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Worried About Water

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I’ve been thinking (and worrying) about water a lot lately.  I suppose that the drought has brought all this concern along.  Just a few months ago, folks were comparing this drought to the one that devastated Texas agriculture in the ’50s (when crop yields dropped by as much as 50%, all but one county in Texas was declared a federal drought disaster area, and grasslands were scorched and ranchers that couldn’t afford high hay prices resorted to a mixture of prickly pear cactus and molasses), but now folks are saying that this drought is well on its way to being worse, and certainly more costly, than any other dry spell in Texas history.

We’re already seeing ranching and agriculture suffer substantially from this drought.  Agricultural officials are now pinning crop and livestock losses at $3.6 billion.  Just 12% of the cotton acreage planted this year will be harvested, and many gins won’t open up this season because there isn’t enought work to justify it.  Ranchers are also buying high priced hay and feed supplements because their own pastures haven’t produced enough to feed their herds.  Ranchers are selling off calves younger and thinner than usual, and even letting go of the mature females that sustain their herds.  In the last week, Bastrop County alone lost 12,000 cattle from the drought.  As Roy Wheeler, an Atascosa County rancher told the San Antonio Express-News, “We’re selling the factory, so they say.”

So why worry about the weather,  you may ask.  Haven’t farmers and ranchers been scraping by and beaten by the weather since the first man stuck a seed in the ground?  Perhaps, but during the dust bowl and in this last great drought in the ’50s, we could still shake our fists at the sky and vow never to go hungry again — but now we can only shake our fists at ourselves.  There’s not a doubt in my mind that this drought is a result of human interference.  I’m no scientist, just an educated girl with a blog, but I’d bet the farm that we’re seeing global warming in action.

But you don’t have take my word for it.  Take the word of Dr. Gerald North, a climate scientist at that notorious liberal holdout Texas A&M, who says that this drought is the beginning of a permanent trend for Texas.  He cites the 2007 IPCC report, which shows trends toward hotter and drier summers.  In reference to this weather pattern, North told the Environment News Service that, “It could be just a fluke that persists for a decade… But my guess is that it’s here to stay, but with fluctuations up and down.”

Of course we can’t point at any one weather event and say that it is a direct result of global warming, but we can take events as indicative of what is to come as global warming progresses.  Just as Hurricane Katrina woke up the world to the devastation that will ensue as storms of increase in frequency and severity from climate change, this current drought can give Texans a hint of what the future of Texas weather will look like.

There’s a terrible element of irony here.  Our current trajectory of unsustainable growth and energy consumption increase the likelihood that drought in Texas will become the new norm.  AND those same industries and energy sources which have poisoned our atmosphere and raised global temperatures… use enormous amounts of water.  Coal, natural gas, and nuclear — which propents are trying to sell as “the low-carbon cure we need” — are incredibly, enormously, despicably water intensive.

Again, I’m not asking you to go on faith here.  Just take a look at recent reports out of Glen Rose, where they want to build two more nuclear reactors at the Comanche Peak power plant.  Those additional reactors would “boil away 55 million gallons of Brazos River basin water a day,” which would be about twice the water use of the entire city of Waco.  With drought the new norm, can we afford to throw away precious water resources on a dangerous energy source?  Nuclear plants are supposed to last 40-50 years, but in that amount of time will we even have enough water to serve them?  If we have to choose between water for drinking and agriculture or water for nuclear power, which does it come down to? By giving away precious water rights to thirsty nuclear plants, could we compromise the needs of downstream users, businesses, and manufacturers? Texas likes to boast about its attractiveness to business, but who is going to move here if there is no water, or it is too expensive?

Another thing to consider is that energy companies like Exelon in Victoria often get senior water rights, as opposed to the junior rights received by cities and farmers. Which means that if push comes to shove and there is not enough water to go around, an Exelon-owned nuclear power plant near Victoria would leave local agriculture, the city of Kerrville, and even Victoria itself high and dry.

