Water or Woods?
Proposed Marvin Nichols Reservoir would submerge hardwood bottomland to provide water for the Dallas/Fort Worth area.
By Henry Chappell
The Sulphur River rises where Delta, Hopkins, Franklin, Lamar and Red River counties meet at the junction of the North and South Sulphur. Here, blackland prairie officially changes to post oak savannah, though a thoughtful observer may notice another transition.
Bending north and then east, winding through bottomlands covered in white oak, pecan, hickory and ash, the Sulphur leaves behind what might be called the beginnings of the West to nourish a culture and landscape that belong to the South.
Here, in the 1840s, pioneers found a well-watered and timbered country that no doubt reminded them of their old homes. Today, many of their descendants still live on the land, raising livestock, logging, hunting and fishing.
Any native of Kentucky or Tennessee will instantly recognize the local lilt and dialect. The small, tight-knit communities share a long history of struggle, from Civil War violence and dissent through ecological and economic calamity caused by outside forces and, at times, the fight to survive and prosper.
Like most rural areas, the Sulphur country has its local rifts and grudges, some of them old and deep. But on one issue, many residents of Omaha and De Kalb, Naples and other small communities near the river are uniting. It is an issue that joins farmers, loggers, hunters, real estate agents, the Sierra Club and Texas Conservation Alliance (formerly the Texas Committee on Natural Resources) against urban planners and leaders trying to ensure the continued economic growth of their own region.
The issue is water. Northeast Texas has it in relative abundance. The drier urban and suburban Dallas-Fort Worth area, many believe, may run out of it. Some also argue that the Dallas region’s economic contribution to Texas gives them a right to it.
If the proposed project is completed, 67,000 acres of hardwood bottomland, all of it private property, will be taken under eminent domain and submerged beneath a reservoir that will supply water to a growing Metroplex.
By law, additional lands — as much as 163,500 acres by some estimates — could be set aside to mitigate the loss of high-quality wildlife habitat.
Engineers have identified three potential sites, two on the Sulphur River and one on White Oak Creek, a tributary of the Sulphur.
Max Shumake, alleged “radical environmentalist,” founder and unofficial leader of local grassroots opposition to Marvin Nichols Reservoir, showed up for lunch at the Diamond J. Grill, wearing clashing camouflage pants, T-shirt and cap. No one seemed to notice.
Shumake’s roots in the Sulphur River country go back five generations. His sister Shirley lives in the family home place, a dog-trot, board and bat house built around 1910 by their grandfather, Alfred Latimer Shumake.
They could lose several hundred acres to the reservoir.
In 2002, the brother and sister formed the Sulphur River Oversight Society (SOS), a group of local landowners, business people and activists dedicated to fighting the reservoir project.
Between bites of cheeseburger, Shumake said, “I told Shirley we could fight this thing and they might still end up building a lake. But if we don’t fight it, they’ll build a lake for sure.”
Shumake lobbied neighbors, friends, anyone who’d listen. Texas Conservation Alliance, National Wildlife Federation and the Sierra Club offered organizational and public relations support. By 2005, a few e-mails and phone calls would pack a public meeting or senate conference room with well-informed SOS members.
“We’ve had our differences around here, but this fight has brought family, friends and community back together,” Shumake said.
In response to the 1954–56 “drought of record,” the Texas Legislature created the Texas Water Development Board and voters approved a constitutional amendment authorizing issuance of $200 million in bonds to fund water development.
For the first 40 years of TWDB’s existence, water planning was a top-down affair. Agencies took a broad view of water needs and proposed solutions, primarily reservoirs. In 1950, Texas had 66 major reservoirs. By 1998, there were 196.
In 1997, after another yearlong drought, the 75th Legislature passed Senate Bill 1, which designated 16 regional groups to plan for the state’s water needs over the next 50 years. Plans are updated on a five-year basis and submitted to the Water Development Board for approval and inclusion in the State Water Plan.
In theory, this approach fosters grassroots water planning. Each regional group, composed of about 20 members representing the region’s stakeholders — agriculture, business, water development, industry, environmental and others — ensures that their region’s needs are met and their resources are protected.
Critics contend that some of the planning groups are self-electing boards dominated by representatives of water and urban business interests with little regard for rural and environmental concerns.
The Region C Water Planning Area includes 16 North Texas Counties, with Dallas-Fort Worth at its center. The Region D Water Planning area is largely rural and encompasses all or parts of 19 counties in Northeast Texas, including the proposed Marvin Nichols Reservoir sites.
In its 2006 Water Plan, the Region C Planning Group recommended construction of the reservoir as a water management strategy to be implemented by 2030.
The Region D Planning Group did not. Their plan states that in recommending construction of the reservoir, Region C fails to adequately protect the state’s water, agricultural and natural resources.
Therein lies the heart of the conflict; and it’s not merely a fight between preservationists who oppose dams on principle and water developers who want to build reservoirs. Rather, it’s a battle over whether or not a region’s right to protect its own resources — including wildlife, rural communities, local culture and economy — should be secondary to urban interests.
Region C planners have good reason to be worried about water. Planners believe the region’s population could grow 98 percent, to over 13 million, by 2060.
According to a 2004 Texas Water Development Board survey, Dallas had an average water use of 238 gallons per capita per day (GPCD) compared to the statewide average of 173 GPCD. Some of the suburbs used even more. In contrast, San Antonio boasts an average of 140 GPCD. The 2007 State Water Plan projects the GPCD for Dallas will increase to 256 gallons per person per day by 2060.
