San Antonio and Water|Start Petition

This year’s Blog Action Day is about “clean water for everyone”, and that’s easily within the realm of topics covered here. There’s a lot of concern about clean water in remote, undeveloped areas, and I certainly support that, but I don’t have much to add.

Where I do have a little bit of knowledge is on the sustainability question.
The right way to look at the sustainability of a particular conurbation is to consider the size of its hinterland. Places like Las Vegas and Phoenix, located on some of the most arid ground in the western hemisphere, survive as far as water supply is concerned, on a combination of nonsustainable ground water and on expensive water importation systems. The latter appear to be tapped out; see John Fleck’s stories on the other Colorado River.
The other one? Yes, we Austinites love to confuse visitors by pointing to the main river in our turf, the Colorado River, without explaining that it has nothing to do with the one that flows out of, well, Colorado. This will cause varying amounts of headscratching from people, based on their knowledge of southwestern geography, peaking with people at a middling level. (Sophisticates will say “surely not the SAME Colorado”, usually without saying what it isn’t the same as; naifs will simply nod sagely. Folks in the middle can get mightily confused.)
The history and geography of Texas are dominated by its long, peculiarly narrow watersheds. Cat scratch geography.
In Texas, particularly the earliest settled parts, the rivers don’t form tree shapes like in the rest of the world, but rather a series of trenches. The double lines above show water management zones which are closely connected to watersheds, and to the long, narrow southeast-to-northwest oriented subcommunities that formed the traditional Texas fabric.
While El Paso partakes of the bizarre water politics of the arid southwest, the rest of Texas is in a peculiar intermediate zone of its own, separate from the arid southwest or the damp southeast. (The panhandle towns of Lubbock and Amarillo are also somewhat exceptional. They have a massive ancient aquifer that they are depleting for agriculture, the Ogallala which is the same one that sustains Kansas, but push doesn’t come to shove there yet for a while.)
Though there are many stories about the wilderness in the north and west of Texas, and many stunning images too, it is the central, southern and eastern parts that matter. This part of Texas has a population comparable to that of many important countries, for instance, Australia, or all of Scandinavia. Of course, as is well known, it is the world capital of the petroleum industry, still providing significant production as well as refinery, engineering and management. And, lacking in natural beauty but not in money or warmth, it is particularly heavily landscaped and thirsty.
Nevertheless, much of Texas’ prosperity has been based in its burgeoning population, a process which continues through good times and bad. Its present population of nearly 25 million is expected to double by 2050. Which means that for purposes of water planning, demands are ever-increasing.
Now, as the map shows, the hinterland of Texas cities is naturally on a narrow strip organized southeast-to-southwest. (There is a natural ordering to these basins much as there is with Canadian provinces. Fortunately, the four great cities occupy separate basins, in the usual sequence from northeast to southwest these are Dallas/Fort Worth on the Trinity, Houston on the San Jacinto, Austin on the Colorado, and San Antonio at the confluence of the San Antonio River and the Medina. Essentially unclaimed are the Brazos which goes through Waco and the Guadalupe whose largest town is Victoria. Of course, the water supply decreases as you move southwest toward the desert. Still, Houston, being at the bottom of the river, has less water problems than Dallas/Fort Worth. Dallas, indeed, is sufficiently squeezed that there is talk of tapping the Ogallala; because of antiquated laws there are no limitations on what can be drawn form a well. All it would take is for the city of Dallas to own a single property on the aquifer to do its own massive draw-down!
San Antonio is the worst off of the major Texas cities because of its arid location and relatively small upstream watershed. The water limitations of San Antonio are hitting now. San Antonio also has some cultural weaknesses; the relatively less wealthy and largely Hispanic population is not popular in the rest of Texas.
As a Montrealer I have great sympathy for San Antonio. We share not only a certain eccentricity and cross-cultural ferment. We also share in being underrepresented in the world’s awareness given the actual cultural and historical significance. San Antonio is the 7th largest city in the US, with 1.4 million in the city limits (Montreal has 1.6 million) and 28th largest metro area (2.1 million, compare Montreal 3.6 million). And as Montreal has been a crucial point of contact between French and English speaking cultures, so San Antonio is the real gateway between America and Mexico.
Of course the last thing Montreal needs is more water!
The Katrina episode has firmly convinced me that some cities are more important than others, as sources of culture and human growth. While I wish no ill to the people of Phoenix or Las Vegas, I would feel little sadness if their cities were to decay and vanish the way Detroit is doing. San Antonio, on the other hand, is a city for the ages.
The Texan ambivalence to the place is tempered of course by the fact that the centerpiece of downtown San Antonio is the Alamo.

