Red River County resident Gary Cheatwood, right, and a reporter walk Cheatwood‘s property in the Sulphur River bottomland. Courtesy of Texas Conservation Alliance.
Aug. 10, 2021
Landowners, business owners and conservationists have joined forces to stop a controversial reservoir from being built in Northeast Texas, saying it will destroy 200,000 acres of private land, including thousands of acres of hardwood forest, heritage farmland and wetlands.
The State Water Plan is updated every five years, with input from 16 regions in Texas.
The plan was approved in July.
Region C, which encompasses the Dallas-Fort Worth area, moved the date of completion of Marvin Nichols from 2070 to 2050, ignoring an agreement in 2015 to keep it off the table for another 50 years.
Region D planners, which represent Northeast Texas, are among the East Texas community members opposing the plan.
“The project would force thousands of Texans to part with their private properties – some of which have been owned in-family since the 1800,” Preserve Northeast Texas said in a press release. “It will devastate local resources and natural habitats in the area primarily so that Dallas-Fort Worth folks can have water to fill their swimming pools and water their lawns.”
DFW’s population is predicted to double, from 7.6 million to 14.7 million in 2070. DFW water planners say the water demand will double as well.
During a July 2020 hearing, Kevin Ward, the general manager of the Trinity River Authority and chairman of the water planning board for the Dallas-Fort Worth area, said the group has pushed up the Marvin Nichols Reservoir to meet DFW's water needs because of population changes since the last state water plan, according to the Longview News-Journal.
But critics of Marvin Nichols Reservoir say, reservoir building is an outdated method for finding more water. They say existing supplies are not being fully used and too much water is being wasted.
"I don't think it's right for Dallas to displace our neighbors in East Texas, when we are not doing enough here for conservation," said Rita Beving, Dallas-based consultant for Public Citizen.
Marvin Nichols Reservoir would flood 66,000 acres of bottomland along the main stem of the Sulphur River. Courtesy of Texas Conservation Alliance.
Janice Bezanson, policy director for the Texas Conservation Alliance and a member of Preserve Northeast Texas, said she has been fighting the Marvin Nichols Reservoir since it was first included in the state water plan in 2001.
While 2050 sounds like a long way off, she fears the timeline change signals that Region C planners are preparing to apply for the two permits they still need.
She said before construction can start, the DFW water planners need a state water rights permit and a 404 permit, which gets its name from section 404 of the Clean Water Act.
The federal permit would be granted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and requires an environmental impact statement, where Bezanson expects there to be considerable pushback.
“There's a huge amount of studies that go into an EIS before you can get a permit for a major reservoir,” said Bezanson. “They look at water pollution, noise pollution, what roads would have to moved, how many houses have to be moved, how many cemeteries have to be inundated, the archaeological impacts it would have – a whole range of things,” said Bezanson.
Thousands of acres of wildlife habitat is under threat from the proposed Marvin Nichols Reservoir. Courtesy of Preserve Northeast Texas.
Anyone who is directly affected by the reservoir can contest it through the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
From an environmental standpoint, Bezanson said that what stands out about this project is its scope and the high quality of the land that would be destroyed.
At 66,000 acres, Marvin Nichols Reservoir would be the fifth largest reservoir in the state, permanently flooding thousands of acres of forested low-lying land along the river.
“The river bottom land is the most productive – second only to estuaries – they’re very rich lands,” said Bezanson.
According to the Texas Living Waters Project which opposes the project, over the past two hundred years, over three-quarters of East Texas’ bottomland forests have been destroyed.
"These wooded wetlands, nurtured by the regular ebb and flow of a free-flowing river, are one of the most biologically diverse ecosystem types in the state. Consequently, the construction of Marvin Nichols would have statewide implications for wildlife habitat, including black bear," says a statement by TLWP on its website.
The Marvin Nichols Reservoir would be the third reservoir on the Sulphur River. Courtesy of Texas Conservation Alliance.
According to Texas Conservation Alliance, under federal law, an additional 130,000 acres is required to be set aside for the disrupted wildlife.
But Bezanson said not only will co-opting the property destroy many people's livelihoods, it won't replicate the land that was flooded, leaving wildlife stranded.
Another point at issue – the project is planned for the main stem of the Sulphur River in Red River and Titus counties.
According to D Magazine, the projected dam would become the third reservoir on the Sulphur River — Jim Chapman Lake to the west, and the much larger Wright Patman Lake downstream near Texarkana — raising questions about whether the river can handle another impoundment.
Texas has around 200 reservoirs.
Before the 1950s, many of the state's major reservoirs were constructed primarily for flood control, with water supply as a secondary benefit, according to the Texas Water Development Board.
By 1950, around 60 reservoirs had been built.
Then the big drought of the 1950s came along. According to the Texas State Library and Archives Commission, the 1950-1957 drought still stands as the “drought of record” for the state.
It triggered a reservoir-building frenzy in Texas over the next 20 years.
Nearly 90 more were built by 1970.
“In that process, a whole industry grew up around building reservoirs,” Bezanson said. “This is an industry comparable to the oil and gas industry.”
Around 40 more were built between 1970-1987. Then according to the Texas Water Development Board, the brakes went on reservoir building in the 1980s.
From the TWDB's History of Reservoir Construction in Texas:
“The slowdown in reservoir construction is due, in part, to the fact that there remain very few viable sites for new major reservoirs, permits are much more difficult to obtain due primarily to environmental concerns, and the cost of construction has gone up faster than the rate of inflation.”
Less than a dozen reservoirs have been built in the last 35 years.
