-shocked from last year’s record breaking heat, are thinking of this year as a welcome respite.

A lot of the warming trend has to do with weather patterns that take decades to run their course. Strong and re-occurring La Nina patterns in the Pacific, for example, are in large part responsible for the dry, warm weather that Texas has seen since 2005 (with the exception of two wetter-than-average years). And, as we’ve explained in the past, dry weather in Texas means warm weather. But scientists say global climate change has exacerbated those trends, creating even hotter hot spells and drier dry spells.

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