So, if the ground water is depleted, if the watershed is inadequate, if two million San Antonians will live on, where does the water come from?

It turns out (surprise!) that Texans are mightily protective of their water rights. Shipping water between zones leads to enormous social stresses, even though our situation is not comparably severe to Arizona’s or Nevada’s. I have heard people talk about this in tones that have sufficient hostility as to make me think they carry tinges of the old blood feuds between Texans and Mexicans. Here’s an article to give you the flavor. San Antonio is being driven toward a coastal desalination plant, even though water in Texas at large is not scarce. So this brings back the question of the size of the hinterland.
To make matters more complicated, the demographics of Texas is swinging away from the good ol boy politics (that has been embodied by Republicans for the last two generations). Eventually the Democrats will prevail, and the influence of San Antonio (and other hipsanic communities) will increase dramatically. I don’t see anybody saying this, but the time will come when water may actually be shipped to SA from the Brazos or even the Sabine. It’s nothing near as absurd as happens further west.
It’s also worth noting that this isn’t about drinking water. It’s about lawns!
And this brings me to the local vs global. It applies in water as in so many other things. Collectively, there is abundance globally. But political energies appear to be about protecting localities and nations. All the talk about the benefits of trade seem to count for nothing as far as collective resources go. Canada has enough untapped (ahem) water to supply US and Mexican agriculture forever. Yet the topic is a tremendous hot button in Canada.
I wonder why we are so bad at thinking as a global community.

‘Tis not Mete. Or is it?

Well, my dog food calculations went awry, as Richard Reiss pointed out in the comments. I slipped a digit.

To recall, there have been recent allegations that having a dog does as much damage as driving a large SUV, on account of the carnivorous habits of the dog. Now there’s some question as to how much of the damage due to meat should be attributed to the dog, but even given a proportionate impact by weight, I found at a rough cut that supporting the dog was the equivalent of driving the SUV no more than 5 miles per day. It turns out that my particular calculation was wrong by an order of magnitude, and that it has to be corrected, but it needs to be corrected AWAY from the calculations of Vale & Vale, in favor of the dog. Even fed a diet of sirloin, it appears that the dog’s daily impact is on the order of driving about a half mile.

But this leaves me in a quandary. My prior result was in the same ballpark as Eshel & Martin’s famous result that personal transportation and personal food consumption in the US are of comparable scale insofar as greenhouse gas impact is concerned. Counting the human as triple the dog, and the vehicle thus as driven 15 miles per day, seemed consistent with that estimate. But now I’m left at a loss, since the meat impact is now coming out as tiny.

And now here comes a Worldwatch white paper claiming that meat dominates transportation!

This level of confusion is ridiculous. How the hell are we supposed to cap and trade stuff that we have such a fuzzy grasp of?

Let’s revisit the fuzziest numbers in my calculation. I erred by a factor of 10 in the power consumption of the vehicle going at 40 mph, which I took to be 10KW but was listed at 100KW. The first number seemed more plausible to me, but it;s easy to check. Let’s suppose the vehicle is getting 20 mpg. Then it is consuming two gallons of gasoline per hour. Googling “energy per gallon of gasoline” is immediately successful, yielding US gallon = 115000 Btu = 121 MJ along with another handy energy conversion reference page. So I get 33,700 W, neatly splitting the difference between the small number I expected and the large number I should have used!

OK, now it’s an extra factor of 3 in favor of the dog (compared with prior calculations). A dog eating ribeye steaks is worth about two miles of SUV travel daily; a human about six.

The per capita mileage in Martin & Eshel was 200 per week, supposedly compatable to human impact, so I have only a factor of five to make up. Still a bit awkward. (Update: And half of that comes back because most people aren’t riding SUVs. As Marcus points out in the comments, some of that comes from my neglect of methane and nitrous oxide in the dietary impact. So maybe we are still in the irght ballpark.)

