Saturday, December 28, 2013

Published in the Sun Dec 28, 2013

“We live on the edge of a desert, and our yards are going to look like that.”  These are not the words of a latte-sipping, electric-car-driving, rainwater-collecting environmentalist.  (You thought I was nagging at you again, didn’t you?)  These are the words of John Hofmann, manager of the central and lower basins of the Brazos River Authority, the man ultimately responsible for Georgetown’s water supply.  He means that if we want to continue to have clean, abundant water coming out of our faucets in 2050, we need to stop pouring it on the grass.

It should be a simple message.  Our lake is only 53% full after what seems like a wet fall, even though we are pumping water from Lake Stillhouse in an effort to keep it filled.  The time has come for a paradigm shift on how we use water.  If we are going to have enough water for all the people who already live here, plus the ones who are arriving every day, we will need to use less.  Back to Mr. Hofmann, “You have to raise rates.  Everybody thinks about water like it’s a birthright because it’s so cheap.”  He adds this admonition, “You need to be shooting for under 150 gallons per person per day.”  Georgetown residents currently use over 200 gallons of water per person per day.  The only way to achieve that kind of conservation (unless we want to seriously sacrifice personal hygiene) is to change the way we water our yards.

In addition to advocating conservation, Mr. Hofmann’s presentation to the Chisholm Trail Special Utility District on December 19 also included a lot of information about potential new water resources for the Brazos G region which includes Williamson County and 36 other Texas counties from the lower Panhandle to Navasota in the southeast.

The Bel-house Connector is a $500 million, 8 mile pipeline which would bring water from Lake Belton to Stillhouse Hollow.  For years, Georgetown has been paying more than $600,000 a year for rights to water in Lake Belton, even though the pipeline doesn’t yet exist.  To bring this pipeline to fruition, the BRA still needs to acquire the right-of-way for the pipeline, and get the approval of politicians in Bell County.  Since Belton, Killeen, Copperas Cove, and Harker Heights have all managed to get their own water consumption below 160 gallons per capita per day, the politicians up there may not be so keen to share water from their own growing constituency with water-hog neighbors to the south.  If all the cards fall into place, and if we can get our consumption down to an acceptable level, the Bel-house connector would provide enough water for Williamson County until 2050.  After that we will need to find more.

Another possibility is to build a new lake near Cameron called the Little River Off-Channel Reservoir.  This new reservoir, which would cost $137 million to build and almost $12 million a year to run, would provide about 27,000 acre feet of water per year, or 24 million gallons per day.  To put that number in perspective, the city of Georgetown all by itself can consume over 27 million gallons of water on a hot summer day, two-thirds of which goes – you guessed it - onto the grass.

There are, however, people who oppose the construction of the Little River reservoir.  The resulting lake would submerge over 4000 acres of ranchland.  If your family had been ranching near Cameron for 150 years, you might not be in favor of having your land confiscated so that city slickers can grow posies in the yard.

All water planning in Texas is predicated on a worst case scenario similar to the “drought of record,” our dry spell in the early 1950s.  Mr. Hofmann points out that the “drought of record” is only based on 100 years of data, while historic evidence suggests Texas has experienced droughts much worse than that one.  He also notes that the last 30 years have been some of the wettest in central Texas history, allowing a growth rate that may not be sustainable if the area reverts to a drier climate again.  In summary, the future may have less water filling our lakes, and more people sucking it out.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Knowing What Is In Your Food

Published in the Sun 12-18-2013

The US Food and Drug Administration recently announced that “trans” fats are not safe to consume at any level, meaning that food manufacturers would have to remove all trans fats from their products.  This move by the FDA has prompted cries of “nanny state” and “excess government regulation,” so I have been thinking a bit about what exactly is “excess government regulation.”

If you want to sell me a scarf you knitted, and I want to buy it, we would probably all agree that transaction is our personal business and the government does not need to be involved. 

What if you want to sell me a 32 ounce sugary cola drink, and I know that drinking large quantities of sugary cola drinks will eventually predispose me to obesity and diabetes?  Should the government allow me to buy that drink even though it is harmful to my health?  I think most of us in Texas, the home of personal responsibility, would still say yes, I have a constitutional right to make stupid decisions.  If I can dodge feral hogs at 85 mph on Texas 130, surely I can handle a Big Gulp.

Let’s go a couple of steps further and suppose that I make a loaf of bread that looks pretty and smells nice, but secretly contains a deadly poison that will kill you after one bite.  Should I be allowed to sell that to you?  Of course not, you gasp.  That would be murder.  I should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.  (In this case my imprisonment would be retroactive government regulation.)

Okay, those were the easy questions.  Now it gets tougher.  Remember the can of Crisco that your mom had on the back of the stove?  Crisco was short for crystallized cottonseed oil.  Cottonseed oil, a waste product from the cotton industry, was originally used to make soap and lamp oil.  A chemist discovered that if hydrogen was bubbled through cottonseed oil, it made a white, semi-solid grease that worked great for frying chicken and fish.  As a shortening, it also gave baked goods a lovely brown color and a longer shelf life.  Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (also called PHOs or trans fats) were thought to be a healthy alternative to lard and rapidly made their way into almost all of our commercially baked breads and cookies, margarines, frostings, and even coffee creamers.  These miraculous oils seemed like real business winners, until it was discovered that they were causing many thousands of heart attacks annually in the US.

