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Forrest for the Trees

An oil field south of Odessa, TX.
An oil field south of Odessa

The amount of water used by frackers in South Texas is increasingly coming into focus—and it’s considerably more than official estimates. In June, the Observer analyzed two different data sources to estimate how much water fracking consumed in three drought-stricken counties in the Eagle Ford Shale. Looking at industry-reported data to the website, we determined that in 2012, fracking-related water usage in just those three counties totaled almost 15,000 acre-feet, or roughly half what the Texas Railroad Commission has said the entire 24-county Eagle Ford Shale will use a decade from now when oil and gas production is expected to peak.

One expert we spoke to, extrapolating from our findings across the whole shale, said the current regional total could be 40,000 to 45,000 acre-feet annually. (A detailed study by University of Texas researchers, paid for by the oil and gas industry, estimated that water consumption would peak at 35,000 acre-feet.)

A limitation to our analysis, of course, was that we only looked at three counties. But now the San Antonio Express-News has taken a similar approach for the entire Eagle Ford Shale. The paper’s findings square almost precisely with ours. Bottom-line: Fracking is consuming a lot more water than previously believed:

A widely cited study from the University of Texas at Austin, funded by the oil and gas industry, had predicted that hydraulic fracturing in the Eagle Ford would use a maximum of around 35,000 acre-feet of water annually.

But the San Antonio Express-News looked at more than 23,000 Texas wells drilled from 2011 to 2013, including more than 6,100 in the Eagle Ford, and found that the oil field is already swallowing more water.

Operators reported using around 43,770 acre-feet last year in 3,522 Eagle Ford wells, the approximate annual usage for 153,000 San Antonio households.

“The oil and gas boom is requiring more water than we have,” said Hugh Fitzsimons, a Dimmit County rancher and a director of the Wintergarden Groundwater Conservation District. “Period.”

It’s important to remember that production in the Eagle Ford Shale only began soaring about three years ago. Like so much with fracking, regulators, scientists, the industry and citizens are learning on the fly. All sorts of assumptions and received wisdom must be chucked out as we learn more. So it is with our assumptions about water consumption.

The data is not perfect. It’s likely incomplete, and there’s a lag between the time when a well is fractured and when the data gets reported.

But it’s the best set of publicly available information about water use for hydraulic fracturing and gives some insight into the shale drilling boom.

The UT paper said the Eagle Ford is a particularly difficult field to predict, and its lead author, Jean-Philippe Nicot, a research scientist at UT’s Bureau of Economic Geology, said he now thinks the actual use in the Eagle Ford is around 40,000 acre-feet annually.

What now?

The immediate impact, I’d wager, of having a somewhat clearer handle on how much water fracking uses is… approximately nothing.

For the “wetter” parts of the Eagle Ford Shale, fracking can probably peacefully co-exist alongside ranching, farming and communities drawing on the aquifers. Conflict is more likely to come in drier, drought-stricken parts of the shale where agriculture is already being squeezed by a declining aquifer.

How, or if, the conflict is resolved will draw on Texas’ convoluted system of groundwater regulation, a system that has more holes in it than a karst aquifer. More likely, the call for oil and gas producers to step up water recycling or water-less fracking techniques will grow. That was the tack the Express-News editorial page took when riffing on their reporter’s story:

But at what cost to the future? We would encourage state leaders and the [Texas Railroad Commission] to pursue regulation to incentivize recycled water use for fracking.

Other options include using effluent and brackish water.

These alternatives wouldn’t eliminate the use of freshwater, but given the drought, coupled with the boom in fracking, every drop counts.

Duck Dynasty and Texas pols
Patrick Michels
Duck Dynasty and Texas pols

Although this member of the WTF Department was blessedly far from American politics for a couple weeks, he could nonetheless feel the warmth of the all-consuming fire of the War on Christmas and the War on the War on Christmas burning from sea to shining sea like a trillion chestnuts roasting over a bonfire of Christmas trees.

