Sunday, April 29, 2012

Published in the Sun April 28, 2012
Vegan:  A strict vegetarian who consumes no animal food or dairy products

Gary Ranck is probably the last person in the world you would guess is a vegan.  At 70, the ex-marine still works full time as a security guard.  Don’t sneak into his apartment unannounced because he keeps nine handguns in his bedroom closet.  His favorite gun for target practice is a .45 caliber model 1911 automatic pistol.  Gary doesn’t give a rat’s patootie about animal rights or the environmental impact of industrial farming.  But he does listen to his doctors.  Eight years ago when an agonizing blood clot cut off the circulation to his left leg, his doctor told him he had to quit smoking.  Gary threw his last pack of cigarettes in the trash that same day and never smoked again.

When Dr. Allen Mauldin in Leander told Gary that his cholesterol was too high and suggested that he follow a diet free of all meat, eggs, and dairy products, Gary’s first impression was “Yeah, right.”  But Dr. Mauldin himself is a vegan, so Gary reluctantly agreed to try the diet for 90 days.  He was surprised to find that it wasn’t too difficult.  For breakfast he would nuke a frozen Amy’s Tofu Scramble.  He discovered that he genuinely liked grilled Portobello mushrooms on sprouted grain bread.    Before he became a vegan he didn’t even know what lentils were; now he makes his own Lentil Loaf instead of meatloaf.  He is happy to note that the diet allows him to wash down the lentil loaf with a beer.

After his 90 day trial period, Gary’s cholesterol was normal and Dr. Mauldin let him quit taking his cholesterol medication.  Since Gary hates to spend money on medicine, he decided to stick with the plan.  He has followed the diet very carefully for over two years now, only cheating with a bit of turkey at Christmas and Thanksgiving.  He is 27 pounds slimmer and his LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) is down to an absolutely perfect 53.  He doesn’t even miss meat, except when he sees a Burger King commercial on TV.  Then the longing for a double cheeseburger briefly reappears; a conditioned response that says more about the effectiveness of advertising than it does about the qualities of ground beef.

Thinking about the qualities of ground beef brings me to the topic of “pink slime,” otherwise known as lean, finely textured beef (LFTB).  After slaughtering a cow, the tiny scraps of meat left over are processed to separate the lean bits from the fat.  The resulting meat paste is treated with ammonium hydroxide to kill bacteria.  Since the process was developed in 2001, “pink slime” has been added to ground beef at fast food restaurants and school lunch programs to make the meat go further.  This process recovers about 13 extra pounds of meat from each cow.  Iowa governor Terry Branstad said that, in order to keep eating the same number of hamburgers, we will have to slaughter an extra 1.5 million cows a year to make up for the lack of LFTB (over the 35 million head of cattle currently slaughtered annually.)  That sounds like seriously bad news for the cow population.

There is, however, another way to make up for the “loss” of pink slime.  We could eat fewer hamburgers.  Meatless Mondays would benefit both our waistlines and our arteries, as well as granting an eleventh hour pardon for those 1.5 million cattle.

Gary Ranck skips meat to save money on cholesterol medication, which is a perfectly good reason all by itself.  But even if your cholesterol is normal, environmental impact is another huge reason to decrease the amount of meat in your diet.  A United Nations report in 2006 titled Livestock’s Long Shadow concluded that the complete process of feeding and distributing livestock accounts for 18% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, a larger percentage than the entire global transportation sector.

As a retired physician, I must add one small caution.  It is possible to go vegetarian and still have a very unhealthy diet – think chips and soda pop.  Meat should be replaced with actual fruits and vegetables.  And some people who completely avoid all animal products risk becoming deficient in vitamin B12, so a small supplement would be in order.  If you are interested in vegetarianism, a little research will help you get it right.  And of course nobody should stop cholesterol medication without consulting his or her physician.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Published in the Sun April 15, 2012

If you just want eggs you can get perfectly white, clean ones at HEB for $1.58 a dozen, $4.10 if you spring for the organic variety.  So why did hundreds of people show up for Austin’s Funky Chicken Coop Tour on April 7?  Why do otherwise rational people with good jobs at places like Dell and Samsung, people who have the money to buy organic eggs at the farmers’ market and make an arugula quiche every morning of the week if they want, why do they go to the trouble to raise hens in the backyard?

When asked, they always say, “We just want to know where our eggs come from.”  But wanting to know the source of your eggs does not adequately explain the psychological motivation behind this apparently inconvenient hobby, so I am forced to come up with my own (totally unscientific) theory about the popularity of backyard chickens.