Trans fats have a different chemical structure than natural vegetable oils.  Unfortunately, our bodies use oils from our diet to make things like cell membranes, so if we ingest abnormal oils, we can expect abnormal results over the long term.  Just like one cigarette won’t kill you, one trans fat loaded cinnamon roll won’t knock you off right away.  But over the long term, even a tiny increase in the amount of trans fat in the diet increases the risk of heart disease by as much as 30%.

Since 2006 the FDA has required food makers to list trans fat as a separate ingredient on nutrition labels.  Public shame turned out to be quite an effective form of government regulation, because food companies fell all over themselves to remove the trans fat from their products, rather than admit that they were using PHOs.  These days, most of the foods in the grocery store that still admit to containing a lot of trans fats are margarines, frostings and baked goods that have frostings, like cinnamon rolls.  Unfortunately the labeling law has a loophole.  If a product contains less than half a gram per serving it could still be labeled as 0 grams of trans fat, so if you eat processed food every day you can still get enough to harden your arteries.  At the grocery store you can read the fine print to find which products contain PHOs, but restaurants are more difficult, unless you carry a biochemistry lab around in your purse.  I can’t know which foods have trans fat in them, and often the restaurant people don’t know themselves, so I can’t really make an informed decision about what is safe to eat.  A bit of government regulation over my food doesn’t bother me in the least.  We actually have these government regulations because people used to get poisoned by their food regularly, and not in a gradual way.

Of course, many restaurant owners want to keep trans fat out of their food just because it is the right thing to do.  I eat lunch every Friday with a group of friends at Bob’s Catfish-N-More in San Gabriel Park.  Bob McMinn, a former paramedic, was “green as a snake” about nutrition when he first got into the restaurant business in 1979.  When he opened Catfish-N-More he bought 50 pound blocks of hydrogenated soy oil to fry his catfish.  It was what everybody did.  When he learned about the health dangers of trans fat 20 years ago, he switched over to canola oil.  It’s more expensive but it lasts longer, and lets him feel better about his customers eating fried food.  He laughs and admits, “This ain’t no therapeutic diet kitchen!”  He doesn’t serve dessert because he figures that fried food is indulgence enough for his customers.  You can however get a big sugary cola if you think you can handle it.

Bob McMinn at Catfish-N-More

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Pass the Cranberry Jelly, Please

Published in the Sun Nov 27, 2013

Winnie Bowen, 7 year volunteer at the Caring Place, helps a client select groceries
I am a procrastinator when it comes to Thanksgiving dinner.  Every year, 25 members of the family show up at my house, expecting a delicious meal in a delightfully festive environment.  So here I am lying awake at 5:00 AM on the Friday before Thanksgiving, deciding what to serve and wondering how much of the house absolutely must be cleaned to avoid disgrace.

Green bean casserole, of course, and cranberry jelly.  My kids like cranberry jelly right out of a can, carefully sliced so the can marks are a visible testament to authenticity.  That’s as far as I get on the menu before my mind wanders and I starting wondering about people who don’t have the luxury of being picky about their groceries during the holidays.

Curious about food insecurity, I head over to the Caring Place to meet Rita Turner, director of community engagement.  Rita tells me that although to the casual observer Georgetown looks like an affluent community, an increasing number of families have a hard time putting food on the table.  Part of the increased demand may be due to the recent reduction in federal food stamp benefits that went into effect November 1, 2013.

Playing devil’s advocate I challenge Rita to respond to the claim that some people would rather use food stamps than get a job and she snorts dismissively, “Nobody’s getting rich off food stamps.”  The maximum benefit for a family of four calculates to $1.76 per meal per person.  In other words, what I might casually spend on a morning latte would be a day’s worth of food stamps for an eligible child.  Last month in Williamson County, over 28,000 people received food stamps; 57% of them were children.

Rita further explains that most of the food pantry clients at the Caring Place are disabled or elderly and are not candidates for jobs anyway.  In 2012, the Caring Place distributed enough food for almost 600,000 meals.

While Rita and I are talking, my friend Jodie Steger walks out of a room where she interviews potential clients.  Jodie screens people in private and finds out what financial crisis has caused the need for emergency assistance and how the Caring Place might help.  She has just interviewed a woman without medical insurance who was hospitalized recently.  The woman may lose her job because of her absence, and can’t afford her new prescriptions.  Jodie can’t help her pay her medical bills from the hospital, but she is able to give her a voucher to purchase her medications at HEB and help her with one week’s worth of food every month for the next three months.  That will help the woman keep enough cash on hand to buy gasoline to get to her job in South Austin, if she doesn’t get fired.

Jodie, who let’s just say is beyond Medicare age and in a comfortable place financially, could be spending her “golden years” doing anything she wants.  What she wanted was to be a social worker.  She went back to Southwestern as a non-traditional student and graduated at age 49 with a degree in sociology.  She volunteers about 15 hours a week at the Caring Place.  She is embarrassed to be interviewed for the newspaper, saying, “I don’t want any credit; it’s not about me.  I just like doing this.  It’s a selfish thing on my part.”  She means of course that the satisfaction she feels from helping people is rich compensation for her efforts. 

I agree that it is not about her, but the Caring Place won’t let me interview a client for privacy reasons, and I can’t interview all 450 volunteers who regularly donate their time and talents to the Caring Place, so Jodie is on the hook simply because she came out of her office at the precise moment that I walked by.  She is one of many, many people who care about our less fortunate neighbors, and are willing to sacrifice both time and money to make a difference.

