Energy & Environment

Water, energy, conservation, sustainability, WTP4, pollution, oil and gas, hydraulic fracturing (fracking), recycling, and other environmental issues related to Austin and the Central Texas counties of Travis, Hays, Caldwell, Bastrop and Williamson

Here are a few reasons government forecasters at the National Hurricane Center and emergency management officials are so concerned about Sandy:

1. Sandy is one of the largest hurricanes ever to strike the U.S. Sandy's winds cover an area of more than 1,000 miles in diameter. That's enormous by hurricane standards. So instead of affecting an area a couple of hundred miles across, Sandy will cut a huge swath. That means many millions of people are probably going to be exposed to high winds, heavy rains, and, for those on the coast, powerful storm surge.

Cory John O'Quinn via Texas Tribune

In recent years, Texas’ state parks havestruggled with falling visitor numbers and budget cuts. These days, in their quest to lure people back, the parks are promoting opportunities for night-sky viewing, away from city lights.

flickr.com/pyxopotamus

The State of Texas and the Environmental Protection Agency have been battling over air permits for years. But now it looks like there's an official agreement between the two.

This week the EPA announced its final approval of revisions to the state's permitting program for "major air pollution sources." But "final" may be something of a misnomer, because the two sides actually announced an agreement on the program way back in June.

KUT News' pals at StateImpact Texas covered the announcement then. Here's a little bit from their report:

So what are the changes exactly? Under the PALS program, emissions monitoring is done on specific units at each site under an overall emissions cap, as opposed to a blanket site-wide cap with no specific unit monitoring as before. “Even though they create some flexibility for those units, they don’t allow you to cover an entire site with pollution limits,” Soward says. The EPA also says the new program requires continuous monitoring.

Jason French, Texas Tribune

It might not be the safest week to mention this, but here goes:

The Texas longhorns owe their survival in large part to Oklahoma.

Oklahoma and the federal government, that is.

We’re talking cattle, of course, not football. Here’s what happened: A century ago, the longhorn breed teetered on the edge of extinction. After the Civil War, the great herds that had lumbered up the Chisholm Trail from Texas to the railways depots in Kansas for shipment east had suddenly fallen out of favor. Texas ranchers had become enamored with Herefords and Angus, which grew faster and were often less cantankerous than the lean, hardy longhorn, which was descended from Spanish and Anglo cattle and had sometimes roamed wild.

flickr.com/a_siegel/

Mincheol Kwon is a visiting reporter at KUT. He hails from CBS-Christian Broadcasting System, a South Korean radio station in Seoul. He is also studying audio journalism at the Journalism School of Texas State University at San Marcos.

Planning a summertime trip to Texas? It makes sense to worry about the heat. But you might also give some thought to exactly the opposite.

“I have to live with the cold!” said UT graduate student Taehyun Cho on a recent afternoon.

He’s talking about Texans’ tendency to crank up the AC to near-arctic levels.

"Exposed to the heat [outside] and then suddenly to the cold, my biological rhythm has broken,” said Cho. “Today I was in class shivering."

The extreme fluctuations between indoor and outdoor temperatures may seem normal to many locals, but it strikes people from other cultures not just as strange, but as unhealthy. In Korea, they even have a word for it. It roughly translates as “air conditioning-itis.”

KUT News

New recycling rules, aiming to divert 90 percent of waste from Austin landfills by 2040, go into effect today.

The new ordinance requires more office buildings and apartments to provide recycling opportunities to employees and tenants. Apartments with 75 or more units, and commercial buildings 100,000 square feet and larger, now have to offer recycling in addition to waste disposal.

Each year, this ordinance will tighten to include smaller properties. By October 2013 it will encompass apartments with 50 or more units, and commercial properties of 75,000 square feet and larger. By 2014, it will include apartments with 26 or more units and properties 50,000 square feet and up.

sustainability.gov/

A series of small earthquakes in the Dallas region over the weekend are reviving discussion of the link between quakes and the oil and gas industry practice of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”

Fracking is the practice of pumping hydraulic fracturing fluid into wells to break up and extract oil shale and natural gas deposits. Just how fracking is linked to earthquakes is a hot topic around the country, Texas especially.

