Saturday, April 27, 2013

Texas' Water Woes

For the last few years, Texas has been held up by conservatives as the example for doing the right things to recover from the Great Recession: keep taxes low, eliminate regulations on businesses, make drastic government budget cuts.  They are fond of pointing out that Texas has led the 50 states in job creation over the last few years, with the corresponding population increases.  What they haven't identified is where the water to support all those jobs and people will come from.

The figure to the left summarizes the current status of the ongoing drought in Texas. 70% of the state is categorized as being in severe drought conditions, or worse.  These are not the worst conditions that have occurred in the last few years.  In October 2011, 70% of the state was in exceptional drought conditions, the most serious level in the measurement scheme.  There is a growing body of archeological evidence that, rather than being unusual, the current conditions are actually a return to normal after a century that has been wetter than the historical average.  The drought has appeared in a variety of news stories.

Wichita Falls, a city of about 100,000 people, is the largest on a list of more than 20 cities that could run out of water within the next 180 days.  The city government there describes the situation as "possible but unlikely".  Some other authorities seem less sure than that.

Farmers along the Colorado River (the Texas Colorado River, not the one that carved the Grand Canyon) downstream from Austin have had their irrigation water cut off by the Lower Colorado River Authority. The LCRA gives cities and power plants higher priority access to the reduced amounts of water available.  Lakes Travis and Buchanan, the major Colorado River reservoirs upstream from Austin, are at less than 40% of capacity entering what is typically the hottest, driest part of the year.

Two years ago, Texas filed suit in the US Supreme Court against the state of Oklahoma, demanding that Texas be allowed to purchase a portion of the water that would otherwise flow into the Red River and transport it to northern Texas (and to the rapidly-growing Fort Worth area specifically) by pipeline.  That case was argued before the US Supreme Court this week past.  Most articles described the justices as sounding dubious about the Texas claim on the water.

Earlier this year, Texas filed suit in the Supreme Court against the state of New Mexico, accusing that state of improperly impounding water that would otherwise flow down the Rio Grande to Texas.  If things proceed at their normal pace, this case will be heard in about two years.  As an aside, New Mexico is having its own internal water fights, as farmers with senior rights have made a priority call that would drastically limit the diversions that cities could make.  New Mexico and Texas operate under quite different sets of water law: in New Mexico the long-established farmers have priority, while in at least parts of Texas, farmers are near the bottom of the list.

Various Texas authorities believe that Mexico is failing to meet its obligations for water deliveries into the Rio Grande as set by the "Treaty of the Utilization of Waters of the Colorado and Tijuana Rivers and of the Rio Grande" signed in 1944.  Those authorities are trying to find ways to force Mexico to increase its deliveries.  The International Boundary and Water Commission, an agency of the US federal government with responsibility for negotiating and enforcing such treaties (at least enforcing the US side of things), is not certain that Mexico actually owes Texas more water at this point in time.

Farmers in the Texas Panhandle and other parts of west Texas have been draining the Ogallala Aquifer at an increasing rate.  In response, some water districts in those parts of Texas are imposing withdrawal limits for the first time in history.  Over the last couple of years, restrictions on water withdrawals for the purpose of hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas wells have been imposed on multiple aquifers.

ERCOT, the entity responsible for assuring the reliability of the Texas power grid, has received notice from the national reliability council that Texas does not have the necessary reserve power resources to meet reliability targets.  One of the factors limiting the ability for large new thermal generating plants to come online is the difficulty of identifying sources of water for cooling.  In 2011, multiple Texas power stations came close to having to shut down due to shortages of cooling water.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Probably Just a Coincidence

In the winter, some of us who live along the Front Range of the Rockies (roughly from Casper, Wyoming as far south as Pueblo, Colorado) keep an eye on the mountain snow pack.  That's the water that's going to caught in the reservoirs for use next summer.  A month ago, we were looking at a pretty lean snow pack.  Multiple late-season storms have eased the situation somewhat in parts of the mountains.  Some of the drainages (there's a reason Colorado is sometimes known as the "Mother of Rivers") in the northern part of the state are now above 100% of the 30-year average for the date and all of them are above 90%.  In contrast, the southern drainages, and the southwestern part of the state in particular are in much worse shape.  The Upper Rio Grande is at only 68%; we're not going to be sending much water to New Mexico and Texas this year.  Texas is already busy fighting over water with its neighbors.  The Supreme Court heard a case between Oklahoma and Texas this week.  Earlier this year, Texas filed another Supreme Court case against New Mexico.

This division of Colorado into a relatively wet north and a quite dry south reminded me of another map I had reviewed lately.  This map of North America is taken from the U.S. Global Change Research Program's draft 2013 report to Congress.  This figure shows changes in winter and spring precipitation for later this century under a continued high CO2 emissions scenario (you should be able to "View Image" or similar in your browser to see a larger image).  Blue-green colors indicate increased precipitation, brown shades decreased precipitation, with darker colors indicating greater changes.  Colorado sits roughly in the area where the changes come together -- increased precipitation in the north, decreased in the south, the same sort of pattern that we're seeing in this year's snow pack.

The similarity of the maps is probably just a coincidence.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Odds and ends

Today I'm going to try to pull several bits and pieces together.  Last week I was involved in an interesting on-line discussion about the future of electricity supplies in the US.  One of the positions I took is that areas heavily dependent on coal for generation have a problem: the stuff is steadily becoming less popular politically, where "politically" means "in voters minds."  Several of the people in the discussion made the argument that essentially unlimited cheap natural gas would take up the slack for a very long time.