For prehistoric humans, hunting game was necessary for survival.  Modern hunters, admitting that they don’t really need to hunt for food, describe their sport in spiritual terms.  They talk about the need to hunt being encoded in our DNA.  They rightfully claim that hunting nurtures virtues such as self-reliance, competence, discipline, and resolve.  Hunters are proud to be conservationists.  Killing game is so much more than just food, they say.  It’s also about creating an honest relationship between predator and prey, and about maintaining a link with an honorable past in which humans provided their own sustenance or they went hungry.

Isn’t it possible that those of us who are a bit less bloodthirsty might experience those same primal urges to get down and dirty with nature?  Just like our armed and camouflaged brethren, we pacifists also want to experience the food chain up close and personal.  The processed, sterilized, and plastic-wrapped chemical conveniences that modern society calls “food” might prevent starvation, but are we truly nourished?  Maybe convenience is not the most important attribute for nutrition.  As Aldous Huxley said in Brave New World, “Being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune.”  In spite of splinters and smashed thumbs, is not building your own chicken coop a thousand times more empowering than a PowerPoint presentation to a lethargic committee of under-the-table text-message-senders?  Can scooping poop from the coop purify the soul as well as the henhouse?  A hen-owner has an honest interspecies relationship with the hen:  the human provides feed and shelter and the hen will reciprocate with an egg.  The egg, collected from a nest and scrambled for breakfast, is not just calories, it’s an accomplishment.

In addition to providing a sense of achievement, raising your own eggs makes a social statement.  It says, “I don’t want to support a commercial egg industry that confines chickens in cages so small they cannot even spread their wings.  Chickens, as humble as they are, deserve to live a normal chicken life, wandering about with other chickens and pecking for bugs.  Humans are big enough to extend ethical standards to animals.”

People of all persuasions, from liberals to libertarians, came together at the Funky Chicken Coop Tour in the quest for food realism.  Many home tours have a lot of Wow factor.  You look at something beautiful and you think, “Wow, that countertop must have cost a year of college tuition.”  Not so with Funky Chicken Coops.  Reduce, re-use, and recycle were the watchwords of funky chicken coop construction.

Although not the most functional of all possible coops, my favorite was Erik and Allegra Azulay’s creation, using a Disney castle to house their six chickens.  “All our hens are princesses,” explained Erik.  The Azulays were inspired after the Funky Chicken Tour in 2010 and fashioned their first coop out of a doghouse and some hardware cloth.  Later they expanded into the castle.  I asked Allegra if they had experienced any problems with predators in the inner city.  She admitted that they had one possum attack, “but everybody survived.”  What was her motivation for having chickens in the backyard?  “We just wanted to know where our eggs come from.”

Published in the Sun March 25, 2012

Mining Oil from the Dump

Like many who thought they had their careers planned, the recession put Josh Broussard onto a different path.  He had started his professional life as a chemical engineer smocked up in a semiconductor clean room, but now his office is a trailer on the edge of a landfill.  In spite of the humble (and odiferous) surroundings, Josh loves his new job.  He gets to work on two environmental questions at once:  What do we do with all the trash?  And how can we use petroleum products more effectively?

Here is Josh’s challenge.  Every year, ten million tons of composition shingles are ripped off American roofs and thrown into landfills.  Shingles contain about 20% asphalt, which is the sticky residue left over after the gasoline, diesel, and other oils are taken out of the crude oil.  Each ton of shingles contains the equivalent of one barrel of oil; twice as much oil as can be extracted from a ton of Alberta tar sands.  Not only is discarding used shingles a waste of oil, but it is also exceptionally wasteful of expensive landfill space because shingles do not compact well, leaving a lot of airspace in the pile.

Josh works for WM Asphalt Products, a special division of Waste Management, the company that runs the Williamson County landfill.  His job is to divert composition shingles out of the waste stream, and recycle them into a product that can be used to pave and repair asphalt roads.  It’s like he is drilling for oil, but he’s doing it in the dump.

When a roofing contractor replaces a damaged composition roof, he has to get rid of the old shingles.  He can take them to Josh, even if they are mixed with nails, flashing, and other roof debris.  Josh will charge him $32 a ton, up to a maximum of $64, to recycle the shingles.  This is less than the contractor would be charged to dump them in the landfill, so the contractor comes out ahead.  Josh and his helper Tim Cunningham then “clean” the shingles, which means they pick out all the wood, plastic soda bottles, and other extraneous trash.  The shingles are then run through a giant grinder and chopped into pieces no bigger than one half inch.

The chopped shingles can be sold for $25 to $35 a ton as an additive for hot mix asphalt which is used for paving roads.  Hot mix asphalt can be up to 5% recycled shingles by weight.  The asphalt in shingles is actually harder than the rest of the mix, so it helps prevent heavy wheels causing deep ruts in the road.  Even better, the recycled shingles reduce the need for virgin asphalt, which costs $500 a ton.  The Texas Department of Transportation states that using 5% recycled shingles in hot mix to pave one mile of a two lane highway uses 80 tons of shingles and saves 40 cubic yards of landfill space.  So the hot mix company saves money, the roofing contractor saves money, and both of them give money to Josh.  It’s a win/win/win situation.  Even the county comes out ahead by saving landfill space, which costs millions of dollars to build and operate.

