Category Archives: local news

'Toilet to tap' not so bad

WICHITA FALLS, Texas — Allow me this pithy observation about something most of us might not quite understand.

It is that treated toilet water doesn’t taste so bad.

How do I know this? We stopped over the weekend in Wichita Falls to eat lunch at a favorite restaurant. The waitress served us water. As I was sipping it, it hit me: The city is treating toilet water, blending it with reservoir water and is serving it to customers such as us: my wife, our son and me.

I had heard about this project about a year ago as the drought and the accompanying water shortage tightened its grip on Wichita Falls, which relies exclusively on two reservoirs that supply its water. No aquifer here. It’s all surface water.

The city has enacted serious water restrictions. No lawn watering. Limited car-washing.

And now it is blending toilet water with reservoir water to reduce its freshwater consumption by about half.

I’m telling ya, it doesn’t taste bad. Not at all.

Panhandle PBS, which employs me as a freelance blogger, did a comprehensive special on the Texas water crisis. It aired in October on several PBS affiliates throughout the state. One of the segments included a look at the Wichita Falls situation, which has gotten quite dire.

Ellen Green of Panhandle PBS interviewed Mayor Glen Barham about what she referred to as the “toilet to tap” program.

You can catch the interview at the 20-minute mark on the attached link.

The city claims good success with the program, which is monitored carefully by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to ensure that it meets state and federal health standards.

So here’s a thought.

Amarillo’s water future isn’t nearly as grim. The city is purchasing lots of groundwater rights and says it has enough water to last another 100 or so years. No one is talking seriously — yet — about water restrictions here.

But wouldn’t it be prudent to think, um, more strategically? I’m wondering if Amarillo would be wise to examine ways to treat our own wastewater into potable water well in advance of there being an actual need to use it.

I’ve long said that I didn’t want to know when I was drinking treated toilet water.

Consider it a change of heart, but having swilled some of it this weekend, my concern about drinking wastewater has vanished — more or less.


Armored car theft story takes weird turn

My head is spinning.

A man who at the start of the day was considered missing and presumed to be in possible danger now has been charged with the theft of $200,000 from an armored vehicle that police found abandoned in Amarillo.

The suspect now is Trent Michael Cook, 24. He’d been driving the armored vehicle. He’s been missing for a couple of days. “Good Morning America” did a story this morning, describing Cook merely as missing. Police said he might be in some danger.

Now he’s been charged with theft. Police had reported initially that Cook was unarmed; now they say he is armed and is considered to be potentially dangerous.

What in the world changed?

Police aren’t likely to explain yet why they changed Cook’s status from “missing” to “suspect.” They’ll have to get him in custody before they explain to the public how this story has taken such a dramatic turn.

It’s all quite weird. I’ll be waiting and watching to see how this story unfolds.


A Christmas to remember forever

When you live long enough, you develop a storehouse of memories along the way. Holidays are a special time for remembrance.

Christmas brings back so many memories for me and my family. Going back to childhood, the year I got my first bicycle stands out. My sister and I were opening presents Christmas morning. We finished opening the gifts under the tree. Dad asked us to pick up the paper and take it to the garage. We fiddled around. Dad then told us to do it. We dilly-dallied some more. Then Dad barked at us: Take it out to the garage!

That’s when we discovered our bikes. Oh, the joy!

Fast forward to the winter of 1996. My wife and I had moved to Amarillo less than two years earlier.

It was on Dec. 22 of that year, 18 years ago today, that we closed on a house we had built — or, more to the point, that the contractor built for us.

We found a lot in southwest Amarillo. Development on the street had just begun. Ours was the fourth house on the street. Work began in mid-October. The weather had been mild and dry for the next two months.

Presto! The house was done. We signed the papers. We’d made arrangements with a local moving company to haul our worldly belongings out of storage and into our new digs.

This all happened in the span of one full day, Dec. 23.

Two days before Christmas. Our house was done. The furnishings were in the designated rooms. But boxes were strewn everywhere.

We had a few Christmas packages. Our sons would be coming over.

A couple of days before we closed on our house, my wife and I went to the storage unit where our stuff was kept and she looked around and announced to our belongings, “OK guys, just a few more days and you’ll be coming out of here.”

We didn’t get the house decorated for Christmas that year, quite obviously. But we did have a tree. It was a 3-foot-tall Norfolk pine that we had brought with us from Beaumont in early 1995. My wife rummaged through some boxes and found a string of lights.

We wrapped them around the tree, placed the packages under it, welcomed our sons over to our still-box-strewn house — and had the most wonderful Christmas imaginable as we rediscovered belongings that had been in storage. Some of it, frankly, I had forgotten we even owned.

Yes, Christmas is a time for memories. I wouldn’t recommend moving into a new home so close to the holiday. Then again, I wouldn’t trade the memory of that experience for anything in the world.


Oil price plunge: Good for U.S., bad for Texas

It’s become almost a truism that Texas marches to a different cadence than much of the rest of the country.

