Skip to main content

Prospects Dimming for Bill to Aid McDonald Observatory

A bill aimed at reducing the glare from outdoor lighting in a large swath of West Texas in order to help the McDonald Observatory is currently stuck in the Senate, though its sponsor hopes to get it to the floor by the tomorrow's legislative deadline.

A research unit of The University of Texas at Austin located in the Davis Mountains of West Texas.

A bill aimed at reducing the glare from outdoor lighting in a large swath of West Texas in order to help the McDonald Observatory is currently stuck in the Senate, though its sponsor hopes to get it to the floor later today or tomorrow.

The bill, HB 2857, would require local authorities within 57 miles of the observatory to institute regulations covering new outdoor lights. Five of the seven counties in the observatory's (very large) neighborhood have already instituted such regulations, as have many cities, according to William Wren, a special assistant to the superintendent for the McDonald Observatory, which is a research unit of the University of Texas at Austin in the Davis Mountains of West Texas. 

"We can see glow on our horizon, just domes of light, if you will, that are coming from hundreds of miles away," Wren said.

The New York Times recently reported on similar concerns from an Arizona observatory about excessive lights in the night sky.

The two counties currently without outdoor lighting restrictions, Reeves and Pecos counties, contain areas where "lots of industrial and commercial development," including hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas, are happening, according to Wren.

The bill also includes requirements for subdivisions within the radius around the McDonald Observatory to mute their outdoor lighting. (It would still be optional for subdivisions within five miles of the George Observatory south of Houston and an observatory at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches to take action.)

The bill has already passed the House but has run into property rights concerns in the Senate, and now is up against the Senate's deadline of Wednesday for considering new bills. State Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, the Senate sponsor, said that he was trying to get the 21 votes needed to bring it to the Senate floor. "I think I can get there," he said, adding that it was "a very important bill for the observatory and my district."

State Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, said that he had voted against it in the Senate's Intergovernmental Relations Committee and remains concerned about it. "I couldn't help but notice there was a 57-mile radius where we were imposing some new type of regulation that hadn't been vetted out," Nichols said.

State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, also has concerns about the private property implications for such a large area, said Donna Bahorich, his communications director. The area within the 57-mile radius is "larger than six states," said Bahorich. "So basically the concern was over the breadth of what they were trying to control with this bill." A second issue, she said, was one of process: "People who brought up the bill didn't even show up to debate the bill," she said.

According to Wren of the McDonald Observatory, legislation on the books in Texas since 1978 gave seven counties within a substantial radius of the observatory the ability to adopt lighting regulations. The language of the current bill changes this into a requirement. In addition, a 1999 law (whose House sponsor was state Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, who is also the House sponsor of the current legislation) required state-funded institutions like the Texas Department of Transportation to be more careful about their outdoor lighting.

Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.

Quality journalism doesn't come free

Yes, I'll donate today