Prairie restoration project turns back the clock on Paige ranch

VIBS 660 Reporting Science & Technology: November 29, 2022

Under a blanket of stars nearly untouched by light pollution, dozens of people in parked cars or sitting on lawn chairs basked in the glow reflecting from an inflatable movie screen, where a projector cast a series of short documentaries about a variety of topics in nature and wildlife conservation. Behind the dialog from the films, a gentle breeze whispered through the sparse trees and wide expanse of grassland.

Visitors to this nature preserve didn’t have to look far to find the principles from one of the short films一detailing efforts to protect the monarch butterfly in upstate New York一put into action. This ranch is slowly being reverted from non-native grazing grass back to its natural prairie vegetation, in part to help support the monarch butterfly.

A windy evening animates the native prairie grasses that were returned to this pasture at Billig Ranch.

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A&M professor makes physics accessible to public一and students

VIBS 660 Reporting Science & Technology: October 18, 2022

Unlike the activity of the atoms in a typical gas, downtown Bryan bustled with activity as the temperature crawled down and the sun began to set on an unseasonably hot October evening. A crowd gathered like iron shavings to a magnet around a table of Texas A&M students leading activities with seemingly random objects: tennis balls, potatoes, straws. 

At the center of the activity, Dr. Tatiana Erukhimova rushed to assist her students in between giving lively physics demonstrations of her own.

A look of recognition crossed the face of a college-aged young man in the crowd, as he and his friends passed the booth. He caught Dr. Tatiana’s attention and asked, “Can I get a picture with you? My mom loves your TikToks.”

With a wide smile and an enthusiastic nod, she stood next to him as one of his friends readied his camera, and they both grinned and gave double thumbs-up. Soon enough, the two stood in the middle of the crowd, him staring with undivided attention as she enthusiastically demonstrated the idea of center of gravity with a belt slung over a piece of plastic.

Dr. Tatiana Erukhimova (right) demonstrates the concept of center of gravity with a belt for an attendee at downtown Bryan’s First Friday on October 7.

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Forest care brings back bird habitat

The Elgin Courier: July 27, 2022

Deep in the thick forests of a nature preserve in northern Bastrop County, a group of dedicated people worked to clear out overgrown vegetation this summer to improve the habitat for native birds.

Yegua Knobbs Preserve is a 302-acre wildlife preserve near McDade managed by Pines & Prairies Land Trust, a Bastrop-based nonprofit that promotes land protection and conservation easements on private land in Bastrop, Caldwell, Fayette, Lee and eastern Travis counties. Yegua Knobbs consists of a diversity of landscapes, from hilly pasture to dense forest.

One of PPLT’s habitat restoration projects underway at Yegua Knobbs is the clearing and thinning of yaupon holly in the forest.

“Yaupon, although it’s native, it tends to invade the understory,” said Melanie Pavlas, the executive director of PPLT. “When it gets thick like it is here, it crowds out other native vegetation and sunlight can’t get to the ground, so it diminishes the biological diversity of the habitat.”

When yaupon pushes out other species, it leads to a monoculture, or the growth of only a single plant in an area.

“If we just have a monoculture of the yaupon, there’s not as much variety for birds to eat, just like we have food deserts, where you have to go a long distance in order to find food,” said Laurie Mason, PPLT’s outreach manager. “By clearing the yaupon and letting the sunlight touch the forest floor, then more diverse species can grow and provide a wider variety of food in different seasons for all of the wildlife … The whole web of biodiversity benefits from it.”

During the last week of June, PPLT hosted a week of work at Yegua Knobbs, inviting volunteers to help the Texas Conservation Corps to hand-clear yaupon on 21 acres of the preserve. This project was funded by a grant from the Cornell Land Trust Small Grant program, which promotes the conservation of birds and their habitats. In April, part of the grant was used to clear firebreaks.

Instead of using machinery to clear out the yaupon, the volunteers and Corps workers used loppers and saws to hand-clear the vegetation, all the while looking out for bird nests containing eggs or baby birds.

Since last month, PPLT has finished the work required for the Cornell grant, thinning the yaupon throughout the 21-acre block.

After the forest understory is thinned out, PPLT will begin a prescribed burn program. Human development interrupts the natural cycles of wildfire, Pavlas said, and even though Yegua Knobbs hasn’t been built on, fire has still been suppressed. Cutting away the yaupon will make the burn safer by removing much of the fuel.

Another current project at Yegua Knobbs, funded through the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department’s Landowner Incentive Program, supports potential breeding habitats for the endangered Houston toad through thinning yaupon and conducting prescribed burns.

During PPLT’s work days in late June, TPWD herpetologist Paul Crump was also at Yegua Knobbs. The preserve is part of the Houston toad Safe Harbor Agreement, which incentivizes habitat conservation for the endangered toad. The goal is to mitigate the loss of the toad’s habitat, which occurs not only through development but through neglecting to clear out the forest understory and not allowing natural wildfire to manage the ecosystem, Crump said.

