Misinterpreted Conservation Levels of Some Texas Reservoirs May Be the Reason the Experts Won’t Get Us Out of This Drought

I keep wondering if the drought is over for the longterm; there’s no question about the short term.  Despite all the wet, the U.S. Drought Monitor* has kept our area (Harris County) in the moderate and severe drought categories for some time.  This monitor, put out by a number of governmental agencies, uses many factors, such as climate changes, ground moisture, and lake levels, to indicate current and predict  future drought conditions.  With all this in mind, I have started to look at sites that indicate the levels and capacities of lakes across Texas since more rain has come.  (Check here if you too are interested.)

By looking at the charts, one can notice that lakes in the middle part of Texas are quite low, especially Lake Travis and Lake Buchanan.  However, many lakes in southeast Texas, which has had considerably more rain, are at 100% conservation level or nearing conservation capacity.  If the lakes are full and the ground is saturated, why are we still considered as being in a drought zone?

Possibly, some of those making these designations may only be looking at figures on lists and not looking at how some reservoirs function and the amount of water they generally contain.  For example, I live very near

The dike-like Addicks Dam extends for nearly 12 miles.

Addicks Reservoir, which is located west of Beltway 8 and north of I-10 in Harris County.  This reservoir, along with the corresponding Barker Reservoir on the south side of I-10, were built as flood protection for the city of Houston.  But to think of them as high dams with a lake behind would be a mistake.  The Addicks dam is more of a raised dike, L-shaped and running for about 12 miles.  Behind it are rough, wooded areas, some of which are swampy.  Highway 6 and Eldridge Parkway transverse this area from north to south, and Clay Road crosses it from east to west.  Bear Creek Park and Bear Creek Golf Club occupy some of the reservoir area.

An aerial view shows that behind the dam (highlighted in red) are wooded areas, not a water-filled reservoir.

Although there are some lower parts near the long dam that do hold water in the normally wet climate, the reservoir never reaches 214,150 acre-feet, which the Texas Water Development Board says is conservation capacity.  The reservoir’s record capacity was 60,190 acre-feet when nearly a foot of rain fell in the west Houston area.  After a 2009 storm, the exceptional amount of water in the reservoir covered park areas and roads as well as into homes in neighboring sub-divisions.  Even now, with the reservoir at only 3.5% of conservation capacity parts of Bear Creek part are inundated.

Despite the heavy rains that the gulf weather often brings, it would probably take some kind of Noah’s Ark storm to bring Addicks Reservoir up to conservation capacity.  If that were ever to happen, many of the developed areas surrounding it would probably flood too, because the terrain in is generally flat.  Therefore, if the climatologists who are determining the severity of this drought (now I would say so-called drought) are using the conservation capacity of Addicks Reservoir (and other similar reservoirs) as part of their calculations, they should look at them realistically, rather than just as a set of arbitrary numbers.

*A more optimistic view is shown by the Keetch-Byram Drought Index at Texas A&M’s Texas Weather Connection.

Sunday in Suburbia: Strings for Peas and a Hot Plate of Grub To Get the Morning Goin’

String lines to give the tender pea plants something to grab onto to keep them up out of the wet soil.

As gray and cold as it is outside, one can almost believe the prediction Punxsutawney Phil’s prediction that spring won’t come for another six weeks.  Despite the mid-40s temperature, I put the coffee on and went outside to tend to a much-needed task in the garden–putting up some string lines for the peas to climb on.  This year is my first to try peas, and I’ve found that the stems of pea plants don’t have the strength that beans have.  Consequently, after the rains of the last several days, most of the plants were flattened onto–thankfully, not into–the ground.  Still in my red plaid flannel pants and a hooded sweatshirt (yeah, I don’t say “hoodie”), I rounded up some heavy string, my garden chickens, and a few mini-trellises and rigged up some support for the plants, which already have tendrils ready to grab on.

Back inside the coffee was ready.  To help warm up, I decided to make something substantial.  My weekend breakfasts come in one of two types; the quicker is usually coffee with frozen waffles with a slathering of peanut butter or jelly.  On a cool, lazy morning–like this one–I get out the 6-inch cast iron skillet.  Sometimes, I might make an omelet, but usually, I saute some chunks of veggies–onion, a small pepper from the garden, celery, or whatever I have.  Sometimes that might be it.  However, this morning I had real good stuff in the fridge:  about a third of a box of french fries from a fast food run and tasty Kansas smoked sausage that had come back with me at Christmas.  When all these were browned and hot, over the top came a couple of beaten eggs that got cooked slowly, but ended up crisp on the bottom and easily flipped over to cook just a bit more.   Once on the plate, I added a hefty spoonful of homemade chili sauce, given to me for Christmas.  (If I haven’t made your mouth water just a little, you ain’t alive.  This is my version of migas, a Mexican dish that uses crispy pieces of tortillas in the eggs.  I think mine with the leftoever french fries are pretty good too!)