I ask Jodie the same question I asked Rita; how does she know that the clients aren’t trying to scam the system?  After years of interviewing desperate people in dire financial straits she seems a bit puzzled by my question and thoughtfully replies, “I just believe that everybody deserves food, and shelter, and a safe place to stay.  I would rather help a few people who don’t need it than turn away the ones who do.”

Ginna O’Connor, the new executive director, has joined us and interjects that many people can be just one or two paychecks away from needing assistance.  The Caring Place exists to help those who find themselves in a rough spot.  Jodie recalls refugees from Hurricane Katrina who had nice homes and fancy cars back in New Orleans, but lost everything in the flood.  Misfortune can happen to anybody.

If you are reading this newspaper, chances are that you will spend several hundred dollars (or way more) on your holiday celebrations over the next five weeks.  Do your conscience a favor and go to (or another charity of your choosing) and help somebody else have a nice holiday as well.  Anne Frank wrote in her diary, “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”  Improve your world.  That cranberry jelly will be so much sweeter.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Observations from the Campaign Trail

Published in the Williamson County Sun 11-20-2013

The best part of running for city council was meeting people.  I met so many wonderful people who have quietly been doing good in this town for years; people who believe that even the unlucky deserve a fair shake, people who spend their spare time making things better for the less fortunate among us, and people who believe that the real value in a community cannot be entered on a spread sheet.  Excel is not the same as Excellence.

I drank a lot of coffee with city employees who, without exception, were excited about their jobs and passionate about the future of Georgetown.  We are lucky to have such a wonderful city staff.

Knocking on a thousand doors in Georgetown’s District 2, I learned a lot of interesting things about my neighbors too.  The majority of people who answered the doorbell were eager to chat.  Some offered to introduce me to their neighbors.  Almost everybody loves Georgetown, having moved here precisely because it is a good place to live.  Many told me they intend to die here, even if Georgetown keeps growing, which they know it will.  Most had no complaints, but if they did come up with one, it was usually “Don’t raise property taxes.”  Many want more businesses on the Square that cater to Georgetown residents, not just tourists.  A lot of people really miss the monthly truck load of brush that they used to be able to dump for free at the collection station, and many were puzzled about why we do so much road repaving and curb replacement.  Many, many people thought we should restrict watering more than we currently do.

Several of my block-walking encounters stand out because they were unusual.  One very tall man answered the door in his boxer shorts.  Our conversation was brief.

A young man with multiple tattoos asked me if I liked guns.  When I assured him that city council was unlikely to pass any ordinance that would interfere with his second amendment rights, he confided that he likes to take his rifle out in public to demonstrate for open carry.  He had tried to organize a neighborhood militia but his neighbors weren’t very interested.  Since he lives about a quarter of a mile from my own house, I was secretly thankful for the lack of local military fervor.

Another youngish man only wanted to know if I opposed Agenda 21, the non-binding United Nations document addressing environmental degradation and poverty in the 21st century.  Certain suspicious individuals believe Agenda 21 is secret code for a covert plan to destroy the sovereignty of the United States and take away our private property rights.  I haven’t been able to figure out how stripping away our property rights would combat poverty or environmental degradation, and even if the UN were to set such a goal, it really hasn’t ever been successful at imposing its will on even those most deserving of control.  My attempts were futile to persuade him that Georgetown city council has little to gain by forcing citizens into serfdom.

A young home-schooling couple, after a long sidewalk conversation, wanted me to promise that if elected to city council, I would never vote to provide gay people with equal rights or domestic benefits.  When I refused to make such a pledge, they dismissed me as an incorrigible progressive.  A few days later my opponent’s sign appeared in their yard.

At another home a woman answered but seemed reluctant to talk to me by herself.  She called her husband to the door and he immediately demanded to know if I was a Republican.  When I answered that I was not, he growled “Not a chance,” and turned away.  The wife smiled wanly and shrugged her shoulders, as if to apologize silently for his rudeness.  I left wondering if she was ever allowed to converse on her own, and what kind of behavior she puts up with on his bad days.

A gentleman in a small duplex visited with me on his driveway until it was time for him to pick up his teenage niece from school.  A single man, he had devoted his life to raising his niece since she was an infant, because her mother had been in prison when the baby was born.  An entire wall of his living room was covered with pictures of the girl.

On a sweltering day in September, a young black Navy veteran, recently moved to Georgetown from Washington DC, invited me, a sweaty stranger, into his home and offered me a glass of water.  His hospitality was remarkable enough, but his race was the really unusual thing in district 2.  Of my entire list of voters in district 2, only 5 doors were answered by black people, proving yet again that a “post-racial” America is a myth.  I find this lack of diversity disturbing, not because I was the Democrat in a supposedly non-partisan election, but because I believe neighborhood segregation is an anchor holding us in the past.

It would have been more fun to win, but making so many new friends was a real gift.  And at least I’m off the hook for the repaving job.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Sidewalk Omelets

Published in the Sun August 24, 2013

A Failed Experiment

Last week I foolishly tried to pick up a big steel chain that had been lying in the sun all afternoon.  It was hotter than the brass hinges of Hades.  I had to kick it along the ground to keep from losing the skin on my hands.  It made me think about that old saying about being hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk and wonder if that can actually be done.  Not willing to trust the people on You Tube about this important question, I decided to do the experiment myself.

