Texas Lawmakers Ordered to Study Drought, Wildfires

A wildfire approaches a house off Texas 71 west of Bastrop during Monday's wildfire on September 5, 2011.
A wildfire approaches a house off Texas 71 west of Bastrop during Monday's wildfire on September 5, 2011.

The Texas Legislature doesn't meet again until 2013, but state Senate committees will soon begin studying the impact of the record-breaking drought on power generation, agriculture and the economy, and also how to improve Texas' response to wildfires, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst announced Tuesday.

"The drought has had a devastating and far-reaching impact across the entire state," Dewhurst said in a statement, "and the Legislature must use all of the resources at our disposal to prepare and respond in the event these severe drought conditions persist."

Dewhurst's interim charges to the committees are as follows (for full details, click here):

* The Natural Resources Committee will study water resources and conservation.

* The Agriculture & Rural Affairs Committee will review the drought's impact on agriculture — estimated a few months ago at $5.2 billion, though that number will be higher now — and look at how to "respond to the [drought-related] challenges for farmers and ranchers."

* The Economic Development Committee will study the impact of drought and wildfires on the Texas economy and compile a list of relevant local, state and federal funding.

* The Intergovernmental Relations Committee will look at housing issues related to natural disasters and make recommendations to landowners on how to reduce fire risks.

* The Subcommittee on Flooding and Evacuations will look at "communication options during evacuations."

* The Business & Commerce Committee will study the drought's impact on power plants and how to prevent reliability problems. Nuclear, coal and gas plants all need large amounts of water to cool their equipment, and the drought is threatening to cut into the operations of some power plants. Reuters reported today that Texas grid officials fear that 3,000 megawatts — equivalent to slightly more than the capacity of the South Texas Project nuclear plant — could be unavailable by May if the rains stay away.

* Transportation & Homeland Security will review fire preparations and responses, including a review of "best practices in urban forest management and fuel reduction policies ... to promote safe firefighting operations."

The State Firemen’s and Fire Marshals’ Association of Texas, which has complained about a lack of resources for local firefighters, many of whom are volunteers, said that it welcomed Dewhurst's announcement.

"We’re pleased to see so many key issues dealing with wildfires, prevention, mitigation and response on the list of priority issues for our state senators to consider in advance of next session," Chris Barron, the group's executive director, said in a statement.

But Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas, said that while studying the impact of drought and wildfires was important, the legislative committees should also look at the links between climate change and the drought.

“It is irresponsible to not investigate why this climate crisis is taking place and what we can do to prevent it," Metzger said in a statement. "Texas’ top climate scientists say it’s linked to global warming and, in order to avoid a future of worsening drought, heat and fires, we must take immediate steps to reduce global warming pollution.”

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