Page 1


Blueprint for a Texas Tragedy? New Almanac Provides a Guidebook for Monitoring or PreventingEnvironmental Disaster BY PETE A. Y. GUNTER TEXAS ENVIRONMENTAL ALMANAC. Texas Center for Policy Studies, 1995. ARTH, AIR, FIRE, AND WATER: not as elaborate as Mendeleev’ s table of the elements, but clear, and concise. The Texas Environmental Almanac is energy, and water, followed by a fifth less aetherial substance, waste. The four-place ancient table of the elements must have led to some nice, straightforward chemistry lessons for Aristotle’s students. The four-plus-one section organization of the almanac makes for easy reading and reference. There is another similarity. Aristotle wrote about tragedy too. Many readers will feel uneasy over the conclusions at which this work arrives. None, however, will be able to argue that it is hastily or flimsily put together. The Texas Environmental Almanac is a triumph of the bean counters, among whom are: Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, General Land Office, Railroad Commission of Texas, Texas Water Development Board, and, finally, the razzle-dazzle Consolidated Farm Service Agency. Facts. Acres of Facts. Jaded readersas opposed to uneasy onesmight object that after all, there is nothing new here. People are already familiar with the facts, and even if they are not, these facts are already apparent to the Experts, who know all things and surely would warn us before anything went wrong. But many of the facts presented here are newly unearthed. Had no one made the effort to dig them out, they would have languished in the damp recesses of archives, the cobwebbed darkness of data banks. Equally important, nowhere else have the facts presented here ever been assembled in one place before. It could have been done, but no one had considered the Pete A. Y. Gunter teaches in the Department of Philosophy at the University of North Texas at Denton. possibility. Least of all the Experts. Not all reading in this compendium is heavy going. Scattered through the text are innumerable interesting “factoids.” For example: If all Texas municipal solid waste generated in one year were piled up, it could form a Great Wall of Trash twenty-one feet high and twenty-one feet wide, stretching from Houston to El Paso. In Texas, twelve million acres of prairie land once extended from San Antonio to Oklahoma. Today less than one percent of that land is still prairie. With an average loss of fourteen tons of soil per acre annually, Texas is one of the eight worst states for soil-erosion rates. Texas utilities spend just .003 percent of their total income on energy-efficiency programs. According to some studies, two-thirds of Texas bay shores are eroding at rates of two to nine feet per year. There are occasional snippets of good news, however. Thus: Between 1980 and 1990 Texas’ water use actually declined, through decline in irrigated acreage and more efficient irrigation practices. By 2040 the use of new water-efficient toilets in the Lone Star State could save eight hundred million gallons of water a day, enough to fill the Astrodome onceevery thirteen hours. There: one feels better already. Faced by the loss of the Oilers and perhaps the Astros, the city of Houston could probably sell tickets to watch the Great Astrodome flush. The biggest problems lie with the fourth element: water. All of Texasexcept the Piney Woodsis dry. With every seventeen miles one moves west in the state there is one inch less rainfall per year. Equally telling is the fact that the evaporation ratio increase is greater than the rainfall de crease. It is not unusual for Seattle and Dal las to have the same annual rainfall rates. But Seattle’s moisture does not quickly evaporate, while by August Dallas is dry as a cotton bale. For much of its history the Lone Star State was able to supplement its limited supplies of surface water with groundwater reserves are decliningand not only on the High Plains. Contamination of underground water by feedlots, injection wells, garbage landfills and other sources is significant, and will continue to in crease, while over-pumping has caused groundwater levels to de clineover one hundred feet in some places. Though the Texas Water Development Board projects that there will be sufficient water to meet the state’s needs at least over the next thirty years, it concedes that four areas will face very real problems: El Paso, Corpus Christi, San Antonio, and Houston. \(Austin is a concerns the Rio PequefioI mean, the Rio Grande. If all holders of water rights along this mighty stream were simultaneously to use these rights, the stream would cease to flow! No one knows when the next big drought will begin. If it is longer and more severe than the “drought of record”that of the 1950sall bets are off. On top of this is the dark spectre of Global Warming. Anyone interested in its possible effects on the state should read The Impact of Global Warming on Texas \(G. North, et al., A&M Press, listen to Rush Limbaugh. Last under the heading of water comes the fate of the Panhandle. What will happen here is strongly predictable. The Ogallala Aquifer, which in 1995 supported 5.9 million acres of irrigated agriculture, will in the year 2000 support 5.2 million acres. By 2030 the High Plains south of the Canadian River will have lost seventy-seven percent of its irrigated land. We are sucking the Ogallala dry, which explains a popular bumper sticker: “Will the last person leaving Lubbock please turn out the lights?” By 2030 the High Plains south of the Canadian River will have lost seventy-seven percent of its irrigated land. We are sucking the Ogallala dry. 16 APRIL 5, 1996