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Texas’ Thirst for Dams Bucks National Trend

• August 04, 2011 • 4:00 AM

North Texas, the fastest-growing region in the fastest-growing state in the nation, has a growing demand for water. While the rest of the U.S. is tearing down decaying dams, Texas wants some dam water.

When Richard Donovan saw the Lufkin Daily News on Dec. 14, 1998, a front-page story took him completely by surprise. It showed three proposed dams slicing across his beloved Neches River, a 416-mile, sediment-rich waterway in East Texas, where he grew up catching catfish on trotlines. The newspaper depicted Fastrill Dam across the upper Neches, Rockland Dam in the middle and Town Bluff Dam — which already existed but would be raised — on the lower river.

That can’t be, Donovan thought. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had listed the upper Neches as a “priority one” conservation area in 1985, even proposing it as a possible national wildlife refuge. Each of these dams would drown bottomland hardwood forests lining the river’s edge, which grow lush with oaks, elms, pecans, hackberries and hickories. Texas had already lost more than 75 percent of its bottomland hardwood forests.

The next year, Donovan — at age 65 — paddled 235 miles of the river to raise awareness. He devoted the next decade of his life to saving the Neches, writing a book, Paddling the Wild Neches, and joining forces with other conservation-minded folk. In June 2006, their efforts paid off when FWS Director Dale Hall approved the 25,281-acre Neches River National Wildlife Refuge in the same basic footprint as the proposed Fastrill reservoir.

The refuge became official when FWS accepted a 1-acre land donation from Jim and Annie Yount. Annie’s great-grandfather bought himself out of slavery after the Civil War; the family has lived in the region since.

Then the real trouble started.

The city of Dallas and the Texas Water Development Board, with the support of Gov. Rick Perry, sued not only the federal government, but also the Younts, in order to stop the refuge so the Fastrill Dam could proceed. Ironically, they used the National Environmental Protection Act of 1969 — one of the nation’s top environmental laws — claiming FWS did not adequately consider the environmental or economic impacts of the refuge.

As he fought against the dam, Donovan was labeled a “radical environmentalist,” a sobriquet that puzzles him.

Donovan is a Bible-believing, retired real estate agent who grew up in these parts, a man who got riled at the thought of government taking people’s land by eminent domain, damming the river then shipping its water to satisfy the high water consumption of big cities — something that rural East Texans would continue fighting against in a David vs. Goliath battle for the foreseeable future.

“It doesn’t offend me; it just doesn’t fit,” he wrote in his book of the tag he’d received. “Radicals, to me, do radical things, such as poison the water and air, eradicate hardwoods and destroy wildlife habitat.”

Lone Ranger
While the rest of the nation is tearing down decaying dams to restore historic river flows, Texas is planning new ones. According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ National Inventory of Dams, of approximately 75,000 dams higher than 6 feet in the U.S., no state exceeds Texas and its 7,173. The nation’s largest state, Alaska, has 96; its most populous, California, has 1,468; and one of its rainiest, Florida, has 892. Despite having only one natural lake (Caddo), today Texas has 4,790 square miles of surface water, rivaling Minnesota — the Land of 10,000 Lakes — which has 4,800 square miles.

Texas Bucks National Trend in Push for Dams

A peaceful view of Steinhagen Lake in Texas, along the Neches River. This area is near where one of three dams would be raised, flooding bottomland hardwood forests, like this one. (Wendee Holtcamp)

Dam building began in earnest in the U.S. during the Great Depression to spur economic growth. The 1930s Dust Bowl boosted public support for the pricey projects, and dam building exploded in the 1950s and 1960s. But dams have a shelf life, particularly small to medium-sized ones. According to FEMA, by 2020, 85 percent of smaller dams in the U.S. will be older than 50 years, the average life expectancy of a dam. Dams that have overstayed their welcome are being demolished, rather than risk catastrophic failure. In the U.S., that happened most recently in 1976 at the Teton Dam in Idaho, which followed the failure of China’s Banqiao Dam a year before that killed 171,000 people.