The Dallas Morning News reports two quakes rattled the Dallas region on Saturday, followed by another quake on Sunday. Both quakes were in the Barnett Shale, which is rich in natural gas.

StateImpact Texas writes that it’s not the actual act of fracking itself that leads to earthquakes, but rather the disposal of the fracking fluid remaining after the process, which is usually shot into disposal wells deep underground.

National Weather Service

The Central Texas area is expecting heavy rainfall and flash flooding this evening, with rain continuing over the next few days. Forecasters predict rainfall totals will average three to four inches, and could reach six to eight inches in some areas.

A flash flood watch for Travis County goes into effect at 6 p.m. tonight, and will remain in effect through Saturday evening. Bob Rose, chief meteorologist with the Lower Colorado River Authority, predicts the heaviest rain will begin to fall after dark and will continue through the morning.

You can learn more from the National Weather Service and the city’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, which is monitoring the flooding risks.

The city is also preparing for a flood of a different sort: the deluge of lost pets that end up in animal shelters after a storm.

flickr.com/sarah_mccans/

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated 2012 is SXSW Eco's first year. KUT News regrets the error. 

SXSW Eco will kick-off next week. But it's a niche that the Renewable Energy Roundup and Green Living Fair in Fredericksburg first tapped into 12 years ago.

The 2012 festival is this weekend, from Sept. 29 to 30.

The roundup will concentrate not so much on policy but on practice —what Texans can do everyday to make the world a little greener. Panels include "How to Grow Your Own Groceries," "Growing Herbs and Making Your Own Vinegar,"  "Hot Attics: Turning a Problem into a Resource," and even "Green Smoothies."

There are also hands-on workshops about collecting rainwater and solar energy.

Balcones Recycling

Austin is another step closer to its goal of reaching Zero Waste by 2040, with the opening of a new facility to handle over half the city’s recyclables.  

Austin has banned the use of single-use shopping bags, allowed residents to opt out of excessive mailing programs, and tried to educate the youth. And now, starting in October, 60 percent of Austin’s recycling will be funneled through Balcones Resources.

In the spring of 2011, the Austin City Council unanimously agreed to sign a 20-year deal with Balcones Resources to sort, bundle and sell 60 percent of Austin’s recyclables at its newly-built plant in northast Austin.

The new $25 million facility is a single-stream recycling center – which means it sorts and processes all the various recyclables (paper, glass and plastic) commingling in Austin Resource Recovery bins. Balcones says the center will be capable of processing 25 tons of single-stream recyclables.

flickr.com/usfwsmidwest

You might see and smell smoke near Kyle and Buda this afternoon.

Austin Water's Wildland Conservation Division is planning to conduct a prescribed burn at the Onion Creek Management Unit off FM 150 west of Kyle.

The burn will cover more than 500 acres and should go on between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m.

Kevin Thuesen is the Environmental Conservation Program Manager for the City of Austin. He says people shouldn’t be concerned.

flickr.com/chimchim

Central Texas is under an Ozone Watch today and tomorrow.

Watches are usually issued during the summer months when the temperatures are higher and humidity is lower.  And so far this year the area is already dangerously close to exceeding EPA standards. Austin sits at a 74 parts-per-billion average for ozone. If that average jumps to 75 PPB, the area will be in non-compliance. 

“If we get one day at one site in particular, like our Northwest Austin site which has a 79 parts-per-billion eight-hour average … one more at that level will throw us into non-compliance," says Bryan Lambeth, senior meteorologist at Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Deana Altenhoff, Executive Director of the CLEAN AIR Force of Central Texas, agrees. "Ozone season ends October 31st," Altenhoff says. "This is our most critical time of the year because historically this is when we see our highest levels of ozone." 

flickr.com/garthimage

The weekend rain may have killed off some adult mosquitoes. But now it means a potential boom for mosquito breeding as standing water collects.

Experts say it’s a good idea to dump any standing water around your home—especially as West Nile virus continues to be a problem in the area.

“One thing that we may have going for us right now is that the temperature has dropped which will take a longer period for those mosquitoes to develop and so the water might dry up in time so that we don’t have quite as many emerging out,” Texas AgriLife Extension Office Program Specialist Wizzie Brown says.