Standing water from recent rains has caused some of Bear Creek Park's roads and picnic areas to be closed.

There’s still no sun out.  Since Christmas, it feels like we’re back in the groove of having more typical Houston weather.  I’ve started checking a site that shows the severity of the drought across Texas and the U.S.  Over the past week, my rain gauge has collected about 2.5 inches of rain, a lot of which came down early yesterday.  If the ditches, empty lot, and open fields are any indication, maybe the drought here in southeast Texas has been broken.  I hope that all the trees are getting a good, healthy drink.  Too many others didn’t make it through last year’s long hot summer and fall.

Heavy Storms Passing Through Houston Left Many Roadways Flooded

The garden rain gauge shows 1.8 inches, for a total of 2 inches in the past 24 hours (1/09/11).

Annie barked at the bumps of thunder as I showered for work this morning.  Then the .20 in the rain gauge gave evidence to some showers during the night which I hadn’t heard.  However, the weatherman’s predictions weren’t enough so that I was still surprised by such darkness that I could barely see the other downtown building across the bayou from my office window.  There was enough street flooding by 2:00 PM, and with the expectation of more rain to come that we were told to go home.  Once the traffic loosened up and I had passed through a stretch of I-45 that was passable only in one lane, the rest of the drive was easy.  Coming into my part of northwest Harris County, the grey clouds started to lighten and only intermittent drops hit the windshield.

My rain gauge showed about 1.8 inches, and with the .20 I had tossed from the glass tube in the morning–a total of 2 inches.  By looking around the yard and neighborhood, it seemed like we had gotten a good soaking rain–just what we need after the long dry spell of last year.  We were fortunate not to get the 5, 6, and in some places 7 inches (as reported by the TV) that helped flood the roads and even rise into houses and apartments in some parts of the metropolitan area.

On the Road Home: When Getting Off the Crowded Freeway Is Not the Best Bet

Considering the nearly 50 miles I drive in heavy traffic every day, perhaps it was bound to happen.  I don’t know.

What I do know is that my blog posts here have been almost nil for a month because I’ve felt like I wanted to write about what happened, but just haven’t been able to:  1) because I’ve had quite a few other things to take care of; and 2) it’s not that easy to write about.

It was exactly 4 weeks ago, Friday evening, and I was driving home thinking about what I was going to do on the weekend.  I had taken my normal route, 290, or Northwest Freeway, as most of us call it, when the traffic got balled up, so I decided to get off on the next exit I could.  Once off the freeway, I got on a cross street in order to take Hempstead Highway, which was the predecessor to 290.  Although there are many stoplights and businesses alongside that road, the traffic usually moves on that route.

After I’d driven about 10 blocks, a car zipped out from  a small super market and crossed over two lanes of traffic, clipping the pickup in front of me.  (If this sounds like something from a police or insurance report, I’m sorry.  I’ve had to tell what happened a few times since that evening.)  Because both the pickup and I had just gone through an intersection, neither of us were going very fast, and I thought I was going to be able to stop in time.  It was like slow motion; my car kept moving forward, and then the front end of my lower Mazda 3 crunched into the back bumper of the higher, double-cab pickup.  In the couple of minutes it took me to pull myself together, and then get out of the car, a police cruiser and even a tow truck had arrived.

This is really the first time I've looked closely at this picture that I took right afterwards.

I could see the damaged hood and coolant running out from the radiator.  There were three vehicles and three drivers (no passengers), but, thankfully, no one was hurt.  The police officer came over and asked me what had happened.  I thought I might get a ticket, but the officer didn’t even hint at anything like that, but I’m pretty sure the driver who crossed in front of oncoming traffic got one.  (I still haven’t seen a police report.)

I thought I was going to be stranded there, but thanks to Houston’s towing ordinances, after pulling my car to a nearby, secure lot, the tow truck driver brought me home. 

Freaky, but I was in my house just one hour later than my usual arrival time.  The whole thing–the balled up freeway traffic, the detour to the old road, the accident itself, talking on the phone with my insurance company, being interviewed by the officer, dealing with the tow truck, being harrassed by the repair company which housed the lot where my car was taken, and the ride home–had all only taken 1 hour!