Asphalt recycling is just part of a larger trend called Resource Recovery:  the economical harvesting of “trash” for valuable materials.

Published in the Sun March 18, 2012

When Dean Hamilton, chaplain of the Wesleyan Homes, was 8 years old, he decided he was big enough to butcher a chicken by himself.  His grandmother, keeper of the chickens, gave the go-ahead.  Dean caught the unfortunate hen easily enough, but in his excitement he neglected to tie the legs to a tree branch, a crucial mistake.  After a deadly whack, the unrestrained and now headless bird flew over the grandmother’s clothesline, splattering the clean white bedsheets with blood.  Terrified by the carnage, Dean fled the scene and hid in the woods for several hours.  His grandfather had to finish the job, but in the end, everybody had a nice chicken dinner.  With practice, Dean got more proficient at butchering.  He and his grandmother working together could take a chicken from scratching in the yard to steaming on the table in under an hour.  Dean’s farming chores as a child gave him an understanding of the work involved in food production, and a respect for the creatures involved.

Frank Lloyd Wright once said “it is just as desirable to build a chicken house as to build a cathedral.”  After moving to a hilltop outside of Walburg a few years ago, Dean followed Mr. Wright’s advice and built a chicken coop for ten hens.  The chickens provide Dean and his wife, Cullie Mac, with farm-fresh eggs, manure compost for their prolific vegetable garden, and hours of bucolic entertainment.

In addition to bugs and greens from the yard, Dean’s hens eat a high protein laying mash which helps them achieve their full egg-laying potential.  A hen in her prime can lay 2 eggs every three days.  Dean calculates that it takes 4 pounds of laying mash for a dozen eggs.  At 60 cents a pound for organic mash, his eggs are costing $2.40 a dozen, just for the feed.  It would cost about half as much for non-organic feed, but Dean is particular about what goes into his eggs.  What goes in affects what comes out.  Scientists at Pennsylvania State University have been studying the nutritional characteristics of eggs raised under various conditions.  Eggs from truly pasture-raised chickens contain three times more omega-3 fatty acids, twice as much vitamin E, and 40% more vitamin A than eggs from factory farm hens.  In 2007 Mother Earth News tested free range eggs from 14 flocks around the country and confirmed the PSU findings.  They also found that pastured eggs contained 7 times more beta carotene and one third less cholesterol.

Dean hasn’t had any chicken disease problems so far.  He attributes the hens’ good health to a spacious yard with lots of room to run and peck, and a clean coop.   When he buys new chicks, he gives them a special starter food medicated to prevent the parasite coccidiosis, the most common cause of death in young chicks.  When his hens reach chicken menopause and stop laying eggs, Dean just lets them hang around anyway.  He no longer has any interest in butchering chickens with names like Buttercup and Pretty Girl.  Besides, having a few old biddies around decreases the odds that his good layers will be divebombed by the red-tailed hawks that keep an eye on his property.  In an effort to keep the hawks away, Dean has several lifelike horned owl statues in the chicken yard.  Hawks apparently do not like owls.

Skunks also prey on chickens.  Skunks don’t eat the whole chicken; they just bite the heads off.  The first time Dean had a skunk problem he caught one in a humane trap.  However once the skunk was in the trap, Dean realized he had no clear plan for how to get him out.  Resorting to a non-humane solution, and standing well out of spray range, he took aim with a 22 rifle.  The first 3 shots bounced off the wire of the cage, but the fourth shot hit the mark.  Very carefully, Dean slid the smelly body into a contractor’s bag and set it out for the unsuspecting trash collectors.  Last year alone Dean dispatched ten skunks.

Dean collects about 10 beautiful blue and brown eggs a day, more than enough for himself, plus a plate of scrambled eggs every week for his pampered dogs, and still has enough eggs left over for special friends and neighbors.  I am happy to be one of his friends.

Readers who are interested in learning more about backyard chickens can attend the Austin Funky Chicken Coop Tour on April 7, 2012 from 10 AM to 4 PM.
This was never published in the Sun; I guess the editor didn't like it.  It had some great graphics to go along with it, but for some reason I can't get them to cut and paste on this blog.

What Exactly Is La Niña and Why Do They Keep Talking About It?

Some weather events are easy to understand.  Everybody knows what it means when we have 90 days over 100 degrees in one season.  If a tropical storm drops 15 inches of rain on central Texas in one night, we totally get the concept.  But what exactly is La Niña and how is it related to droughts in Texas?  Here is a short answer, with some pictures, so you can be ready if somebody brings up the topic at a dinner party.