This past weekend I saw a presentation at the Texas Book Fair (at the State Capitol, an innovation for which I have Laura Bush to thank, of all people) on the subject of Texas barbecue as a repository of authentic rural Texas culture. I love Texas barbecue; not the famous places like the Salt Lick, but the still-authentic ones like Black’s in Lockhart. It would be a real pity to have to sacrifice this oddly satisfying and evocative bit of authenticity to sustainability. It’s just not the same with barbecuing a chicken. Never mind a tofu.

To be sure, there are real ethical issues with even the smallest bit of meat. I don’t deny that for a moment. But the environmental ones are new, and they need to be properly calibrated. I’m afraid the numbers are all over the map.

I’m totally unconvinced that the impact of a dog compares to that of an SUV, even lightly driven. My latest calculation moves things a factor of three in further favor of the dog, although to be sure the dog cannot carry as much cargo. But I’d really like to pin down just how guilty I should feel when I bite into a Texas brisket sandwich. Are these pleasures of the blessed or pleasures of the damned? The estimates have way too much variance. This question has a real answer, maybe not within a factor of two, but surely within a factor of fifty!

Let’s get quantitative. How many miles in an SUV is a piece of brisket worth? Surely I should feel more guilty that I drove my Prius the thirty miles to Lockhart than that I stopped there for supper?

Oh, yeah, I parked the Prius around the block.

You cain’t really pull into Black’s in a Prius. It’s hoard to expline. Sort of a Tixes thang.

Update 12/31/09: Similar calculations here.

"Green Star State"

In an influential article in Texas Monthly and in a series of lectures, UT Engineering Prof. Michael Webber argues that Texans, who by an undeserved twist of good fortune, led the world into the carbon-burning age, may well be the ones who are doubly fortunate to lead us out.

Webber so argued today at this month’s monthly talk at The Austin Forum, a series of public talks held at the TACC/UTIG facility where I work, and I attended.

He doesn’t mince words:

Despite the general perception of our energy consumption, Texas is already doing much more to promote clean energy than the world realizes. For example, we created the nation’s first comprehensive municipal green-building program (in Austin) and the first technology incubator designed explicitly to encourage clean energy start-ups. Our biggest impact has been the aggressive use of renewable electricity—we were one of the first states to establish a renewable portfolio standard, which requires that a certain percentage of an energy company’s power generation come from renewable sources. Today half the states have something similar, following, to their surprise, in the footsteps of Texas (and Nevada). The renewable portfolio has been a huge success, leading us to create the largest installed base of wind capacity in the nation, about 9,000 megawatts, nearly three times as much as second-place Iowa. Our quick ramp-up of wind farms has pushed the U.S. ahead of every other nation, including Germany, the former leader, in terms of installed renewable capacity.

One of the ironies is that in Texas, our lack of concern about the environment enables us to do great things for the environment. You hardly need permission to build a wind farm here, and your neighbors cannot sue you for blocking their view. It’s much more difficult in environmentally inclined states like Massachusetts or California, where activists worry about the impact of the turbines on wildlife and ocean vistas. We don’t mind raising wind turbines, building transmission lines, or laying pipelines, all key advantages for renewable energy, which is diffuse by nature and requires vast tracts of land and sprawling infrastructure to be effective. Texas has a long history of trading blight for money. Why stop now?

He also notes that by a combination of extensive experience in big energy, geographic enormity, and dumb luck, Texas is well-positioned for wind, solar and biomass. While it is not obviously dominant in any of these categories it is easily the best positioned to move resources among the three. Also, not only does Texas have good geological formations for carbon sequestration, Texas also has the companies with experience running CO2 pipelines and pumping it underground.

I think a strong majority in the audience, myself included, agreed with Jeffrey Sachs (This was originally on Grist but several efforts by me today to find it there failed. If David or somebody over there wants me to file a bug report on how the site search went drop me a line. Linked is the Guardian’s version.)

That leaves the U.S. with no choice but to develop and use CCS technology, despite the fact that it’s never been successfully implemented, he said. Renewable energy sources and improvements in efficiency won’t come close to meeting the world’s growing energy demand, he said.

“There’s no quantitative way to get this right without the nuclear industry playing a really large role,” he said. “It’s not a happy thought, but it’s unavoidable.”

Well, agreed except for the “never successfully implemented”. Hey. Guys. We do it all the time. We have CO2 pipelines runnin all over WesTixes and N’Mexico.

