U.S. House Gives North Texas Municipal Water District the OK to Import Zebra Mussels Into Texas

The North Texas Municipal Water District, which serves 1.6 million people in Plano and a dozen northern and eastern suburbs, took a major hit in 2009 when zebra mussels were discovered in Lake Texoma. It's a federal crime to transport the highly invasive bivalves across state lines and, because seven of the water district's eight pump stations are in Oklahoma, the district was cut off from more than a quarter of its water supply.

How all but one of the district's pumps came to be in Oklahoma when they were all built in Texas is a complicated story involving a decades-old border dispute between the states settled around 2000. As a result of the settlement, the state line was moved a couple of hundred feet, or just enough to put the district in violation of federal law when zebra mussels were discovered in the lake, said district deputy director Mike Rickman.

Three years on, the water district is hard at work to restore its lost supply. Right now, it's spending $300 million -- and upping water rates by 12 to 15 percent -- to build a 46-mile pipeline from Texoma that connects directly to its water plant near Lake Lavon rather than into a creek upstream. There's a hangup, though: The project still involves transporting zebra mussel-laden water from Oklahoma to Texas.

At the end of June, U.S. Representative Ralph Hall of Rockwall, with an assist by Representatives Pete Sessions of Dallas and Sam Johnson of Plano, introduced the North Texas Zebra Mussel Barrier Act which, despite its name, would actually remove one very specific barrier by exempting NTMWD from the Lacey Act, the 1981 law barring the inter-state transport of the mollusks. The exemption, per Hall's bill, would apply to any water transfer "using only closed conveyance systems from the Lake Texoma raw water intake structure to treatment facilities at which all zebra mussels are extirpated and removed from the water transferred."

The idea that the zebra mussels can actually be safely contained during their 46-mile journey and scrubbed from the water without contaminating Lake Lavon is an untested hypothesis. Jim Schutze, among others, is skeptical.

Not that it matters. The zebra mussels are here, and we may as well get used to bowing to our bivalved overlords. Plus, the House debated and passed the North Texas Zebra Mussel Barrier Act yesterday.

New Jersey Congressman Rush Holt expressed hesitance, but not much.

"I do want to emphasize that zebra mussels are pernicious and insidious," he testified. "I am loathe, and I think many of my colleagues are loathe, to weaken or seek exemption from the Lacey Act, which controls invasive species. However, Texas needs access to this water, and the aforementioned entities have a comprehensive plan for ensuring, we are told, that these water transfers will not cause zebra mussels to spread."

The bill still has to be approved by the Senate, but even then the water district plans on moving ahead with its pipeline. It purchased $100 million worth of pipe in June and plans to have the whole thing up and running by fall 2013. If for some reason the Senate doesn't pass the bill, Rickman expects the district will be able to secure non-prosecution agreements from relevant federal agencies that will allow water to be pumped from Oklahoma.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Eric Nicholson
Contact: Eric Nicholson