El Niño and La Niña are the opposite ends of a naturally occurring cycle called the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO).  The oscillation refers to the year to year shifts in the temperature of the surface water of the Pacific Ocean in a spot called the Niño 3.4 region.  (See Figure A.)  Normally, tradewinds blow from South America along the Equator, pushing the warm surface water west toward Indonesia and Australia.  The warm water collects there in what is called the “West Pacific Warm Pool.”  This westward movement of water causes cold water to be pulled up from the depths on the eastern side of the Pacific, near Peru and Ecuador.

La Niña is said to exist when the tradewinds blow even more water from east to west, pulling up even more cold water near South America.  The cool water extends along the Equator like a big finger pointing toward the warm pool of water on the other side of the Pacific.  (Figure B.)  During La Niña, the Niño 3.4 region is cooler than normal.

The upwelling of cold water is beneficial to the fisheries off the coast of Peru, because nutrients are brought up from the depths.  Unfortunately for Texans, however, the presence of La Niña causes the jet stream air currents carrying moist Pacific air toward North America to deviate northward, taking much needed moisture away from the southern United States and depositing it in the Northwest and Canada.  (Figure C.)

La Niña conditions are typically associated with drought in Texas, but not always.  During the drought of record from 1950 to 1956, La Niña conditions existed for all of 1950, and then disappeared in the spring of 1951.  A very strong La Niña recurred in 1954 and persisted until spring of 1957, when the drought ended.  The two lowest annual rainfalls ever recorded for Austin (Camp Mabry) were 11.42 inches in 1954, and 15.41 inches in 1956.  On the other hand, the strongest and longest La Niña ever recorded occurred from the summer of 1973 until the summer of 1976.  In spite of La Niña conditions, annual rainfall in Austin for those four years was 38.7 inches, above average for the region.  (Figure D.)

Typically La Niña alternates with El Niño every three to five years.  An individual La Niña lasts 9-12 months, but occasionally a La Niña episode has persisted for more than 2 years.  La Niña conditions are usually strongest during the winter months of the Northern Hemisphere.

La Niña began during the summer of 2010 and continued until spring of 2011.  It then abated for the summer but came back in the fall.  It is not as strong this year as it was last year.  The National Weather Service predicts that La Niña will persist through April of 2012 with higher than average temperatures in Texas through the summer and fall.  They won’t commit themselves about the prospect of rain.

Published in the Sun April 1, 2012

Final part of Drought Series

When Jessica Woods got dual flush toilets in her house, she worried that her family would not adapt to two different flush levels.  She need not have worried.  They figured it out right away, and even found through diligent experimentation that the small flush could handle most of the big jobs too.  As the water conservation specialist for the city of Round Rock, Woods hates to see good water going down the drain, so she promotes water efficient plumbing fixtures for her customers.  Toilets are typically the biggest users of water inside a home.

Georgetown and Round Rock both get the majority of their water supply from Lake Georgetown, but Ms. Woods knows that the intake valves for Round Rock are not as deep as the ones that service Georgetown.  If the lake level gets too low, Round Rock could be high and dry while Georgetown still has water.

There are two ways to make sure Lake Georgetown stays  full enough to cover those intake valves.  The expensive way is to put more water into the lake.  The cheap way is to take less water out.  Using less water means less money spent to purchase water rights, less money for water treatment, and less money to maintain infrastructure such as pipes and pumps.

Toilets may be important, but the 500 pound gorilla in the water conservation room is landscape irrigation, which can account for over 70% of municipal water usage during the hot months.  An average family of four in the US would use about 8200 gallons of water a month indoors for washing, bathing, toilets, etc.  During a hot Texas summer, many times that amount might go onto the yard to water the grass.  Ms. Woods reveals that there is one homeowner in Round Rock who uses over 200,000 gallons per month on a two acre lot, and multiple customers who consume over 100,000 gallons per month.  To help curb such extravagance, Ms. Woods became a licensed irrigator in 2003 and makes herself available to advise customers on water-wise irrigation techniques and drought resistant landscaping.  Her biggest beef concerns automatic sprinkler systems.  People tend to set them and then forget about them, continuing to sprinkle even during rain events or drought restrictions.  She prefers the “hose dragging” technique; watering only when and where it is needed.  Philosophically, she doesn’t believe that having a bright green yard is a realistic expectation for hot summers in Texas, and is frustrated that many homeowner associations force residents to maintain landscapes that are poorly adapted to our climate.

The types of plants used in a yard can have a huge effect on water usage.  Dr. Mark Simmons, director of the Ecosystem Design Group at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, explains that Saint Augustine grass requires two to three inches per week to keep it green in the summer, while Buffalo grass needs only one inch.  If Buffalo grass is allowed to go dormant, as it naturally would during a drought, it can survive on only one inch a month, becoming green again when rains resume.  Research at the Wildflower Center has developed a mix of native short grasses called Habiturf (buffalo grass, blue grama, and curly mesquite) that can survive on one watering every 5 to 6 weeks.  This mix is also denser and more weed resistant than non-native grasses.