“Our goal is to work with private landowners to voluntarily do stuff to help the Houston toad, bring it back from the brink,” he said, “but hopefully eventually down-list it and delist it from the federal endangered species list.”

The work at Yegua Knobbs to support the Houston toad also includes acoustic monitoring, setting up recording devices at the ponds to listen for the toad’s “gorgeous, melodious call,” Crump said. The toads historically inhabited the preserve, but have not been seen for the past couple of decades.

“We’re looking for them here,” Crump said. “We haven’t found them, which is unfortunate, but we have some tools these days that we can use, the captive propagation program, to reintroduce them when the habitat’s going back in the right direction.”

Yegua Knobbs provides a haven for area wildlife, Pavlas said.

“Birds and endangered species are umbrella species, so if you manage habitat for them, you’re managing it for all the wildlife,” she said. “Not only are we providing habitat for rare or endangered species or sensitive species, but it can serve as a haven for other wildlife in the area.”

Additionally, the preserve can serve as an example to other landowners for wildlife management techniques. PPLT uses programs that are open to landowners, and its preserves can show how endangered species can be protected with unrestrictive methods, Pavlas said.

“It’s our mission to do this, but if a landowner sees even one minor change they can make that would be easy for them to do and not that big of a deal, then that’s good,” she said.

One year of COVID-19: Schools, businesses, community adapts to evolving pandemic

Life was very different one year ago, in Elgin, much like the rest of central Texas. Suddenly, in-person school was canceled, events were postponed indefinitely and most businesses either changed their operations or temporarily closed their doors to try and help halt the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

One year later, the Elgin community is still adapting to the pandemic and overcoming new obstacles.

At the beginning of the pandemic, information and guidance changed almost day to day as doctors and scientists learned more and more about the new virus, said Matthew West, Elgin ISD’s director of safety and risk management. Eventually, Elgin ISD was able to settle on its processes as the best practices to handle the virus became more settled.

“We were having to roll with whatever information was available at that time, and that made it somewhat difficult for us trying to standardize our practices,” West said. “We got into a set protocol and procedures on how we were handling things, and that made the operations run a lot smoother.”

Switching to remote learning has been a big shift for Elgin ISD, but as time went on, teachers were trained to present online courses, and students became more used to learning online.

“When we went all remote in March of last year, it was kind of an odd feeling to be running a school district from your house,” West said. “The masks and the social distancing has become the new normal: making sure everybody’s separated at lunchtime and recess. That was difficult at first, especially in elementary schools, just because of kids being kids.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, the Elgin area had some of the highest numbers of cases in Bastrop County; however, the numbers for Elgin ISD have remained low compared to other school districts, West said.

“I really have to credit our entire community and school district, because without their support, we would have a very difficult time managing COVID-19 cases,” he said. “I think the reason why they’ve been relatively low, is because of the community, because parents are supportive of what we’re trying to do.”

Jens Anderson, athletic director at Elgin ISD, said the biggest challenge of the pandemic was having to stay apart, instead of physically coming together, when a tragedy such as COVID-19 occurs, especially for athletes who have a team mindset.

“Instead of trying to do everything we can to bring our kids together and spend more time with one another, we actually are in this paradox where we have to build team unity, but also are trying to limit interactions,” Anderson said. “A lot of the bonding with coaches and players and teams is done before and after practice. With COVID, we had to regulate how many kids we had in the locker room at one time … and that really cuts into those great experiences that many of us remember from our high school years of building those relationships.”

The processes of dealing with the COVID-19 virus have become a lot more familiar to everyone than in the beginning of the pandemic, and the Elgin ISD athletics department’s current procedures are similar to those from most of the year, Anderson said.
Anderson said they are excited that Elgin’s athletic teams have been able to finish their seasons during the pandemic.

“A year ago, we were going into spring break, and we thought we’re gonna have an extra week off maybe, and it ended up being several months,” he said. “(On Friday), we have a group of young men headed off to regional powerlifting, and the same day last year, we were telling them they were not going to be able to go. For those kids to have those options, it’s made all of the extra time and the extra precautions worth it.”

Between the beginning of the pandemic and now, teachers have become skilled at making their recorded lessons as engaging and interactive as possible for their students, according to Dr. Shannon Luis, assistant superintendent for academics and school improvement at Elgin ISD.

“While we know the best place for students to receive instruction is in-person from teachers, we have made great strides in the virtual instruction being provided,” Luis said.

The biggest challenge with learning during the pandemic, according to Luis, was that not all students are successful with remote learning, and keeping students as engaged as they would be in-person has been a challenge as well.

“We know this has been challenging for families as well,” Luis said. “The use of the technology is new to a lot of families so a lot of support was needed at the beginning of the school year. We are definitely more stabilized now than we were at the start of the school year, and that is thanks to our teachers, principals, and families.”