Even better, we returned to find three lovely gifts waiting for us in our stocking this week: The very strange U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman is gonna try to beat Sen. John Cornyn by locking down the rodeo clown demographic; our lite guv defends something called “creationalism”; and George P. Bush steps away from the family name by showing some of that famous Bush humility.

First, we catch up with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who continues to listen to the voices in other people’s heads. In a televised debate last week in Waco, the four lite guv candidates were asked about teaching “creationism” in public schools. Dewhurst went first and set the tone for the others by announcing, “I happen to believe in creationalism [sic].”

The other three candidates followed suit by saying that they too believed creationism, which has been soundly rejected by the courts, mainstream educators and more than 150 years of science, should be taught in Texas schools. Unfortunately the moderator did not follow up to ask if Dewhurst believed man walked with dinosaur or merely followed in its footsteps.

Meanwhile, back at the rodeo, the “Nuttiest Freshman in Congress,” Rep. Steve Stockman, was reminding GOP primary voters of his long track record defending the persecuted and downtrodden.

“I stood up for Tuffy the Rodeo Clown when the radical Left took away his job for taking part in a skit that has mocked all presidents past and president,” Stockman said, referring to his invitation he extended earlier this year to a rodeo clown who was condemned for donning a mask of President Obama at a Missouri state fair.

“Now they’re out to get Phil [Robertson of ‘Duck Dynasty’],” Stockman continued. “And trust me, you are next. They will target you in your workplace if we don’t punch back.”

Finally, we end our tour on a note of humility, as befits this season of reflection and giving. In an article at Fox News Latino, George P. Bush makes the case that he’s not like those other Bushes (including his great-grandfather, grandfather, father, uncle, et al) and is in fact a “movement conservative” who aspires to be the next Newt Gingrich and just happens to share the family surname. ‘P’ is running a yawn-inducingly soporific campaign for Texas land commissioner, largely because his money has crowded everyone else out. What better way to cast off your family’s political dynasty and immense intergenerational wealth and privilege than by routinely employing the Royal We?

Bush insists that he’s up to the challenge, noting that he was an early supporter of tea party hero Sen. Ted Cruz, who after less than a year in the Senate has rocketed from relative political unknown to ruler of the Texas GOP.

“That’s something that we bring to the table that’s different,” Bush said. “We’re a mainstream conservative that appeals to all Republicans.”

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Wikimedia Commons
Robert D. Bullard

When Robert Bullard—sociologist, activist and leader of the environmental-justice movement—published his first book, Invisible Houston, in 1987, the city was in the dumps. The oil boom of the late 1970s and early 1980s had turned to bust, and the job losses, foreclosures and emptied malls had tarnished the “Golden Buckle of the Sunbelt,” as the city was known in the boomtown years. But this was Houston, Texas, dammit, a city where all that is solid melts into air and you can do anything with enough money. Soon, the boosters got to work. “Houston, Back on Top to Stay” was the slogan that the Houston Economic Development Council came up with. And, sure enough, Houston emerged from the recession faster than other Texas cities and got back to the business of making money.

But Bullard’s 1987 book wasn’t about Houston’s rollercoaster economy celebrated by the town’s elite. It was about those who gain the least during the booms, lose the most during the busts, and remain invisible throughout. At that time, Houston was still a biracial Southern city, divided between an Anglo majority and a large black minority. It had yet to lay claim to its current cosmopolitanism or its startling new status as the most diverse city in the nation. In Bullard’s telling, it was Houston’s black community—the largest in the South at the time—that suffered largely in silence.

“They are basically invisible when it comes to power, the power to keep things that other people don’t want out of their neighborhoods, the power to get access to the economic infrastructure, the power to get access to the political infrastructure,” he told me.

Twenty-five years later, Houston is reveling in another boom, and poor residents are almost as invisible as ever.