Minimizing turf grass coverage is another way to cut back on water usage.  Why do we think that a Texas home needs to resemble an English manor with a close-cropped lawn big enough for a cricket match?  There are many native trees and plants that are quite attractive and drought tolerant, without resorting to a barren yard of rocks and cactus.

Carole Baker, executive director of the Texas Water Foundation, has been trying to change attitudes about water for 30 years.  People are so used to turning the tap and getting drinkable water 24/7 that they cannot imagine there could ever be a problem.  They think, “the state isn’t going to let us run out of water.”  The state certainly doesn’t want us to run out of water, but the Texas Water Development Board estimates that $53 billion are required over the next 50 years just for capital improvements to maintain an adequate water supply.  Ms. Baker believes that consumers don’t value water because it is just too cheap.  Although people will readily pay $3 for 20 ounces of water in a plastic bottle with a pretty label, there is an expectation that tap water should be almost free.  Ms. Baker would like consumers to conserve voluntarily, but she is pessimistic.  “Encouragement just goes so far.  My theory is to regulate when necessary.”

Everybody agrees theoretically that water conservation is necessary, but there is a Catch-22 in the water business.  Water utilities make money by selling water.  They may have to spend more to increase production, but they can turn around and sell water to the consumer at a profit.  The more water we use, the more money they make.  At least as long as the supply holds out.  So how does a water utility encourage conservation without shooting its own profit in the foot?

The answer increasingly is tiered rates.  El Paso, which receives 9 inches of rainfall a year, is the home of the Kay Bailey Hutchison Desalination Plant, the largest inland desalination plant in the world.  The plant takes brackish water from the Hueco-Bolson Aquifer and produces 27.5 million gallons of fresh water per day, about one fourth of El Paso’s total water use.  Unfortunately, the plant cost $87 million to build, and desalinated water costs $834 per acre-foot to produce.  To recoup those expenses, and to guide El Pasoans toward wiser water use, the city has a three tiered rate system.  The first block, which would allow ample water to all the customers who only use water inside the house or apartment, costs only $1.94/1000 gallons.  (This rate is less than we pay here in Williamson County.)  The next tier costs more, and then the third tier, which is defined as greater than 250% of the average winter usage, costs $6.50/1000 gallons.  This tiered system means that El Paso homeowners who want to indulge in lush green lawns are going to pay for the privilege.  Round Rock has also recently approved tiered water rates in which the highest tier costs $4.70/1000 gallons.

Georgetown has tiered water rates, but only when drought restrictions are in effect.  The rest of the time Georgetown water customers pay $2.25/1000 gallons.   Glenn Dishong, Georgetown’s Utility Director, would like to see year-round tiers, increasing to a marginal rate of $7.50/1000 gallons for the biggest users.  The revenue from the higher tiers would be set aside for the capital improvements such as the recent $16 million expansion of the Lake Georgetown water treatment plant; capital improvements required to cover the peak demand created by those big users watering their yards.

If tap water were more expensive, customers who enjoy lush landscapes would have a clear choice.  They can pay for the infrastructure required to provide extra potable water, or they can become more creative by using native plants, reducing turf grass coverage, and irrigating from alternative sources such as graywater and roof-collected rainwater.

Here in Williamson County, we can count on the future to bring us more neighbors and more droughts.  What the future won’t bring us is more water.  We will have to take care of that ourselves.

The Drought of Record - 1950-1956

Mervin Walker, 80 years old and mayor of Weir since 1987, was a young farmer during the drought of the 1950s.  He has vivid memories of that time of hardship.  Like most of the farmers in the area, Mr. Walker was growing corn and cotton.  Williamson County was known for producing good cotton crops, especially around Taylor.  He remembers that the early ‘50s were a little dry, but the farmers were still getting by.  Then came 1956, the summer that the rains came to a dead stop.

“That was a terrible year,” he recalls.  “Just in the bottom of the terrace channels there was a little bit of cotton.  Little ole cotton wasn’t but about a foot high.  We didn’t even have machines in 1956.  There was a colored family in Weir; they had quite a few kids.  They came over and handpicked the cotton.  They would come over and take their cotton sacks and it took them a week or two.  We only got one bale from those fifty acres.  I felt so sorry for them, so I gave them half of what we got.”

According to Mr. Walker, the corn crop that year was even worse than the cotton.  “The corn got up about 3 foot high but there wasn’t any corn on it.  It was a complete failure.  The local dairy up north of Jonah green-chopped it and paid $4 an acre for the stalks to try and feed their cows.  That kind of helped the farmers out.  We got rid of all our cows in 1956.”  Many farmers just gave up during the seven hard years, leaving their parched fields and searching in town for work to support their families.