Take the plunging price of oil and gasoline. Millions upon million of Americans are cheering the good news, that they’re paying less for gas than they were yesterday, let alone a year ago. Meanwhile, Texas oil producers are crying the blues.

And then we have Texas government, which is likely now to face a serious shortfall in revenue derived from oil that’s pulled out of the ground in, say, the Permian Basin and along the Caprock here in the Panhandle.

What’s good for the rest of the county isn’t necessarily so for Texas. What to do?

Given that I don’t have a particular dog in this hunt — in the form of oil holdings that pay handsome royalties — I’m more than happy to see the price of gas continue to slide downward. It’s at $1.98 per gallon in Amarillo as of right now; it’s subject to change any moment.

The Texas Tribune link attached to this post notes that the state’s new comptroller, Glenn Hager, is facing a tough baptism in state government. He’ll have to produce some revenue forecasts for the next Legislature. At the rate the price of oil is falling, it’s becoming a bit problematic for the comptroller-elect to project anything for the next week, let alone for the next two years.

Gov.-elect Greg Abbott has proposed an ambitious start for his administration that will depend on money. Highway improvements? The amount of that money will depend on oil prices. Public education? Again, the state derives royalty money from oil and natural gas to help pay for public school.

So, while the rest of the country hails the falling price of oil and gasoline, lawmakers and statewide elected officials in Texas, which produces so much of it, are wringing their hands.

Yep, as the promotional slogan goes: Texas is like a whole other country.


Statewide smoking ban: Round 5

Let’s hope that the fifth time is the charm.

For what? The state ought to impose a statewide ban on indoor smoking. No exceptions, please. Everywhere should fall under the rule.

The Texas Tribune reports that the Texas Legislature is likely to take up the issue for the fifth consecutive session when it convenes in January.

The odds aren’t great that it’ll pass either legislative house. Both chambers will be full of pro-business Republicans who think the government has no say in determining whether Texans should be exposed to second-hand smoke. That’s a business call, they’ll contend.

Never mind that the Texas Restaurant Association — a key business group affected directly by such a law — supports a statewide ban.

We’ve danced to this tune already in Amarillo. Voters here have rejected narrowly two city referenda calling for a citywide ban.

The state, though, can weigh in this coming year.

It’s not that Texas is plowing new ground. Two dozen states already have enacted statewide smoking bans. More than 30 Texas cities have enacted such a ban, many with exceptions made for restaurants and businesses that serve alcohol.

Yes, there will be those who contend that business owners should be allowed to make these decisions for themselves.

But if second-hand smoke presents a health hazard and if some businesses refuse to ban smoking inside their establishments, isn’t the state obligated to step in protect people’s health?

Yes, we have choices. We can choose to do business in a place where we cough at the smell of smoke, or we can choose to go somewhere else.

Still, a statewide ban isn’t an unreasonable rule to impose on business owners. Who knows? Maybe we’ll all get used to living in a totally smoke-free indoor environment.

I’m not going to hold my breath — pun intended — waiting for the Legislature to do the right thing.


Gas-price skid causes nervousness

So-called “experts” on energy prices and policies keep telling us the same thing.

The downward spiral in oil and gasoline prices is going to continue perhaps well into the new year.

But watching the price ticking down — often more than once daily — continues to make me nervous.

The price of unleaded gas has now dipped to less than $2 per gallon in Amarillo. I work part time across the street from a leading gas dealer here and I’ve seen the sign tick down as many as three times during a single day.

How low will it go?

The experts aren’t saying yet how cheap they think gas will get.

Supply is up. Demand is down. American drillers keep producing oil like there’s no tomorrow. But everyone knows how free-market economics works: If the supply keeps outstripping demand, eventually the suppliers will scale back their production to even out the inventory of oil and gasoline on the market. The result inevitably increases the price of gas a the pump.

As we’ve all seen for the past several years, gasoline increases in price at a far quicker pace than it decreases.

Hey, I’m not predicting gloom and doom at the pump.

I’m merely suggesting that I’m getting quite used to paying the same amount for gas that I was paying five years ago or longer.

The “new normal” in gas prices had produced a certain form of numbness to the prices we were paying. Now that new normal has been shaken — but in a positive sort of way.

It still makes me nervous about what could be coming down the road.


A perk awaits semi-retired journalist

Now that I’m no longer a full-time journalist, I plan to accept an invitation I otherwise might  have declined.

I look forward to this event.

On New Year’s Day, Potter County Judge-elect Nancy Tanner is going to take office as the presiding officer of the county’s Commissioners Court. I’ll stand and applaud when she takes her oath of office.

Reporter Decorum Rule No. 1 prohibits such outward displays of support from the media. Reporters, editors and opinion writers are supposed to maintain a public appearance of neutrality. I couldn’t cheer for speechmakers at the two national Republican presidential conventions I attended — New Orleans in 1988 and Houston in 1992.

I did, though, attend the Democratic convention in Charlotte in 2012, but that was about a week after I had been “reorganized” out of my job at the newspaper where I worked for nearly 18 years. I had obtained press credentials for the convention and planned to cover it, but since I was a “civilian” when I got there, I was allowed to cheer.