At 3:00 on a sunny afternoon I placed a cast iron skillet on my driveway and let it heat up for 15 minutes.  An infrared thermometer told me the pan was 163 degrees.  The iron skillet holds more heat than the concrete, which was only 150 degrees.  I added a little butter and it melted nicely before I broke an egg into the pan.  Nothing happened.  I stirred the egg around, thinking that would help the process, and let it sit out in the sun for thirty minutes.  No scrambled egg for me.  It turns out the liquid in the egg cools the pan enough to keep it from cooking.  The egg started to dry up, and congealed into an unappealing tan colored slime, but it was definitely not cooked.  Oh well, I can cross sidewalk omelets off the bucket list.

Complaining about the heat is a major recreational pastime in August, but of course Texas is not even one of the hottest places.  Last July, the average high in Baghdad was 115, and often they suffer over 120 degrees.  How would you like to live there without air conditioning?  In January of this year, during a particularly bad heat wave, southern Australia had to add a new color to the weather maps:  a bright purple representing 125 to 129 degrees Fahrenheit.

But just because there are hotter places doesn’t mean we don’t have a legitimate complaint.  As I write this we are up to 30 days past the 100 degree mark and August isn’t half over.  Having satisfied my curiosity about eggs, I started wondering what is normal for 100 degree days around here.  The National Weather Service has kept records on Austin since 1898, and over that 115 year period they say that the average number of 100 degree days is thirteen.  You read that right:  When you look at the whole period since 1898, the average number of 100 degree days in a summer is 13.

Here is the number of 100 degree days we’ve experienced over the last few years:

2012 – 35
2011 – 90
2010 – 22
2009 – 68
2008 – 50
2007 – 3
2006 - 34

So it’s not your imagination.  It really has been hot lately.  But not quite hot enough to cook an egg on the sidewalk.



Saturday, August 10, 2013

Por Vida!

Published in the Sun August 10, 2013

Joe Kerby, Brittaney Kerby, Melissa Cammack, Erin Rigney, and Marcus Cooper
at the Hutto McDonald's owned by the Kerbys
When I first heard that Williamson County was ranked the healthiest county in the Texas I was a bit surprised.  We have wonderful people here, of course, but health-wise they strike me as somewhere in the average range, which is of course where most of us rank in pretty much everything.  It turns out that the health department did not actually go around and check everybody’s blood pressure or put people on treadmills.  The evaluations of county health are made by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, with the cooperation of state and local health departments.  Instead of doing check-ups on people, they look at statistics such as premature death rates, how many people smoke or are obese, teen pregnancy, unemployment rates, and even air pollution.  They also counted doctors and dentists in the area, and how many people had health insurance.

To come out on top of all the counties in Texas, Williamson County obviously did very well on most measures, but I was curious if there was any category in which we flubbed up, so I called Dr. Chip Riggins, the executive director of the Williamson County and Cities Health District (WCCHD).  He confessed that in the category labeled “Percent of All Restaurants that are Fast Food Establishments” we scored 56%, which is worse than the Texas average of 52% and considerably worse than the national benchmark of 27%.  As a county, we really enjoy hamburgers and French fries.

If a woman goes to a certain drive-through establishment in Georgetown for lunch and orders a bacon cheeseburger with mayonnaise, a medium order of onion rings, and a small chocolate shake, that one meal would satisfy her entire daily calorie and sodium requirements, with twice as much fat as recommended.  If she makes a habit of that meal, and also continues to eat breakfast and supper, over time she will gain weight, and quite likely develop heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes.  This is such a familiar progression that we have come to regard it as normal aging, which it is not.

Americans consume one-third of our daily calories outside of the home.  If we are going to eat out that much, we need to order healthy menu items.

This is where the health department steps in with a little assistance.  ¡Por Vida! (which means “For Life”) is a new WCCHD program helping participating restaurants identify menu items that meet strict criteria for calorie, fat, and sodium content.  Items that pass the test are marked on the menu with a special ¡Por Vida! logo.

Melissa Cammack, Director of Healthy Communities, Erin Rigney, a registered dietician, and Marcus Cooper, Marketing Director, all from WCCHD met me recently at the McDonald’s across from Hutto High School.  Joe and Brittaney Kerby, the owners of this and several other McDonald’s restaurants in the area, have volunteered for the ¡Por Vida! program and are rolling out the new menu stickers and promotional pamphlets this week.

Joe and Brittaney are in their 30s and are regular exercisers.  Brittaney recently completed a five kilometer race, running the whole distance, and is now training to get her time below 30 minutes.  When she brings her two sons to the McDonald’s she makes them eat oatmeal and lets them split an order of fries for a treat.  Joe eats at the restaurant every day.  The Southwest Salad is his favorite, fresh lettuce topped with fire-roasted corn, black beans, tomatoes and tortilla strips, but when Brittaney is not watching he will sometimes enjoy a triple cheeseburger.  Brittaney has studied nutrition and is really enthusiastic about the ¡Por Vida! program.  She says that a lot of people just don’t know that McDonald’s carries healthy menu items, but she admits that hamburgers still sell better than salads.  I ask her if the cashiers are going to counsel people not to buy large shakes to go with their salads and she looks at me as if I’ve lost my mind.  “It’s about having a choice,” she explains diplomatically.

