North Texas is closer to building ‘devastating’ reservoir. Residents are fighting back

Amid outspoken opposition, North Texas is a step closer to building the controversial Marvin Nichols Reservoir — a $4.4 billion project that would consume thousands of resource-rich acres in northeast Texas and provide billions of gallons of water to the Dallas-Fort Worth area each year.

But the effort to prevent its construction is still very much alive, according to the leaders of Preserve Northeast Texas, a coalition that launched in June with the goal of preventing Marvin Nichols from upending the lives of residents who have owned land in the region for generations.

“This project would have a devastating effect on our economy, drowning resources for our timber and agriculture-based economy,” Bill Ward, the owner of Ward Timber Company, said last month. “It would also impact the area’s wildlife habitat and inundate archaeological and historic sites and cemeteries, capturing thousands of acres of family lands.”

In addition to 66,000 acres that would be flooded to create the reservoir in Red River County, the state would have to acquire at least 130,000 more acres to mitigate the loss of wildlife habitat and meet federal requirements, according to the coalition.

That prospect doesn’t sit well with landowners or business owners who have actively worked to stop Marvin Nichols since at least 2001, according to Janice Bezanson, senior policy director for the Texas Conservation Alliance.

“We want to make sure that the proponents of this understand that the opposition is still there, and it’s still fierce,” Bezanson, a coalition leader, said in an interview. “I think it is the opposition of the local people that caused this not to be built 20 years ago.”

Five-year plan includes Marvin Nichols

On Wednesday, members of the Texas Water Development Board voted unanimously to adopt the 2022 State Water Plan, a blueprint that is created every five years through submissions from 16 regional groups.

North Texas water planners included the reservoir on their list of strategies, with an expected completion of Marvin Nichols during the 2050s. Officials in Northeast Texas wanted the reservoir delayed until at least 2070, which would stall the Dallas-Fort Worth region’s ability to apply for state and federal permits.

DFW officials agreed to postpone consideration of Marvin Nichols in 2015, but changed course for the 2022 water plan due to rapid population growth and unfavorable prospects for some of the region’s other water resource strategies, according to J. Kevin Ward, general manager of the Trinity River Authority.

Ward, the chair of the DFW regional planning group, told the Star-Telegram last year that conservation efforts and improved water reuse projects will not reduce demand enough to eliminate the need for a new reservoir.

“We would have hoped, just like everyone else would, that we could conserve our way out of building any new projects,” Ward said. “No one wants to build a project if they don’t have to. We need the water for the Metroplex for it to continue to grow according to population projections, and we represent probably 30% of the economic activity in the state of Texas.”

The state’s population is expected to explode by 73 percent over the next 50 years, from 29.7 million in 2020 to 51.5 million in 2070, according to water board estimates. That will lead to a total water demand increase of 9 percent.

“Adopting this new state water plan is a tremendous accomplishment for Texas,” Brooke Paup, chairwoman of the Texas Water Development Board, said in a statement. “The plan provides a clear and credible path to address the state’s long-term water needs while protecting its growing economy and population.”

Sixty-two people submitted public comments to the water board opposing the reservoir in the 2022 plan, suggesting there are other options Texas “can use to meet future water supplies,” according to an agency document. In its response to those comments, the water board said the decision of whether to recommend Marvin Nichols or any other strategy lies with the regional groups and not with the board itself.

“The TWDB encourages commenters to direct their concerns on water management strategies to regional water planning groups,” the response reads.

‘Pressure’ campaign to prevent reservoir

The approval of the 2022 plan opens the door for DFW officials to begin the process of permit applications, both to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which builds most reservoirs in the state.

“It would be difficult to get a project approved that was not in the water plan,” Bezanson said. “But being in the water plan does not in any way mean that it’s going to happen for sure. That decision is made through the permitting process.”

Wayne Owen, the former planning director for the Tarrant Regional Water District, told the Star-Telegram last year that obtaining a federal permit can take anywhere from 15 to 25 years thanks to required evaluations of environmental impact and viability, among other issues.

That application process will include opportunities for Northeast Texas residents to argue that Marvin Nichols would lead to grave consequences for wildlife habitat and people living in the region, which includes cities like Longview and Texarkana.

Anyone directly affected by the reservoir, including business owners, could apply for a contested case hearing through the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Bezanson said. The hearing is similar to a civil trial in state district court. There is not a formal hearing process for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but members of the public have the chance to review drafts of the permit and suggest revisions, Bezanson said.

Bezanson and other coalition members hope to avoid the permit process entirely by convincing North Texas water planners to back away from Marvin Nichols. Reservoirs are necessary for water storage, she said, but the region should invest more in recycling and reuse of municipal water supplies.

“All the water that goes down the drain in our homes and businesses is captured and taken to wastewater treatment plants,” Bezanson said. “Instead of putting it immediately back into the creek, you can take it and do advanced purification and take out excess nutrients, even bacteria and viruses, and put it back into the water supply and reuse it.”

Dan Buhman, now the general manager of the Tarrant Regional Water District, said last summer that reuse and conservation projects are no match for the sheer amount of water that Marvin Nichols could provide.

The district would bear at least $2.36 billion in costs for Marvin Nichols and receive about 54.6 billion gallons per year. Twenty percent of the reservoir’s production is reserved for Northeast Texas, according to the DFW regional group’s plan.

Bezanson is still optimistic that the coalition can gain enough momentum to create “stumbling blocks” for Marvin Nichols, starting with engaging residents about how they can get involved. On Tuesday, members of Preserve Northeast Texas’ steering committee are hosting a town hall in Cuthand with the goal of doing just that.

“Obviously, the Dallas-Fort Worth area has more people and more political clout than Northeast Texas,” she said. “Nonetheless, people are very, very strongly opposed to it and that is always going to be a factor. I’m hoping that pressure can be made, if they don’t choose to back off, they will be forced to back off.”