There was some CO2/greenhouse skepticism in the audience, but it was polite and intelligent, for which I am grateful.

Most of the Austin Forum talks have been excellent, by the way. July’s is being given by me. Y’all come.

End Run around Board of Education?

Texas Freedom Network has a blog, which is reporting that the state legislature is not necessarily going to let the Texas State Board of Education have its way with the science curriculum:

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, has just filed legislation that would strip the Texas State Board of Education of all authority assigned to it by statute. Among the board’s powers that would go away: setting curriculum standards and adopting textbooks. That authority would be transferred to the Texas Education Agency.

The only authority the board would keep under Senate Bill 440 is power granted under the state Constitution, primarily managing the Permanent School Fund. Removing that authority and eliminating the board altogether would require passage of a constitutional amendment, followed by approval from Texas voters.

We noted last month that state lawmakers had begun looking at ways to rein in the deeply politicized board. We wouldn’t be surprised to see additional legislation targeting the board.

More here.

Not sure how much to rely on TFN’s spin, but I sure hope this is more or less right. Hard as it may be for the rest of the world to believe based on our last eight years being governed at the federal level by rabid mole rats, there are certain traces of pragmatism among some parts of the Texas Republican party, and their numerical control of the legislature is slender.

Update: While in this article I refer to the departing federal administration as being constituted of rabid mole rats, in the other article I posted today I refer to them as drunken lemurs. I have been called to account for this discrepancy. I must say it is a good question. Most likely, it is a coalition of some kind between the two groups, which clearly have largely coinciding interests.

Bray of Fundies

Yesterday, I mentioned this in passing, in discussing the impending trainwreck at the Texas State Board of Education:

“It is interesting that while they don’t actually accept science, they think they do. There’s no expression of contempt for science, just some sort of implication that it is rife with anti-Christian conspiracies. Strange.”

Some further thoughts following up from that:

When it comes down to it, they care whether a statement is consistent with their dogma, or neutral with regard to dogma, or antithetical to dogma. In their view anything in the last category is obviously a consequence of some sort of Dr. Evil Conspiracy. Accordingly no sort of scientific propriety informs their assault on the idea, which they take to be literally diabolical. They seem to mean well because they do mean well. They even want to save us poor sinners from our sins. This makes them all the more dangerous because they seem warm and reliable and familiar to their cohort.

They simply don’t understand how humans arrive at truth. How could they? They are fundamentalists after all. “It’s all wrote down in this hyuh book, son.”

They don’t play fair, but not because they are unfair. Rather it’s because they have no concept of logical coherence. It’s not that they don’t want to play by the rules. They can’t play by the rules we recognize because those rules are beyond them. Parliamentary, legal, political rules and stratgies are accessible to them. Pursuit of truth among messy evidence isn’t and can’t be. We allow them to pretend to play our game at our peril, and ultimately at theirs as well.

When we are at cross purposes with them, we should not be confused about the nature of the game we are playing. The truth eventually will out, I suppose, but sometimes it may not out in time.

Texas State Board of Education Hearings

Here is a press release from the creationists:

AUSTIN, Texas, Jan. 13 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ — The Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) has scheduled a hearing of scientific experts, including three scientists who are recommending that students should learn about scientific evidence that challenges Darwin’s theory of evolution.

On Wednesday, January 21st, six experts selected by the SBOE to review a proposed update of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) for science will give testimony to the board. Three of the scientists will recommend that the board retain long-standing language in the TEKS calling on students to examine the “strengths and weaknesses” of scientific theories in order to strengthen students’ critical thinking skills. The other experts are on record supporting repeal of the language.

“We’re very pleased that in this Darwin bicentennial year Texas has invited scientists on both sides of the evolution debate to testify about the scientific status of Darwin’s theory,” said Dr. John West, associate director of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture.

According to one of the experts, Dr. Stephen C. Meyer, examining the strengths and weaknesses of scientific theories is a core part of the scientific process, and abandoning such critical analysis merely to satisfy ideological demands of Darwinists harms students by giving them a false view of scientific inquiry.

“Science education that does not encourage students to evaluate competing scientific arguments is not teaching students about the way science actually operates,” emphasized Dr. Meyer in his written report. Meyer, a Cambridge-trained philosopher of science, directs the Center for Science and Culture at Discovery Institute.