Texas’ “drought of record” began in 1950, but precipitation data from Austin show that the rainfall during the first four years was only five to nine inches short of the average 33 inches.  Then in 1954 it rained a mere 11.4 inches at Camp Mabry, and it stayed dry for three years.  By 1956 wells began to dry up, and rivers ceased to flow.  Comal Springs in New Braunfels stopped flowing for the first time in history.

The Williamson County Sun reported on an unusual experience of a Jonah resident, Mrs. W. H. Percy, in the summer of 1956.  The San Gabriel River had been dry for months behind her property, and then her well went dry also.  Hauling water and dumping it into the well was unsuccessful, as the water just escaped into the ground.  She was having a deeper well drilled, but at 640 feet the drillers struck oil instead of water.  “It is rather disappointing – to spend all that money for a water well and then get oil instead.”  Oil may cost more money than water, but it has no value when one is thirsty.

Farmers in rural Williamson County could not irrigate their crops and were suffering for lack of rain, but meanwhile the townspeople of Georgetown had plenty of water.  In July of 1953 city manager Lee Black told the Sun that Georgetown’s wells into the Edwards Aquifer could provide up to 5.4 million gallons a day, and that the city was using less than 25% of that capacity.  Lake Georgetown did not yet exist.  Don Scarbrough, editor of the Williamson County Sun, in his weekly editorial admonished the city fathers, “We’ve got a million or so extra gallons of water lying around every day, so why not use a small portion of it to keep the little city park on 12th Street looking green and pretty.  One of the most attractive things about Georgetown is the verdant lawns and lovely flowers and shrubs all over town, except on the property owned by the city.”

In the 50s, Georgetown was by far Williamson County’s largest user of water from the Edwards Aquifer.  It was also the most urbanized area and one of the few in which “verdant lawns” had become commonplace.  Most of the county was still rural and the more usual landscape scheme was broom-swept dirt or native grasses which thrived or perished according to the weather.  Actually Georgetown’s 5000 citizens were already using about 240 gallons per person per day, which was more than the average per capita Georgetown water consumption today.  (Of course, the population of Georgetown has grown dramatically, so now a hot summer day can see a total water demand of 27 million gallons, a demand for which the wells alone would be completely inadequate.)

The following year, 1954, when Georgetown received only 8.64 inches of rain the entire year, the town’s wells were still producing plenty of water.  The top headlines in the Sun that August concerned the advent of dial telephone service and the distribution of telephone directories to all subscribers.  There was far more concern in town about the polio epidemic than there was about drought.

It was not until 1956 that the drought began affecting the citizens of Georgetown.  That summer the city was pumping almost all its water from two new wells that had been drilled in 1952.  The wells had been steady producers during the drought, but in July 1956 both wells suddenly dropped 9 feet within a matter of days.  This unexpected event prompted mandatory one day a week watering restrictions, with violators fined $100 per day.  A groundwater hydrologist was consulted to study the water problem.  Don Scarbrough changed his tune and commented on the need for alternative sources of water, “maybe additional wells, perhaps deeper ones, or drawing water from Buchanan or Lake Travis and running water down to Williamson County in the dry San Gabriel river bottom, buying water from the Austin water district, building a dam on the river, etc.  Certainly we don’t want to just sit here without doing anything constructive until the water runs out.”

The water crisis in 1956, as well as the devastating floods that ended the drought in 1957, ultimately led to the construction in the late 1970s of Lakes Georgetown and Granger on the San Gabriel River, providing both water supply and flood control for Williamson County.  This secure water supply allowed the population of Williamson County to increase from 38,000 in the 1950s to over 400,000 today.  However, the Texas State Data Center projects that the county’s population will likely grow to over 1.3 million by 2040.  For every one person who was using the county’s water in the 1950s, there will be 34 lining up to drink in 2040.  Every one of them wants unlimited supplies of clean water available at the tap 24/7, drought or no drought.  Our lakes may not be deep enough for that many straws.

In August 1956, during the sixth year of the drought of record, Dr. H. R. Gaddy read a resolution to the Georgetown City Council stating that “the present water supply in Georgetown is not adequate,” and “future rainfall cannot be depended upon to supply our needs.”  It was time to build a reservoir.


During the drought of record in the 1950s, the leaders of Williamson County realized that they could no longer rely on aquifers for water during prolonged dry spells.  It was time to take matters into their own hands and build some reservoirs.

Williamson County has two man-made lakes.  Lake Georgetown was completed in 1979, and Lake Granger in 1980.  Both were built to control devastating flooding on the San Gabriel River, and also to provide reliable water during times of drought.  Lake Georgetown supplies 65% of Georgetown’s municipal water supply, as well as water to Round Rock, and Chisholm Trail and Brushy Creek utility districts.

