Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas


Why Wildfires are Growing, and Whether You’re at Risk

All this week we’re bringing you stories on the 2011 Labor Day Wildfires that destroyed over a thousand homes in Central Texas. On Monday, we looked at some of the complications that led to the fire beyond the well-known heat and drought. Later today, we’ll bring you a story of a narrow escape from the Pedernales Bend Fire that weekend.

Map by NPR

A new map by NPR shows you the fire risk in your area, and where major fires are currently burning in the country.

One takeaway from the series is that wildfires are becoming larger and more destructive. In the slideshow report above by NPR science correspondent Christopher Joyce, you can learn why the danger has grown.

What’s the current fire risk in your area? Well, there’s a map for that. Matt Stiles and the NPR digital team have put together an interactive map of wildfire dangers and active fires in the country, which you can see here. It’s updated daily. For the moment, Texas falls in the low and moderate risk categories.

Drought Update: No Improvement Here, But El Nino is Coming

Photo by Robert Burns/Texas Agrilife

Larry Lambert and his grandson, Noah, cut hay near Weston, north of Dallas, in the August heat.

The latest U.S. Drought Monitor map shows no signs of improvement for much of Texas, and some portions of Central Texas have moved from moderate to severe drought.

Overall, the state is in much, much better shape than a year ago, when nearly 80 percent of Texas was in the worst stage of drought, “exceptional.” Less than one percent of the state is at that level now.

But despite a wet winter and some good rain events since, rainfall averages from June and July combined were a bit lower than normal for the state. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) new seasonal drought outlook says that in western parts of the state, dry conditions are are likely to “persist or intensify,” while in Central and East Texas, some improvement is possible over the next few months.

Farmers and ranchers are keeping a watchful eye on rain and weather conditions. Mostly, they’re seeing a lot of heat. On August 13, 15 high-temperature records were broken. “The heat has been hard on already stressed crops,” the Texas Agrilife Extension writes in its latest crop and weather outlook. “All dryland cotton has been abandoned in Hardeman County, as well as a quarter of the irrigated cotton.”  An Agrilife extension agent in the county said they’ve had four straight 112-degree days and “near-record” heat over the past few weeks.

But as the La Nina weather pattern leaves and her El Nino counterpart enters, Texas could be in for a wetter fall. Continue Reading

Fracking’s Link to Smog Worries Some Texas Cities

Flaring gas at well site in DeWitt County

In South Texas, state environmental regulators are using helicopters equipped with infrared cameras to sweep across gas and oil well sites. They’re looking for toxic vapor leaks that otherwise would be invisible. The leaks are from open hatches or bad valves on tanks and pipes. But what the state is finding—and not finding—is part of the debate over whether fracking threatens to dirty the air in Texas towns where drilling is surging.

“We are being proactive in trying to look at and address these issues,” says David Brymer, director of air quality with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). Continue Reading

Life By the Drop: A Growing Thirst in Austin

Last year’s drought forced Texans to take a hard look at their water resources. But in many ways the crisis just underlined a scarcity already looming in the state. Most people in Texas live in urban areas, yet most of the water still goes to rural agriculture.

Where will the state find the water to sustain its booming urban population? Many believe some of it will have to come from agriculture, where farmers and ranchers will have to cut back. Others stress conservation. And some think that Texans should be investing in major infrastructure projects to develop new water supplies, like desalination.

Today we take a look at where the city of Austin fits into all of this. During roughly the same time frame that Texans endured the worst single-year drought in the state’s history, Austin was the second fastest-growing city in the U.S.

Continue Reading

Why We Don’t Drink More Waste Water

Water is becoming scarcer in Texas, and the solutions being passed around as of late are varied. Desalination, conservation and new reservoirs are all on the table. Another less, ummmm, palatable solution that is already being used in Texas? Treating “effluent” (i.e. waste water) to be used again for drinking, cooking and cleaning.

A new video op-ed in the New York Times by filmmaker Jessica Yu looks at the psychological barriers to adapting waste water for re-use, featuring cockroaches and a creative “Folgers switch“-style test marketing of bottled treated affluent called Porcelain Springs.

Every summer, residents of Houston enjoy what you could call “recycled” water sent down the Trinity River from their neighbors to the north in Dallas. It works for them, so why not do it everywhere we need water? “In Israel, more than 80 percent of household wastewater is recycled, providing nearly half the water for irrigation,” Yu writes. “A new pilot plant near San Diego and a national “NEWater” program in Singapore show it’s practical to turn wastewater into water that’s clean enough to drink. Yet, in most of the world, we are resistant to do so.”

You can watch the video above, which is culled from clips from a forthcoming documentary, Last Call at the Oasis.

A Fish a Day: One Man’s Quest to Get Kids Fishing

Keith Miller set a simple, yet challenging goal for himself a year ago: catch a fish every single day for the entire year. He did it to raise money to help the Junior Hunters and Anglers of America (and, of course, promote fishing) for kids and families. And despite having to endure sickness, drought and extreme weather, Miller achieved that goal on a foggy morning this weekend on the banks of the Brazos River in Waco.

Miller, an associate director of athletics at Baylor University, began his angling odyssey on April, 1 2011. This was the second time Miller completed such a pledge, but it wasn’t easy. He fought through strep throat, a hurt shoulder and twisted ankle, inclement weather and the rigors of a full-time job in order to succeed. And he only used artificial lures to catch the fish. Continue Reading

Robert Lee, The Texas Town That Nearly Went Dry

This article was reported by PBS Newshour in collaboration with StateImpact Texas.

All this week we’ve been posting videos and reports from a series on the drought by PBS Newshour done in collaboration with StateImpact Texas. (And a ten-minute television segment aired Thursday night on PBS, which you can watch here.) The series is part of a larger project by PBS Newshour in partnership with local public media, Coping With Climate Change, that looks at how a transforming climate affect’s everyday life. Today’s story focuses on Robert Lee in West Texas, a town of a little over a thousand people that nearly ran dry during the drought.

John Jacobs is the proud mayor of Robert Lee, where his family has lived since the Civil War. And he’ll tell you that he’s never seen anything like this.

“We started to get concerned about 2 years ago that it was going to turn into something,” Jacobs says. “Of course, like everyone else, we thought it was going to rain.”

But it rarely did. Continue Reading

PBS Newshour: Drilling Deeper to Find Water

One popular solution to running low on water? Drill a well. In Texas alone, there are an estimated million of them.

But with the extreme Texas drought stressing aquifers, while more and more people are sucking water out of them, many wells have ended up being too shallow. In its latest report on the drought – done in collaboration with StateImpact Texas – PBS Newshour looks at how companies that drill wells are keeping busy digging deeper and adding storage tanks for their customers.

Watch the report above or read the full story at PBS Newshour.

During Texas Drought, Pouring a Tall Glass of ‘Cloud Juice’

When you get a second, step outside. Take a look at your roof. Where you may just see shingles, one Texan sees a new source of water.

Richard Heinichen of Dripping Springs, Texas has built a successful business selling bottled rainwater, and as of late he’s been busy taking that work one step further. He’s building rainwater collection systems for residences that can provide their entire water supply.

Watch the video report from PBS Newshour above, part of a reporting collaboration with StateImpact Texas, to learn how Heinichen is harvesting water from the clouds. And stay tuned for more on how rainwater harvesting can boost water supplies, even in times of drought.

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