Meyer will be joined in recommending the preservation of the “strengths and weaknesses” language in the TEKS by Baylor University chemistry professor Dr. Charles Garner and University of Wisconsin-Superior biology professor Ralph W. Seelke, whose laboratory research investigates the ability of natural selection to produce new functions in bacteria.

Previously, these scientists have advised the SBOE that good science education should encourage students to learn the scientific facts and engage in more critical thinking than they would under the currently proposed TEKS.

SOURCE Discovery Institute


Meanwhile, this showed up in my mail. It’s not just the biologists under attack, alas:

From: Christina Castillo Comer
Date: January 12, 2009 1:24:44 PM CST

Subject: Call to Action

Dear fellow science educators,

It is time for a call to action. As you know, the new Earth and Space Science course standards (and all other science course standards) will be up for approval before the State Board of Education during January 21-23.

It is very likely that some of the SBOE members–the seven who are Young Earth Creationists–will attempt to make changes to the ESS standards in ways that will damage the scientific integrity and accuracy of the course. In particular, these SBOE members will try to negatively modify or delete the standards that require students to understand the following scientific topics they consider controversial:

  • age of the Earth and universe,
  • the Big Bang model of cosmology,
  • radiometric dating,
  • evolution of fossil life,
  • fossil lineages and transitional fossils,
  • origin of life by abiotic chemical processes,
  • ancient mass extinction events, and
  • global warming and climate change.

We need you and all your friends and family members to write letters to the individual SBOE members and ask them to adopt the new ESS standards without change!

That’s the simple message of your letter: to accept the proposed ESS standards without editing or modification. We strongly suspect an effort will be made to do exactly that by members of the SBOE.

A group of ten individual Earth scientists that included high school teachers, ES teacher trainers, college professors, and industry geoscientists worked together for a year during several intense meetings to create these standards. Their very careful effort and hard work should not be injured by the actions of nonscientists who have ideological and political agendas. Under the Texas Constitution, the SBOE members are politically-elected officials who actually have the power to write whatever science standards they wish, and several have expressed their intention to modify certain standards to align with their religious and ideological agendas.

In addition to writing your individual letters (the same letter to each member is OK) asking that the ESS standards–indeed, all the science standards–not be modified in unscientific ways against the intentions of the scientists and science teachers who wrote them. Please write to colleagues on email lists in which you participate and ask them to do the same. We need a tremendous outpouring of support to counter the probable equal outpouring of support from critics of science among the citizens of Texas. Feel free to use this message.

I attach a PDF copy of the new ESS standards with this message. It is part
of a larger document containing all of the proposed and recommended high
school science standards that can be found on the Texas Education Agency
website at .

The addresses of the individual SBOE members can be found at . You can also email them
individually using a group email address,,
although I think formal letters would be better received and more likely
read by them.

The letters need to be written and sent in the next few days. If you have never written a letter before, now is the time to do so. You should include in your letter:

Please adopt the ESS standards as written without modifications or
unscientific changes that weaken the standards.” You can add the other reasons as you wish: our state’s economy depends on a scientific understanding of the Earth, citizens need to understand Earth science as well as physical and life science, the Earth sciences affect our lives in so many ways, etc.

We need our ESS course to have an accurate and reliable scientific content,
not damaged by eliminating or weakening important topics that some people
object to for non-scientific reasons.

Chris Castillo Comer

Of course, the trouble is the impedance mismatch between the law and the science.

You can make a case that “Science education that does not encourage students to evaluate competing scientific arguments is not teaching students about the way science actually operates,” emphasized Dr. Meyer in his written report. Of course, it’s well known that useful science education does not operate the way science operates. And science does not operate the way law operates, either. There’s no process besides abandonment for identifying discredited theories. There’s no official Board of Hooey that says “c’mon, give me a break, phlogiston?”

So in the eyes of the law, it is hard to distinguish between things that experts actually think about and centuries-old campfire ghost stories originally intended to keep children from wandering out of their tents.

And of course, the fundamentalists are interested in law and politics. It is interesting that while they don’t actually accept science, they think they do. There’s no expression of contempt for science, just some sort of implication that it is rife with anti-Christian conspiracies. Strange.

As always, see also the Texas Freedom Network.