Elgin ISD is making adjustments to its summer school offerings to address the learning loss that students will have experienced due to COVID-19, Luis said.

“We will continue to make adjustments into next school year to do everything we can to ensure we get each and every student back on track,” she said. “We also know this will take time.”

During the pandemic, the City of Elgin and Elgin’s business community has had to adapt, as well.

Elgin community services director Amy Miller was designated as the city’s public information officer at the beginning of the pandemic in Elgin, and for the first month, worked to provide all the latest information about COVID-19. As the pandemic continued, she went on to help businesses get the word out about their modified operations and be aware of grants and programs such as the Payroll Protection Program. They also worked with businesses with technical training and helped them use tools such as social media to promote their business during the pandemic.

“At different times, there was greater amounts of information that needed to be distributed,” Miller said. “Now, of course, the focus for a couple months has been on helping educate people about the need to register for the vaccine and how to access the vaccine. … We are trying, through the city’s platform, to continue helping to educate the community about what’s available and how to access that.”

Elgin has weathered the pandemic very well, Miller said, and cited the support of the local community.

“Elgin has had a fantastic attitude about this as a community,” she said. “There were so many reminders that we’re all in this together, that we’re stronger together, but I do feel like this community really supported each other, and that we’re in better shape today because of that.”

In early March last year, the Elgin Chamber of Commerce held their annual awards banquet and was looking forward to its next year; then, COVID-19 hit and affected the chamber and businesses.

“The good news, as we look back now, I think the businesses in our community really were resilient, and took a lot of efforts to adapt,” said Gena Carter, president of the Elgin Chamber of Commerce. “They pivoted their business plan and did what they needed to do to survive, everything from the curbside pickup to having a bigger online presence, changing the way they do business.”

During the pandemic, the chamber has been working to direct businesses to resources, Carter said, such as grants, loans and the Paycheck Protection Program. During the most recent round, over 200 businesses received funds from that program.

The pandemic presented different challenges to different kinds of businesses, Carter said. Small retailers faced challenges when people were not getting out to go shopping, some businesses did not have a strong online presence before the pandemic, and some restaurants struggled with capacity limitations. On the other hand, other businesses had plenty of business, but may have had to hire more people.

Going forward, the chamber is looking forward to hosting events again and is encouraging people to get vaccinated.

“I’m proud of our citizens for continuing to shop local and supporting our local businesses and wearing their masks and being supportive in general,” Carter said. “All in all, it’s been a tough year, obviously, but a lot of good has come out of it as well, where we’ve seen people have been able to work together.”

McDade high-schoolers send satellite into space

The Elgin Courier: July 31, 2019

Despite launch delays, McDade’s second team of satellite-building students traveled to Cape Canaveral, Florida to watch their creation take flight.

A group of three incoming seniors—Luz Ramirez, Juan Rodriguez and Evan Allan—built the satellite during the spring semester. 

In December, a group of younger McDade students—grades 6, 7 and 8—launched their own satellite that they had built during the fall semester with the help of Quad-M, a McDade-based aerospace engineering and manufacturing company. Victor Dube, Quad-M founder, approached McDade ISD superintendent Barbara Marchbanks about forming another team of students to build another satellite. Marchbanks thought it was a perfect opportunity to let high school students get involved, since many of them had been too busy with fall sports to work on the first satellite.

“We wanted something for the high school kids to be a part of, too,” Marchbanks said.

Juan Rodriguez and Luz Ramirez show off the satellite they built.

Like the previous NASA team’s satellite, this satellite was launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. This satellite is also similar in function to the previous team’s creation, but built with a different structure that made it easier to assemble.

SEOPS, a Bastrop-based satellite deployment company and a customer of Quad-M, had an extra space on last week’s mission for the McDade students’ satellite. SEOPS also helped fund the satellite’s approval by NASA, Dube said.

Tyler Holden from Quad-M helped the students make the satellite. David Marchbanks, Barbara Marchbanks’ son who has worked for NASA and worked on computers for the U.S. Army, also volunteered to work with the students on the project each week. 

The students were taught the the specifications of the satellite they would be making and learned how to use computer-aided design (CAD) software to create the satellite. Rodriguez, the artist of the group, designed the satellite’s structure using CAD. After fabricating the pieces, they got to put the satellite together and inspected it.

At first, Ramirez wasn’t sure about the project since the skills involved was completely new territory for her, but she thought it might be fun to learn something new. At first, she admitted, it was difficult, but she got better and better at working on the satellite.

“I never really was a big computer person, but after I actually started understanding it, I started really liking it,” she said.

Rodriguez said one of the more difficult parts of the project was learning how to make the necessary shapes with the CAD software. Additionally, the students faced deadlines for finishing their designs on top of keeping up with their schoolwork.

However, the project gave the students a chance to work together and grow closer as friends.