But here’s the catch.  Lake Georgetown can only supply its customers with water from the San Gabriel River if there is plenty of rain, as there was in 2010.  During a drought, not only do the municipal customers begin to use more water, but the river stops refilling the reservoir.  The lake starts dropping and has to be filled with water pumped from Stillhouse Hollow Lake on the Lampasas River near Belton.  Every day since July 2011, when Lake Georgetown dropped to a trigger level of 781.5 feet above sea level, 42 million gallons per day have been piped in from Stillhouse to keep our lake at a safe level, and it is still not full.  That water is purchased from the Brazos River Authority and costs $3,000,000 per year, plus the cost of the electricity required to pump it, which is about $1,000,000 per year.  And that is just the cost of the raw water, sitting in the lake.  It still has to be purified and pumped to our houses.  By the way, that $3,000,000 per year has to be paid whether we need the water or not.

Mary Condon, mayor of Florence, would love to get her hands on some of that Lake Stillhouse water.  Florence is completely reliant on well water.  For the past four years the city has been paying $30,000 a year for rights to 500 acre-feet of water (163 million gallons) from Lake Stillhouse, but the citizens of Florence have yet to receive a single drop.  They have not been able to secure the funds (about a million dollars) necessary to build a pipeline and storage capacity.  There are 80 acres of prime undeveloped real estate within Florence city limits, but until adequate water arrives from the lake, no developers will invest.  Condon states that if they hadn’t reserved the rights four years ago, those rights would not be available today.

Even though Stillhouse is six times larger than Lake Georgetown, at some point in the next 10-20 years it will not be large enough to meet the demand.  Lake Stillhouse will have to be filled with another pipeline bringing water from Lake Belton.  This is not just speculation.  Glenn Dishong, utilities director for the city of Georgetown, states that Georgetown has already reserved rights to 10,000 acre-feet of Lake Belton water per year, and has been paying $625,000 a year for those rights for the last three years.

Lakes may be more reliable than groundwater, but they have one big disadvantage:  evaporation.  During a hot, dry, windy summer such as 2011, evaporation rates can be astronomical.  Brad Brunett of the Water Services Management Department, Brazos River Authority, calculated this past summer that the eleven BRA reservoirs, which include Lakes Georgetown and Granger, were being depleted by 4000 acre-feet per day.  Half of that amount was going to customers.  The other 2000 acre-feet were evaporating into thin air.

Another issue with man-made reservoirs is sedimentation.  When a river is dammed, sediment washes into the river during rain events and settles out behind the dam, diminishing the capacity of the lake.  When Lake Granger was first built, its capacity was 62,000 acre-feet.  By 2008 sedimentation had decreased its volume to 50,779 acre-feet, a loss of 18%.  Studies over the last three decades demonstrate that the rate of sedimentation is actually increasing.  The volume loss was 129 acre-feet per year when the dam was new.  The loss has now accelerated to 304 acre-feet/year.  Lake Stillhouse Hollow has only lost about 3.5% of its volume since 1967.  Fortunately, sedimentation has not been a problem for Lake Georgetown.

Published in the Sun March 18, 2012 

While the population of Williamson County is projected to increase by more than 100 percent during the next 50 years, groundwater supplies will remain unchanged.  Dr. Robert Mace of the Texas Water Development Board explains there is “only so much blood you can squeeze out of a turnip.”
Where Does Our Water Come From?


Jennifer McKnight has a low opinion of raindances.  “I tried them and they didn’t work.”  As general manager of the Chisholm Trail Special Utility District, McKnight is responsible for supplying water to a huge service area that extends from the west part of Georgetown all the way into Burnet and Bell Counties.  Forty percent of her water comes from two wells into the Edwards Aquifer.  One of those wells went dry during the drought this summer, and the other was pumping less than expected.  In McKnight’s experienced opinion, groundwater is just not as reliable as surface water.  Next summer she plans on getting 80 percent of her water from Lake Georgetown.

Mary Condon, mayor of Florence, has also had her share of nailbiting experiences involving wells.  Florence gets all its water from four wells into the Trinity Aquifer, but one of them stopped flowing last summer.  After $19,000 in repairs, it would still pump dry in about three minutes.  She has been told by her consultants that groundwater is just not a viable source of water in this part of the country any more.

The city of Georgetown pumps about 35% of its water from the Edwards Aquifer, 9 million gallons a day.  Under normal circumstances most of Georgetown east of IH 35 is supplied with well water.  During the dry summer of 2009 those essential wells came perilously close to failing, and were at risk again this past summer.  Fortunately it was discovered that water from the San Gabriel River can partially recharge the aquifer as it flows through town, slowly seeping into sinkholes in the riverbed.  During the summer of 2011 when the San Gabriel ceased to flow naturally, an intentional release of water from Lake Georgetown kept the wells pumping.