Everybody else has already eaten, but I have come hungry to taste-test the healthy choices.  Joe brings me a small hamburger, a small fruit smoothie, and a Southwest Salad.  Marcus takes the hamburger off my hands, and the rest of them stare at me while I eat.  There is a package of Paul Newman salad dressing, but Erin tells me that the dressing isn’t counted for the ¡Por Vida! sticker so I play by the rules and squeeze some lime juice on my salad.  Even without dressing the salad tastes really good and fills me up, and the price is just $3.99.  I wash it down with the Wild Berry Smoothie.

To qualify for a ¡Por Vida! sticker, a meal must meet the following criteria:

            <700 calories

            <23 grams total fat

            <8 grams saturated fat

            <0.5 grams trans fat

            <750 milligrams sodium

The one weakness of the ¡Por Vida! criteria is that the content of sugar is not specified.  That’s how the Wild Berry Smoothie can qualify.  On the other hand, most people should be able to figure out that the Wild Berry Smoothie has more sugar than the salad.  The ¡Por Vida! literature that Erin brought for me recommends water as the preferred beverage.

Other area establishments that are participating in ¡Por Vida! are Carino’s Italian Restaurant, Catfish Parlour, The Egg and I, and the Wesleyan at Estrella.  The folks at WCCHD intend to recruit more eating establishments into the program soon.  They want to hang onto that Healthiest County designation.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Soaking Up the Sun in Georgetown

Published in the Sun August 3, 2013

One of the proposed solar farm sites, the decommissioned landfill.  At the bottom left is the road crossing the San Gabriel at the east end of the park, and at bottom right is the wastewater treatment plant.  The solar panels are inserted into the photo with computer graphics.
Jim Briggs, general manager of utilities for the city of Georgetown, is a no-nonsense kind of guy when it comes to electricity.  He wants to keep your lights on, and he doesn’t want people calling him at the end of the month complaining that their electric bills are too high.  Mr. Briggs also wants Georgetown to invest in more renewable energy.


“This is not just a green thing.  I’m looking at the numbers.”  Two years ago Mr. Briggs discussed renewable energy with the city council and together they set a goal that by 2030, thirty percent of Georgetown’s electricity would be from renewable sources.  Of course, shifting from fossil fuels to wind and solar energy decreases air pollution and carbon emissions, but there are economic reasons to make the switch as well.  Fossil fuels are not only subject to the whims of the market but are also increasingly regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  Georgetown no longer uses electricity from coal plants, but 92% of our electricity is generated from natural gas.  It is risky to be so dependent on one source of power.  Natural gas is cheap now, but as it becomes widely used as a transportation fuel, Mr. Briggs believes the price will shoot up.  Two years ago he thought that it would be irresponsible NOT to have renewables in the portfolio as a hedge against rising fuel prices.  He is even more convinced today, because the price for renewable energy has dropped.


Later this month Mr. Briggs is going to ask the city council to authorize him to negotiate contracts for two alternative energy proposals that would push Georgetown past its goal of 30% renewable energy.


The first proposal is for a two to five megawatt community solar farm to be located right here in Georgetown.  Two potential locations are being studied.  One is the old landfill at the end of College Street and the other is near the Dove Springs wastewater treatment plant.  No up-front capital expenditure by the city would be required because, for the first 6 years, the equipment would be owned by Borrego Solar, the company that would design and build the installation.  Borrego would be eligible for the federal tax credits for renewable energy that are not available to municipalities.  Georgetown would agree to purchase all the electricity generated for the first 6 years.  Then in the seventh year we would have the option to purchase the entire solar array for a predetermined amount, and harvest free electricity from the sun for the lifetime of the panels, which could be well over thirty years.


The idea of a solar farm on a landfill is particularly interesting.  What else can you do with an old landfill?  You can’t put houses or businesses on it, but the EPA actually encourages reuse of “contaminated” sites for renewable energy projects.  The panels would be mounted on stone and concrete pads in such a way that the cap of the landfill is not disturbed or penetrated.  It’s like making lemonade out of a landfill lemon.


Here is how the solar farm plan would work for us, the consumers.  Suppose I want to reduce my carbon footprint and use solar energy but there are big trees all around my house shading my roof.  Or maybe my homeowner’s association is stuck in the Dark Ages and doesn’t allow solar panels.  Possibly I don’t have the extra cash on hand to purchase panels.  Rather than making an expensive improvement to my house, I can contract to purchase solar electricity from the community solar farm, without punching any holes in my own roof.  The city will even put a nametag on my solar panels and I can go visit them any time I want.  Then, if I decide to move to another town, I can relinquish the panels and they can be assigned to another solar customer.


A two megawatt solar farm could supply electricity for about 1400 homes.  Actually, it produces more than they would need during daylight hours, so the solar customers would share their solar electricity with everybody else while the sun is shining.  When the sun is not shining, the regular customers would share their natural gas and wind electricity with the solar customers.  Everybody gets all the power they need, whenever they need it.


The electricity generated by a community solar farm would be a few cents more expensive per kilowatt-hour than what we currently pay for electricity, but the price is locked in for 25 years, unlike the price for natural gas electricity, which can vary from day to day.


The second proposal that Mr. Briggs will make to the city council is economically even more compelling.  Out in sunny west Texas on 153 acres of desert, an experienced utility-scale solar company, SunPower, can build us our own 30 megawatt solar array to deliver pollution-free electrons that are competitive with, or even cheaper than, gas generated electricity today.  No up-front costs are required for this deal either.