“I was able to work with other people and have other people learning with me,” Ramirez said. “We have good communication, and we were relying on each other. Spending that time each Friday with my other friends and working on something, we actually bonded closer.”

The project culminated in a trip to Cape Canaveral, Florida last week to watch their satellite take off into space.

“The trip was a once in a lifetime for the kids, something that they will remember the rest of their lives,” Marchbanks said. “The kids had never flown on an airplane, and they had never seen the Atlantic Ocean.”

The SpaceX Falcon 9 spacecraft was originally scheduled to take off last Wednesday, but with only 29 seconds left in the countdown, the launch was called off due to poor weather and rescheduled for Thursday. 

“That was really disappointing,” Marchbanks said. “There was about an 80 percent chance of rain the next day, so we were concerned they might cancel it the next day.”

Fortunately, the weather held up the next day, and the students got to see all their hard work pay off.

“(The students) had never seen any type of rocket,” Marchbanks said, “so to see the launch of a rocket, and then on top of that, it’s holding their satellite, was a unique experience that they’re never going to forget. Tt was wonderful to see the look of awe on their faces as the rocket went up.”

While in Florida, the students visited the Kennedy Space Center, where they learned about the Apollo missions that landed astronauts on the moon 50 years ago, saw the Atlantis space shuttle on display and practiced docking with the International Space Station in flight simulators. They also got the chance to take an island boat tour, where they observed the wildlife of the mangroves.

Marchbanks hopes the students were challenged by the project and learned that anything is possible.

“If you send a satellite into space, that pretty much tells you anything is possible,” she said. 

Dube said the objective of the project was to get them familiar with the whole process of manufacturing a satellite, from learning CAD to inspecting the final product.

“It’s very unusual to have an opportunity like this, especially having a company that’s right next door,” Holden said. “Being able to go through the whole process front to back, most schools can’t support that kind of experience. That’s really, really good for them in the long run.”

Before heading to Cape Canaveral, Ramirez was a little nervous—partially due to her first experience flying in an airplane—but overwhelmed and excited by the thought of sending something into space that she helped design and build.

“It’s kind of crazy to think about,” she said.

Party status granted in LCRA case

The Elgin Courier: December 26, 2018

On Wednesday, a number of landowners, water companies and others gathered in the Bastrop Convention & Exhibit Center to request a contested hearing in the case against the Lower Colorado River Authority’s (LCRA) permit to drill wells in Bastrop County during a preliminary hearing held by the Texas State Office of Administrative Hearings (SOAH).

The LCRA bought the Griffith League Boy Scout Ranch in northeast Bastrop County in 2015. In February of 2018, the LCRA applied to the Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation District (LPGCD), the entity responsible for managing the groundwater below Lee and Bastrop counties, for a permit to build eight wells on the property to drill into the Simsboro formation of the Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer and pump 25,000 acre-feet, or about eight billion gallons, of water per year. The Simsboro formation is a part of the Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer, which winds through eastern Central Texas from Mexico to Louisiana.

However, this application for the permit concerned many local landowners, water advocates and entities near the wells, who are afraid pumping that much water, in addition to the water permitted to other entities, might draw down the aquifer’s water level and leave their wells dry. During a public hearing on September 26 held by the LPGCD, over a hundred citizens spoke out against the permit.

According to an LCRA spokesperson, the LCRA does not anticipate water production from the wells would have a detrimental impact on the Colorado River, the Simsboro formation or the other formations in the Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer.

Those against the application, such as Steve Box, founder of local environmental organization Environmental Stewardship, fear otherwise. According to Box, drawing the 25,000 acre-feet of water from the Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer, in addition to tens of thousands more acre-feet from other permits, will lower the water level in the aquifer, dropping the pressure and reducing the amount of water brought to the surface by springs created by the water pressure in the aquifer. This loss of pressure could also cause the Colorado River to lose water into the aquifer, he said.

The different formations in the aquifer also communicate, or exchange water, because the layers between the formations are made of sand, so depleting the Simsboro formation would likely affect the rest of the aquifer, Box also said. He added taking so much water from the aquifer would not be sustainable because the Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer recharges, or replenishes its water, slowly because of these sand layers, which are less permeable than the cave-like layers of the quickly-recharging Edwards aquifer.

“The recharge estimated for the Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer is a very, very small percentage of what is being pumped out of the aquifer,” Box said.

The case was sent to SOAH, which set up Wednesday’s preliminary hearing to determine which parties who requested a contested case hearing would request standing in the case.

The list of parties seeking to protest the wells at the SOAH hearing included Aqua Water Corporation, which supplies water to much of the region and operates wells in the Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer; Recharge Water, formerly EndOp, a water supplier that had also recently requested and was awarded a water permit for the Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer after a case of its own; Environmental Stewardship; the City of Elgin, which operates wells for municipal water in the Simsboro formation; a group of over 50 landowners represented by attorney Donald Grissom; and around ten more individual people or households who are representing themselves. The people who were granted party status as individuals are allowed to join a group at a later time.