“The slowdown in reservoir construction is due, in part, to the fact that there remain very few viable sites for new major reservoirs, permits are much more difficult to obtain due primarily to environmental concerns, and the cost of construction has gone up faster than the rate of inflation.” - History of Reservoir Construction in Texas, Texas Water Development Board
NEW WATER SOLUTIONS
The East Fork Wetland Project naturally filters water at the John Bunker Wetlands Center then pumps it to Lake Lavon. The system also provides habitat for a variety of wildlife, including a pair of nesting bald eagles. Photo by Julie Thibodeaux.
Environmentalists say there are more creative solutions to providing water than building another reservoir.
“That is the dinosaur methodology of finding more water,” said Public Citizen's Beving.
She said DFW needs to explore state-of-the-art technologies, including aquifer storage, a method used in San Antonio, Kerrville and El Paso. A pilot project is underway in Fort Worth by the Tarrant Regional Water District.
Aquifer storage is a way for water districts to bank water alloted to them that they don't use in a year.
For example, the Tarrant water district is permitted to take 485,000-acre feet of water from two reservoirs per year, but TRWD's current annual demand is only 360,000-acre feet, so there is water supply to spare. The district can’t carry over the 125,000-acre feet of unused water from one year to the next so the idea is to store it underground in naturally occurring geologic formations, in this case the Northern Trinity Aquifer.
“While the ASR program will not replace the District’s eventual need for building a new reservoir, it could postpone its construction for years by allowing the agency to balance, protect and efficiently use its existing water supply,” says TRWD, on its website.
How aquifer storage works. Courtesy of Tarrant Regional Water District.
The East Fork Wetland Project, located at the John Bunker Sands Wetland Center in Seagoville, provides North Texas Municipal Water District with 102,000 acre-feet of water per year. This is the same capacity of water supplied by Lake Lavon.
Completed in 2009, the project diverts water from the East Fork of the Trinity River and polishes it in one of the largest constructed wetlands in the country. After passage through the 2,000-acre wetland, the water is pumped through a pipeline, 43 miles north to Lake Lavon for storage, blending and water supply use.
Watch the Texan by Nature video about the twin wetland projects in North Texas, the George Shannon Wetlands and the East Fork Wetland Project.
In addition, its sister project, the George Shannon Wetlands overseen by the Tarrant Regional Water District, was designed by the same firm and provides the same amount of water.
The twin projects not only provide cheaper alternatives to reservoir building, they provide wildlife habitat. The projects were honored as Conservation Wranglers by Texan By Nature, former First Lady Laura Bush’s nonprofit, in 2018.
“Combined, these two projects can produce almost 200 million gallons of water every day and cost half the cost of the average reservoir,” according to Darrel Andrews, assistant director for Tarrant Regional Water District.
The George Shannon man-made wetland system cost $75 million to construct, according to Treatment Plant Operator Magazine. That’s far less than the estimated $4.4 billion it would cost to build the Marvin Nichols reservoir, as reported by the Star-Telegram.
Opponents to the Marvin Nichols Reservoir say DFW could also offset what it needs for future water use by reining in its water waste.
DFW residents use more water per capita than residents in other Texas cities.
According to the Texas Water Development Board, in 2018, Dallas used 155 gallons per capita daily and Fort Worth, 140. Meanwhile, other major metro areas reported smaller averages – Austin (118), San Antonio (120) and Houston (131).
A lot of that goes to keeping lawns green. A 2012 report by the Texas Water Development Board said Dallas used as much as 40 percent of municipal water for outdoor watering. Fort Worth used 36 percent.
A few pioneering homeowners have switched to xeriscaping but turf-loving suburbanites have not fully embraced the 40-year-old landscaping movement.
Ken Kramer, water resources chair with the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, said if homeowners would simply stop overwatering or watering at the wrong time of day, that would help.
“People don't have to go to a desert landscape in order to save water on landscaping,” said Kramer. “A lot of it is educating people about how much water they need and when's the best time to water.”
Kramer points out that the water loss from leaks in municipal infrastructure is another significant source of water that is being wasting
According to the Texas Living Waters Project's 2020 Texas Water Conservation Scorecard, the cities of Dallas and Fort Worth both reported that 17 percent of the water loss in their distribution systems was due to leaks.
The Texas Living Waters Project also makes the claim that projected water needs may be overestimated. Efficiency and conservation methods have decreased water usage over the years, says the nonprofit, and that will likely continue.
TLWP points out that the 1968 Texas Water Plan projected that by 2020, the total state water requirements would be about 30 million acre-feet per year.
In reality, the 2020 requirements were 17.7 million, around half of what they projected.
“The decrease in estimated water demand levels is the result of continuing reductions in per capita water use through more efficient water fixtures and appliances, enhancements in energy efficiency, and the growing precision of methodologies for projecting future water use,” said TLWP.
Environmentalists say, despite the mounting pressure to build Marvin Nichols, the fight is far from over. Now that landowners, industry and environmentalists have joined forces, together they make a formidable foe.
“The East Texans that live around Marvin Nichols will never stop fighting this reservoir,” said Beving. “It will put lots of valuable timberland and agricultural lands under water. It will displace a lot of wildlife. It will also inundate Caddo Indian mounds and other artifacts, historical cemeteries and historical settler cabins.”
Sierra Club’s Kramer agrees.
“I don't think Marvin Nichols is a done deal,” said Kramer. “They don't have a permit to access that water. So there's a long road ahead.”
“I think maybe one of the reasons that the supporters [of the Marvin Nichols Reservoir] are trying to do this now is to get ahead of some of these other options that are becoming more popular and more credible, like aquifer storage and wastewater recycling," he said. "I think that they see the handwriting on the wall — that these big surface water projects are not going to be in vogue in the future. And if they ever want to build it, they're gonna have to get the authorization pretty soon.”
"I think that they see the handwriting on the wall — that these big surface water projects are not going to be in vogue in the future. And if they ever want to build it, they're gonna have to get the authorization pretty soon.”
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