According to the nonprofit American Rivers, more than 450 dams have been removed in the U.S. since 1999 — notably the Savage Rapids and Marmot Dams in Oregon, the Lewiston Dam in Idaho, as well as several in Pennsylvania and Michigan. The group estimates a majority of the removals are for ecological restoration; the biggest removal in the nation is scheduled for mid-September on Washington’s Elwha River, which will return historic salmon runs to tribal lands.

American Rivers says on its website: “We have learned a lot in the past twenty years about the many impacts dams have on rivers, and we have learned many alternatives to damming rivers. … It is unlikely that we will reverse ourselves and decide to build more dams.” Apparently, Texas didn’t get the memo.

Eye on the Future
The lawsuit to stop the Neches River National Wildlife Refuge remained in litigation for two years. In February 2010, it reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which dismissed the appeal. Fastrill Dam and Reservoir was dead in the water; the refuge could open. While Donovan and others rejoiced, the fevered battle between big-city water needs and rural nature continued. The two other proposed dam projects on the Neches — plus 23 on- and off-channel reservoirs of varying sizes on other rivers and creeks — remain in the works.

Like many other states, Texas has engaged in long-range water planning mandated by the state legislature since 1997, bringing the process squarely in the public eye. The state is divided into 16 Regional Water Planning groups (North Texas is Region C), and every five years, businesses, conservation groups, politicians and citizens from each region create a plan to determine where their water will come from for the next 10, 20 and 50 years.

Water for the future could come mostly from groundwater, existing surface water, new reservoirs, piping water from one region to another, water conservation and reuse (taking previously used “gray water” and treating it). Newly proposed reservoirs have proven the most controversial, and the North Texas region’s water waste, profligate growth and desire to dam rivers far away from the city has made them a popular target for criticism.

“Dallas-Fort Worth and the suburban areas north of there, that part of the state is driving the train of surface water development,” says Janice Bezanson, director of Texas Conservation Alliance, a National Wildlife Federation affiliate. The 2011 North Texas water plan contains four new major reservoirs, all in areas of conservation importance: Marvin Nichols and Ralph Hall on the Sulphur River, one on Lower Bois D’Arc Creek, and an as-yet-undesignated “Fastrill replacement” reservoir. Most conservation concern now falls on Marvin Nichols, on the Sulphur River. Deep in East Texas, the Sulphur is a meandering river that runs through mature forests containing at least 13 of the largest individual trees of their species in the state, according to Texas Forest Service. The reservoir, if approved, will be twice the size that Fastrill would have been.

As the fastest-growing area in the fastest-growing state in the country, North Texas predicts its population will reach 13 million by 2060, surpassing even the Houston region. They insist they need that dam water. But do they?

Robbing Peter so Paul (or Ross Perot) Can Water His Lawn
Many from outside the Lone Star State imagine it as one scorched, tumbleweed-rolling desert, but rainfall increases dramatically as one heads east — and along with it, the height of the trees. In the west, the scrubby Chihuahuan Desert stretches into Mexico, while some 44-60 inches of rain falls in East Texas annually, sustaining tall pine-hardwood forests. North and center, the Dallas-Fort Worth region receives moderate rainfall, yet the twin cities have been widely criticized as being the most water-wasteful in the state (though Corpus Christi is close behind).

According to the 2010 report “Drop by Drop,” published by the National Wildlife Foundation and the Sierra Club, Dallas had the highest per-capita water use of any major city in Texas in 2008, at 240 gallons per citizen per day. (Revised Texas Water Development Board data has Dallas at 213 — values vary because of differences in how population is calculated. More recent data is still unofficial.) During the summer months, watering lawns accounts for at least 50 percent of total water consumption, which can be substantial.

In a piece titled “Drought Schmout,” NBC-5 reporter Scott Friedman analyzed Dallas and Fort Worth utility records and found wealthy residents hog much of the water. The top 10 residential users used 60 million gallons in 2008. Ross Perot, for instance, used 4.8 million gallons at his 13-acre estate, compared to 88,000 gallons annually for a typical citizen. The top user, environmental lawyer Fred Baron, doubled Perot’s numbers

“There is enough water in existing reservoirs to meet their projected demand for at least the next 50 years,” Bezanson says. Plentiful untapped water also exists in nearby Lake Texoma and Wright Patman. What’s more, she says, the North Texas water planning region bases its projected future demand on extravagant water-use values — with an equally extravagant price tag.