Everyone who requested standing in the case were granted party status, meaning they would be directly affected by the permit in question and can participate in the case.

Earlier this year, a dispute over party standing occurred in EndOp’s case for seeking permits from the LPGCD for wells.

According to Michele Gangnes, lawyer and board member of the Simsboro Aquifer Water Defense Fund, the administrative law judge for that case thought any landowners should have standing whether or not they had a well or produced water; however, four landowners, including Environmental Stewardship, were told they could not have party standing. An appeals court ruled against granting party status to the landowners on a technicality, but the decision didn’t rule on the merits of the landowners’ case for party status.

“(In the LCRA case) these are the same types of landowners; some of them have Simsboro wells, some of them have wells in other formations,” Gangnes said. “So we’re testing whether a landowner owns his water in place, or whether there’s all these other qualifiers on that.”

In this matter, an LCRA spokesperson said, LCRA does not object to any party wanting standing being granted party status.

Because of the number of individual landowners who requested and granted party status, Michael O’Malley, the SOAH administrative law judge assigned to the case, encouraged the individuals to consider joining another group, such as Grissom’s group, or create their own group, in order to make the process of exchanging documents between the parties less complicated.

Whenever any motion is filed, all parties must send copies of the associated documents to every other party. In addition, individuals who are not within a group must represent themselves in the case.

Now that the individuals, groups and entities interested in being a part of the case have been granted party status, the next step is filing testimony and gathering evidence before holding a hearing in Bastrop. The judge will then make a recommendation to LPGCD based on the existing law and the evidence presented, then the LPGCD board will make a decision on what to do about LCRA’s permits.

Parties in the case must file an affidavit by February 8 to indicate their position on the case and argue how the wells would affect them to retain their party status. Any party may object to another party’s standing until February 19.

O’Malley first proposed the week of June 24-28 for the multi-day hearing. However, Eric Allmon, representing Environmental Stewardship, said a June hearing would be too early for this case and would not provide enough time for discovery of evidence, considering the number of protesting parties; Grissom and Recharge attorney Paul Terrill agreed.

After a ten-minute recess for the parties to determine when might be a good time for the hearing, the parties agreed to hold the hearing during the week of October 15-22, with a prehearing conference to be held on October 10 if needed.

Air quality monitors moved to collect more accurate data

The Elgin Courier: December 19, 2018

In order to better measure the amount of ozone in the air in the Greater Austin area, the Capital Area Council of Governments is moving a handful of its ozone monitoring stations, including two of its stations in Bastrop County.

The Capital Area Council of Governments (CAPCOG) is a coalition of municipal and county governments from ten Central Texas counties that work together on issues in the region. Within CAPCOG is the Clean Air Coalition (CAC), a group that works on reducing air pollution and improving air quality in the region.

Ozone is a gas which is considered an air pollutant at ground level, often created when heat and sunlight interacts with nitrogen oxides emitted by vehicles, power plants and other sources. It can cause respiratory issues for people and can be especially harmful to sensitive groups such as children and the elderly.

In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency set a standard for 70 parts per billion of ozone in the ambient air; the Austin-Round Rock Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), which is a part of CAPCOG’s region, measures 69 parts per billion as its design value, or an average based on measurements from the past three years. If the value rises above 70 parts per billion, the area would be designated “nonattainment” for the EPA standards and would face regulations and economic costs by preventing business expansion, delaying infrastructure improvements and losing federal funding.

Although the measurements used to find this value are from ozone monitoring stations in Travis County run by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), the CAPCOG stations are important for the organization to understand the levels of ground-layer ozone in other counties and throughout the region, said Andrew Hoekzema, CAPCOG assistant director of regional planning and services.

“CAPCOG’s monitoring is important to providing a more complete picture of ground-level ozone levels throughout the region than what can be achieved with just the two monitors operated by TCEQ in Travis County,” he said by email.

This map from CAPCOG’s Ozone Monitoring Networks Review Report for 2019-2023 shows the proposed relocations of three ozone monitoring stations. The CAPCOG station in Travis County was proposed to be moved east, the Fayette County will be moved to Elgin and the current sole Bastrop County monitor will be moved from McKinney Roughs Nature Park to within the City of Bastrop.

One of the stations, located in McKinney Roughs Nature Park, is being moved because it is located near a lot of trees. Trees absorb ozone, Hoekzema said, so trees surrounding a monitoring station would artificially lower the reading. Trees can provide surfaces to react with or absorb nitrogen oxides and ozone, so the EPA requires monitoring agencies to take into account nearby trees on ozone monitoring sites.

“If you are collecting ozone measurements right next to trees, you’ll get noticeably lower ozone readings than you would get if you were collecting data even 50 feet away,” Hoekzema said.