Since a solar farm is not going to run afoul of the EPA or be subject to any future carbon taxes, the price comparison is just going to get better.  Many things could happen to natural gas over the next thirty years, but we can be fairly confident that the sun will keep shining in west Texas.


Mr. Briggs is an old hand in the utilities business, but he is enthusiastic about these new solar proposals.  “Economically it just makes sense.  It’s the right thing to do, and sometimes you just have to do the right thing.”

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Keeping It Cool

Published in the Sun 7-27-2013
Dahlia Lopez and her weatherized house

People used to live in Texas without air conditioning, but I wasn’t one of them.  My parents didn’t have air conditioning until the month before I was born, during the heat wave of 1954, when my father took pity on my pregnant mother and bought a window unit for the living room.  They put my crib in the cool room, so I became one of the first members of the AC generation.


We all know that in a hot, muggy climate like central Texas air conditioning is hands down the biggest electricity hog in our homes.  In the summer, air conditioning can account for 70 percent of the electric bill.  But knowing a fact about electricity, and being willing to live without air conditioning are two entirely separate things.  Just typing that sentence made me so hot I had to turn the thermostat down.  So what is an ecologically-minded person to do?


Most people, when they think about saving money on air conditioning, imagine turning up the thermostat and suffering.  There is certainly nothing wrong with adjusting the thermostat, and I highly recommend it, but what if you could be just as cool as you want and still use half the electricity?  Wouldn’t that be a no-brainer?


Does this scene ever happen at your house?  The kids are going in and out the kitchen door, leaving it wide open behind them.  Finally a practical person, usually the one who pays the electric bills, interrupts the fun by yelling, “Shut the door!  We can’t air condition the entire outdoors.”  The kids of course are thinking that it would be a really good idea to air condition the whole outdoors because, hey, it’s super hot out there.


But the truth is that, without being aware of it, many people are trying to cool the whole outdoors all the time, even when the door is closed.


Dahlia Lopez had that problem.  She lived in an old farm house that belonged to her grandparents back when people just resigned themselves to the ambient temperature.  Houses back then were not designed to keep cold air inside.  They were designed to let a breeze blow through, and that is exactly what Dahlia’s house did.  In the winter an arctic wind blowing through the bathroom turned an ordinary shower into an ordeal.  In the summer the house never felt cool and her utility bills were topping $300 a month, even though her house is not very big.  Not only was she hot in the summer and cold in the winter, but she was wasting money that she had better ways to spend.


Dahlia had recently retired and didn’t have the disposable income needed to remodel and weatherize her home, but she qualified for a city program that helped owners of older homes reduce their energy requirements.  An energy auditor did a blower door test, in which a big fan sucks air out of the house, allowing the auditor to find all the places where outside air is leaking in.  The test proved that Dahlia’s vintage house was no barrier to the elements, with air leaks around her windows and doors, through the attic, and even around her electrical outlets.  The auditor made recommendations, and then a contractor came in and blew fiberglass insulation into her attic and walls, insulated her outlets, sealed and replaced windows, and caulked and weather-stripped her doors.  She got new fiberglass batts and drywall in her bathroom, and solar screens on her windows.  This work was done in the winter and Dahlia noticed a difference right away.  She could go to bed without bundling up like an Eskimo.


The financial benefit hit home in the summer.  Prior to the weatherization work her June electricity consumption was 1600 kilowatt-hours.  This past June she used only 666 kilowatt-hours, a savings of about $100 on electricity in just one month.


If you live in an old drafty home, you certainly need an energy audit.  If your home is fairly modern but the electric bill seems too high in the summer, or if your air conditioner seems to be running all the time and you are still not comfortable, or if your attic is hot enough to bake bread, you may also have room for improvement.  An insulation company can make recommendations, which is fine if you already know that you need insulation, but if you are not quite sure what you need, an independent energy auditor can evaluate your house and find out exactly where you are wasting energy and save you hundreds of dollars a year on electricity.  Go to RESNET, Residential Energy Services Network, to find an auditor who is not selling anything but advice.


I know insulating your house is not very sexy, but it’s the most important energy conservation move you can make, reducing your carbon footprint and saving money at the same time.  Letting your conditioned air disappear into the atmosphere is like icing down your beer and leaving the ice chest open.  It’s just not cool.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Local Women Ride Train to Austin and Return Unscathed

Published in the Sun July 20, 2013

Metrorail train at the Leander Station

There has been a lot of spirited conversation recently about passenger trains, and whether or not Georgetown needs a passenger train to take us to Austin and San Antonio.  Frankly, most of the conversing has been by people like me who have their own personal automobiles waiting to deliver them door-to-door wherever they want to go, at the exact moment they are ready to depart, and haven’t boarded a bus or a train since their last vacation in London or Vancouver, unless you count the tram at the Dallas airport.


Williamson County already has a new passenger train, of course:  the Capital MetroRail running from Leander to the Austin Convention Center.  I had read a few things about the MetroRail, but I hadn’t met anyone who had actually ridden it.  There is no teacher like experience, so I set aside a day to explore, and my friend Sherry Dana agreed to come along and keep me company.


We arrived at the Leander Park and Ride (or Kiss and Ride as it’s called if you get dropped off) about 30 minutes early for the 8:40 AM train, the last morning train to depart from Leander.  The morning rush was over, and the parking lot was mostly full.  The station is beautifully landscaped with stone walks and native plants.  We couldn’t find any public restrooms though, so don’t drink too much coffee before you go.  We bought day passes from a machine for $5.50 each that would allow us to get on and off the train all day, and ride connecting Capital Metro buses as well.