The 2011 North Texas region projects it will need 3.3 million acre-feet of water per year by 2060. That means every citizen would use 197 gallons per day — more than their present use of 190 in 2009 and 182 in 2010, according to unofficial data reported from by Dallas Water Utilities. That’s also far higher than 140 gallons per day, the target for all regions set by the Legislature-appointed Water Conservation Advisory Council.

“The water use projection is drafted by their consultant,” says Bezanson, “the same engineering firm that would build the Marvin Nichols reservoir at a price of $3.3 billion — Freese & Nichols. “The former principal of that engineering firm, the late Marvin C. Nichols, served as the first chairman of the Texas Water Development Board, and within hours of his death in 1969, the Texas Legislature passed a resolution to name a reservoir in East Texas after him.

Don’t Be a Water Hog
North Texas is working hard to overcome the persistent perception of them as water hogs via impressive new conservation outreach programs, (including Dallas’ brilliantly named New Throne for Your Home toilet replacement program, as well as other efforts). Nonetheless, their 2011 Region C Plan includes, at $19.1 billion, vastly more spending than any of the other regions on new projects that conservationist Bezanson calls boondoggles. That amount is double the spending of the Houston region, with an equivalent projected future population and in marked contrast to the arid El Paso region, which will spend only $842 million, including $50 million on two desalination plants (which usually get roundly criticized as being too pricey).

Arid cities such as San Antonio and El Paso have learned to make do with less water and have been hailed as national models for water conservation.

In the mid-1980s, San Antonio had a per-capita water use of 225 [gallons per citizen per day] and reduced it to 122 by 2010. “Our goal is 116 by 2016, and we are working hard to achieve that,” says Sarah Gatewood of San Antonio Water Systems. They have strict lawn-watering rules, education programs, and incentives for toilet and washing-machine replacement, among other things. “We are using the same amount of water that we did 25 years ago, even though we’ve seen a 67 percent increase in customers.”

The bottom line is that much of the water necessary to satiate Texas in the future can be achieved through conservation, wise use of existing resources, and taking a critical look at what politicians want to spend the taxpayers’ money on before jumping in full-throttle. Although Texas may lead in the exuberance with which it’s going after dams for water supply, it’s not the only state considering new reservoirs. Heated battles have begun over a handful of proposed new dams: on Colorado’s Cache la Poudre River, California’s Upper San Joaquin River and Washington’s Yakima River, for starters.

“Elected officials get caught up in the promoters’ claims that reservoirs will be good for the economy and push for new ones,” says Bezanson, executive director of TCA. “Promoters don’t mention the downsides – taking land out of production, condemning people’s homes and lands, reducing the tax base of counties and school districts, and massive destruction of wildlife habitat.”

In addition to completely drowning terrestrial habitat underneath a new reservoir, the downstream problems that dams cause for aquatic ecosystems and fish, mussels and other species are scientifically well-documented. Although less celebrated than salmon, anadromous paddlefish and shovelnose sturgeon have declined throughout rivers that run into the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, to the point where both have disappeared from several rivers, and are now listed as threatened species in Texas and other states.

On the other hand, the East Texas Tourism Board has begun to embrace the region’s promise for ecotourism. During the peak of spring migration, thousands of waterfowl and songbirds stop here, and decades ago, red wolves and black bears roamed the woods. Although both species plummeted to extinction by the 1960s from overzealous riflemen and loss of giant cypress trees for denning, bears have started spilling back over the border from Louisiana and Arkansas — re-creating the kind of “wild Texas” that few have known or perceived. And a wild Texas is something that Donovan, for one, has gladly devoted the past decade of his life fighting for.

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Wendee Holtcamp
Wendee Holtcamp is a Houston-based writer whose work has appeared in Scientific American, Smithsonian, National Wildlife, Audubon, Sierra and Nature. She also writes regularly about Texas water, wildlife and environmental issues for Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine and has master's degrees in wildlife ecology and evolutionary biology from Texas A&M University and Rice University, respectively.

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