In addition to the effect caused by nearby trees, the monitoring stations needed to be moved because they were not in areas of high population density, said Julia Cleary, Bastrop County planner and a representative for Bastrop County on the CAC Advisory Committee. This means the readings from the monitors would not accurately show the air quality of the area where most people live.

“Ozone is a public health issue,” Cleary said. “It was a two-pronged approach: one was to have it in areas that are closer to where the majority of people live and work, and the other one was the concern with the trees.”

While CAPCOG figured out the configuration of its monitoring network for 2019 through 2023, they decided to move one of the monitors in Travis County, move the one current Bastrop County monitor into a city and shut down a monitoring station in Fayetteville to move into another city in Bastrop County, according to the CAPCOG ozone monitoring network review report for 2019-2023. CAPCOG decided to shut down the station in Fayetteville in order to move it into the Austin-Round Rock MSA. The two cities in Bastrop County chosen for the monitors were Elgin and Bastrop.

Hoekzema said not every location is suitable for conducting ozone monitoring; the decision about a site needs to consider factors that might interfere with the quality of data. He added the main reasons the final sites in Bastrop and Elgin were selected were because of property ownership, access to electricity and distance from the road and trees.

“Once you go through the whole set of criteria, the number of suitable sites winds up being smaller than you might expect,” Hoekzema said.

The monitoring stations should be in place for the ozone monitoring season starting in 2019 and remain there through the monitoring season of 2023, Cleary said. Hoekzema said the EPA requires ozone monitoring in central Texas from March 1 through November 30, and the worst ozone problems usually occur in August and September.

During the November 13 city council meeting, the Bastrop City Council approved an agreement to move the McKinney Roughs Nature Park monitor to Mayfest Park in Bastrop.

“We want to ensure the readings in Bastrop are true and correct as much as we possibly can so we can still be in the attainment area, and not be burdened with some of the cumbersome EPA and TCEQ regulations that come about from being a nonattainment area,” said Mayor Pro-Tem Lyle Nelson, the representative for the City of Bastrop on the CAC.

Currently, CAPCOG is working with the City of Elgin and Elgin Independent School District to find a place for the monitoring station on Elgin ISD property. According to Elgin ISD deputy superintendent Peter Perez, a location has tentatively been chosen near the school district’s transportation department on Second Street. As of last week, the agreement has been signed by Elgin ISD and sent to CAPCOG, Perez said.

Mayor Pro-Tem Jessica Bega, the representative for the City of Elgin on the CAC, said Elgin is able to be involved at the regional level through CAPCOG and the CAC.

“As we (Elgin) are members, we also agreed to do our part with the overall effort to keep ozone levels at standard and not to exceed and move into a dangerous area,” Bega said. “The Clean Air Coalition is trying to set an example; in some cases, we have goals we try to meet on a yearly basis and try to bring the participating cities together to understand the base level and what we can do to keep air quality in check.”

Students discover fun of computer science

The Elgin Courier: December 19, 2018

On Monday, December 3, students of all ages and their parents spent the evening plugged in at the Elgin High School library learning about computer science during the Hour of Code.

(From left to right) Zoey Graham watches as Lisa Nelson plays the game AP Computer Science Principles students Mitchell White and Jonas Casares helped build. Players must give directions to guide a turtle out of a maze.

Hour of Code is a worldwide event in which organizations, such as schools, host local events for people to learn computer science and coding skills. Hour of Code is run through, an organization that promotes computer science education in schools, and is a part of Computer Science Education Week, which was held December 3-7 this year.

During the Elgin Independent School District’s Hour of Code event, students and their parents learned about robotics and programming with tools such as Ozobots, which are tiny robots that can be programmed to travel in different ways by drawing paths on paper, and the programming games offered through

According to the sign-in sheet from the event, between 35 and 40 people participated.

In addition, students from the high school Advanced Placement (AP) Computer Science Principles class showed off their class project, which is a game designed and built by the students that teaches the principles of procedural programming. The game consists of helping a turtle find its way out of a maze by giving it directions.

“I was hoping my kids would have the chance to showcase what the accomplished to the community,” said Blake Fox, the AP Computer Science Principles teacher, “so I was really excited to see them be able to take this project from something that we started before Thanksgiving and turn it into a product that they were able to be really proud of.”

Hour of Code events were previously held at the campus level, but this event was the first annual community, district-wide Hour of Code event. This year, a number of teachers and staff who had been teaching computer science separately got together to put on one event together.

“We’re all basically talking the same language, we’re all talking the same goals,” said Patrick Reid, Elgin ISD coordinator of digital learning. “I shared what I wanted to, and they said, ‘we already have that planned out.’ So, why don’t we just get all of our eggs in the same basket and figure it out together?”