After such a barrage of happenings, I was glad to back in the familiarity of my house, glad to take Annie on her well-deserved, late walk.

When we got back from the walk, I called the insurance company again in order to give them the details of the accident, and find out what was going to happen with my car.  I knew also that the next morning, I’d have to try to get a rental car somewhere out here in suburbia, where the agencies are only open from nine to noon on Saturdays.  It wasn’t until I tried to pull something together to eat that I realized how shaken I was by the whole thing.

I thought I’d be driving a rental car for a couple of weeks while my car was being repaired.  “Three or four thousand dollars of damage,” I thought.

I was way off the mark.  The followingTuesday I found out that the insurance company was going to total my car.  The damage was more than a crunched-in hood and a messed-up radiator.  The trailer hitch on the back of the pickup had acted like a battering ram, causing a lot more damage than showed from looking at the front of the car.  So there it was.  My 2007 Mazda 3 GT–the one that I had spent almost a year deciding on before I bought it, the one with just 40,000 miles on it, the one that was almost paid off–was totaled.

A lot of things happened over just one hour that Friday evening four weeks ago.  But, again, fortunately, nobody was injured.  I’ve had to deal with a lot of people since then, and it’s been a learning experience, which I’ll write more about.

But right now, it’s a beautiful Saturday morning with nothing involving cars to worry about, so I’ve had my coffee and am ready to go out to the garden and plant some beans.

On the Road Home: Aladin and Gays Cause the End of Humanity

I really know better than to go to the super market on Sunday afternoon.

If you’re intrigued by the title of this post, I’ve succeeded.  Not long ago, I decided to start a new series of posts called “On the Road Home.”  I had been having trouble writing posts, so I wanted to put down some of the thoughts of the days, especially during my evening commute.

I know today is Sunday; actually, I’m on vacation; therefore, maybe I’m stretching to make this work, but Sunday as it was, I had some errands to run and so I’m gathering here some of the pieces of the day.

I like eating at home (now that I have my own house), but I’ve decided I need to try some places in my new part of town.  A couple of months ago, a new place opened about a mile or so up the road.  It’s called Aladin, and the sign said, Mediterranean and Indo/Pak Buffet and Grill.  Today I had had no breakfast, so by noontime, I was ready for almost anything.  As I drove up the road, I decided to try the place out.  Just a couple of cars were in the parking lot, and when I got inside, I found that I was the only customer.

However, the place smelled good, and everything at the buffet tables looked appetizing.  Some of the Arabic foods, I knew, but I assume quite a few of the hot dishes are of the Indo/Pak cuisine.  I tried a bit of many things.  The salads, the hummus, and some kind of eggy squares were especially good.  The best, though, was the gyro, filled with tender, tasty meat, which they made and brought out, after I had already filled my plate.  If you’re in the Houston area out near 529 and Highway 6, try this place.  The food and the service are very good.

After I had eaten I decided to pick up some groceries.  I know if I go on a Sunday, I’m just a glutton for punishment.  The HEB I went to on Barker-Cypress was jam-packed.

Getting used to shopping out in the suburbs hasn’t been easy.  Everybody out here seems to have kids, and they have to bring them along when they go to the super market, which only adds to the traffic congestion in the store aisles.

One of the arguments that some of those against gay marriage is that if gay marriage is legalized, it will be the end of humanity.  They surely have to hold their own noses to their own “stinkin’ lyin'” when they say that.  As if gay people getting married would stop opposite-sex couples from having kids.

Gay marriage is already legal in a number of U.S. states, several European countries, South Africa, and now Argentina.  All I can say is that so far it hasn’t had any effect on all those people with kids at the HEB that I went to today.

Usually, when I’m waiting to check out, there is a family in front of me with at least one kid screaming, “I want this,” while pulling at the innumerable candy bars and other baubles on either side of the checkout aisle.

The little girl in front today had a bit more game.  Picking up a plastic package with a glittery brush inside, she looked at her mother, and coyly asked, “Would this work on my hair?’  Her mother barely shook her head without even looking at her.

Then the girl pointed at another item hanging from the many hooks, “Would this work to sharpen pencils?”  Her mother shook her head again.  At that moment, the girl looked back at me, and we both knew that she needed to try some new tactics, because obviously, Mom had already heard “Would this work?’ too many times, and that line definitely wasn’t going to work.

After crossing the scorching parking lot and packing away my groceries, I was glad to be inside the quiet of my car even if I did have to wait for the AC to start blasting out some cool air.