In November, Bullard called together a group of activists, scholars and citizens—mostly African-Americans—at Texas Southern University for “Invisible Houston: Revisited.” After 25 years in California and Atlanta, Bullard returned to Houston two years ago to serve as dean of Texas Southern’s public-policy school. What Bullard sees now is a city that’s undergone dramatic transformation yet remains wedded to an old political structure. It’s a city (and state, really) that loves to tout its “miracle” economy that leaves too many of its citizens behind. It’s a city that barely bats an eye at giving $3 million in tax subsidies to Chevron for an office tower the company was going to build anyway, but balks at even crafting a housing policy for a struggling working class.

“We still have invisible Houston but now the population that’s invisible is much larger and is much more diverse,” Bullard said recently. “That diversity does not translate into the changing of the guards when it comes to the power. It’s like Oz. Who’s actually pulling the strings and running things? It’s not that 75 percent,” he said, referring to the percentage of Houston residents who are non-Anglo.

At the conference, Rice University demographer Stephen Klineberg said Houston has the most even distribution among the four great communities of major U.S. cities: 44 percent Hispanic, 23 percent black, 26 percent white, and 7 percent Asian and other. But don’t call it a melting pot. The city is deeply segregated geographically along race and class lines—a feature, not a bug, of its notoriously laissez-faire attitude. Sarmistha Majumdar, a professor at Texas Southern, said income-based segregation in Houston, based on her analysis of Census tracts, is the worst in the nation. Gentrification of old “inner-city” black neighborhoods is “turning the city inside out,” driving black and brown Houstonians to the “-lands” (Pearland, Sugarland, The Woodlands), where services are scant and public transit minimal.

Along the Ship Channel, the number of tons of carcinogenic pollution has dropped significantly over the decades, but the health impacts on nearby minority neighborhoods are even more disproportionate now than they were in the 1980s—another consequence of inequality.

Still, Bullard is upbeat about the prospects for change. “I am very hopeful,” he said. “When I left 25 years ago, there were not that many people doing the work I do and now there is a whole cadre, a whole army.”

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Houston Mayor Annise Parker
Houston Mayor Annise Parker

It wasn’t even close. Today, the Houston City Council voted 15-2 to join every other major Texas city except one (hello, Fort Worth) in regulating payday loan companies.

Last month, Houston Mayor Annise Parker dropped a compromise plan, saying she wanted “a united front” with other Texas cities.

The lopsided vote surprised some Council observers, who had at least expected a procedural move to delay the vote. Instead, seesawing councilmembers said they felt city action was necessary in light of the Texas Legislature’s failure to do much of anything to rein in the payday loan industry.

The Houston Chronicle captured the attitude:

“Something must be done; something should be done,” Councilman Andrew Burks said. “Our Legislature, they had the ball and dropped it. I don’t like this, but I have to vote for it because … this is the only thing on the table, and it does do something.”

One of the ‘nay’ votes came from Councilmember Helena Brown, aka “Helena Handbasket,” who rails against funding for things like AIDS prevention. The other ‘nay’ was Councilmember Justin James Rodriguez, who evidently was unpersuaded by a withering column this morning (“This payday loan column is for you, Councilman Rodriguez”) by the Chronicle‘s Lisa Falkenberg in which she checks out Rodriguez’s claim that his constituents are unconcerned about the issue by, you know, talking to his constituents.

She stood in the icy rain in her white sweater, telling me how she’d fallen deeper and deeper into the payday quicksand while trying to put food on the table for her out-of-work son and his family.

“There was a lot of reasons, Lisa, for me going to these loan places,” she told me after inviting me to sit in the backseat of the Chevy Tahoe her daughter had loaned her to do errands. “It wasn’t because I wanted new tennis shoes, new scrubs, new perfumes. It was always a necessity. The sad part about it is they’re going to be nice enough to lend you the money but all they’re collecting is months and months of interest (and fees) so the principal’s just sitting there.”

