North Texas
10:59 am
Fri May 15, 2009

KERA 'Thirsty' Series: The Battle Over Marvin Nichols Reservoir

Dallas, TX – North Texas says it needs new reservoirs to meet future water needs. Opponents say they there are other alternatives. In the fourth part of a series on water availability called "Thirsty", KERA's Shelley Kofler travels to East Texas to report on the battle being waged over the proposed Marvin Nichols Reservoir. This story is part of a larger KERA multimedia project called 'Living with the Trinity', which can be explored online at trinityrivertexas.org.

Sam Baker: Regional water planners say fast-growing North Texas could run out of water within 50 years if we don't increase our supply. Shelley Kofler joins me for the final report in our series, "Thirsty". Shelley, what's the answer?

Shelley Kofler: It's a mixture of many things. North Texas water planners for our 16-county region, Region C, say we'll need to do more to conserve and reuse water, and we'll need to build pipelines to existing lakes; they say we'll also need to build four new reservoirs. The reservoirs would all be in East Texas - Region D - because we've dammed up the available water in our region.

Sam: I can only imagine a lot of East Texans don't like that.

Shelley: Correct. Many feel like big city people are using money and political clout to take rural property we don't really need. Landowner Max Shumake in the Northeast corner of the state certainly feels that way. He took me on a tour as I examined the most hotly debated reservoir project: Marvin Nichols.
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Thirty miles from Mount Pleasant, Max Shumake turns off the two-lane blacktop.

"This is native hardwood timber down in this part of the country," Shumake said.

His pickup rocks side to side along a rutted dirt road as it passes a 19th-century homestead of hand-cut logs, native prairie painted with the first wildflowers of spring and an ancient trailer.

Shumake pulls up at a grassy clearing on the banks of the Sulphur River.

"I guess this is the next thing to heaven right here on earth, you know," he said. "The land on down the river here a ways has been in the family since 1840-1841, something like that. I'm sixth generation, and I've got grandkids. That makes them eighth generation."

In rural East Texas land is sacred, which is why the proposed Marvin Nichols Reservoir is a call to arms for Shumake.

Shumake's family owns some 800 acres of ranch and timber land that will disappear underwater if North Texas utilities are allowed to dam the Sulphur River and flood the area.

"Number one, I oppose it because it takes private property away from long-time Texans," he said. "Number two, I oppose it because it's going to ruin the economy of Northeast Texas. What we have in the timber industry, the cattle industry, farmers and ranchers, that's our big thing."

Marvin Nichols is, by far, the biggest proposed reservoir in the Dallas Fort Worth area's Region C water plan.

The reservoir alone would submerge some 72,000 acres of mostly private property. That's an area more than three times the size of Lake Ray Hubbard near Dallas. The federal government would condemn up to 10 times as many additional acres for what it calls "mitigation" - to make up for the loss of displaced wildlife and submerged habitat.

"This is socioeconomic genocide," Shumake said. "It's going to do away with a whole culture of people when this happens."

Hundreds of East Texas landowners feel the same way. At Tucker's Feed Store, near Omaha, Tommy Tucker says Marvin Nichols would put him out of business.

Tucker: It'll ruin our businesses as far as timber and me selling feed. It'll do away with the cattle people.

Tucker knows what it's like to lose property to a reservoir. The Army Corps of Engineers condemned 700 acres he owned when it built nearby Cooper Lake.

"I had land that I had never cut any timber off of, that I had saved for myself and my kids to have, and the money that I got out of the property, I probably got a third of what it was worth," he said.

Some 5,000 people have signed a petition to fight the dam. Opponents include an unlikely coalition of landowners, timber employees, environmentalists and the official East Texas water planning group known as Region D.

Squaring off against them are North Texas's Region C water planners, and a group of East Texas civic leaders who believe the reservoir would bring growth to rural communities. Tyson Abston is a bank president in Mount Pleasant.

"Our area needs water, but we cannot afford to fund a project anywhere close to the Marvin Nichols project. It's a billion (dollar)-plus project. In Clarksville, for instance, they're drilling wells for water. Mount Pleasant has water, but for our long-term prospects we need more water. All these communities need water long-term to attract industry to attract jobs.

"We are going to have to develop a water resource in the future. The question is who pays for it."

Abston says North Texas water providers have offered to pay for the reservoir in exchange for access to 80 percent of its water. East Texas could buy the other 20 percent for its residents.

Marvin Nichols opponents say that might be OK if North Texas really needs all that water and has no alternatives, but opponents claim the Dallas-Fort Worth area wastes water. They point to a Texas Water Development Board study that ranked the 40 largest Texas cities in the order of per capita-water use. North Texas' Richardson, Dallas, and Plano ranked 1, 2, and 3. The Sierra Club's state director Ken Kramer says that indicates waste. Kramer claims, too, that Region C has inflated the amount of water it says it will need. The Region C plan calls for 22 percent more than projected demand.

"It's not a bad thing to have a little bit more water than you really need, as a margin of safety," Kramer said. "The question is, how big does that margin of safety have to be before you are building an expensive water project that is going to cost the rate payers and the taxpayers much more than they really need to spend?

"I think the people of North Texas need to ask themselves, is it possible for us to use a little bit less water and avoid building these reservoirs in other parts of the state, where we're flooding people's property, where we're condemning land by eminent domain to take farms and ranches that have been in families for generations?"

That kind of talk makes Region C Chairman Jim Parks bristle. He says North Texas isn't asking for more than it needs and it's doing a good job conserving.

"We've saved 10 percent to 15 percent or reduced our water demand by that amount each year for the last five years, and that's continuing to be the reduction that we're seeing now," he said.

Even so, Parks says conservation alone won't be enough to quench the thirst of the growing metroplex. And he says the idea North Texas can just use more from existing reservoirs isn't realistic. Parks says existing lakes wouldn't provide as much water as Marvin Nichols or their water would cost a lot more.

"The projects that are listed as alternatives are the projects that are the farthest distance from me and are the highest costs," he said.

Is it choice between North Texans paying more for water, or East Texans losing their property? That appears to be part of it.

On the banks of the Sulphur River, there's no question where Max Shumake stands. He's ready to fight Marvin Nichols all the way to the Supreme Court if that's what it takes.

"The fact that some bleeding heart like me don't want to lose their land don't mean nothing to them, but the fact that thousands and thousands around here will lose their jobs and lose the money that's coming into the economy - that will save us, if anything does," he said.
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Sam: It sounds like the battle over Marvin Nichols will be with us for a while.

Shelley: It will. And there's opposition surrounding some of the other proposed reservoirs, too. So I guess the bottom line for the future is that we're going to have to find a balance between how we use water, where we get it and how much we're willing to pay.

Sam: If you're "Thirsty" for more information on this topic go to at kera.org and our new website, trinityrivertexas.org

Email Shelley Kofler