While we waited for the train, I asked a young man if he was a regular train-rider.  Taking his earbuds out (pretty much everybody under 30 on the train was connected to earbuds), he told me that he likes to take the train to his software job everyday because he can do his extra computer work with the train’s WiFi while he rides.  Or he can sleep.  The trip all the way downtown takes 55 minutes, about the same time it would take to drive and park.  The train, however, never has to worry about traffic.


At 8:40 we got on the train, which was spotlessly clean and cool.  The northern part of the route is scenic through the countryside.  Whenever we came to a crossroad the barriers came down and we barreled on through.  This is nothing like driving on IH 35.  The train made several brief stops and 5 to 20 people would get on or off.  Most of the people were going to work, but at one station a group of three young mothers and five children boarded, headed for an adventure at the Austin Children’s Museum.


Sherry and I got off at Plaza Saltillo, at the corner of 5th and Comal in East Austin.  Hidden behind the station in a nondescript warehouse was Texas Coffee Traders, where they import and roast coffee, and will also brew a cup for a thirsty traveler.  But Sherry and I were looking for breakfast, so we walked one block to 6th Street and found ourselves at Cisco’s.  To me it looked dubious, but Sherry assured me Cisco’s was famous, and that all the Texas legislators used to eat there, and we did indeed have some excellent egg tacos and coffee.  The lawmakers were unfortunately otherwise engaged.


After breakfast we finished our southbound train ride to the Convention Center and walked around downtown.  It turns out 6th street is not that much fun at 11:30 in the morning, especially when the temperature gets up into the 90s, so we decided to take our public transit adventure to the next level – a connecting bus.  All the train stops are coordinated with a connecting Capital Metro bus, so we hopped back on the train and headed north to the Martin Luther King Station.  Waiting for us was the bus taking passengers to campus.  Here again, Sherry was the smart one.  Somehow she knew that Thursday is free day at the Blanton Art Museum.  I love the upstairs part of the Blanton but the downstairs can be strange.  The most bizarre exhibit was a large piece of corrugated cardboard leaning against the wall.  I know some people look at modern art and say, “I could do that,” but really, I could lean a piece of cardboard against the wall, and in fact I have, many times, and never got put in an art museum.


Catching the right bus back to the train station was the only tricky part of the whole journey, because by now of course it is 102 degrees and Capital Metro maps are written in Egyptian hieroglyphics crisscrossed with nanoscopic color-coded lines.  But every bus stop has a number on it and you can send a text to the bus company and immediately get back a text that tells you when the next bus is coming, so you can sit very still at the bus stop under a tree and not sweat too much.  After a ten minute wait we were back on a cool bus and the driver took us straight to the train station.


Back in Leander, MetroRail operator Narvin Logans let me look in the cockpit and blow the horn.  He explained that the operators really do drive the trains; they are not computerized or on autopilot. He also said that the afternoon trains coming back north are usually standing room only.  Sometimes the train is a few minutes late to Leander because so many people unload at Lakeline.


By the way, don’t try to ride the train without buying a ticket.  Tickets are mostly by the honor system, but every once in a while the fare-checker comes by, and he brings a policeman with him.  A young man got caught on our return trip, and the policeman wrote him up.  The fine could be anywhere from $100 to $400.  We got off the train with the perpetrator and asked him if he was a regular rider.  He assured us that he always pays the fare, except just this one time, because he almost missed the train.  That’s his story, and I’m just going to believe it, because he seemed like such a nice guy.

People exiting the train at Leander

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Horny Toad Redux

Published in the Sun July 13, 2013

Ouida Henderson with a picture of her mother and the horny toad wagon

After writing about the decline in central Texas of “Horny Toads,” properly known as Texas Horned Lizards, I received the following letter from Nancy McMillan Higgs, who, as a child, lived around the corner from me in Austin.  Here is her story in her own words.


“Clearly you had moved away from Exposition Boulevard before you started learning about horny toads because I certainly would have taught you that they ate red ants.  I think, however, that I did not begin to learn about them till I was maybe 7, when we – Mom, Dad, and me – drove to Denver from Austin to visit one of my dad’s best friends.  We always started these trips in the wee hours of the night so we stopped in Lampasas for breakfast.  As we left the café, I spied a rather large horny toad by the car and Dad caught it for me.  I dutifully named him “Lampasas.”  He not only travelled all the way to Denver with us, but also to the top of Mount Evans, where I “hypnotized” him while sitting at the counter of the mountaintop café, sipping Alka Seltzer for my motion sickness.  I can still remember the mesmerized truckers sitting across from me and Mom…they had never seen a horny toad before!  During the trip, my mom was in the midst of making a Christmas stocking, so she made Lampasas a nice, sequined, elastic collar and leash that I used to tie him up next to ant beds for lunch while we ate.  Lampasas rode all the way home with me and was released in our backyard.  I’m not sure I ever saw him again, but at least a couple of weeks of his life were quite colorful.”


