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Battle over land, water

Profile image for By Christian McPhate
By Christian McPhate

Regions at odds over proposal to create 70,000-acre reservoir

The Texas Water Development Board met Thursday in Austin to consider the inter-regional conflict between two regional water plans involving the proposed Marvin Nichols Reservoir in northeast Texas.

In a 2-1 decision, the board requested that North Texas advocates of the reservoir conduct a quantifiable analysis of projected economic costs to the five counties where the reservoir would be located. The report must be completed before a Nov. 3 deadline, when the board meets to make its final recommendations.

The board’s action represents the latest step in the fight between reservoir advocates, who say North Texas will need new water sources in years to come, and opponents who say the lake will displace too many people and destroy too many habitats for plants and wildlife.

Denton County has a lot at stake. Economists estimate its population could more than double by 2040. If so, where does the water for all those new people come from?

Texas’ attempt to manage water needs involves 15 regional planning districts and their development of a statewide plan. A new law, signed by Gov. Rick Perry on Jan. 5, states: “In serious drought conditions, Texas does not and will not have enough water to meet the needs of its people, its businesses and its agricultural enterprises.”

Denton is located in Region C, an area with more than 6 million people, including residents in Dallas and Fort Worth. Region C water planners propose to build the Marvin Nichols Reservoir by damming the Sulphur River in northeast Texas to provide water for the more than 13 million residents projected to be living in the North Texas area in 2060.

If constructed, the reservoir would become the largest in Texas, submerging more than 70,000 acres of mostly private property near the Sulphur River, including a rare habitat known as a bottomland hardwood forest.

“These wooded wetlands, nurtured by the regular ebb and flow of a free-flowing river,” wrote the Texas Living Water Project on its website, “are one of the most biologically diverse ecosystem types in the state.”

The massive body of water would be a shallow lake similar to Lake Granbury, which evaporates much faster than a deeper lake such as Ray Roberts Lake during times of drought, and the area affected by the new lake would be much larger than the proposed 70,000 acres. Some reports claim more than 125,000 acres will be needed to create Nichols Reservoir.

Some East Texas critics — ranchers, loggers and environmentalists — say the Marvin Nichols Reservoir plan is a “grandiose project” with too many environmental, financial and social costs. And they demand that Texas Water Development Board officials force Region C to remove the proposed lake, now estimated to cost $3.4 billion to construct, from their proposed water plan.

Bill Ward owns Ward Timber in Linden, a small community in northeast Texas. He said the lake will have a negative impact on the local economy, including a paper mill that employs 2,000 people and relies on the area’s hardwood. He estimated a loss of $100 million to the local economy if the reservoir is built.

Ward Timber and other northeast Texas landowners took the Texas Water Development Board to court in January. They won in the lower courts, and the appellate court upheld the lower court’s decision, ruling in favor of the landowners and told the TWDB to resolve the inter-regional conflict.

The water development board staff has warned that population growth means the need for much more water in the next 50 years.

“To remove Marvin Nichols from the [Region C] plan would leave a substantial unmet need in water supply by 2060, as many as 141 municipalities, communities and water suppliers would be affected,” Kevin Patterson, the water board’s executive administrator, wrote on May 19.

Max Shumake, a longtime northeast Texas resident, is retired from the military and lives on his family farm. He estimates that 14,000 acres of his property would be affected by construction of the reservoir.

He spends his retirement cutting timber, fishing and doing all the things he grew up enjoying. But he’s also been battling the proposed reservoir for more than 13 years.

“We kind of feel like the Israelis right now,” Shumake said, “and what it’s done is disrupted the lives of thousands of people with that hammer hanging over their heads — ‘We’re going to take your land, your livelihood.’”

Shumake said Region C has options other than building the reservoir. Conservation efforts could be improved, and existing lakes could be dredged out to make them deeper and less prone to evaporation, he said.

“We’re kind of surprised that Gov. Perry had such a fit when the federal government wanted 90,000 acres from the Red River,” Shumake said, “but 125,000 acres [of timberland in northeast Texas] seems to be OK.”

Another major concern, according to the National Wildlife Federation Action Fund, is what happens when the water floods several family cemeteries or historic American Indian sites and endangers black bears, a species once common in the East Texas area.

The federal government also has its view.

“The service doesn’t have any authority on the decision-making process on this,” said Omar Bocanegra, a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “But wetland habitat and bottomland hardwood are very good resources that we consider high priority for protection. If you flood that kind of area, you don’t get it back.”

The battle between economic development forces in North Texas that want the lake and the northeast Texas residents who are fighting to stop it shows no sign of abating. Both sides know the real question is the impact of drought that seems ever-present in Texas.

“If it doesn’t rain, it doesn’t matter how big of a hole you dug,” Shumake said. “It’s not going to fill.”

CHRISTIAN McPHATE can be reached at 940-566-6878.