Political Intelligence

Department of Dry Holes

Boone Pickens wrung a fortune from his oil business. His green-energy boosterism has earned him boundless publicity and goodwill. But the Texas businessman’s super-ambitious water venture-little known outside Texas-has thus far paid few dividends. No one seems particularly taken with the idea of paying the billionaire oceans of cash to pump and pipe water from his base of operations in the northern Texas Panhandle to thirsty Dallas or San Antonio. In September, Pickens’ Mesa Water quietly announced the indefinite suspension of its pipeline project.

Amid the media hubbub over Pickens’ plan to wean America off oil and onto wind (which he happens also to be selling), no one seemed to notice Pickens’ pipeline hiatus. No one, that is, except for his Panhandle neighbors, including the Canadian River Municipal Water Authority (CRMWA), which has long objected to sending precious groundwater out of the region.

In January, CRMWA pounced on Pickens’ retreat, asking the state for at least $75 million to help it buy virtually all of Mesa’s water rights, at least 200,000 acres’ worth.

Illustration by Mike Krone

CRMWA is the largest holder of water rights in the state and the primary supplier of water to cities in that part of the state, including Amarillo and Lubbock. The agency is also a longtime Mesa competitor; for years the two have been racing for control of the region’s groundwater, primarily in Roberts County, the center of Pickens’ water empire.

CRMWA says it needs the water to hedge against shortfalls, and to lock up limited supplies before someone else does.

“We don’t know where things are going with climate change or whatever,” says Kent Satterwhite, CRMWA’s general manager. “This water is available now, and it won’t be in the future.”

A convergence of factors has driven CRMWA into Pickens’ parlor. Drought has virtually dried up Lake Meredith, CRMWA’s only supply of surface water, and recent tests show that the Ogallala Aquifer is significantly slower to recharge than had been thought. Meanwhile, the Panhandle Groundwater Conservation District is imposing pumping limits in an attempt to preserve at least 50 percent of the Ogallala for 50 years.

“Who knows in 50 years what’s going to be left or what’s going to be accessible? It’s certainly in [CRMWA’s] best interest to get as much as possible,” says Laura Marbury, a water analyst with Environmental Defense. “The core issue is, should the state’s money be used to pay for that?”

Marbury argues that while it’s better to keep the water in the region than to pipe it at great expense halfway across the state, the state shouldn’t be in the business of subsidizing a CRMWA-Mesa deal while cheaper options, such as conservation, have yet to be fully explored.

At the same time, Marbury calls the potential deal “a reality check” for privatized water schemes that involve long-distance transfers. “The economics are going to have to add up,” she says.

For Mesa’s part, its lawyer Robert Stillwell says the company is uncertain whether CRMWA, which has yet to broach negotiations directly, is “legitimately and competitively interested” in buying Mesa’s rights.

-Forrest Wilder

More Monkey Business


In early January, social conservatives on the State Board of Education once again took up their crusade against teaching evolution in Texas schools.

At issue this time around are new standards that will guide the content of science textbooks and curricula used in Texas classrooms. And it’s not just a Texas issue. Because the state is one of the country’s biggest buyers of textbooks, the standards set in Texas will likely be exported to other states.

Christian conservatives-a collection of lawyers, insurance and real estate salesmen, a community newspaper owner and a dentist who continue to insist that the world’s evolutionary scientists don’t know what they’re talking about-hold seven of the board’s 15 seats. While the board’s minority can’t prevent students from being exposed to the widely accepted basics of evolutionary biology-the courts have made sure of that-they do hope to dilute the state’s science standards with as many evolution-doubting disclaimers as possible.

The headline event was a vote on whether to require science classes to explore the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution. Many scientists see the “strengths and weaknesses” issue as a back door through which to slip a few words about creationism or “intelligent design” or other nonscientific speculation about human origins into classrooms. The motion to include the strengths-and-weaknesses wording failed 8-7.

It was a momentary defeat. The State Board of Education will have another chance to vote on the science standards before they’re finalized in March. The results could change.

Evolution-deniers lost the battle, but they may have won the day, prevailing in a series of less-publicized votes that, if finalized in March, could water down the teaching of evolution in Texas schools.

Barbara Cargill, a board member from The Woodlands, altered the standards for the state’s new Earth and Space Science class with a series of amendments, the most eye-catching of which requires students to “assess the arguments for and against universal common descent in light of fossil evidence.” That may sound mundane, but universal common descent is central to evolutionary science and is supported by nearly all the world’s biologists. Most of the “arguments against” this widely accepted concept come from creationists and intelligent-design proponents. Cargill’s amendment would allow those arguments into Texas’ science classrooms.

