Reservoir plans catching heat: Public meetings seeking resident input

Published on Saturday, 15 March 2014 22:32 - Written by Adam Russell arussell@tylerpaper.com

Gary Cheatwood’s family has farmed within the Sulphur River basin for five generations, but plans for a reservoir could put their familial land under water.

Urban planners see Marvin Nichols Reservoir as an option for a long-term water supply as populations in Dallas/Fort Worth grow. Many rural landowners, including Cheatwood, view the reservoir as a land and water grab by urbanized areas that have the votes and the money to take it.

“They can expect a fight all the way,” he said. “I’ve told them this land is not for sale at any price.”

Cheatwood and others want the state and metropolitan water districts to consider other options they said would be less expensive and intrusive. The reservoir’s footprint could be more than a quarter million acres, which has Cheatwood and other landowners mobilizing against it.

Pro-reservoir groups, including the utility districts Marvin Nichols would feed, are seeking support and touting its economic benefits for East Texas.

Recent mediation efforts failed between Water Planning Group Region C, which represents Dallas/Fort Worth, and Region D, which represents 19 rural counties, including counties affected by the reservoir’s proposed footprint. Region C wants the reservoir to remain part of its long-term water plan, while Region D wants it scrapped.

The water dispute between urban and rural regions could mean trouble for water planners anxious to increase Texas’ water infrastructure.

Texas legislators and statewide voters recently breathed life into the Texas Water Development Board by approving a $2 billion State Water Implementation Fund for Texas to help expedite water projects. But planning and constructing reservoirs take decades and are subject to scrutiny from federal and state governments and the constituents they affect.

 

URBAN VERSUS RURAL

Marvin Nichols Reservoir’s proposed location is in northern Franklin, Titus and Morris counties and juts into Bowie County. The bulk of flooded land would be in Red River County.

The 75,000-acre, $3.4 billion (latest cost estimate) reservoir has been a part of the state’s water plan since 1968, but a recent squabble between two Texas Water Development Board planning groups has intensified the discussion among water haves-and-have-nots.

The Water Development Board recently opened a public comment period regarding the reservoir’s place on the Region C water plan. The board has the final say on the matter.

Spokeswoman Merry Klonower said there is a misconception that Marvin Nichols’ place on the state water plan means it would be built. She emphasized the reservoir represents a long-term option in Region C’s plan to meet projected population demands during the next 50 years.

If Region C removes the lake from its 50-year plan, it must replace the project with another option that provides the same volume of water, she said, or risk not qualifying for the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas dollars.

“It’s a planning document, and it doesn’t carry any weight with regard to the regulatory or feasibility and environmental,” she said.

Ms. Klonower said an ongoing Sulphur River Basin Feasibility study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could produce information that will determine the projects future.

For now, the water development board is collecting public comments and preparing to hold two public meetings, one in Region C and one in Region D, to discuss the project with concerned residents.

The future of Marvin Nichols’ place within the state water plan could spill over to other projects, including Lake Columbia, which is in the Region I water plan. At least half of Lake Columbia’s water rights are promised to Dallas/Fort Worth.

Bret McCoy, the president of the Region D Water Planning Group, said he wants to work with Region C but that urban water wants/needs come at too high a price for East Texans.

The footprint of the reservoir would far exceed the 75,000 flooded acres because the Clean Water Act requires “mitigation” or that acreage be set aside for natural habitat. In Marvin Nichols case, mitigation could mean a minimum of 225,000 acres be set aside for habitat flooded.

Those acres represent losses of bottomland timber, including hardwoods, generational farms and cow-calf operations, McCoy said.

“I will always work with Region C to find the water they want or need but I would never advocate anything that would benefit our region that would take 10 percent of the jobs in the Metroplex,” he said.

 

GROWING PAINS

North Texas Municipal Water District Executive Director Jim Parks said Region D members have stymied the process that would determine whether the basin represents the most viable option.

Parks said Marvin Nichols was a “focus” of urban water developers based on initial support by past Region D members. Current members’ opposition caused planners to shift their focus to other options within and outside the Sulphur River basin.

“The problem is we don’t have enough information to make an intelligent decision on whether it should stay part of the plan or not,” Parks said.

Any show of support by Region D could ease access to studying the basin’s potential.

Parks said there are only a few landowners with sentimental ties to bottomland and that he believes a “silent majority” support the lake because of what it represents to underdeveloped rural counties. He said creating lakefront property would create millionaires overnight and boost economic growth in surrounding towns.

Landowners would receive fair market value for land and the 20 percent share of Marvin Nichols’ water would come without East Texas investment, he said.

Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, said timber mitigation has been and would continue to be the sticking point. Eltife said the proposed 80/20 split benefits Dallas/Fort Worth and that the reservoir’s footprint would decimate thousands of acres of timber, which would cost rural county tax rolls and jobs.

Eltife said the reservoir’s footprint would decimate thousands of acres.

“I have to see where we get,” he said. “I’ve talked to both sides. Paying for it and the acres of timberland affected will be sticking points because those losses would be harmful to counties in my district.”

McCoy said the state is not looking at other options, which he believes would increase the state’s water capacity, cost less and wouldn’t affect landowners — raising existing reservoir levels.

Wright Patman, Toledo Bend are two existing lakes McCoy said could be improved to increase water volumes without major disruptions to habitat and surrounding landowners.

“Dallas says it’s too expensive but you can’t put a price on fair,” he said.

Parks said he doesn’t know if Marvin Nichols will ever be built, but he is certain the state’s population will continue to grow. Water developers are looking at all options, but having them available in a 50-year-plan, including all options within the Sulphur River basin, is necessary to meet projected population needs, he said.

In 1951, the North Texas Municipal Water District served 32,500 customers. Today it serves more than 1.6 million.

Within 50 years that number is projected to be 3.8 million customers, Parks said.

“People are coming to North Texas and East Texas whether we like it or not,” Parks said. “We can either plan for that and be prepared or not.”