View from the Suburbs: Bug Love (not the VW kind) and Taxing Taxes

Just by chance--a very appropriate containerThis Monday has been a long one (and by the time I finish this, it’s sure to be Tuesday), but at this point, I know I’ve made some accomplishments.

Tonight I finished my income taxes.  They are not in the envelope yet, but the “written-in-black-ink” forms are all done, and I just need to make copies before sending them on their way.  Yeah, I know–I’m a procrastinator, but his year was all new to me.  I’m not a 1040 EZ kinda guy anymore.

I had felt it was going to be a bit of a daunting task, but I also knew that by asking a couple of questions and reading all the instructions I could do it.  And, yes, the 1040 along with Schedules A and E and–dum-ta-da-dum–Form 5405, the first-time homebuyer tax credit form AND accompanying supporting documents, are all checked and re-checked, laying  on my kitchen counter.  And I just want to say, if you’re chucking out bucks for someone else to do your taxes, unless you have a wide variety of financial goings-on in your life, you can do your own taxes.

I heard some tax preparation companies advertising on the radio that they would do 1040 EZs for $29.  Hey, that’s why they call it EZ.  Unless you flunked 2nd grade math, you can do the EZ forms and keep the $29 in your own pocket.

I know now that even with the additional forms that I needed with the 1040, next year I won’t procrastinate.

Speaking of ads on the radio, now with the commute to and from work, I’m listening  a lot more than I have for a long time.  I’ve mentioned before that Houston radio is pretty awful.  I just have 5 stations tabbed (Is that what it’s called? It’s late, and I’ve just done taxes.): 104 KRBE, NPR, Mix 96.5, Pacifica, and Mega 101–kinda eclectic, I guess.  I’m one of those guys that can’t leave the channel button alone on the TV remote, and I’m almost the same with the radio stations.  And I love it that the button is right there under my thumb on the steering wheel.

What usually gets me home most evenings are the mixes from DJs Manny Lopez and Sunny D on Mega101.  I’ve never gotten over dance music, and these guys definitely help make my drive home a bit more manageable.  It doesn’t matter if you like music in Spanish or not; if you like club-type music, you’re going to like driving home with the music these guys put out.

This evening, though, I had a different sort of entertainment as part of my drive home.  Over the weekend, I bought more bedding plants, and as I was checking out, the cashier said, “Hey, you got a lady bug!”  Sure enough, there was a big, fat one right on one of the leaves.  I paid and went on my way, took the plants home, but left them in the car for a few hours until evening when I could set them into the ground without the sun beating down.  By that time, I had forgotten about the lady bug.

Then tonight when I got in my car and was driving onto I-10, I noticed this small, busy orange bit, right at the point where the windshield meets the dashboard.  With me hurrying on my way a few miles over the speed limit, this little guy (some lady bugs gotta be guys, right?) kept trying to climb up the windshield.  He’d get about 3 inches or so up and then fall  onto his back and then rock himself to get back onto his feet. He kept this up, to no avail.  I kept worrying that he was going to fall into the vent, but he didn’t.

The question is: Will he take up residence?

I wanted to try to rescue him, but me, (yeah, I know “me” is and object pronoun, not a subject pronoun), the guy that complains about distracted drivers on cell phones, was not going to do anything while cruising along among those thousands of other cars out there on the freeway.  Finally, though, about two-thirds of the way home, I guess he got worn out from all his attempts at climbing higher and just stayed put right there in the corner between the glass and the dash.

When I exit the Beltway, there’s always a big line of traffic because there’s a stoplight about a quarter mile down on the feeder.  When the vehicles stopped, I reached down for an envelope that was on the floor on the passenger side, stuck it gently under Mr. Lady Bug, and surprisingly, he climbed aboard.  In the console was a little tin box that has been there forever, that still held one solitary, heart-shaped mint.  I opened it with my other hand (no hands on the wheel, that’s not usually me) and slid my little friend off the envelope and inside.

Finally, when we got home, I took the lady bug, still inside the candy box shelter, out to yard and ceremoniously shook him out onto one of my tomato plants.

Sometimes, something as small as a lady bug helps put other things, like doing taxes, into a completely different perspective.

View from Suburbia: Thrustmaster, the Yellow Gate, and Garage Culture

One of the signs along my way home, photoshopped, the way my imagination does it every day.

