Area air quality fell to all-time low, but no alerts were issued

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WACO, Texas (KWTX) The air quality rating in Wednesday Central Texas was at level orange, the lowest air quality level in memory for the region, one local meteorologist said, but because of funding cuts, no Ozone Action Day alerts were issued for the region as they were for larger urban areas in the state.

“I’ve never seen an orange level here before,” KWTX meteorologist Brady Taylor said.

Taylor has been forecasting weather in Central Texas for 14 years.

Daily during the ozone season, which in Texas runs from March through November, Ozone Action Day forecasts are prepared for nine metro areas including Austin, Beaumont-Port Arthur, Corpus Christi, Dallas-Fort Worth, El Paso, Houston, San Antonio, Tyler-Longview, and Victoria.

Ozone Action Day alerts are issued when weather conditions combine with emissions to create high levels of ozone near the ground that could cause problems for those most sensitive to ozone including the elderly, the very young and those with respiratory conditions.

“Air quality is determined primarily through a network of monitoring sites consisting of various type of samplers that analyze specific pollutants or pollutant groups,” Martha Otero, spokeswoman for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said.

The TCEQ produces daily air quality forecasts and issues Ozone Action Day alerts, Otero said, based on data collected from the samplers and monitors that are used for determining current and past air quality, as well as developing air quality forecasts, including issuing the alerts..

“Local councils of governments partner with TCEQ in facilitating their area’s Ozone Action Day program, as well as providing other area-specific services relating to air quality like regional air quality planning,” she said.

In Central Texas, both the Central Texas Council of Governments and the Heart of Texas Council of Governments have implemented air quality programs, but neither currently offers or facilitates an Ozone Action Day program for the region.

The reason, both local councils say, is the state, in 2017, cut funding for local councils of government to report the data they collect.

“We have a program in place and we have a monitor up and working today,” Falen Bohannon, an environmental planner at HOTCOG said, “and we have a team in place to get readings, but the governor cut the program two years ago.”

Jim Reed, at CTCOG, echoed Bohannon’s comment.

“Yes. We have a program in place to report data to TCEQ every month,” but there is “no active reporting that can establish strategies for the future.”

Reed confirmed the last time the Rider 7 program, which fell to a line-item veto last session, was last funded in 2017 and data collected then is the latest reported by TCEQ.

The Rider 7 program was initiated by the 74th Texas Legislature in 1995 with a $500,000 budget “to support local air quality planning efforts in Austin, San Antonio, Northeast Texas, and Corpus Christi toward attaining the Federal Ozone National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS),” according to state records.

“A fifth area, Victoria, was added in 1998 and the Legislature's appropriation eventually grew to $5,075,000 by 2002.”

“The Rider 7 program was eliminated from TCEQ's budget on June 12, 2017 and is no longer active,” a TCEQ website says.

Bohannon said she is hopeful that a new Rider 7 initiative, or something similar, will soon be put in place and the collected data again can be analyzed and submitted to TCEQ.