These faculty members included Neidig Elementary School technology teacher Stacey Jacobs, who had participated in Hour of Code for the last five years, and Elgin Middle School college and career readiness teacher Patience Blythe, who has participated in several Hour of Code events at Austin ISD where she previously taught computer science and engineering.

“We ended up realizing we all were going to do the same thing in our classes, so we may as well make it a community event,” Blythe said.

Jacobs said working across the district has shown how everyone is on the same page with computer science.

“We don’t always get to go to the middle school and high school to see what they’re doing,” she said. “It’s kind of neat to see what I should be doing to get them ready for middle school. That was kind of neat to see we are actually doing that and didn’t even realize it.”

During Computer Science Education Week this month, more students in elementary and middle school also played the programming games and participated in Hour of Code activities. At the high school level, the AP Computer Science Principles class set up their projects in the library again last week during lunchtime.

Fox said computer science is one of the fastest-growing fields in the country, and Austin specifically has seen growth in the tech sector.

“It’s starting to permeate a lot of different fields,” he said. “Having our students exposed to computer science and feeling comfortable with it will give them a leg-up when they start to look for jobs and apply for university programs.”

Blythe said computer science education helps students develop skills needed in the 21st century, regardless of their future career, such as problem-solving and taking the time to solve those problems step-by-step.

“We can’t really anticipate what the careers of the future are going to be, but when we teach problem-solving skills and how to work through a process, that’s going to be beneficial regardless of what kids do for their career choice,” she said. “It teaches students to be really specific and methodical with their steps in order to get the programs to work, and it teaches them how to take the necessary time to get something done.”

Letting students explore computer science at a young age gives them the opportunity to learn by trying, failing and figuring it out, Jacobs said.

“The gaming provides a place for the kids to be okay with failing, and it provides a place for the kids to have fun in the mindset of learning,” Reid said. “You’re learning about the world around you by just doing. It’s the same way we as kids learned to play in the sandbox.”

Reid said he hopes to see the Hour of Code event grow in coming years.

“It’s going to take a lot of people and a lot of community support,” he said. “The more support we get, the bigger it can get, and the more benefit we have for our kids.”

Significant corrosion found on Old Iron Bridge

The Elgin Courier: December 12, 2018

After the bridge was closed to all pedestrian access last month, a representative from Kimley-Horn presented the findings from their inspection of the Old Iron Bridge at the Bastrop City Council meeting on November 27.

The Old Iron Bridge, which spans the Colorado River near downtown Bastrop, was built in 1923 and served vehicle traffic until 1992, when vehicle traffic was redirected onto the newly-built Loop 150 bridge and the Old Iron Bridge was turned into a pedestrian bridge. During the most recent inspection in 2014, significant corrosion was found in parts of the bridge. In August, the Bastrop City Council awarded a contract for rehabilitating the Old Iron Bridge to Kimley-Horn, an engineering and design consulting firm, and they performed their inspections in November.

Brian LaFoy from Kimley-Horn began his presentation with an explanation of how the Old Iron Bridge is structured. The bridge is a Parker truss bridge; each of the steel members of the bridge are either in tension or compression. The Old Iron Bridge is considered a fracture critical bridge, which is defined by the Federal Highway Administration as a structure where if one of the members in tension were to fail, it could cause “significant or catastrophic failure of the structure,” causing the bridge to fall into the river, LaFoy said.

LaFoy said fixing the bridge will be a two step process: evaluation and rehabilitation. Kimley-Horn has performed a field evaluation, and now they are starting on a report looking at the deficiencies of the bridge and what can be done to improve it. Once the report is finished, the city will be able to make decisions about what to with the bridge and how it might possibly be restored.

LaFoy said Kimley-Horn found some minor issues with the bridge, including minorly-bent truss members, scouring on the underwater foundations and “flowering,” where layers of steel are beginning to flake away.

However, the biggest problem, and the reason why the bridge was closed down, is major corrosion in the gusset plates, which are sheets of steel where the diagonal and vertical members are riveted together.

LaFoy said the 2014 inspection found gusset plates with 50 percent section loss, while now some gusset plates have 100 percent section loss, meaning the corrosion has gone all the way through the plate.

“There’s significantly more corrosion than in the last report, or it wasn’t identified in the last report, that we were able to identify this time,” LaFoy said.

Another major issue is the lead in the coating of the bridge. Kimley-Horn received the initial lab results on the day of the meeting, confirming that coating on portions of the bridge is up to 13 percent lead, LaFoy said. The threshold for calling it a lead abatement project is one percent. The levels of lead means the bridge needs to be recoated and the lead fully contained and disposed of properly, LaFoy said.

“It’s not only just designing the repair to fix it structurally, it’s designing something to encapsulate it that the bridge can handle while we’re doing those repairs,” LaFoy said.

LaFoy clarified since the bridge is fracture critical, and because it would still require a design to contain the lead, demolishing the bridge would be a similar, and similarly expensive, project.