Not to be outdone was board Chairman Don McLeroy of College Station, a Biblical literalist who believes the Earth is only several thousand years old. (Thank Gov. Rick Perry for that appointment.) McLeroy tacked an amendment onto the biology standards that asks students to “describe the sufficiency or insufficiency of common ancestry” as an explanation of key patterns found in the fossil record. McLeroy, a dentist by trade, believes the scientifically supported tendency of some species to remain nearly unchanged for hundreds of millions of years, while others change radically or disappear, casts doubt on common descent, adaptation and natural selection.

Cargill’s and McLeroy’s additions still face a final round of voting in March. If the amendments make it into the state’s science textbooks, Texas students may hear a lot about the “weaknesses” of evolution after all.

-Dave Mann

Sad State


Texas’ system of 13 sprawling institutions for the mentally retarded-known commonly as state schools-house perhaps the state’s most vulnerable population. The roughly 5,000 residents, some of whom have been institutionalized for decades, all have some degree of mental impairment that prevents them from living on their own. Some can’t feed or dress themselves; others can’t rise from a gurney or even speak.

The system that cares for this population is also perhaps Texas’ most underfunded, dysfunctional and prone to abuse, all of which will likely make reforming the state schools a major topic during the Texas Legislature’s 140-day session, which began Jan. 13.

Several media outlets have reported abuse and dismal conditions inside the state schools in the past year, including this magazine (see “Systemic Neglect,” May 2, 2008). In early December, the U.S. Department of Justice released a scathing report finding that conditions in Texas’ state schools violate residents’ constitutional rights. The report also alleged that 53 residents died from preventable causes in a recent 12-month span.

Many of the problems stem from inadequate funding. As the Observer reported last spring, state schools have chronic staff shortages. Employees earn fast-food wages. Turnover is high. At the Austin State School in 2007, 70 percent of direct-care workers quit or were fired. The average direct-care turnover rate for all 13 state schools was 50 percent.

Some advocates for the mentally disabled have called for closing the state school system and moving residents into smaller, neighborhood group homes.

State Sen. Bob Deuell, a Greenville Republican, has filed a bill that would permit the Health and Human Services Commission to close as many state schools as it sees fit. It’s the first legislative proposal in years to allow for the closing of state schools, says Amy Mizcles with the Arc of Texas, an advocacy group that wants state schools shuttered.

A draft of the state budget contains a rider that would move as many as 3,000 state school residents (about 60 percent) out of institutions and into community group homes over the next four years.

Parent groups and family members of state school residents will likely fight that proposal. Many believe the state institutions are the only way to keep their disabled relatives alive and safe. They want the state schools reformed and improved, but not closed.

Toward that end, Sen. Jane Nelson, a Republican from the Dallas suburb of Flower Mound who heads the Health and Human Services Committee, has filed a bill that would change the way abuse allegations in state schools are handled. Senate Bill 70 would remove abuse investigations from the Department of Aging and Disability Services, which oversees state schools, and hand them over to the presumably impartial Department for Family and Protective Services.

Most agree that the Legislature should enact some sort of reform. The exact nature of that reform will be the subject of an intense and emotional debate this session.

-Dave Mann



Before the 2007 legislative session, veteran Houston judge Michael McSpadden, a Republican, wrote to state officials urging them to ease up on sentences for low-level drug possession. Crazy, right? Indeed, the epistle carried only his lonely signature. But this year, in a remarkable turnaround, 15 of Harris County’s 22 felony court judges added their names to the call. In so many words, the seven Democrats and nine Republicans are calling the War on Drugs a failure.

“Over time, the public has realized that draconian punishment of minor drug offenses as state jail felonies is not working, and as judges, we hear countless complaints from trial juries and grand juries that do not believe these cases should be tried as felonies,” the judges write.

Instead of packing drug abusers off to crowded state jails, where there are no treatment options, why not focus resources on getting them help at the outset? Specifically the judges call on the Legislature to reduce possession of less than a gram of drugs from a felony offense to a Class A misdemeanor, and to mandate treatment. (In a sly footnote, the judges go one better: reclassify the crime as a Class C misdemeanor, which would carry only a fine and “result in enormous savings to taxpayers” by freeing up jail beds.) In addition, the judges say, the Legislature should consider creating and funding misdemeanor drug treatment courts, which they argue would be cheaper and produce fewer recidivists than prison time.

Criminal justice reformers are hailing the recommendations as a watershed. “What this represents is a shift from this status quo of lock ’em up and throw away the key,” says Ana Yañez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, “to a smart-on-crime approach that yields real results to meet Texas’ public safety needs.”

Judge McSpadden is no softie. In the early ’90s he created a national stir when he called for the castration of a repeat rapist. But after two decades on the bench, he’s fed up. “The ‘War on Drugs’ isn’t working, and we as judges realize it,” McSpadden told the Houston Chronicle. He’s not alone. In a survey of 244 Texas judges by three criminal justice organizations, a large majority expressed the need for more funding for addiction-treatment programs.

-Forrest Wilder

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Published at 12:00 am CST