LCRA

Recent rainfall is helping to fill the Highland Lakes—at least a little bit.

Parts of Central Texas received more than two inches of rain on Sunday. Combined with rainfall from earlier last week, rainfall totals for some areas topped nine inches.

The Lower Colorado River Authority says the water level of Lake Travis is up a little over a foot. Lake Buchanan only saw a gain of a few hundredths of an inch.

"The location of the rain makes all the difference and, in this case, the vast majority of the rain fell over the Highland Lakes basin," LCRA river operations center supervisor Dan Yates says.

National Weather Service

With Travis County receiving several inches of rain in the last 24 hours, a burn ban for the county is no longer in effect. 

Travis County Fire Marshal Hershel Lee lifted the burn ban for the region today. It was initially scheduled to last until Oct. 3. The lift will be in effect until  at least Sept. 18, when the county commissioners court will consider the ban once more.

Officials still remind citizens to abide by state regulations when burning any materials outdoors. You can find more information on the fire marshall’s website

National Weather Service

More rain chances and cooler temperatures are on tap for Austin.

The National Weather Service predicts a cold front and continuing rain chances in South Central Texas tonight. By Friday, that will mean lows in the mid-60s and a high in mid-80s for the Austin region. The NWS predicts a high chance of rain for Central Texas as well – an inch to an inch and a half, with two to four inches possible in regions south of Austin. You can always check the latest rainfall totals here.

The rain chances and cooler temperatures are predicted to stick around all weekend.

National Weather Service

Much anticipated relief from triple-digit temperatures is coming Saturday – but at a cost.

As KUT News reported yesterday, a dry cold front blowing in tomorrow is creating an elevated wildfire risk.

While Saturday’s high temperature is expected to be a comparatively cool 92 degrees, wind is coming from the north at speeds of up to 20 miles per hour.  Travis County Fire Marshall Hershel Lee says those conditions remind him of last year’s Memorial Day weekend, when wildfires broke out all over Central Texas.

National Weather Service

The National Weather Service is warning about dangerous fire weather this weekend – what it calls "near critical fire weather conditions" beginning Saturday.

Friday is expected to bring record highs to the region. Then a mostly dry cold front will bring strong winds on Saturday morning and the winds will get stronger as the day passes – 15 to 25 mph and gusty, the NWS says.

Some thunderstorms forecast for Saturday could produce dry lightning, which could cause wildfires to break out.

Burn bans are currently effect in Travis, Hays, Williamson, Burnet and Blanco counties. 

flickr.com/vabachi

Travis County commissioners voted unanimously this morning to extend the burn ban into October. The county is still in a moderate drought and we’ve had several days of record breaking temperatures and low relative humidity.

Travis County Fire Marshal Hershel Lee says the burn ban appears to be working. 

“I have spoken with several of the fire chiefs out west this morning where the county is the driest, and they are reporting very little activity other than a few runs for people who are burning when they should not have been, and between the fire departments and the sheriff’s office, they have taken care of those," Lee says.

Austin Water Utility

The City of Austin is implementing Stage 2 water restrictions starting Tuesday because of declining lake levels, but the rules will be slightly different than before.

“The combined lake levels between Lake Buchanan and Lake Travis has been the trigger,” Austin Water Utility spokesperson Jason Hill said. “It looks as if those two lakes combined will hit that 900,000 acre-foot trigger or go below it in the next week or so.”

The Lower Colorado River Authority says the lakes are currently 45 percent full and contain about 905,499 acre-feet of water. One acre-foot is enough water to cover an acre one-foot-deep in water. It amounts to 325,851 gallons, or enough to supply two to three households for a year.

Mark Dewey for KUT News

Central Texas remains ready to help out with potential evacuees, as Hurricane Isaac – which was just downgraded to a tropical storm – moves slowly through southern Louisiana.

It’s not yet clear if the Red Cross will need to provide storm shelter in Austin. "We have shelters identified and teams of volunteers prepared to manage those shelters, though we haven’t seen those evacuees yet,” American Red Cross Central Texas Region Spokesperson Sara Kennedy says.