“Doing nothing and letting it fall down has its own worse consequences,” Bastrop Mayor Connie Schroeder said. “Because of the lead, now we’re in the Colorado River, and should the bridge fall, then it becomes a whole different project. It doesn’t just go away.”

LaFoy said sandblasting the bridge to get rid of the lead will be a tedious process, and a system to capture the lead during the process will be expensive to design and build. In addition, since the bridge is fracture critical, the pieces of the bridge can’t be taken apart and put back together, and a sequence would have to be created for removing bolts and rivets.

“We’re not out of the woods until the final contract is signed, executed, completed, and they walk away, and we’ve dodged a bullet,” city manager Lynda Humble said. “This is where we manage expectations up front on how precarious we are, because we’ve now waited until the point that we almost don’t have any runway, and this bridge is very close to not being savable.”

Humble said this is an 18- to 24-month process, and this is a project where the city will want to get a contractor for the best value, not the lowest bid, for the repairs.

“At any point during any of these processes, if they sandblast too much and they fracture something, we have critical failure,” Humble said. “If they are trying to repair it and don’t repair it in the right order, we have critical failure. This is art, this is science and a whole lot of luck.”

Humble said the city already has two million dollars allocated for the bridge from a certificate of obligation sale in September, but this project could cost as much as five million dollars. The next step for understanding how much it will cost and what funding options are available will be to get the report from Kimley-Horn at the beginning of next year.

Because of the severity of the gusset plate corrosion, and since Kimley-Horn has not yet been able to determine the true capacity of the bridge, the bridge is closed to pedestrian access for the foreseeable future.

“If you make the effort (to go over the barricades), you’re going to meet Bastrop’s finest,” Humble said. “This truly has eminent safety issues. You will be charged with criminal trespass, and we’re not going to play about it.

“I think it is safe for us to assume this bridge will be closed until we have a ribbon cutting ceremony on it, and we’ve lived through it and there’s still a bridge,” she added.

The next step is for Kimley-Horn to finish organizing their data and complete a load analysis to understand the remaining capacity of the bridge and present options of what to do with the structure and what the costs would be.

“Council, it feels like yet another one of those things we can’t just keep kicking down the road,” said Schroeder.

Reforestation program helps recover Lost Pines

The Elgin Courier: November 28, 2018

After two consecutive devastating wildfires in Bastrop County destroyed a large portion of the iconic Lost Pines forest, a local forestry organization is continuing its next phase in replanting what was lost.

Through TreeFolks, landowners who lost trees in the 2011 and 2015 fires can sign up now to receive free loblolly pine seedlings at the beginning of next year.

TreeFolks is a nonprofit urban forestry organization that promotes tree planting and education in central Texas. Shortly after the first fire, the Bastrop County Complex Fire in 2011, TreeFolks and many other organizations launched the Bastrop County Community Reforestation Program (BCCRP) in December 2012 in order to start reforesting the privately-owned land affected by the fire. In the nearly six years since the BCCRP began, 2.5 million trees have been replanted for 500 families, according to TreeFolks executive director Thais Perkins.

“Some of those early trees we planted in 2012 are taller than I am now, and they’re starting to produce cones with seeds,” Perkins said. “It was a tremendously successful program, and we feel confident the Lost Pines has a very bright future.”

In October, Bastrop County renewed their partnership with TreeFolks to continue their efforts in replanting the Lost Pines and providing seedlings and educational resources to landowners affected by wildfire. Currently, applications are open for landowners who want to receive loblolly pine seedlings. Anyone who lives in the burned area of either the 2011 or the 2015 fires are eligible to receive trees, and they can find the application at Perkins said those interested in receiving trees should apply within the next few weeks.

In January, the seedlings will be ready to be delivered. There will also be a tree giveaway in January in which trees not given to applicants will be given away. When the seedlings are delivered to applicants, they will also receive a consultation and information on how to best take care of the young trees.

“We’re at the stage now of filling the gaps, where people’s pines may have not done so well in the first few years or the people who we just haven’t gotten to yet,” Perkins said. “We intend to stay in Bastrop as long as we are able to do so.”

The fire in 2011 burned so hot that it burned up all of the organic material in the soil. Although pines can grow in poor soil, Perkins said, it will take longer to regrow the forest than if the fire had not burned so hot, or the loblolly pines might not grow back at all without being replanted. The goal of the BCCRP was to help the trees get established earlier than they would otherwise.

Perkins said in addition to TreeFolks’ efforts in replanting trees and providing education and consultations, an important part of the program is restoring something important to the people of the Lost Pines area.

“(People) grew up in that area and they experienced their entire lives under the canopy of these pines,” Perkins said. “For Bastrop, their community identity has a lot to do with the forest, and when the forest was removed, it was another layer of trauma to people who had already lost quite a lot. We have had landowners tell us when they see the trees come back is the first time they can really envision the future, and it’s an important part of the healing process.”