If officials in Dallas-Fort Worth get their way, some 65,000 acres of resource-rich Northeast Texas land will be flooded, displacing longtime residents and destroying wildlife habitats in the area.
The end goal is to build the Marvin Nichols Reservoir, which is supposed to help provide water to future generations of North Texans as the population continues to swell.
After the Texas Water Development Board approved the state water plan Wednesday, the reservoir is one step closer to becoming a reality. But people opposed to the Marvin Nichols project say the fight isn’t over.
“It would be very hard to get a project approved if it weren’t in the state water plan, but just being in the plan does not mean it’s going to be built,” Janice Bezanson, Texas Conservation Alliance’s senior policy director, said. “Where the rubber hits the road is when the permits are applied for.”
Bezanson has been fighting against the reservoir since efforts to build it picked up in 2001. It was just about half a century after droughts dried out Texas in the 1950s, which set the stage for a reservoir boom in the state.
Once the rain came back, Texas officials began looking at ways to prevent another catastrophic drought in the future. One of the solutions was more reservoirs, and by 1980, over 126 of them had been constructed.
The decades-long debate over the Marvin Nichols Reservoir is back in the spotlight because 16 regions across the state submitted their initial water supply plans which make up the state’s 2022 water plan. The Texas plan will act as a template for the next five decades.
In their plan, Northeast Texas water planners want the project off the table until at least 2070. But DFW water planners want the reservoir to be completed in the 2050s.
Bezanson and a couple of others tried to speak out against the project at the Texas Water Development Board meeting Wednesday, but she said their registrations to speak didn’t go through. “So, there didn’t turn out to be any public comment, although we tried,” she said.
She said they expected the plan to be approved, which only took some 10 minutes. Now, they’re preparing to fight the two permits needed to get the Marvin Nichols project done.
One is a state water rights permit, which would authorize the storing of water in the reservoir to be diverted for specific uses. The other is called a 404 permit because it’s from section 404 of the federal Clean Water Act and is administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. As part of this permit process, an environmental impact statement is created, which will outline all of the different ways the project will affect the proposed site.
"It would be very hard to get a project approved if it weren’t in the state water plan, but just being in the plan does not mean it’s going to be built." - Janice Bezanson, Texas Conservation Alliance
“The real fights will be when those two permits are in process,” Bezanson said. “If they are granted, there will likely be lawsuits.”
After required studies for the project are conducted, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality will put out a draft version of the state water rights permit for the public to review. During that time, anyone can comment on the permit, but those who are directly affected can request a hearing to contest the permit.
“There is absolutely no question that there will be massive requests for contested case hearings when they get to the point of having a draft permit on this project,” she said.
The project is planned for the main stem of the Sulphur River in Red River and Titus counties. Under federal law, an additional 130,000 acres of private land is required to be set aside for the disrupted wildlife. So, the reservoir would remove nearly 200,000 acres from private land owners’ hands in Northeast Texas.
Bazanson said the land loss would have severely harm the local economy, which relies heavily on agriculture and lumber.
She said they are planning a town hall sometime next week to hear more thoughts on the project and to discuss next steps.
When Northeast Texas community members turned out for a regional water planning meeting last year, they all spoke in opposition to the reservoir, according to the Longview News-Journal. Red River County’s Robert Holt said, “We feel like we’re being treated sort of like the Indians.”