Kennedy adds that in Dallas, Red Cross shelters are now open.  But she says they haven’t seen very many evacuees so far.

Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell says in a statement that the City of Austin will provide help too, should it be needed.  

The Latest at 10:20 p.m. ET. More Than 650,000 Power Outages In La.

That tidbit emerged in a letter from gov. Bobby Jindal to President Obama in which he requested expedited major disaster declaration for the state as a result of damage caused by Isaac.

Here's more from the letter:

The Latest At 11:06 P.M. ET Little Change In Strength

The National Hurricane Center says Hurricane Isaac will continue moving near or over the southeastern coast of Louisiana on Tuesday night, and move inland during the next day or so.

"Little change in strength is forecast tonight," it said at 10 p.m. CDT. "Slow weakening is expected after that."

As we reported earlier, widespread flooding was expected. Isaac was moving toward Baton Rouge, La.

NOAA

Hurricane Isaac will probably stay too far east to bring rain to Central Texas, but forecasters believe it will bring windy weather which will then make way for higher temperatures.

Hot, dry and breezy weather is the same combination that we had last Labor Day weekend before the devastating wildfires. But Lower Colorado River Authority Chief Meteorologist Bob Rose says things aren’t quite the same.

"We’re not looking at as extreme of critical fire weather conditions as we had last Labor Day weekend," Rose says. "Fortunately this summer we’ve had periods of rain from time to time, we have a little bit greener vegetation and the ground has a little more moisture in it. So the conditions going into this weekend are already not nearly like what they were last year."

KUT News

City of Austin Water Utility customers could get up to $1250 in rebates for changing their landscaping.

The water utility wants customers to replace thirsty turfgrass with native plant beds and permeable hardscapes that demand less water. Austin Water says some Central Texans have gardens and yards with plants that are not the best for the area.

“Some of the St. Augustine and other types of plants look pretty but they may not be successful in the kind of heat and especially the kind of drought that we’ve been experiencing. So we work with customers to help them choose better plants, better landscapes that are water wise," Austin Water Utility spokesperson Jill Mayfield says.

UPDATE at 2:40 ET:


Here's the National Hurricane Center's update at 1:00 CDT on Monday:

...HEAVY RAINS AND FLOODING AFFECTING THE FLORIDA EAST COAST... SIGNIFICANT STORM SURGE THREAT EXPECTED FOR THE NORTHERN GULF COAST...

The storm surge for south-central Louisiana was expected to be 3 to 6 feet, the NHC said.

Jillian Schantz Patrick for KUT News

When it is still dark outside you can hear the city’s sweeping and flushing trucks cleaning the downtown streets from gum, trash or even urine that lingers on the streets from the night before. Often you can hear water flushing on the streets and you wonder: Isn’t there a water restriction?

Recent rains might make you think otherwise, but the city of Austin is still in "moderate drought." That's why we are currently under Stage I watering restrictions. But When it comes to cleaning the streets of downtown Austin, the rules do not apply to the city itself, says Jill Mayfield, spokesperson from the Austin Water Utility Department.

“There is an exemption for water that’s used to protect health, safety or welfare for the public," Mayfield explained. "One example is street cleaning. We have so much pedestrian traffic and vehicle traffic, that it is important to keep our streets clean and healthy."

City of Austin by Mark Sanders

Four salamander species native to Central Texas have moved closer to being classified as "endangered" by the federal government.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service opened a 60-day public comment period today, asking for feedback on its proposal to protect four salamanders that live only in the waters of the Edwards Aquifer.

Environmental Protection Agency

You could call it a win for Texas officials in their ongoing battle against the Environmental Protection Agency.

A federal appeals court decided this morning the EPA went beyond its authority with a cross-state air pollution rule. The rule would have clamped down on power plant pollution that affects air quality in neighboring states. It was set to go in effect in January but several states, including Texas, sued to stop it.

Attorney General Greg Abbott is leading the charge for Texas against the EPA. He issued this statement about today's ruling:

The latest U.S. Drought Monitor map shows portions of Central Texas have moved from moderate to severe drought.

Recent hot and dry weather has prompted several Central Texas counties to issue burn bans.

Travis, Williamson, Hays and Burnet Counties are all prohibiting outdoor burning.

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