Over the years, the woman – who pleaded with me not to use her name – says she’s had to take loans out with different lenders, sometimes to cover a payment at another place. She let me accompany her to her next stop down the road. I watched her make a $102 payment that didn’t touch the $493 principal.

Rodriguez, who is on his way out of office and is tied to a Cash America lobbyist, has been real cute about his post-council plans, laughingly telling Falkenberg that he’s “keeping all options open” when asked whether he plans to go into the payday loan business.

Robbie Cooper
Robbie Cooper

In early October, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst corralled a handful of conservative bloggers into Iron Works BBQ in downtown Austin. While they noshed on ribs and brisket, Dewhurst entertained questions and ideas from the group. Among the invited attendees was Robbie Cooper, who blogs at and describes himself on the site as an “opinionated sonofabitch” who’s “hardly ever politically correct.” That’s probably an understatement.

“It was nice to finally be able to sit down in a casual and intimate venue with Dewhurst,” Cooper later wrote on his blog, which featured a photo of the two smiling with their arms around each other. Over the years, Cooper has frequently been invited to hang out with, and offer advice to, some of Texas’ top elected officials, including Gov. Rick Perry, Dewhurst and Attorney General/gubernatorial frontrunner Greg Abbott. In 2010, Cooper wrote that “he’d had quite a few opportunities to meet and speak with Gov. Perry,” including a field trip to a shooting range where Perry let him inspect the governor’s Ruger .380.

“I’ve taken a measure of Rick Perry the man—and as a man he truly measures up,” Cooper wrote about the 2010 meeting. In January, Abbott sat down with Cooper for a one-on-one interview at the blogger confab RightOnline in Austin. Then, in September, one of Abbott and Perry’s top advisors—Dave Carney—caused a minor stir when he retweeted a Cooper article on “why Wendy Davis is too Stupid to be Governor.”

Cooper isn’t just a run-of-the-mill right-wing blogger, though. He has a long history of writing violent, racist screeds, labeling black people “animals” and the N-word and writing in stereotypical language when talking about black congressmen. “Ah, Lawd-y I’z may be stupid but I’z is also ig-nent, too,” is how he once captioned a photo of Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee.

In another post, Cooper wrote of a YouTube video depicting an assault, “Nigger is not a word I use lightly or frequently. But make no doubt about it—the two pieces-of-shit animals attacking this woman are indeed worthless niggers.”

Of a Hispanic Texas Tribune reporter, Cooper wrote, “I’m insinuating that you’re [sic] Hispanic heritage might play a role in your biased reporting on matters of illegal immigration.”

Typically, Cooper’s views would be far outside the political mainstream and largely ignored. But as the Texas GOP has drifted more and more rightward, marquee politicians have increasingly embraced fringe activists and grassroots figures. Apparently Dewhurst, Abbott and Perry believe they have more to gain from courting Cooper than they have to lose from associating with a racist.

After Dewhurst’s BBQ summit, the Observer asked his office to comment on what Dewhurst thought of Cooper’s bigoted posts. We received no response, but a day after our first inquiry, Cooper wrote on UrbanGrounds that “a member of Dewhurst’s team alerted me” about our questions. Cooper denied that his posts were racist and went on to note that, “The best that I can tell is that these pantie-wetting Disingenuous White Liberals are upset that I use the word ‘animal’ when describing people who act…well, like animals.”

We finally caught up to Dewhurst at a tea party event in Burleson—the same event at which Dewhurst called for President Obama’s impeachment—and talked to him about Cooper.

“He seemed to indicate he was misquoted,” Dewhurst said. “I had about a three-second conversation with him. So I’m not aware of the things that he’s alleged to have said.” Later, Dewhurst asked to speak to us again. This time, he couldn’t recall having ever met Cooper. When showed some of Cooper’s more colorful writing, the lieutenant governor said, “I couldn’t comment on that.”

Pantie-wetting indeed.

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Speedy Roo, the mascot of the payday loan lender Speedy Cash, in an Austin advertisement.
Jen Reel
Speedy Roo, the mascot of the payday loan lender Speedy Cash, in an Austin advertisement. Staff photo.

In a rebuke to the do-nothing Texas Legislature, Houston took a step toward becoming the fifth major Texas city to pass payday and auto-title loan restrictions. Houston Mayor Annise Parker outlined her proposal last week and announced that she wouldn’t dilute the proposed ordinance based on industry demands.

“I had initially favored a Houston-specific measure, but decided that joining with other Texas cities in a united front on this issue is the best way to send a strong message to the Texas Legislature,” she said.

In a city that often rolls over for big business, Parker took a surprisingly strong stand against the Texas payday loan industry, which did more than $1 billion in business in the Houston metro area in 2012 alone. According to the Houston Chronicle:

She brushed aside concerns about inviting a lawsuit, saying the city is sued daily, and did not finesse her message to the industry.

“They have said they will move outside the city limits of Houston, and I say: Don’t let the door hit you on the way out,” Parker said. “This is not about making a reasonable profit. This is about preying on vulnerable human beings and making an obscene profit.”

The proposed Houston ordinance is similar to those passed in Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Houston and San Antonio. Of Texas’ six largest cities, only Fort Worth still lacks any regulations on payday and auto-title lending. Because the Legislature has repeatedly failed to impose anything more than cursory limits on the industry, the movement to curb usurious and predatory practices has fallen to municipalities, a role that many are embracing.

The city ordinances don’t cap rates, which frequently exceed 500 percent APR. Instead the laws are designed to help break the “cycle of debt” many consumers fall into, digging themselves deeper into debt by “rolling over” rip-off loans and paying more and more in fees while failing to pay down the principal.

The Houston measure, if passed, would cap the size of a payday loan to 20 percent of a borrower’s gross monthly income. Auto-title loans couldn’t exceed 3 percent of a borrower’s income or 70 percent of the vehicle’s value. Borrowers would be limited to three rollovers, or refinances, in the case of single-payment loans (shorter-term loans that are typically due in one lump sum by the borrower’s next payday). Multiple-installment loans, a growing segment of the market and one potentially more dangerous than “traditional” payday loans,” would be to no more than four payments. An earlier draft of the ordinance had much weaker provisions. The City Council could take up the measure as soon as December 11.

The payday loan industry has fiercely opposed city regulations in Texas. Cash America, one of the biggest chains, announced in a conference call with analysts in October that it would be closing all 28 of its “standalone” payday shops in Texas by the end of the year, citing “a disruption … created by the prohibitive local ordinances.”

“It’s a really big statement,” said Ann Baddour of Texas Appleseed, an Austin-based social justice organization that has been one of the statewide leaders on reform. “Houston is the biggest city in Texas. It has the highest number of payday and auto-title stores. … Having five of the six largest cities standing together saying the same thing, I think that’s a pretty powerful voice.”

Wayne Christian
Wayne Christian

WTF Friday will be on hiatus next week for the Thanksgiving holiday, so let us take today to give thanks. We are thankful for the entertainment provided by our friends in politics. Thank you, Rick Perry, for insisting on wearing those MSNBC glasses to make yourself look smarter, a fashion accessory that makes as much sense on you as Ben Roethlisberger donning an ascot. Thank you, Ted Cruz, for being a world-historical elitist at Harvard and pissing off what seems to be the entire class of ’95 who are now gladly providing fodder for endless unflattering Ted’s College Days reminiscences.

Thank you to the State Board of Education, for re-litigating the Scopes Monkey Trial for the 3,062nd time.

Thank you, David Dewhurst, for so shamelessly trying to be someone you’re not, for trying everything to impress the tea party short of donning a tri-corner hat and stapling tea bags to area telephone poles. And thank you for reaching new levels of hyperbole in your latest TV ad, proving your hatred for Barack Obama, alien species that he is, incapable of sharing any human feeling with Republicans.

“With all due respect to President Obama, I can’t think of one thing that I agree with him on.”

Thank you Young Conservatives of Texas at UT-Austin for your decade-long obsession with offensive stunts: affirmative action bake sales, straight-pride parades and the (swiftly canceled) illegal immigrant hunt, which I’m sure sounded like a great idea over beers at Mellow Mushroom. As the group explained on its Facebook page.

“Any UT student who catches one of these ‘illegal immigrants’ and brings them back to our table will receive a $25 gift card. The purpose of this event is to spark a campus-wide discussion about the issue of illegal immigration, and how it affects our everyday lives.”

Thank you, finally, for the second coming of Wayne Christian. He’s a former state representative who’s still referring to himself as “the only Christian on the ballot.” His highlight reel includes trying to exempt himself from the Open Beaches Act and defending legislation banning LGBT centers at universities by explaining that he’d been “racially discriminated against” as a white guy on the high school basketball team. Now, he’s running for Texas Railroad Commission to protect our precious lignites from the oppressor in the White House, as he told the Waco Tea Party [54:10]. Obama, of course, has been so tough on the oil industry that the U.S. is on track to surpass Saudi Arabia in production and the night sky in the South Texas brush country is lit up by flares burning off natural gas.

(By the way, the number of nonsensical statements by Christian in that interview is staggering, including his assertion that he stopped 1,000 abortions a year funded by the taxpayers. Needless to say, I hope, Texas taxpayers do not pay for abortions.)

“[Turn] Texas blue is partially being fought by taking over our oil and gas industry by a president who’s openly said he’s against fracking, who’s against pipelines.”

An artist rendering depicts a new Chevron tower (left).
An artist's rendering of the Chevron office tower

In June, Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Speaker of the House Joe Straus announced that Chevron—one of the world’s largest and most profitable corporations—would be handed a $12 million grant from the state of Texas for building an office tower in downtown Houston. As we wrote at the time, the Chevron subsidy was a perfect example of the problems with the Texas Enterprise Fund and forced the question of whether the company would’ve created the estimated 1,752 jobs anyway. After all, Chevron had telegraphed plans for the office tower site as early as 2008. It had already planned to relocate some employees from San Ramon, California, where the company is headquartered.

At the time, Texas Monthly‘s Paul Burka called for the Texas Enterprise Fund to be scrapped and labeled the Chevron grant “a total waste of public money.”

Regardless of whether the Chevron subsidy is a deal-closing, job-creating incentive or a corporate giveaway, you have to wonder what Chevron—with $240 billion in revenue last year—would do with the $12 million. What were the taxpayers paying for?

Well, now we know. Through state open records law, the Observer obtained a copy of Chevron’s application to the Texas Enterprise Fund. A “project summary” prepared by SumIt Credits, a Louisiana firm working on Chevron’ behalf, asserts that “these incentives are very valuable to Chevron and would help cover project costs as well as employee relocation costs.” Chevron/SumIt specifically lists “costs associated with the relocation of employees,” including all home-selling costs, a week off for house hunting, an expense allowance for as much as $15,0000, travel costs and a bonus.

The application also contains scant justification for the big “but-for” question: Would Chevron have created the jobs in Houston without incentives? “A few business segments already decided to relocate to Houston,” the project summary states. “Chevron continues to evaluate the most competitive organizational structure, including the evaluation of the status quo against the possibility of job relocations.”

So, there you have it. Texas taxpayers are helping to pay for Chevron’s employees moving costs. Welcome to Texas!


Here is the full text from the relevant section of the project summary.

Competitive Siting: The U.S. will become the world’s top producer of oil within five years according to a recent report from the International Energy Agency. Chevron will be a big part of this and anticipates significant new jobs over the next 8 years. Chevron is analyzing its options to address its needs and remain competitive in the marketplace. In doing so, Chevron is contemplating the construction of a new facility in Houston, and many factors come into play in maturing this investment decision. Completion of this project would allow Chevron to proactively manage and house the 2,000 – 2,500 estimated new jobs to be created, or relocated, to its Houston urban campus. A final investment decision for construction of this proposed new building is anticipated to occur in the 2nd Quarter of 2014.

A few business segments in San Ramon have already decided to relocate to Houston. Chevron continues to evaluate the most competitive organizational structure, including the evaluation of the status quo against the possibility of job relocations. Many factors come into play in this evaluation including, available & quality of space, economics, costs ramifications and job relocation costs. The costs associated with the relocation of employees include the following, which can be significant:

l. Payment of all normal & customary home selling costs (e.g. 6% Real Estate Commission, Loan costs, etc…)
2. Misc expense allowance equal to 1.5 times one month’s salary (capped at $15,000)
3. Week off for house hunting
4. Interim Living up to 30 days
5. Cost of two trips to and from location
6. Company will provide a guaranteed offer
7 . Bonus of up lo 2% if home sells before guaranteed offer

Any incentives provided for jobs would help mitigate these costs and assist with other costs factored in as each business unit reviews its employee location needs.

A man kayaks in the wetlands of Matagorda Bay Nature Park at sunset.
A man kayaks in the wetlands of Matagorda Bay Nature Park at sunset.

The mood was grim among folks from Bay City, Eagle Lake and other coastal communities today as the Lower Colorado River Authority board voted 8-7 in favor of an emergency proposal that will likely cut off water to rice farmers for the third year in a row.

Unless the Highland Lakes contain 1.1 million acre-feet by March 1—roughly half full—most rice farmers will receive no water in 2014. That’s an unlikely scenario. Currently the lakes contain about 728,000 acre-feet and are 36 percent full. We’d need a very wet winter to make up the difference.

As a consolation, LCRA also proposed new mandatory restrictions on lawn watering, limiting outdoor watering to no more than one day per week for its customers. The LCRA’s emergency drought plan now goes to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for approval.

Although the contentious day-long discussion was often dominated by the usual mind-numbing talk of acre-feet, senior rights, certifications of adjudication and interruptible flows, the familiar dynamic of upper basin vs. lower basin, lawns vs. agriculture, Austin vs. the rice farmers, urban vs. rural, was unmistakable.

“This will be our tsunami,” said Mary Parr, the mayor of Eagle Lake. Parr said her town of 3,800, where rice farming dates to the 1890s, is already reeling from two years of receiving no water from the Highland Lakes to irrigate crops. Rice-related enterprises in her area are reporting a 20 to 60 percent reduction in business, according to an informal survey she conducted. One of the two banks in town has closed and the other has laid off staff. The John Deere dealership has packed it in.

Parr told me she delivers a far more optimistic message at home (“we will make it through this”) but felt obligated to let Austin decision-makers know how dire things were becoming.

“God gives us dominion over fish and birds but it appears LCRA has dominion over our rural economy in the lower basin,” said Mitch Thames, president of the Bay City Chamber of Commerce. Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, a Brenham Republican who later stormed out of the board room after a vote to postpone the decision was defeated, said LCRA’s emergency meeting today came as a surprise to her and that people in her community hadn’t been consulted—a theme repeated over and over again.

But Austinites, the LCRA staff and many board members said the gravity of the drought and the uncertainty over how long it will last necessitate emergency action. The amount of water flowing into lakes Travis and Buchanan—known as “inflows” in water parlance—was the lowest ever in 2011, the fifth-lowest in 2012 and in 2013 is on track to be the second-lowest. “That’s never happened before,” said Greg Meszaros, director of the Austin Water Utility. “It’s never even come close to happening before.”

Until the Halloween “rain bomb,” the lakes were perilously close to hitting an all-time low of 600,000 acre-feet. That would’ve triggered a declaration of “a drought worse than the drought of record” and a round of mandatory cutbacks. Crossing that talismanic threshold has an obvious psychological resonance and regional authorities and politicians seem eager to avoid it, or at least put it off.

The odds of dropping below 600,000 acre-feet of storage would be 1 in 4, staff said, if the LCRA stuck with its current plan.

Even the status quo is unfavorable to downstream farmers. In 2012 and 2013, LCRA established “emergency triggers” of 850,000 acre-feet. The lakes were below that level both years and most rice farmers received nothing. Some are talking about the lakes never recovering.

“This will become permanent and be a death blow to the rice industry,” said Steve Balas, a board member from Eagle Lake. “We’re not going to get to [850,000 acre-feet] anyway.”

Austin and Highland Lake interests pointed to the other half of the proposal passed today: mandatory restrictions on lawn-watering to once per week for all of LCRA’s customers. Environmentalists praised the stepped-up conservation mandate but argued that suspending “interruptible” customers (read: rice farmers) could be devastating for the ecology of Matagorda Bay. Because much of the water used to flood rice fields eventually ends up in the bay—providing an influx of freshwater essential to the health of bays and estuaries—environmentalists, wildlife groups, fishermen and duck hunters have urged conservation before choking off releases from the Highland Lakes. Just two months ago, the LCRA board considered suspending all environmental flows for 2013, a proposal that was scuttled only after torrential rainfall below the Highland Lakes in October.

Still, Matagorda Bay is presently in a long-term survival mode, with just enough water trickling in to provide a small safe zone for fish and other marine life at the mouth of the Colorado River. For 2014, LCRA is only obligated to provide about 6,000 acre-feet of water, a paltry amount, said Jennifer Walker of the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club. For context, 6,000 acre-feet is a little less than 4 percent of the freshwater inflows scientists believe is the bare minimum required for maintaining a refuge area in Matagorda Bay.

If rainfall is scarce downstream of Austin and the rice farmers are cut off, she said, “We have a chance of it being much worse than this year.”

Justin Lookadoo
Justin Lookadoo

1) I am not so old that I’ve forgotten the motivational speakers and sex ed experts our Central Texas high school would bring in to educate, or miseducate, us, usually employing a combination of scare tactics, tortured metaphors (“you can only unwrap a gift once”) and props (e.g. Velcro gloves that riiiiiiiip apart to demonstrate the heartbreak of pre-marital sex). Anyway, it’s not news that there is a whole lucrative circuit of clownish abstinence-only experts. But, boy, does this Justin Lookadoo fellow take the cake. Looking a bit like a frosted porcupine, Lookadoo is a former East Texas probation officer turned Christian motivational speaker who runs a site called R U Dateable. (Take the quiz here!)

Amazingly it’s taken a decade for him to attract much critical notice but credit to the students at Richardson High School who ripped him on social media after doing some Google-research—something the school administrators either didn’t do, or worse did and were undeterred, when they invited him to speak this week. A small sampling of the Lookadoo oeuvre.

“Somewhere between the modern church and the feminist movement, guys turned into pansies. Stand up and be a man! Do something with your life!”

“Be mysterious. Dateable girls know how to shut up.”

And if you take a looksie into the Lookadoo archives you find this gem from a 2003 Washington Times profile:

“I watch [teens], study them and live with them. Plus I read ‘Cosmo Girl’ and ‘YM’ – everything teen girls read. Guys don’t read, so I watch what they watch.”

2) Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas), who makes Louie Gohmert look like a statesman, spent much of Wednesday playing Mad Libs with the lackluster Obamacare rollout. My favorite:

3) Finally, one guess who this is. Hint: He’s a WTF Friday fan favorite, a politician who rails against “elites.”

“We hadn’t left Manhattan before he asked my IQ. When I told him I didn’t know, he asked, ‘Well, what’s your SAT score? That’s closely coordinated with your IQ.’  It went from, ‘Nice guy’ to ‘uh-oh.’ ”

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