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As Texas's Drought Continues, Opportunities for Conservation Finally Find Discussion

More scenes like this, as seen in 2011 in a former branch of Lake Travis, could be coming to Houston.
More scenes like this, as seen in 2011 in a former branch of Lake Travis, could be coming to Houston.
Erik Ellison

The rain came last week. Finally. It came in droves, surging over the curbs, washing away the oil and grime and refuse into a filthy chemical blend. It came for hours. It was needed, in a state suffering a drought that has covered nearly every city and town and farm Texas knows.

And then it let up, and we dried off, and we were thankful that a state as desiccated as ours was finally receiving the storm it needed. But it wasn't nearly enough.

"After all of that rain, we learned that only 80 percent of the state is now in a drought," Talya Tavor, a field organizer with Environment Texas, told Hair Balls. "But that's still 80 percent. Even though we're down from where we were, that's still a huge amount of the state not getting the water it needs."

Indeed, despite the deluge, a preponderance of the state is still suffering from a stretch of drought that has wrought wildfires, low crop yields, heat waves and climate questioning in a state that's as entrenched in the orifices of the oil industry as any. As evidenced by the University of Nebraska's Drought Monitor, Texas presents a parchment of fall colors, of orange and brown and yellow keeping the state's water levels below recommended and necessary levels.

The drought wracking the state has begun receiving national attention. In addition to the recent whooping crane ruling — a federal judge found the state, with a special focus on the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, liable for killing at least 10 percent of the only wild flock remaining — a recent piece in The New York Times highlighted the depths to which the state has sunk:

"Texas does not and will not have enough water" in a bad drought, the state's water plan warned last year. More than two dozen communities could run out of water in 180 days, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Looking ahead, the already-dry western half of the state is expected to be hit particularly hard by climate change. State leaders generally accept such projections, even as they question the scientific consensus that humans are a major cause of climate change.

Towns from Midland to Dickens to Archer City have begun imposing restrictions. Over More than public water systems, according to TECQ, are looking at either voluntary or mandatory watches. Houston is nearing its 16th month under monitoring. No part of the state has been left untouched.   However, as the piece also notes, such desiccation hasn't met with indifference. Legislators have finally lent more than lip service to conservation efforts. As Tavor pointed out to Hair Balls on Saturday, legislators are currently discussing measures on forthcoming water conservation allocations — Environment Texas has called for 50 percent of water-related funds to head toward conservation efforts, while legislators seem more comfortable settling on 20 percent.

It's not necessarily too little, too late — but there's only so much rear-guard action you can take when a massive storm still lands a state four-fifths in the red. (Thirty percent of the state is now considered in "extreme drought," according to the Drought Monitor.)

"A lot of people like talking about the problem, but don't do anything about it," Tavor says. "But that's what we're trying to do...We're at a fork in the road. We can't remember the last time we had 'normal.' And we can be on the route of dams and construction [to fix the situation], or through conservation."

Sugar Land in 2011.
Sugar Land in 2011.
Photo by Barry Sigman

As it is, Tavor and her organization have opted for the latter. Gathering a trio of experts on Saturday, Tavor helped lead 30-odd Environment Texas supporters through the methods and realities surrounding water conservation in a state facing a crisis that will only swell with coming climate and population trends.

The first to speak on the day was Ben Franklin, who works with the Tar Sands Blockade — which achieved something of a Pyrrhic boost to its cause with the recent Arkansas spill, continuing to claim the lives of wildlife and healthy drinking water a week later. (In a fun side note, Mother Jones reports that Exxon has pressured local reporters away from the spill site.) After taking us through the massive destruction wrought through the Tar Sands exploration and exploitation — "it will be game over for the climate," wrote the director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies — Franklin noted some of the water-waste realities of the Keystone Pipeline's implementation.

"It costs 460 barrels of water for every barrel of oil, and it's going to require 5.5 million gallons of water daily to process the tar sands," Franklin noted. "We will further commodicize water in a time of drought...The path we're on is a failed path, and the only thing worse is to keep going."

Franklin shared his tales of being tasered during lawful protests in Pittsburg, Texas, and the realities that every single oil spill — no, really, every last one — has arisen through human error, rounding out his arguments and anecdotes against Keystone's implementation. Water conservation is a key cog, and yet another reason in the pyramid of arguments against the pipeline's finalization.

Dustin Brackney echoed Franklin's calls, but on a micro-scale. Brackney runs Hydroscapes, the lone water-conservation landscape company in Houston. Vegetated roofs, low-dug curbs, permeable pavements — Brackney ran through the options available to homeowners and corporations alike.

  "Look at what you have flowing into the bayou — who would swim in that slurry?" he asked, pointing to the oils and grime and garbage the storm flushed into our waterways. "Stop engineering places that move water quickly, and make moves to places that move it more slowly."

Look to rain gardens. Instead of filling your lawns with pesticidal non-native grasses, look to deep-rooted plants that actually belong in Texas. Instead of building a Walmart in the Heights with a parking lot meant to accommodate only Black Friday parking, call your local city council-member and discuss the possibilities of a gravel or dirt expanded lot, instead of the chemical-swirled cement.

Lawyer Charles Irvine, of the law firm Blackburn and Carter, rounded the afternoon's panel. Irvine helped file suit against the state in the recent whooping crane case, noting how the state's decision to reroute water during a previous drought jumped the salinity of the birds' feeding grounds, killing their food supply and forcing them elsewhere for clean water.

"Surface water is a limited resource, but it's owned by you," he said. "But in Texas, drought is the new normal. We'd better get used to thinking how we're going to live with less water. ... If you kill those bays, it's not going to be good for anybody."

As Irvine notes, this drought is going nowhere, and fast. There are options on both local and state-wide scales; there are opportunities on both personal and political levels. And the hope that we have to have is that these whooping cranes aren't the canary in the coal mines, and that we can consume and create and conserve in a meaningful, sustainable manner as we move forward.

"Some people will say, 'Screw the whooping cranes — why do I care?'" Tavor notes. "And I'd respond, 'Because if there isn't enough water for the cranes, how do we know there will be enough for us?'"

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