The EIA recently published a brief piece stating that so far in 2013, use of gas for electricity generation is down significantly from 2012 levels.  The piece attributes the decline to the rising wholesale price for natural gas.  The choice of whether to dispatch coal-fired or gas-fired generation is very sensitive to the relative prices of the fuel.  The EIA piece includes the fuel cost chart shown to the left showing that coal and natural gas prices (measured per MWh of delivered electricity) have recently begun to overlap, mostly due to increasing gas prices.

There have been a number of articles lately (for example, here) that summarize a number of trends that suggest production of gas from tight sources is going to decline, further driving up prices.  Over the last several months, a number of companies with large tight-gas holdings have written down billions of dollars in the worth of those holdings, reflecting lower estimates of the amount of gas that can be extracted, and the price of extracting it.  The number of rigs drilling in the various shale plays has been declining slowly.  Evidence for the rapid decline in production rates from shale gas wells continues to pile up.  I interpret all of this to suggest that the producers aren't making a profit at current prices, so will reduce supplies until the prices are high enough to be profitable.  It would not be surprising if there is a bankruptcy or acquisition or two somewhere down the road.

A recently published Duke University study of the effect of new EPA clean-air standards will drive a shift from coal to natural gas, even though coal may be cheaper, due to the large capital costs of complying with the standards.  Certainly there have been a lot of complaints about the cost of complying with proposed new standards for sulfur- and nitrous-oxides and fine particulates.  One of the points that I often try to make is that such impacts may not be uniform across the US.  The EPA's Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR, currently on hold after a federal court decision) only affected states in the Eastern and Texas Interconnects; none of the Western states were affected [1].  In light of the Duke study, the threshold at which the affected generators switch from natural gas to coal may be at a higher price than considered above.

The bottom line on this is, IMO, that for some parts of the country, electricity is going to get steadily more expensive.  In particular, I look for prices in the Eastern and Texas Interconnects to rise more rapidly than prices in the Western.

[1]  There are multiple reasons for this.  One of the reasons is that western states are big on average, with (outside of California) relatively low populations.  Cross-state effects are understandably smaller.  A second reason is that some of the bigger western coal-fired plants have already improved their emission profiles.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

But Which Math...?

The League of Ordinary Gentlemen is having a symposium series of posts about higher education in the 21st century.  James K, one of the regular front page authors, put up a post on the question of "Yes, But Which Arts?" with regard to what should go into a degree in the liberal arts.  One of the other regulars expressed the opinion that stopping at College Algebra was sufficient to "conceptually understand higher mathematical concepts, even if you have no idea how to work them."  James disagreed; I disagreed much more strongly.  Stopping at algebra leaves you woefully ignorant of almost all of the powerful ways that math can be used to think about the world.

I admit to being prejudiced on the subject: I'm an applied math guy and have spent essentially all of my adult life using math as a tool to think about the world.  Not the only tool, but an important one.  Several of the other commenters display their own prejudices (in the non-derogatory sense of that word).  Some advocate learning at least one, if not two, foreign languages.  Some emphasize philosophy.  Some English Lit.  I found the number of different reasons for including English Lit to be interesting, since they covered a gamut from analysis to composition.  I'm absolutely an advocate of a composition requirement, but would prefer for it to be done absent the literature component.  My high-school composition class was enormously valuable: writing every day, with requirements to write a variety of things, and feedback on what you had written.  If pressed, I'm on the side that says no one should be allowed to graduate with a four-year undergraduate degree without taking such a class.

James' question prompted me to think about what math material should a well-rounded college education include?  To put limits on things, I assumed six semester-hours, and six topics to be covered.  I also assumed a mastery of algebra as a prerequisite, on the theory that anyone starting a four-year degree program without that much high-school math is deficient.  In no particular order, here's my first cut at a list of six topics.

  • Enough probability to understand why my favorite bar bet is a sucker bet: We'll go around this crowded bar and ask people their birthdays (month and day, ignore the year).  I'll bet that at least some two of them will have the same birthday.  Loser buys the next round.  If you take me up on it, I'll be buying less than a third of the time.  Why?
  • Enough statistics to understand that all of the questions you should be asking involve "What's the distribution?"  In the real world, descriptive statistics almost always provide an incomplete picture; you want to know about the distribution.  If there are 30 people in the bar, and one of them is Bill Gates, asking questions about wealth and income really do require you to know about Bill.
  • Enough differential calculus to understand basic optimization.  I'm not particularly concerned about whether or not you can solve the problems; can you set them up?  An individual license for Mathematica doesn't cost much more than a high-end graphing calculator.  In addition to doing everything that the calculator can, Mathematica is also far better at taking derivatives or integrals than you or I will ever be.
  • Enough integral calculus to understand the "infinite summing up" aspect.  I've always felt that this was the important aspect of the integral as applied to real life.  You can answer an enormous range of "how much" questions this way.
  • An introduction to something like discrete dynamic systems, including feedback loops.  I think that sort of thing is much more accessible than writing systems of differential equations.  For some of the packages implementing this type of discrete model, there are graphical tools that help put things together.
  • Finally, a module on graph theory with an emphasis on algorithms.  A lot of graph theory problems are "non-math" math -- no numbers involved at all.  I think it's important that non-mathematicians understand that math doesn't have to be just about numbers.