From a human perspective, an aquifer is like a huge rain barrel, storing clean water collected during rainy seasons in an underground honeycomb of rock.  Before 1940, Texans got almost all of our water from aquifers and the springs that flowed from aquifers, but the entire demand was less than 1 million acre-feet per year.  (An acre-foot is the amount of water required to cover one acre of land with water to a depth of one foot.  An acre-foot equals 325,851 gallons.)  Population growth has increased the demand on Texas aquifers by a factor of ten, but even that increased amount satisfies only 60 percent of our needs.  The rest of our water comes from lakes and reservoirs which have been constructed since the 1950s in response to increased demand and water shortages during droughts.

Although the state government clearly controls usage of all the surface water in Texas’ reservoirs through agencies such as the Brazos River Authority and the Lower Colorado River Authority, once the water seeps into the aquifers its ownership is murkier.  Groundwater usage is governed by the “Rule of Capture,” otherwise known as the rule of the biggest pump.  This rule, adopted by the Texas Supreme Court in 1904, states that if a landowner has a well, he is entitled to pump as much water out of that well as he wants.  In other words, if your well goes dry because your neighbor is pumping large amounts of water, too bad for you.  Your only recourse is to dig a deeper well.  Texas is the only western state that still uses the Rule of Capture.  Groundwater conservation districts in some counties try to regulate how much water can be pumped from underlying aquifers, but that control may be diminished by a Texas Supreme Court ruling last month.  In Edwards Aquifer Authority vs. Day, the court reaffirmed the 1904 ruling that landowners own the water beneath their land and access to that water may not be restricted without just compensation.  Groundwater conservation districts will be hesitant to restrict a landowner’s access to the water beneath his property if the landowner has to be compensated.  The question is moot in this county because Williamson County has never had a groundwater conservation district.

Williamson County has three important aquifers: the Trinity, the Edwards, and in the far eastern corner of the county, the Carrizo-Wilcox.  Fortunately, after periods of drought or overpumping, all three can be easily recharged when normal rainfall resumes.   Even after 6 years of drought in the 1950s, two years of normal rainfall restored the springs of the Edwards Aquifer to normal flows.  The prompt recharge of the Edwards is in marked contrast to the enormous Ogallala Aquifer which extends from the Texas Panhandle to Nebraska and is heavily used for irrigation.  The Ogallala recharges at an almost insignificant rate.  The water in that aquifer is “paleowater,” unchanged since the last ice age.  If the Ogallala is depleted by overpumping, which at current usage rates could happen in 25-50 years, it will take 6000 years to refill.

Since 2002, two NASA satellites orbiting 300 miles above the earth have been measuring tiny changes in the earth’s gravity based on the quantity of water stored in underground aquifers.  These satellites are part of the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE).  Every week, maps are produced by the Goddard Space Flight Center, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and University of Texas Center for Space Research in Austin.  The maps compare the current status of the aquifers to historical data since 1948.  Like a gas gauge, the maps tell if our “tanks” of water are full or empty.  The week of December 5, 2011, the central Texas aquifers measured at a lower volume than at almost any other time since 1948.  The rain during the winter has improved the situation in our area, but the Ogallala Aquifer continues to show a major deficit.

Dr. Robert Mace, deputy executive administrator for water science and conservation at the TWDB, is not convinced that measuring gravity is the best way to evaluate aquifers.  He explains that the GRACE project is experimental and the best way to evaluate aquifers is to measure water levels.  He confirms however that some Texas aquifers are being overpumped.  In the Dallas area the Trinity Aquifer is down 1000 feet and probably won’t recover as long as the present rate of pumping continues.   Last year he told the Texas Tribune that the Ogallala is being pumped at six times the rate of recharge.  He explains that there is “only so much blood you can squeeze out of a turnip.”

The Texas Water Development Board estimates that Williamson and Bell counties can count on 11,200 acre-feet of water per year from the Edwards from now through 2060.  To put this quantity in perspective, currently 47,000 acre-feet per year are being pumped from Stillhouse Hollow to Lake Georgetown for the use of Georgetown, Round Rock, and surrounding communities.  Williamson County is projected to have a municipal water usage of 92,000 acre-feet per year by 2020, so clearly the Edwards Aquifer will fulfill only about 12% of our water needs.  In contrast, the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer, third largest aquifer in Texas, is still underutilized and will play a larger role in the future.  Plans are already underway for what the Texas Water Development Board calls the Conjunctive Use Project in which the Carrizo-Wilcox is tapped to augment water in Lake Granger and supply the eastern part of the county and Round Rock.  Capital cost to complete this project is $644 million.