Water use is also a concern for coal plants.  Already we’re seeing a Central Texas Water War over the flows from Lake Travis and Buchanan (which will be all but drained in periods of drought).  San Antonio was looking to buy water rights there to meet its growing population and demand… but feasibility studies by the Lower Colorado River Authority were scrapped “to focus on the water needs of a controversial coal-powered plant near environmentally sensitive Matagorda Bay” called White Stallion (one of the plants we are working to stop).  White Stallion will need water from the lower Colorado for cooling purposes and to transport coal on barges to and from the Bay.

Last but not least, there’s the water use of natural gas.  Here water is needed not so much on the production side, but for drilling purposes.  Most of the natural gas being drilled today is through a process called hydraulic fracturing, whereby

1 to 5 million gallons of potable water, mixed with chemicals and sand are pumped under pressure down the drilling hole to release the gas trapped deep in the earth. During its lifetime, a well may be refracked as many as 18 times. The water that returns—30 to 70%–is called flowback and can contain the drilling chemicals plus hydrocarbons from the formation and naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM).

This water is then disposed of in deep injection wells — so deep, in fact, that it is removed from the hydrological cycle.

Oh, and hydraulic fracturing is exempt from the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act (the Halliburton loophole), and companies don’t even have to report what chemicals they’re shooting down into the earth’s crust and allowing to leach into groundwater, the aquifer, and people’s private wells.  For more information, watch a few of the videos at Water Under Attack, a documentary in progress about gas drilling and its dangers.  A dramatic taste:

We don’t usually consider water in our planning matrix for energy generation, but clearly it ought to be one of our top concerns.  To quote one of my favorite 80′s hairbands, You Don’t Know What You’ve Got Til Its Gone — but with water, we just can’t afford to let it get that far.

Not all electricity sources are as water intensive as our old fossil fuel standbys.  You need a little water to keep solar panels clean, but nothing compared to what you need to run a coal or nuclear plant.  Wind turbines don’t need any water either — and energy efficiency? Not a chance.

So, now you’re depressed.  I’m sorry, I have that effect on people. Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and move on to empowerment — because there’s plenty we can do to drown our water woes.

As far as the current drought goes, there’s not much we can do outside of a rain dance — but there ARE political actions we can take to make sure that global warming doesn’t escalate such that drought is the new norm.  The House of Representative’s version of the climate bill was disappointingly weak, but the Senate is taking a crack at it now so we still have a chance to get a better bill.  Look for an action alert from us to that effect tomorrow, or if you can’t wait that long, send a fax online through 1Sky asking your Senator to pass a strong climate bill. And while you’re at it, get nukes out of the climate bill!

Concerned about coal? Live in one of the 12 communities threatened by pending coal plants? Visit Coal Block and network with other activists, or call our office at 512-477-1155 and ask how you can get involved.

If you live in San Antonio, you’ve also got a chance to raise your voice against the South Texas Project nuclear expansion and its proposed profligate waste of water.  Keep posted for an update on the San Antonio nuclear battle and a schedule of public meetings — or post a comment and we’ll get to you pronto! In the meantime, join the facebook group Don’t Nuke the Alamo (well worth it just view the photo).

As a matter of fact, no matter where you live you can speak with your city council about your water concerns.  Start asking questions about what your city’s future energy plans are, and if they are including increased restrictions on water in their planning matrix.

Ditto if you are served by an electric cooperative, like the Pedernales Electric Coop.  That’s YOUR electric coop, you’re not just a member but a member-owner.  Make it work for you and your needs.

Upset about the water contamination of gas drilling?  Think there oughtta be a law?  Well ask my friends, and you shall receive — tell Congress to Close the Halliburton loophole, protect drinking water, and support H.R. 2766/S. 1215!

Anyone else have action ideas to stop this water waste? Share it with the group, and post a comment below!