Fifteen minutes was about all that it used to take for me to get home from work, and after checking the mail and changing clothes, Annie and I’d take our walk, sometimes making a circuit to the edges of Memorial Park, but more often than not, just to “our” little Camp Logan Park, where we’d meet up with friends of both the human and canine kind.  I’d often drop my little digital camera into my pocket and take shots of flowers or interesting bits of architecture, signs, or anything else that caught my eye along the way.  The yellow metal gate at a house just down the street was one of my favorite points of interest.

Yeah, so? Maybe the commute does make my mind go a bit far afield. But what really goes on inside a place called "Thrustmaster"?

Now, most of the first hour after I head out my office is spent wending my way home on a mish-mash of freeways and roads in front of, behind, and alongside the thousands of other Houston commuters performing that same daily ritual.  As I get closer to home, the  small, mostly petroleum-related industries along 529  help stimulate my imagination, because the radio certainly doesn’t.  I have thought for a long time that Houston has the worst selection of radio stations anywhere in the U.S. and my drive home has only proven it.

Once home, I’m greeted by Annie, she runs out to the backyard to perform some of her daily rituals, and then we’re off for our evening walk.  First, we’re off to the communal mailbox around the corner to see what bills and advertisements there are (some expected some not, but there are sure to be some every day).

Once we see that nothing too unexpected has arrived in the mail, we start off on our walk around the neighborhood, sub-division, I guess some would say.  I like my neighborhood, especially my little cul-de-sac street and the next couple of ones which have large, mature trees and a nice homey feel.  But soon after we leave our street, the houses become newer and the large trees fewer.  Unlike in the old neighborhood in town, there’s no real park to head for; there is a kids’ play area on the far side of the sub-division, which can serve as a destination, but nothing much that would be worth taking photos of.

In reality, our neighborhood feels like it’s surrounded by a moat.  Driving out of it is no problem, but walking is another matter because the major streets on either side have big ditches next to them with no sidewalks, and the other two sides have high wooden security fences.  I suppose this is the way the developers designed this sub-division (and when I start paying attention, I realize it’s the same for many others), so even though there’s a Walgreen’s and other small businesses and services no more than a quarter of a mile away, it’s not that easy to get there on foot.  Adjacent to the sub-division are an elementary school, a junior high, and a parochial school, but because of the ditches, kids can’t really walk to them.

Likewise, when Annie and I continue on our evening walk, we’re limited.  Consequently, we take almost the same one or two paths every night, and while the houses aren’t as cookie-cutter as in some suburbs, there aren’t many interesting features like yellow gates.  Our walk, though, does give us some exercise and time to smell and think.  She does more of the smelling than I do.  Hopefully, I do more of the thinking.

Suburbia definitely has a different lifestyle.  One thing I’ve noticed here is people and their garages.  When I lived near Memorial Park, though I lived in an apartment, the people I met at the dog park generally lived in the surrounding townhouses, which, of course, had garages.  I’d hear stories about how someone had left a garage door open for a few minutes, and during that short time, bicycles or other items had been stolen.  Therefore, most of time, unless a car was going in or out or perhaps was being washed in the driveway, garage doors were kept closed.  Even when they were open, what I noticed, but hadn’t given much thought too before, was that aside from cars and maybe a few stored boxes and other items, the garages in my old neighborhood basically were used for keeping the cars.

And that was one of the big reasons I wanted a house–to have a garage to keep my car out of the elements and in a more secure place.

But here in suburbia, the garage is part of the life.  It seems as if there is almost a garage culture.  For one thing, people here must feel much safer.  When Annie and I walk, we see many garages left wide open, sometimes with cars inside but more often not.  These garages appear to be used not primarily for car storage, but as some type of game room or party room.  What struck me the most is how many of these open garages have TVs–big TVs– in them, which are almost always turned on, whether anybody is around or not.  Not that it’s just the TVs.  There are bars and recliners and other such items that add to this party room element.  One garage has a glass door into the rest of the house and another has an entire dining room set up.  Perhaps some of these garages are being used as “the man room”.  I have to laugh at that.  I’m wondering if any gay guys have ever felt the need to have a “man room”.  I mean whether you’re single or attached, if you’re gay, every room in your apartment or house is yours, you don’t have to escape, so is there any need to have a “man room”?  And then again,  if there were a need, what would be in it?  I’m just saying.

All of this “garage culture” has been a sort of revelation to me, a former apartment dweller, who only wanted a garage for a place to keep the car and as a place to putter and paint.  I had to ask myself if I was being nosy giving so much attention to what people in my neighborhood have in their garages, but in the end, I decided that I was just noticing what there was to notice, because when the neighborhood “moats” limit how far you can walk and when there aren’t any attractions like yellow metal gates, you notice what there is to notice.