Next month, Fannin County is set to approve a comprehensive plan for developing thousands of acres of expensive lakefront property. One problem: There’s no lake. But that’s not stopping it from pushing ahead anyway. Officials say the Lower Bois d’Arc Creek reservoir will be open for business by the time the government gets around to approving it. And that’s putting a spotlight on the high-stakes struggle for control of water resources throughout northeast Texas.
Mike Rickman: I’ve been in almost every meeting, and I have never heard them threaten to say we’re going to use the veto. They just said we need to work on this. And they’re working with us. So it’s not something that we’re at the point where we’re going to veto this if you don’t do this. So, we haven’t come to that point.
George Hale: That’s Deputy Director Mike Rickman of the North Texas Municipal Water District describing his agency’s working relationship with the Environmental Protection Agency. The two agencies are at loggerheads over the water district’s planned destruction of thousands of acres of land in northeast Texas to build a lake. Specifically, the EPA has yet to approve the water district’s plan to mitigate damage to wetlands that will be flooded under Fannin’s proposed Lower Bois d’Arc Creek Reservoir. In turn, the district accuses the EPA of wasting millions of dollars and depriving its Dallas-area costumers of quality water. Rickman described the process ahead of a trip to Washington to lobby officials on the issue.
Rickman: Under the Clean Water Act, you have to mitigate — you have to replace — any bottomland hardwoods or wetlands that are disturbed or removed. So, in building the reservoir, we’ve had to do studies to determine what those are. And then we work with the Corps of Engineers to figure out, OK, what are we going to do and how are we going to replace it. And so far, we have purchased this 15,000-acre ranch. And we’ll be converting that — taking cattle off of it — and then we’ll be re-planting it and re-conturing the land so that it becomes wetlands. And we plant trees. Currently, we’re going to be planting 2.2 million trees on the site. … It’s a federal requirement, just to replace what you’re destroying.
Hale: Rickman and others say they expected the EPA to approve that plan — and issue the water rights permit — over a year ago. Instead, it has asked the district to perform additional studies. The district accuses the EPA of moving the goalposts mid-game by changing the methodology after one study had already begun. In an effort to speed up the process, Rep. Sam Johnson has authored a bill seeking to strip the EPA of authority over the project. That hasn’t moved much in Congress since it was submitted in February. But it shows how heated the fight for water is becoming in northeast Texas.
Rickman: We’re spending millions on studies and analysis and consultants to help us get through both the state and the federal permitting process. … We try to help as much as we can in trying to make sure that we’re good neighbors and that we do the right thing in terms of dealing with property owners and dealing with other agencies that we have to deal with. … We’re not asking for something for free.
Hale: The EPA said last week that it was committed to the project and to helping the water district. Additionally, the agency has formed a working group with the US Army Corps of Engineers and the Texas Water Development Board aimed at helping groups wanting large water supply projects with the permitting process. In the meantime, officials in Fannin County are moving forward on their plans as they wait. Fannin County Judge Spanky Carter spoke to KETR by phone en route to San Antonio.
Creta “Spanky” Carter: We’ve went ahead and went forward with our zoning process. And it will probably take us, you know, I don't know, I’m going to say four or five or six months to go through that part. And then we’ll have our lake zoned. … It’ll be the first lake in Texas to ever be zoned before it was built. … We’re way ahead of the curve on that. It’ll probably be zoned before they get the permit to build it.
Hale: Carter said growth in the state and around Dallas meant the county couldn’t afford to wait until 2018 to start its part of the project.
Carter: Texas is growing, and north Texas is growing, and the metroplex is growing. You’re going to need water. And so, you know, you may not need it this year or next year, five years from now. But 50 years from now, you’re probably going to need it. And you need to plan.
Hale: He said the future of Texas depended on access to water, even if that means some people under his purview would lose land and jobs in the process.
Carter: The people that are against it are people that, they’ve lived there. Their family’s been there all their lives. I’m talking about where the lake’s going to be. And certainly, you have to be sympathetic to those folks. They don’t want to sell their land. They don’t want to move. But I very much believe it’s going to happen. And I believe that as soon as they get that final permit, they’re going to start on it the next day. That’s what they told me, and I believe them.
Hale: To farmer Nathan Rycer, the holdup is the best chance he has to keep his farm and job. He’s holding out hope that the EPA vetoes the project entirely and that the district finds other means of securing water.
Nathan Rycer: I think we could make it 20 or 25 more years without this reservoir. And we could improve our technology for de-sal. And we could use that as the source when we need it, to keep the State of Texas going.
Hale: In fact, North Texas Municipal Water District officials say they conducted studies to determine if de-salinating water from Lake Texoma was an option in this case. They determined that while it would be technically feasible, the projected costs were too high. Rycer believes that if the technology is there, those using the water ought to foot the bill — not landowners in Fannin County.
Rycer: I just think that if you are wanting to live a certain lifestyle, you should be willing to pay what it takes to maintain that. … It’s kind of like if I want to drive a Chevrolet truck or if I want to drive a Ferrari. … You may get millions of people down there to disagree and say they need water as cheap as possible, and I’m sure that’s going to be the case. But that’s just my thought. If it’s between me costing somebody their livelihood or their business, but I still want to maintain my type of lifestyle, I figure, well, I may have to end up paying more. … They want to say this is our only option — I don’t think it’s our only option.
Hale: County officials are expected to approve the comprehensive plan for the land surrounding the area when they meet on October 18th. Soon after, the county can start the zoning process.
Construction of the lake itself will have to wait. For KETR, I’m George Hale.