Back to the present. I’m still a civilian. Sure, I might have attended the swearing-in as a journalist, but I’d have to put on my best professional face and demeanor.

Nancy Tanner was elected county judge this year in a clear statement of good sense and reason from Potter County’s voters. I am quite glad she won and I’ve stated so already on this blog and to whomever I’ve spoken about it since her victory.

Tanner sent me an invitation to attend the swearing-in at the Santa Fe Building in downtown Amarillo. Barring a catastrophic illness or some other unforeseen emergency, I plan to be there. I am likely to give the new judge a hug and will wish her well as she embarks on this new phase of her public service career.

Yes, indeed. Semi-retirement does have its perks.


Time to revisit smoking ban?

Recently, I had lunch with a friend at a downtown Amarillo restaurant.

The diner has been around for many years. I walked in, greeted my friend Gary, who then said, “Sorry about the cigarette smoke in here.”

Yes, the place smelled of smoke. The smoking section was separate from the rest of the place, but the “aroma” was distinct and, to be candid, quite disgusting.

It got me thinking. Amarillo has referred indoor smoking bans twice to voters. The referenda failed both times.

Is it time to revisit the issue? I would say “yes.”

The Amarillo City Council has a physician among its members. Dr. Brian Eades delivers babies for a living and he’s well-versed on certain hazards to people’s health. I would hope Dr. Eades could take the lead in promoting a push to make indoor smoking illegal. Yes, I mean require businesses to end it.

I totally understand that most businesses in Amarillo ban smoking already. Almost all new restaurants are non-smoking establishments.

But when you walk into a time-honored place, such as the one my friend and I visited the other day, you still get to whiff the odor of cigs in the back room.

I quit smoking cold turkey just short of 35 years ago. The older I get the more militant I become about smoking.

I understand the hazards of second-hand smoke and reject efforts to dismiss those hazards.

Amarillo’s governing council has a real-life medical doctor serving the residents of this city. It’s time to speak out, loudly, against this hazard to public health — and to vote once again on banning smoking indoors everywhere in the city.




New judge, old judge bury the hatchet

Potter County Judge-elect Nancy Tanner has just posted some pictures on Facebook showing her yukking it up with the man she’s succeeding, Arthur Ware.

Why is that worth this brief comment?

Tanner served as Ware’s administrative assistant for two decades. Then in 2013 she announced publicly that she was thinking of running for county judge. Ware had been disabled seriously by a stroke in 2010 and it was unclear whether he would seek another term.

Ware then summarily fired Tanner, and threw his support to former Amarillo Mayor Debra McCartt, who had announced her candidacy.

Ware never has explained his reasons for firing Tanner, who then went on to win the Republican Party primary outright. With zero Democrats on the ballot, her nomination was tantamount to election.

They threw a retirement party for Ware. Lo and behold, the judge-elect was there to give Ware a rousing sendoff.

What’s the moral of the story? I suppose it can be that longtime friendships have a way of outlasting temporary political snits.

Thrill will be gone soon from Texas Senate

Texas lawmakers of both political parties have told me over the years how much “fun” they had serving in the state Legislature. Both chambers comprised members who had pals on the other side.

They were chums. They shared an adult beverage after hours. They would talk about common interests. They would seek each other’s advice.

I remember meeting the late state Sen. Teel Bivins for the first time. The Republican knew I came to Amarillo from Beaumont and he shared in our first meeting his respect for a Democratic adversary from Southeast Texas, Sen. Carl Parker, who used to refer to Bivins and others of his stripe as “silk-stocking Republicans.” Bivins never took it personally and he actually admired Parker’s debating skill, which he would employ on the floor of the Senate.

My trick knee is telling me those days are about to end.

Dan Patrick will become the next lieutenant governor in January. Patrick has made it known his desire to abandon a couple of Senate traditions: one is the two-thirds rule that requires 21 Senate votes to bring any bill to a vote of the entire of body; the other is the practice of appointing senators of the other party as committee chairs.

Patrick, a Republican, said earlier this year that given Texas’s strong conservative leaning and the fact that Republicans stand like a colossus over the landscape, then — by golly — he would prefer to have an all-GOP lineup among the Senate leadership.

Crank up the steamroller, folks.

What does this mean for what’s left of the party’s more moderate element, which must include Sen. Kel Seliger of Amarillo, who wants to lead the Education Committee?

A friend of mine and I were talking Friday about the next Legislature. He’s been observing Texas politics for decades and he wonders how the state will function when it is run by the TEA party wing of the GOP. He mentioned former Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff, a wise man and moderate Republican, and lamented that Ratliff no longer is in public life. “Who would have thought that Kel Seliger would be considered a ‘liberal’ within the Republican Party?” he asked … rhetorically.

There once was a time when serving in the Legislature could be considered “fun.” Hey, it doesn’t pay very much so you look for fun whenever and wherever you can find it.

The tone and tenor of the upper chamber is about to change. For my taste — and perhaps the taste of others around the state — it won’t be for the better.