National Wildlife Federation calculations, which compare winter consumption to peak summer consumption, indicate that during the height of summer, as much as 55 percent of Dallas’ water goes for outside use — swimming pools, lawns and landscaping.
The 2006 Region C Water Plan estimates that the region used 1.4 million acre-feet of water in 2000 and, accounting for growth, will need 3.3 million acre-feet in 2060.
The plan’s $13.2 billion strategy calls for three new impoundments in addition to Marvin Nichols: Fastrill Reservoir on the Neches River in Anderson and Cherokee Counties, Lower Bois d’Arc Creek Reservoir in Fannin County, and Ralph Hall Lake on the Sulphur River in Fannin County.
Including currently available supplies, conservation measures and connection to existing supplies, the plan provides 4.1 million acre-feet per year — about 20 percent more than the projected 2060 need. While this overage provides a safety margin against unexpected population growth and unprecedented drought, it’s also roughly equivalent to the amount of water that would be provided by the four new reservoirs.
According to investigations by Texas Conservation Alliance, Lake Wright Patman, located downstream from the proposed Marvin Nichols Reservoir site, could supply an additional 300,000 to 500,000 acre-feet per year if some of its flood storage capacity were allocated to water supply.
TCA also believes that Lake Texoma, on the Texas-Oklahoma border, could provide Region C an additional 800,000 acre-feet per year. Though some desalination would be required, a study by Austin firm HDR Engineering concluded that, given the lake’s proximity to the Dallas area and even with the high price of pipelines, the process could be achieved at a cost comparable to or less than construction of another big reservoir.
Likewise, according to TCA, Toledo Bend and Sam Rayburn could provide hundreds of thousands more acre-feet of water than the amounts allocated to those reservoirs in the Region C Plan. With desalination, the Brazos River could provide a few hundred thousand acre-feet to the Fort Worth suburbs.
Janice Bezanson, executive director of TCA is quick to point out that Region C planners assumed an average water use of 197 GPCD when calculating future needs. “Even the most trivial conservation effort will get the Metroplex well below that,” she says.
Jim Parks, executive director of North Texas Municipal Water District and chairman of the Region C Planning Group, agrees that conservation is key to any responsible water strategy but doubts that conservation alone will be enough.
“If we’re going to double our population, we need all the conservation strategies we can get people to comply with voluntarily,” he says. “I’m being asked to plan for conservation, but I have no authority to make it occur.”
Although he agrees that Wright Patman and other reservoirs could supply additional water, Parks believes that maintaining lakes at near flood level could damage surrounding upland habitat and impact stream flows.
And he remains unconvinced that desalination of large quantities of Lake Texoma water is a viable approach at present. “We’re constantly looking at it,” he says. “If somebody gets it figured out, I need to be talking to him.”
Marvin Nichols Reservoir does have supporters in Northeast Texas. Tommy Spruill, executive director of Titus County Freshwater Supply District 1, believes his region needs the additional water. “All of our water is currently under contract,” he says. “We have enough to maintain status quo, but we’re growing, and when some industry wants to move in and needs several thousand acre-feet of water, we don’t have it. We could do something on our own, but why would we want to do that if somebody else is willing to pay the full cost of building a lake?”
According to Rollin MacRae, TPWD’s Wetland Conservation Program team leader, Texas had lost 63 percent of its hardwood bottomlands to logging, reservoir construction and other activities by 1980.
“When we’re looking at impacts from large projects such as reservoirs, we consider any bottomland in East Texas threatened,” MacRae says.
Theoretically, the wildlife habitat loss caused by Marvin Nichols Reservoir would be mitigated by acquisition of a greater amount of high-quality habitat, which would then be managed and protected. But Tom Cloud, a field supervisor with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, doubts there will be enough bottomland left in the Sulphur River basin.
“If we can’t find it there, we’ll just keep moving out,” he says. “It’s going to be extremely hard to find anything of this magnitude and quality.”
Most likely, mitigation will be accomplished by acquiring and intensively managing a much greater amount of lower-quality habitat. As an example, the Corps of Engineers mitigated wildlife habitat loss from construction of 23,000-acre Jim Chapman Lake (formerly Cooper Lake) by acquiring 40,000 acres of private property — lands that now make up Cooper and White Oak Creek Wildlife Management Areas.
Except for military service during World War II, bachelor brothers Seaby and Olen Love — the Love boys — have lived their lives hunting, fishing, trapping, logging and running stock in the Sulphur River basin. They could lose their farm to Marvin Nichols Reservoir.
I sat with them in their living room as the late-afternoon sun lighted walls paneled by wood the boys cut in the river bottom. Seaby, the younger of the two, did most of the talking. Olen added sparse commentary, mostly for emphasis.
“I’ve never drawed a check and never worked at a public job,” Seaby said. “But we’ve caught a right smart number of coons, and cut some timber, and one year we raised 700 hogs.”
“It’s all we know to do,” Olen said. He nodded out the front door. “Our mother and daddy are buried right over here in this graveyard, and that’s where we want to be buried. This reservoir will be the ruination of this country.” Ruination might be a little hard to mitigate.
Texas Water Development Board, <www.twdb.state.tx.us>
Region C Water Planning Group, <www.regioncwater.org>
Sulphur River Basin Authority, <www.sulphurriverbasinauthority.org>
Northeast Texas Water Coalition, <www.waterfortomorrow.org/mission.htm>
Texas Conservation Alliance (formerly the Texas Committee on Natural Resources), <www.tconr.org>
National Wildlife Federation, <www.nwf.org>
Lone Star Chapter, Sierra Club, <www.texas.sierraclub.org>
Historic Sulphur River, <www.sulphurriver.net>