Nancy, who is quite the horny toad aficionado, continues with another story.  “I particularly loved the baby toads – maybe the size of a silver dollar.  One time I had one at home and was playing with it when my aunt was visiting.  I’d hypnotized it.  She didn’t see the before part, just the lie still on its back part.  She asked to hold it so I gave it to her.  She was admiring how it looked so real (duh) when I replied that it was indeed real.  And – you guessed it – she screamed and threw her hand up, the innocent little horny toad flying up into the air and striking the ceiling before coming down hard on the floor.  Dead on impact.  I was honestly appalled and disgusted at her ignorance and hysteria.  Luckily, she was my favorite aunt so eventually I got over it.”


Obviously, being a pet was quite hazardous duty for a horny toad, and in fact human attention is one of the major factors in their decline.  During the 1950s and 60s, many Texas children earned pocket money by catching live horny toads and mailing them to pet stores and curio shops in other states.  Nancy’s grandfather, a Jarrell farmer, paid her 25 cents each to catch horny toads, but he released them into his vegetable garden to eat insects, so likely Nancy’s lizards survived the transaction.


Ouida Henderson, an 85 year old Georgetown resident, related that ever since she was a child, her mother, Irene Moore Waddell (born 1899), had kept a small metal wagon, with attached horse, displayed in their home.  A bit of tan colored string, six or eight inches long, is tied around the horse’s neck and has remained tied there for all these many decades.  The loose end of the string was used by Irene and her little brother to harness a horny toad to the wagon, pulling both wagon and horse around the sandy streets of Hempstead, west of Houston.  Ouida is sure that it was their favorite toy, and she has kept the wagon displayed in her own home since her mother passed away.  I asked if Ouida herself used horny toad labor to pull the wagon, but she denies it.  “I wasn’t one to catch them.  I wasn’t a brave soul.”

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Rustling Up Some Grubs at the Austin Bug-Eating Festival

Published in the Sun July 6, 2013

Alan Davisson sautés up some insects

“Does anyone want to eat the baby cockroach that was inside that other cockroach?”  It’s 107 degrees in Zilker Park, but Alan Davisson has his fryng pans hot and is sautéing insects at the 6th Annual Bug-Eating Festival.  I can’t even get close enough to see the baby cockroach, much less eat it, because of the crowd of curious bug-eaters.  Alan goes on to explain to the kids in the group, “All of my heroes are weird.  They all changed the world because they did something weird.”  We can all pretty much agree that Alan is weird.


He redeems himself somewhat and admits that he doesn’t like to eat cockroaches, because they just taste like cockroaches.  The best insects to eat, according to Alan, are grubs and larvae, because they don’t have shells and legs.  They are however filled with dirt, so to properly prepare a grub you have to cut off the head, slit it up the side and wash it in water to remove all the brown stuff.  When cooked up, the fat solidifies and the grub is more meaty, like bacon.  Yumm.


A table behind the throng of Alan’s on-lookers holds the mealworms he cooked up before moving on to cockroaches.  Some are Cajun-flavored and some are plain.  A sign on the table warns people with shellfish allergies not to eat them, as shellfish and insects contain similar allergens.  A man standing beside me apologizes that he has a shellfish allergy and won’t be able to partake.  “Sure you do,” I snark back.  His friend elbows him, “Dude, she knows you’re lying,” and we all laugh.  But I have come here to eat bugs so I might as well get on with it.  Grabbing one of the bigger mealworms I take a tentative bite.  It’s kind of crunchy with a non-descript flavor, so I pretend it’s a chow mein noodle and finish it off.  I use the same technique with a wasp larva.  Really, they are so small that a tiny bite is much ado about nothing, once you get past the yuck factor.

Jeffrey Stump contemplates a mealworm

Marjory Wildcraft, who put this bug-eating event together, checks to see if I’m having a good time.  Marjory has been called the “Martha Stewart of Self-Reliance.”  Her business is teaching people to grow their own food in backyard gardens.  I asked her how she got interested in bug-eating.  She explains that there are certain fats and minerals that are hard to get if a person is really trying to grow all their nourishment.  She noticed in her own garden that insects were a constant, and annoying, presence, and thought, “Why don’t I try eating bugs?”  Just one little problem, “They are disgusting.”  So she got a few friends together for moral support, and after three beers to lubricate the system, she was ready to eat bugs.  That was the first Bug-Eating Festival, and it multiplied from there.


A discerning reader at this point would be asking, “Why on earth are we talking about eating insects?  What’s the point of this insanity?”


Entomophagy, which is Greek for “eating insects”, has always been common in traditional societies.  Beetles and caterpillars are the most popular food bugs, but over 1900 species have been used for food.  Some people think that entomophagy may spread to developed cultures as populations continue to increase.  A recent United Nations report reminds us that by 2050 there will be 9 billion people on earth.  There are only 7 billion of us right now, but already one billion are chronically hungry.  Turning more forests into farmland for pigs and cattle is problematic, and ocean fisheries are already in serious decline.  Insects are a sustainable source of protein, and they can be farmed efficiently using less land and less water than mammals, and are frequently fed with biowaste.


Continuing my tour around the festival, I tried a chocolate chip cookie made with mealworm flour, which was fairly tasty, although with enough chocolate almost anything is edible.  Getting braver, I tried an ant lion that Alan had just served up.  It was way too crunchy and got stuck in my teeth.  Seriously I had to rinse my mouth out when I got back to the truck and spit it out.  Mealworms and wasp larvae might be okay in an emergency, but avoid ant lions.  We really need to take better care of those ocean fisheries.
Sunny Greenblum, age 7, eats a chocolate covered mealworm