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A Highly Subjective List of the Hot, Hotter and Hottest Texas Enviro Stories of 2011

by Published on
photo by Jen Reel
Dead catfish at OC Fisher Reservoir near San Angelo

Our planet is facing the greatest problems it’s ever faced. Ever. So whatever you do, don’t be bored. This is absolutely the most exciting time we could have possibly hoped to be alive. And things are just starting.

-“Waking Life”

This was one hell of a news year. I don’t know if this is true of every era, but the world just seems to keep spinning faster and faster while we all hold on for dear life. In 2011, history-changing events erupted like a volcano only to be quickly eclipsed by others. Just keeping up with “things” was an impossible task, much less trying to figure out what they meant. Cue that awful Billy Joel song.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eFTLKWw542g

The Arab Spring. Fukushima. Occupy Wall Street. The end of the Iraq War. The death of Kim Jong-Il. I can’t take it anymore!

But as much as things seemed to happen to us (especially in the extreme weather department), ordinary folks also proved that the future is always up for negotiation. #OWS

In short, it was a wild year. I feel lucky that I *only* have to report on the state of Texas. The news of the nation or the planet is much too much. And, you know, plenty happened in the Lone Star enviro beat alone.

So, because there aren’t enough end-of-year lists clogging the interwebs, here’s my list of the Top Environmental Stories of 2011, Texas Edition.

 

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1) The Great Drought of 2011 (… and 2012, 2013, 2014… ?), or How I Learned to Stop Praying and Love to Worry

To my mind, this is the environmental story of the year for Texas. And not just because journalists found so many compelling and interesting and odd ways to cover the drought. Sometimes IslandsHay thieves. Stray donkey crisis. Mistletoe shortage. Uncovered relics.

From El Paso (118 days without a drop of rain) to the Piney Woods, from the dwindling lakes of West Texas to the water-deprived rice farmers of the Gulf Coast, this drought touched every square inch of the state. Some small towns — Llano, Groesbeck, Robert Lee — came dangerously close to running out of water.

Farmers and ranchers suffered $5.2 billion in losses. The Texas Forest Service estimated that up to half a BILLION trees succumbed to the lack of rainfall and intense heat.

Record after record fell, perhaps none so awful as this:  “Average temperatures for June through August were over 2°F above the previous Texas record and were close to to the warmest statewide summer temperatures ever recorded in the United States.”

The political response to the drought was dispiriting. Rick Perry unsuccessfully prayed for rain and continued his world-historical level of scientific ignorance. Lawmakers, overcome with an austerity fever, did virtually nothing during the legislative session to address the present and future water crisis. The state water plan is underfunded to the tune of $50 billion.

Two things that got largely ignored:

1) While state water planners compare this drought to the so-called drought of record of the 50s, the natural record shows clearly that Texas has undergone “mega-droughts” lasting multiple decades since at least 800 AD. Check the tree rings, if you don’t believe me. 

2) The extreme Texas drought was part of a larger pattern of extreme weather that rocked North America: heat waves, floods, unprecedented tornado outbreaks, hurricanes, wildfires and winter storms. Climate change is undoubtedly a significant factor in many, if not most, of these natural disasters, including our little hot spell.

The great hot mess of 2011 may be our new normal. I’m sure that will do wonders for the Texas Miracle since every “job creator” wants to relocate to a pressure cooker.

Sadly, 2011 may not have anything on 2012. The state climatologist has warned that the drought of 2011 could last until 2020 and almost certainly will persist into 2012.

 

2) Wildfires 2011: Smokey the Bear’s Very, Very Bad Year

Technically, this probably belongs under the heading of “drought” since this year’s horrific wildfire season was primarily a function of heat and low rainfall. But that wouldn’t do justice to the unprecedented scope and severity of the wildfires of 2010-2011.

Sometimes it felt like we were living in hell. Firefighters, many of them underfunded and under-equipped volunteers, fought infernos from the shores of Possum Kingdom Reservoir to the doorstep of Austin. Some 4 million acres burned in all, destroying crops, thousands of homes and an entire state park. At one point, 251 of Texas’ 254 counties had burn bans in effect — a record.

The season’s most destructive and most iconic fire broke out on Labor Day weekend among the Lost Pines of Bastrop County. It wasn’t completely extinguished for a month. Dubbed the Bastrop County Complex fire, it killed two people, destroyed 1,673 homes, burned 33,000 acres, devastated Bastrop State Park (help here) and plunged the community into an uncertain rebuilding phase.

 

3) Texas vs. EPA, Year Three of the World’s Most Tedious Battle

This was Rick Perry’s splendid little war. Every action by EPA provided an opportunity for the governor to wave the bloody flag of states’ rights and complain about “federal overreach” and “job-killing regulation.” He was joined by most every top-shelf Republican politician in Texas, including possible gubernatorial aspirant Attorney General Greg Abbott, who at last count had embroiled the state of Texas in 13 different legal actions against EPA.

For environmentalists, the year was bittersweet. On one hand, the Obama administration unexpectedly backed away from instituting tough new national standards for smog. On the other, the EPA unveiled game-changing new rules on pollution from coal-fired power plants, helping to push some of the dirtiest plants into retirement.

Some polluters as well as grid operator ERCOT accused EPA of wanting to turn out the lights and picking on Texas. EPA had a fairly sensible response: get a grip.

 

4) Activists stop the Keystone XL pipeline — for now

The environmental success story of the year.

The 1,900-mile, Canada-to-Texas pipeline is properly understood as a bi-national, nay global, “issue” but savvy activists found ways to make Keystone both local and global. In Texas, Tea Party types joined Sierra Club-istas to oppose the pipeline as a trampling of private property rights as well as a threat to air and water. At a rally I attended in September, Texas tea party darling Debra Medina joined leftie populist Jim Hightower on stage to inveigh against Keystone.

And in August, a handful of Texans, including anti-Keystone rabblerouser David Daniel of Winsboro, East Texas,  were arrested along with over 1,200 others in the biggest act of environmental civil disobedience in decades.

The most remarkable thing about the grassroots uprising against Keystone is how they forced Obama, with an assist from the Republicans in Congress, to make an up-or-down decision. The activists are quite savvily playing on the Obama of 2008, you know, the guy who said his election would herald “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”

 

5) The Texas Legislature Does (Almost) Nothing on Environmental Issues — And That’s a Good Thing.

It looked like a Doomsday scenario: After devastating losses in November 2010, Democrats held just 49 seats in the Texas House to the Republicans’ 101. That gave the GOP, moved even farther to the right by Tea Party insurgents, a super-majority and the ability to pass pretty much whatever they wanted. Despite a ballsy attempt (or two) to strip citizens of their right to contest permits for polluters, not a whole lot of rotten legislation passed. In fact, the Legislature passed a half-way decent bill requiring the disclosure of chemicals used in fracking.

Yes, there were plenty of missed opportunities but enviros should probably be thankful this Lege didn’t round up the state’s remaining endangered species and summarily execute ‘em. Maybe they got all their aggression out through the porkchopper bill

 

BONUS:

Good News!

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is associate editor of the Observer. Forrest specializes in environmental reporting and runs the “Forrest for the Trees” blog. Forrest has appeared on Democracy Now!, The Rachel Maddow Show and numerous NPR stations. His work has been mentioned by The New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Time magazine and many other state and national publications. Other than filing voluminous open records requests, Forrest enjoys fishing, kayaking, gardening and beer-league softball. He holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin.