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The Whole Star

A River No More

Texas Drought
Erik A. Ellison/ Wikimedia Commons
A branch of Lake Travis in 2011.

Flowing rivers are the arteries of the vast Texas landscape. They connect the treeless sands of West Texas with the dark alluvial soils of the Gulf Coast. But the lack of rain has weakened the waterways that bind our state. The aridity that now chokes these rivers, from the Brazos to the San Saba, has set off a battle between rural Texas and the super-cities that now have the power. The cities are thirsty giants that never sleep, dominating our politics, our policy and now our water. They will not be denied. And even though there are very few actual river miles within these cities, the water winding through the long banks surely belongs to them.

In op-ed after op-ed, political leaders, business interests, policymakers and developers all point to the abundance of water held by agriculture. And so these farms and the rural lands of Texas will be sacrificed as the rains cease and the cities grow. It’s an easy answer to avoid the impending change and discomfort that should come with a dwindling water supply.

If you have watched the ongoing battle over the flows of the Colorado, you can see this dynamic in real time. The Brazos is the same, now under mandatory restrictions against upstream withdrawals for the benefit of a single industrial facility. The Colorado was historically a river. It begins on the Llano Estacado and runs more than 862 miles. The origins are not marked and appear to be no different than any other of the millions of acres in Texas. The beginnings of the Colorado are where few could ever see it. You couldn’t pinpoint it on a map, that place where the sparse rains begin to collect and channel what becomes the river.

The Colorado’s still on the map as a river but the long flow has been carved into a set of possessory fiefdoms of water storage, marinas, resorts and second homes. Horseshoe Bay to the Lost Pines Hyatt. The water of the Colorado has been stacked until it’s a set of chained reservoirs. Time and money have converted the riverbank to cities, malls, developments and some of the most scenic areas in Texas. But it’s a façade and always has been. The illusion is performed with dams and development. Underneath, this was a river; we just lost sight of it.

The many of us who are unwitting participants in this hydrologic demise can view a time lapse image from the rocky banks of Lake Travis. As the daily withdrawals of municipal intakes and the hot sun take hold, the flat surface of the water falls evenly. We know to the foot how much is lost every day. And as the water disappears, the islands emerge as though new lands have been created. But these islands are the old riverbanks that stood before the dams came. Even Lake Travis, the single biggest impoundment on the Colorado, has reassumed its serpentine shape. It’s a natural reminder that dam or no dam, this is a river.

We made a bet long ago that the rains would always come. So we failed to plan. Now the rains have ceased, and the demands are incalculable. The bet turned into a margin call.

The coastal farms and communities of the lower Colorado were the first to lose. Ironically the fathers of these farmers constituted the monolithic political power that enabled the original dams to be built. Over decades that power has waned to the point that it’s no longer viable. Once the dams that John Graves warned us about were built, the flow of the water would be controlled thereafter.

Now in a moment of desperation, the rich bays of coastal Texas are the next to pay. Shrimp, oysters, birds and redfish depend on the flow of fresh water to mix with the salt of the Gulf. That was the purpose and the effect of the long path of collected rains running from a silent spot on the Texas plains. Matagorda Bay thrived because the waters flowed. Without it, these creatures will be evanescent. And even though the farms and now the bays have been pushed out of the river’s path by the needs of a city, still the most Disney-like element of the Colorado remains untouched. Lake Austin remains full, gin clear and welcoming from the docks and front yards of the powerful—too many of whom are rarely there to see it.

This calls for a moment of thought. There is no leadership urging constraint. No call for slowed development or water-oriented growth planning. The wheel just spins faster. Every new development, every new apartment laid on top of bare Hill Country limestone drains a farm, a ranch, a bay and a life somewhere else. These places will slowly end before us because no longer does the water flow in what once was a river.

Access to Planned Parenthood

Updated at 11:50 a.m with comments from reproductive rights groups and at 2:25 p.m. with comments from Texas Right to Life.

Today in federal court, a coalition of reproductive rights organizations filed a legal challenge to two provisions of House Bill 2, the controversial anti-abortion bill passed by the Texas Legislature this summer.

Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Planned Parenthood affiliates in Texas, the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Texas, Whole Woman’s Health and the Center for Reproductive Rights announced the long-anticipated challenge this morning.

“We’re in court today to stop a terrible situation for women in Texas from getting even worse,” said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “If this law goes into effect, there is no doubt it will end access to safe and legal abortion for many women, leaving some to resort to desperate and dangerous measures. We won’t let that happen.”

House Bill 2 bans abortion at 20 weeks post-fertilization, requires abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital, restricts the use of abortion-inducing drugs and requires abortion clinics to make costly facility upgrades in line with surgical care centers. The main provisions of the bill are due to take effect on October 29, with the exception of the ambulatory surgical care center provision, which goes into effect on September 2, 2014.

Critics of the bill describe it as one of the harshest anti-abortion laws in the U.S.

The lawsuit, Planned Parenthood v. Abbott, aims to block two provisions of HB 2: the admitting privileges requirement and the restrictions on the use of medication abortion. A press release issued this morning by the plaintiffs stated that the admitting privileges requirement “could cause at least one-third of the state’s licensed health centers providing safe and legal abortion today to stop providing that service next month. It would completely eliminate access to safe and legal abortion in vast stretches of Texas including the cities Lubbock, Fort Worth, Waco, McAllen, Harlingen and Killeen.”

Jim George, of George Brothers Kincaid & Horton LLP and who’s representing the plaintiffs, said the admitting privileges requirement has created a “crisis of access” and that there would be no abortion providers with a right to perform an abortion west of I-35 and east of El Paso.

The difficulties of obtaining hospital admitting privileges are already being felt. Ken Lambrecht, CEO of Planned Parenthood Greater Texas, said that there are only three hospitals within a 30-mile radius of the Planned Parenthood abortion clinic in Waco. After Planned Parenthood’s physician requested admitting privileges at each, one hospital advised him not to apply because they are a Catholic institution, the other hospital, a Baptist-run facility, returned his application, and the third hospital is yet to return his calls.

Physicians at a Planned Parenthood abortion clinic in Lubbock have been similarly unsuccessful. Of the two hospitals within the 30-mile radius required by the new law, one only grants admitting privileges to teaching physicians, and the other requires doctors to reside locally, which the Planned Parenthood physicians do not.

Amy Hagstrom-Miller, CEO of Whole Woman’s Health, said that her clinic physicians have also been told that they shouldn’t bother applying for admitting privileges because the local community is Catholic. She added that   only gave doctors 90 days to apply for privileges, whereas the privilege request process normally takes six to eight months.

Yet the law now requires abortion clinics to have admitting privileges by October 29, or they will lose their legal ability to provide abortions.

The second challenge outlined in today’s filing aims to block the restrictions on the use of medication abortions. The new law requires women seeking medical abortions to come to the clinic for more in-person appointments. It also requires physicians to adhere to a prescribing protocol that the plaintiffs describe as “inferior, outdated and less effective.”

Jim George said that the plaintiffs hope to win a preliminary injunction that will prevent the admitting privileges provision and the medical abortion restrictions from going into effect on October 29. He said that he expects the state to appeal to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals if the judge finds in the plaintiffs’ favor. He confirmed that the plaintiffs would also appeal were the district court judge to find in the state’s favor.

Texas Right to Life, the anti-abortion organization that strongly supported House Bill 2, said in a press statement today: “While these abortion advocates seem to be aggressive in fighting this law, they in fact have already accepted a significant defeat: they decided not to challenge the biggest portion of HB 2, the Preborn Pain Section, which prohibits elective abortion after 20 weeks based on scientific evidence that these children feel excruciating pain during abortion. …  They opted instead to challenge sections that will have a higher financial impact on the abortion industry. This demonstrates that the abortion industry only cares about the profits it makes from abortion, not the women whom it falsely claims to care for and help.”

However, Nancy Northrup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a press conference earlier that they were working with their clients to assess the impact of the 20-week ban. She declined to go into further detail, saying that it was not appropriate to discuss their litigation strategy.

Reproductive healthcare is one of the most litigated areas of healthcare in the U.S. In the last three years alone, reproductive rights groups have litigated more than 35 separate lawsuits. The suits have challenged mandatory ultrasound laws, biased abortion counseling regulations, hospital admitting privileges requirements, restrictions on the use of medical abortions and abortion bans at 6, 12 or 20 weeks gestation.

The judiciary has also been involved in wrangles over basic health care provisions. Lawsuits have challenged laws blocking women’s access to preventive health services, as well as restrictions on Planned Parenthood providers from accessing federal and state funding sources, and from participating in STD prevention programs and nutritional programs for low-income women and children.

Much depends on the tenor of the courts in which the case is filed, as well as the political leanings of the federal appellate court where the suits are inevitably referred. Progress in other state courts is no indication of how a case might proceed in Texas.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, for example, found in favor of women’s health providers in Arizona, who argued that Planned Parenthood’s eviction from the state Medicaid program violated enrollees’ right to choose their health provider. However, a similar case in Texas was heard in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, where the judge found that Planned Parenthood’s eviction from a federal Medicaid program was not unconstitutional.

Indeed, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, where today’s lawsuit could go, is notoriously conservative. Caitlin Borgmann, law professor at CUNY School of Law, who is not involved with today’s filing, said: “The climate is bad for abortion challenges in the Fifth Circuit.” In January 2012, for example, Fifth Circuit Judge Edith Jones upheld a mandatory ultrasound law that had been overturned by a lower court.

Just yesterday, Gov. Perry appointed Jeff Brown to the Supreme Court of Texas. He is an opponent of abortion rights and has been hailed by Texas Right to Life for his ‘pro-life’ views.

 

Screen capture of ourtown4teens.org.
ourtown4teens.org
Screen capture of ourtown4teens.org.

In September the Texas Department of State Health Services launched a new website, www.ourtown4teens.org, that will cost $1.2 million over the next year. The agency blitzed the radio and TV with ads for the site, claiming that it will help local communities reduce teen pregnancies. Although the site offers reminders why adolescent pregnancy is to be avoided—girls don’t finish school, babies have worse health outcomes, taxpayers foot the bill—it seems primarily to be a home for buzzwords like “community mobilization,” “strategic action” and “conceptual framework.”

Sadly, if you’re all fired up about combating adolescent pregnancy in your area but you don’t speak jargon, then this website probably isn’t for you.

There’s something else lacking too. The site doesn’t contain a word about contraception, even though Christine Mann, a state health department spokesperson, described the project as a “hub of coordinated information” to help communities reduce teen pregnancy. This omission is especially stark given that Texas’ family planning clinics have been defunded and access to birth control, especially for teens, is a real challenge. Texas also has the third highest teen pregnancy rate in the nation, yet the website sheds no light on one very practical way to avoid an unwanted pregnancy.

That’s because it can’t. Ourtown4teens.org is paid for with federal money from a program called the Title V State Abstinence Education Grant Program. Its sole purpose is to promote abstinence from sexual activity. Title V recipients must use the money to support abstinence from sex before marriage, and teach that sex without marriage could have harmful psychological and physical effects. Birth control doesn’t fit into that world.

Indeed, when asked why ourtown4teens.org doesn’t mention contraception, Mann replied by email: “The campaign focuses on the delay of sexual activity as a way to decrease the teen birth rate and the rate of sexually transmitted diseases. State laws guide the agency, and as a general strategy Texas is an abstinence-first state. Abstinence is our first choice for teens.” She didn’t answer the question about contraception.

The federal Title V abstinence program is a big favorite in Texas. Even though the Obama administration cut abstinence-only funding when evidence showed that programs promoting contraception as well as abstinence—commonly-called “abstinence-plus”—were more effective in reducing teen pregnancy, Texas still prefers to get its money from the abstinence-only spigot. For 2014, the Texas Department of State Health Services received $5.1 million in federal money (some of which paid for this website) from the Title V program, and matched it with another $559,000 from general state revenue.

Local entities in Texas do receive some federal funding for comprehensive pregnancy prevention programs ($7.6 million in 2011 according to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States), but there could have been much more. In 2011, the Texas Freedom Network revealed that the governor’s office and the Texas attorney general prevented the health department from applying for millions of dollars from a federal funding pot known as Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP). PREP programs promote contraception as well as abstinence.

A determined reader of ourtown4teens.org could find reference to pregnancy prevention programs that do mention contraception. The site also links to national organizations and Texas projects that are really making a difference. But you have to cut through a buzzword thicket and then go to different websites to access any of this information.

Moreover, when asked how the health department would measure the success of the Ourtown4teens.org campaign, Mann wrote: “The evaluation criteria for this project have not yet been finalized.”

Rep. John Carter
Christopher Hooks
Rep. John Carter at a town hall meeting in Salado.

A month after U.S. Rep. John Carter (R-Round Rock) tried to defend his willingness to consider an immigration reform bill to unhappy constituents, his office released a joint statement on Friday with Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Plano) announcing their departure from a bipartisan immigration reform working group, all but signaling the end of a once-promising avenue for reform. Carter and Johnson were the only white Republican members of the ‘Gang of Seven,’ tasked by House leadership with generating a GOP-friendly approach to the issue.

Their departure from the group, coming several months after Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador’s, leaves only one GOP congressman still with the group. But their exit could signify a bigger problem for immigration reform’s chances in the next few months — some Republicans in Congress who represent majority-white and heavily conservative constituencies find themselves unable to compromise on this core issue. At the August town hall meeting, Carter tried to fend off angry constituents, who had earlier screened the documentary They Come to America II: The Cost of Amnesty, by presenting his own immigration reform plan. The crowd was having none of it.

Lynn Woolley, the local radio host who loudly denounced Carter at the Salado town hall, took partial credit for Carter’s reversal, posting congratulatory messages from his fans on his Facebook page.

“CONGRATULATIONS to you and the Central Texas Tea Party!,” Woolley wrote. “I truly believe all of you had a huge influence on John Carter and Sam Johnson.”

Roy Beck, the executive director of NumbersUSA, one of the leading anti-immigration reform pressure groups, likewise touted the gang’s collapse as a victory.

“I think it’s pretty clear that House Speaker Boehner was the one who talked Johnson and Carter into joining this group, in the hope that it would give some conservative cover to passing amnesty,” he said. “We’ve been getting indications for several months that the pressure on these two at home, among their constituents had been approaching a breaking point. They had been looking for an opportunity to get out.”

But a statement released by America’s Voice, a liberal immigration reform-advocacy organization, put the blame for the Gang of Seven’s collapse squarely on the shoulders of the House Republican leadership — and held out the hope that the departure of Carter and Johnson “opens new possibilities” for the pro-reform movement.

Frank Sharry, the group’s executive director, said he was “glad that a moribund process has been put to rest,” and that “our leading champions for reform are freed up,” while others with the organization pointed to the fact that Carter and Johnson’s statement blamed the administration and not House Democrats — a sign, they say, that the congressmen could come back to the table if the leadership starts to put serious backing behind reform.

Duke Energy's 14-megawatt Blue Wing Solar Project in San Antonio
Duke Energy's 14-megawatt Blue Wing Solar Project in San Antonio.

Major Texas cities are challenging Texas’ rank as one of the least-green states in the union, a new report shows. The report, released by Environment Texas in San Antonio today, ranks Texas’ 10 most populous cities by environmental and energy efforts, and emphasizes the need for improvement statewide.

The cities are rated on a scale of zero to three in five categories that focus on renewable energy and efficiency. Some of the scales compare Texas cities to others in the nation. For example, a city could only score a three in utility-supported solar power if its solar production rivaled that of U.S. cities leading in solar.

rankings

Perhaps not surprisingly, Austin is the greenest city, with San Antonio and Houston (!) tied for the no. 2 spot. Corpus Christi (“The Sparkling City by the Sea”) brought up the rear, with a score of 1 out of a possible 15.

But the scales used to rank cities were limited and narrow—while some important categories like municipal use of renewable energy were included, Environment Texas didn’t consider water use, air quality and public transit.

San Antonio and Austin took the lead in solar power, each earning a 2.5 out of 3. Both cities own their utilities and together comprise 85 percent of Texas’ solar capacity. But the two cities still only produce about a third of what national leaders San Jose and San Diego produce per capita (those cities would have earned a three). Houston earned high marks in all categories, but scored a zero in solar. Despite boasting more solar potential than any other state, Texas still ranks 20th for solar energy production per capita. State leaders have done very little to boost the industry, leaving a handful of big cities and a few utilities to lead the way.

In a state with a booming construction industry—Texas accounted for 16.3 percent of all building permits issued in the U.S. last year—cities’ commitment to energy efficiency and other green measures in new buildings is paramount. Of the 10 cities, only Austin has adopted the latest International Energy Conservation Code‘s efficiency standards for new homes. Only 20 smaller Texas cities have adopted the newest standards, while most still adhere to the 2009 version.

Texas mandates adherence to the 2009 code, but the report says the 2012 code would achieve “approximately 15 percent greater efficiency” than the old one. Houston kept the 2009 code but amended it to require 15 percent more efficiency by 2014, and also requires that all new homes be built solar-ready.

Texas cities did well in other categories: Austin uses 100 percent renewable energy to power municipal activities, while Houston uses 48 percent, making it the largest municipal purchaser of renewable energy in the U.S. Houston also leads in green construction, ranking 5th in the country for the number of LEED-certified buildings. And while six of the ranked cities require all public buildings to earn a LEED-Silver designation, Dallas requires LEED-Gold.

The report found that all major Texas cities have at least one recharge station for electric cars per 100,000 residents. Austin has 19 charging stations per 100,000 residents, while San Antonio has 10 and Houston nine per 100,000.

Don McLeroy
Patrick Michels
Former State Board of Education chairman Don McLeroy delivers a rousing commentary Tuesday afternoon, saying textbooks proposed for Texas schools will be a huge victory for creationism.

It’s not like this is the first time we’ve witnessed right-wing social conservatives actively challenging that questionable “theory” of what so-called “scientists” like to call “evolution.” And I’m sure it won’t be the last, seeing as some, if not all, of the opponents are clearly still, um, evolving. But every time the Texas State Board of Education considers new public school textbooks, instructional materials and related curriculum, we’re forced to listen to the tirades from direct descendants of Adam and Eve about how public schools are failing to adequately reflect Judeo-Christian values. (Not that you can’t learn a lot about the origins of life and the perils of natural selection from the Old Testament. Like, why are there no more unicorns?)

On Tuesday the board of education held the first dramatic public hearing regarding new high school biology books. (First of all, why are we even teaching our children biology? Some textbooks that I’ve seen discuss plant reproduction in full detail. We might as well just pass out condoms.) Science textbooks are inherently controversial due to their reliance on liberal, possibly communist, junk science like evolution, dubious fossil records and climate change. Once approved the books could be used over the next 10 years by states across the country. Not to worry. In 10 years the only people left on this post-apocalyptic planet will be scientists, atheists and Marshall, Will and Holly.

The anti-education board of education appointed so-called volunteer citizen committees to review the textbooks (and, perhaps, burn them in the town square) before the approval process even began. They’re volunteering for this? There must be better ways for them to spend their spare time, like quilting. According to the Texas Freedom Network, at least six reviewers are vocal creationists. One reviewer is a retired Baylor professor, which sounds somewhat promising until you find out that he’s also the co-author of a book on intelligent design. Are you kidding me? Not even God believes in intelligent design. (He considers himself strictly a young-earth creationist.)

Luckily in 2011 the Legislature passed a law that allows school districts to choose their own educational materials without board approval. Basically districts can teach whatever they want on the taxpayer dime. Question: What’s the difference between public school in Texas and homeschooling? Answer: Your mom.

Testifying at Tuesday’s hearing former SBOE chairman Don McLeroy proclaimed that if the board were to adopt new anti-science textbooks, they will effectively “strike the final blow to the teaching of evolution.” I would say this latest crusade is a new low for SBOE except for the fact that a few years ago they proposed that all references to “slave trade” in history texts be replaced by “Atlantic triangular trade.”

Sure, it might make sense to downplay Abraham Lincoln in favor of touting the significant contributions of Newt Gingrich to American history but evolution? How can people argue with science? The very origins of the universe? Humanity itself? This changes everything. It especially gives credence to my personal theory that the world didn’t exist before I was born. How can I be sure? Am I supposed to just blindly accept the fact that the earth was actually here before me?

Prove it.

Deer Park Prairie
Matt Buckingham for Bayou Land Conservancy
Deer Park Prairie.

Update, Sept. 11, 9:50 a.m.:

The Deer Park Prairie is spared from development. Just hours before Tuesday’s deadline, Bayou Land Conservancy raised enough money to buy the land.

In early August, Dean Lawther, a longtime housing developer in the area, agreed to sell the property to conservationists for $4 million. The initial proposal kicked off a campaign to quickly raise the money. On Monday night, a new agreement was reached. Lawther would come down on the price, to $3.8 million, and the prairie would have a longer name: Lawther Deer Park Prairie.

Bayou Land Conservancy will hold the conservation easement, preventing the prairie from ever being developed, but will transfer ownership to the Native Prairies Association of Texas to manage and operate. The remaining donations will be used to maintain the park.

Bayou Land Director Jennifer Lorenz calls the project the “fastest conservation campaign ever completed in Texas.” The group raised nearly $4 million, mostly from individual donors, in a matter of weeks. “Individuals made this happen, this truly is the people’s prairie,” she says.

Original story: In the last three weeks, a Houston-based conservation group has raised nearly $3.4 million to stymie development on what conservationists call one of the last remaining tracts of ancient Cajun prairie in an urban area.

The Bayou Land Conservancy is just short of their $4 million goal and the clock is ticking. The group has until just Tuesday to raise the remaining funds.

The 50-acre prairie in industrial Deer Park, 18 miles east of Houston, has never been plowed, which conservationists say make it the last vestige of land in the area with the same ecological diversity as pre-developed East Texas.

“This land still has some of the same species that were in the area thousands and thousands of years ago,” said Phillip Quast, program director of the Native Prairies Association of Texas. “It’s one of the last postage stamp pieces of ancient prairie left.”

Bayou Land Conservancy Director Jennifer Lorenz says a private landowner bought the land six years ago with plans to eventually sell the tract to a housing developer. For the last year and a half, conservation groups including Katy Prairie Conservancy, Native Prairies Association of Texas and Bayou Land Conservancy have worked to obtain the land, dubbed the Deer Park Prairie, from turning into a 250-home subdivision.

In August, the landowner agreed to sell the prairie to Bayou Land Conservancy for the market price of $4 million, about $200,000 shy of the price offered by developers.

Lorenz says that while the landowner has been patient in working with the groups, the project represents a harsh reality for conservation efforts today: competing in the open market.

“If you’re going to get new green space for Texans, then you’re going to fight in the open market with developers,” Lorenz says. “I have a catch-phrase: Conservation without funding is conversation.”

With little capital and even less time, Bayou Land kicked off a fundraising effort in early August. The initial deadline to raise the $4 million was August 20. The group’s four staff members and an army of volunteers pulled together more than $3 million in a matter of weeks, but still fell short. The landowner, however, agreed to give them more time, extending the deadline to Sept. 10.

Lorenz and other conservationists say the response has been nothing short of amazing. Individuals have been behind most of the donations to date. Aside from a handful of large donations from individuals and families and $200,000 from the Hamman Foundation, many of the donations have come from people on tight budgets, Lorenz said.

“We have letters that say, ‘I’m just a little old lady in tennis shoes and I can do $25. That’s all I can do. I’m on a fixed income and can barely afford it, but I want to save this prairie’,” Lorenz said. “It’s just phenomenal.”

Lorenz thinks the response is a reaction to increased urbanization in Texas. Conservation resonates with people from cities like Houston, Dallas and Austin, she said, where people have watched development stretch farther and farther into the countryside. That’s especially true in Deer Park, home to the sixth largest refinery in the country.

“To find a patch like this in such a heavily industrialized area is shock to the system for people in a positive way,” Lorenz says. “When people say Deer Park, green spaces don’t come to mind.”

In fact, the prairie is located just 3.6 miles from the Shell refinery.

Lorenz says she has been disappointed by the corporate response to this project. Shell and the Baker Hughes Foundation are the only two major corporate entities to donate to the project so far. Shell donated $75,000 and Baker Hughes donated $10,000, according to Lorenz.

“So many individuals in Houston have come forward and the corporate community just hasn’t come forward,” she says. “It’s kind of telling.”

If they raise the $4 million by Sept. 10, the Bayou Land Conservancy will hold the easement but turn the land over to the Native Prairie Association of Texas to manage and operate for public use.

Phillip Quast of Native Prairies Association of Texas says the group would turn the land into an “outdoor classroom,” a place for people to enjoy nature first-hand. With over 300 native plant species, Quast calls the land a “positive teaching tool” and a “gem” in an urban area.

Biologists and conservationists also stress the importance of green space for the environment. Prairies, like forests, remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In Deer Park, where flooding is not unheard of, grasslands also act as a “giant sponge.”

“Where water can’t get into the dirt, it builds up and the next thing you know you have street flooding,” Quast says. “Grasslands are permeable, they soak in that water.”

Prairies are also part of the historical Texas landscape.

“What we have special in Houston are the beautiful forested wetlands and these small slices of prairie, and this piece is one of the most special ones left,” Lorenz says.

Tough on Truants

Back to school

The lazy days of summer are over, and about five million Texas students are headed back to school. And if they skip class, Texas law is there to reel them back in. Truancy has been a crime in Texas since 2003, so children and their families risk hefty fines for missing school too often. Fines can run hundreds of dollars, but across the state—and even within a single district—the cost of a ticket and the method of punishment vary greatly.

A civil-rights complaint filed in June and reports by The Dallas Morning News and ProPublica brought fresh attention to the harsh punishment for truancy in North Texas, where state records say nearly half of the state’s truancy cases originate.

Texas Appleseed and two other groups filed the complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice on behalf of students, accusing Dallas’ truancy courts of ordering excessive punishment. Truant students in Dallas risk being tried as adults and could end up with a criminal record, serve jail time, or be saddled with more than $1,000 in fees after not being provided proper legal counsel. The groups insist that minority students, students from low-income families and students with disabilities are disproportionately affected by truancy enforcement, alleging the current system is an unconstitutional form of “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Outside North Texas, many other districts report high truancy numbers too. Texas Education Agency records show Fort Bend Independent School District (ISD), Pasadena ISD, Amarillo ISD, San Antonio’s Northside ISD and Ector County ISD all have a higher number of truancy charges than other school districts of the same size. It’s impossible to know from the data how far from the norm they are, though, because the state’s database is woefully incomplete. Texas has more than 1,000 school districts, but only about 250 are listed in TEA’s most recent truancy report. Of those, more than 80 reported no truant students. Conroe ISD, with more than 50,000 students, isn’t listed at all.

“I think [our numbers are high] because we’re one of the few that’s actually enforcing the compulsory attendance laws,” said Ernie Rodriguez with Fort Bend ISD. “I think if other school districts around the state would really examine their attendance information, they would probably find that they’re not filing the mandatory complaints as required by law.”

For example, Ector ISD in West Texas has nearly 30,000 students, and reported more than 1,200 truancy cases during the last school year. Houston ISD, with an enrollment of nearly 200,000, reported only 614 truancy cases. Are students in Odessa skipping school that much more than kids in Houston?

Houston ISD Police Chief Jimmy Dotson said his district has made a point of issuing fewer tickets for truancy.

Following a Texas Appleseed report released a few years ago, he said, the district chose not to criminalize students skipping school. The district leaves it to administrators to work with students who don’t show up.

Texas is one of just two states that criminalize truancy, which ties districts’ hands once they report a truant student, said Brian McGiverin of the Austin Lawyers Guild. He’s helping to defend truant students who get roped into the criminal justice system.

“Honestly, I think truancy issues are criminalized in Texas because we have a hammer, we have one tool in the tool shed, and we like to use it an awful lot,” McGiverin said. “Criminalizing truancy is probably the result of that basic mindset: If there’s something we don’t like, we deal with it by making it a crime.”

MOD-Head_Shot
Photo Courtesy of Mayor Mike Rawlings
Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings.

After years of Dallas officials playing hot potato with three permits that would allow fracking within city limits for the first time, the City Council finally rejected the permits today. A city commission is still working on a new gas-drilling ordinance, but at least for now, Dallas is closed to fracking.

Dallas residents and environmental groups have been fighting Trinity East Energy, the company that would drill the wells, at City Hall for years. The permits were especially controversial because they would have allowed drilling on city-owned parkland in the floodplain – two places where drilling is currently banned. Things really came to a head when it came to light that City Manager Mary Suhm had struck a secret side-deal with the company, promising Trinity East that it would be able to drill while telling City Council the opposite.

The audience, mostly fracking opponents, greeted today’s vote with prolonged applause. Nine councilmembers voted for granting the permits and six against, but the Council needed a supermajority (12 out of 15).

The City Council didn’t discuss the permits much, but Mayor Mike Rawlings did give a speech with an extended metaphor about poker. Echoing Councilman Jerry Allen’s claim that Trinity East would almost assuredly not actually drill on those sites because of falling natural gas prices, he said the City Council should “call [Trinity’s] bluff” and approve the permits. Rawlings said he’s personally against urban drilling, but argued Dallas residents will lose millions in court costs when Trinity East sues.

Much like they’ve done in the past, Trinity East representatives and other fracking supporters basically implied that all the people who testified against the permits were delusional, emotional children who didn’t have the capacity to comprehend science. One fracking proponent very sarcastically said, “God bless their souls—they’re trying to do the right thing and save the planet.”

Councilman Philip Kingston objected to the implication that drilling opponents were fact-free and emotional.

“I’ve done a year’s worth of research on this, I’ve visited drill sites,” Kingston said. “I’ll be opposing his motion [to approve the permits] out of rational thought,” he added to applause from the audience.

Up next: The City Plan Commission will likely release an updated drilling ordinance in the coming months.

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Shane Torgerson/WikiMedia
Aerial photo of the West explosion site taken days after blast.

In the third House committee hearing focusing on the West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion that killed 15, state agencies described resistance from some fertilizer companies in trying to inspect their facilities. The conflicting and overlapping roles of various governmental agencies with responsibility over fertilizer facilities was also underscored once again today.

Though investigations are ongoing, the State Fire Marshal’s Office is undertaking voluntary inspections of other facilities that handle ammonium nitrate – the chemical responsible for the explosion. The Fire Marshal’s Office has identified 153 facilities in the state that are believed to store ammonium nitrate. Since Texas doesn’t have a state fire code, the fire marshal lacks the authority to conduct inspections if the company resists. Fire Marshal Chris Connealy said most facilities have welcomed him and that his office has already inspected 62 sites. Five facilities refused to be inspected, though he couldn’t say why or which facilities they were.

Meanwhile, the Department of Insurance and Department of Public Safety are rolling out two interactive maps that identify facilities with hazardous chemicals across the state.  Julia Rathgeber of the Department of Insurance said the agency’s map, which will be searchable by zip code, will be available to the public by November 1. DPS is launching its own site, also searchable by zip code and geared toward first responders, which will offer some information about the hazardous materials, including the quantities that are present at facilities.

Much of the hearing was dominated by Republican lawmakers worried about burdening fertilizer businesses with new requirements. Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, said while he respected the victims of the West tragedy, the industry has been doing a “pretty good job of policing themselves” and voluntarily submitting reports. “If we’re not careful we could get like the federal government and try to put diapers on cows,” he said.

Connealy stressed that his agency’s inspections were strictly voluntary.

“Bottom line, we’re trying to prevent another West,” he said. “Most businesses welcome us with open arms.”

However, an industry representative testified that some fertilizer companies were unsure how to comply with existing rules. Donnie Dippel, president of Texas Agricultural Industries Association, who testified at the hearing said the association has experienced a spike in calls from operators. Many of them weren’t registered with federal Department of Homeland Security, and others hadn’t filed required reports in years, or ever. Some, he said, didn’t even own a computer.

Most of the discussion Monday centered on how to prevent West-like accidents from occurring again in the absence of new legislation. (The Texas Legislature showed little interest in taking up new measures during the 2013 session and it doesn’t meet again until 2015.) Some of the options discussed were requiring facilities to post signs outside stating that they house hazardous materials; providing better training for first responders; and doing more to educate companies about what guidelines they have to follow.

Assistant State Fire Marshal Kelly Kistner said the “line of duty” investigation into the first responder deaths won’t be released until 2014. The cause of the fire is still under investigation, and Kistner mentioned forensic testing by federal labs that will also extend into 2014. He said the Fire Marshal’s Office has recently received new leads relating to a possible criminal act behind the explosion, but couldn’t comment further.

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