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In a Dry Texas, Troubled Waters
Ambitious Plans to Add Reservoirs and Dams Concern Environmentalists
By Paul Duggan Washington Post Staff Writer Saturday, March 3, 2001; Page A03
DALLAS -- In drought-prone Texas, where the population is projected to nearly double in the next 50 years, officials from the biggest cities to the smallest towns have mapped extraordinary plans to solve a critical growth-related problem in the new century. All told, they propose spending $17 billion by 2050 to increase the availability of a limited natural resource in the state: water.
With a largely arid climate, Texas has never taken water for granted. Since its worst recorded drought, in the 1950s, the nation's second-largest state has pursued numerous projects to boost the water supply for its vast agricultural lands and expanding suburbs. But none was as ambitious as the array of dams, reservoirs and pipelines recently proposed by 16 planning groups across the state.
The proposals, which are being compiled into a single master plan by the Texas Water Development Board, envision water supplies large enough to accommodate 40 million people, almost twice the state's current population. The plans are so extensive that environmentalists fear widespread harm to ecosystems and wildlife. They have vowed to fight development of the projects -- including a 65,000-acre reservoir here in North Texas, which would supply more water to the Dallas-Forth Worth area.
Because of its susceptibility to drought, and because only a small part of the state benefits from melting snow on mountains, most of Texas's riverbeds are often dry for months at a stretch. As a result, the state has always depended on "stored water," meaning water trapped in big reservoirs by river dams during rainy periods. The recent water proposals call for construction of 17 more dams and reservoirs.
Although environmental disputes over water projects are nothing new, opponents of the master plan say that because so many projects are being proposed, and at such a large cost, the issue of water development is likely to be a continual focus of debate in Texas for years to come.
"I think what's happening in Texas now is a microcosm of what we're going to be faced with nationwide and maybe worldwide in the future," said Ken Kramer, the state director of the Sierra Club. "Because increasingly, with population growth, water is going to become a major issue of global concern."
It's already a major issue in Texas, where the worst drought since the 1950s has ravaged the agricultural economy over the last five years, costing farmers and ranchers about $5.3 billion in lost production. Meanwhile in the 1990s, the state's population rose 23 percent, to 21 million people, according to the 2000 census. Only seven states grew at faster rates, and only California gained more new residents.
Aware of that rapid growth, and mindful of the growth projections for the 21st century, Texas lawmakers in 1997 ordered the most comprehensive water planning process in the state's history. The late Bob Bullock, a Democrat who was lieutenant governor and leader of the state Senate at the time, championed the planning bill as "one of the most significant pieces of legislation in the last 30 years," stressing that Texas's long-term prosperity hinged on extensive water development efforts.
Four years later, the 16 regional planning groups that were created by the legislation have finished analyzing the future water needs of every metropolitan area and crossroads hamlet in Texas. The 16 plans submitted to the Water Development Board in recent months stand six feet high when stacked together.
"They've done a very good job of balancing human needs and environmental concerns," said Tommy Knowles, the board's top planning official, disputing the complaints of environmentalists.
Knowles said the master plan, scheduled to be completed next January, will incorporate every project proposed by the regional groups, with a few modifications. The final document, subject to a review every five years, will be Texas's blueprint for water development over the next half-century.
Regional authorities will carry out the plans on their own timetables, using local, state and federal money. For some projects, obtaining federal permits could take a decade or longer, officials said.
The 17 proposed dams and reservoirs are what environmentalists worry about most. The Sierra Club and other groups say that planners have greatly overestimated Texas's future water needs and that tens of thousands of acres of ecologically precious land would be inundated unnecessarily.
"The whole process has been skewed in favor of water development," said Janice Bezanson, director of the Texas Committee on Natural Resources. "The term we use is 'water hustlers.' Those are the people who've been pushing this -- engineering firms, construction firms, Realtors -- because a lot of land is going to change hands.
"The primary culprits are the river authorities, these quasi-government agencies that manage the rivers. Building additional reservoirs brings lots of new funding into their jurisdictions."
Knowles said the regional planners projected future water demands honestly, with no ulterior motives. Last year, he said, Texas needed about 5.5 trillion gallons. By 2050, he said, total statewide demand is likely to be a trillion gallons higher, with the sharpest increases coming in fast-growing suburbs, including the bedroom communities surrounding Dallas and Fort Worth.
To illustrate their arguments, supporters and opponents of the water development effort pointed to the same proposed project -- the 65,000-acre Marvin Nichols Reservoir, which would supply water to Dallas-Fort Worth and other parts of North Texas.
John Promise, director of environmental resources for the North-Central Texas Council of Governments, said the reservoir is crucial to the region's future vitality. Promise's organization represents 16 counties, among them Dallas County and Tarrant County, which includes Fort Worth. The population of those counties, now 5 million, is projected to total nearly 10 million by 2050, Promise said.
Tom Gooch, a consultant to one of the regional planning groups in North Texas, said the area covered by Promise's organization needed 378 billion gallons of water last year. In the next half-century, he said, the water requirement, like the population, is projected to almost double.
"We've got very rapid growth in this area, and it's not going to abate," Gooch said. He said the reservoir, which would be located on the Sulphur River about 100 miles northeast of here, would take 10 to 15 years to complete, mainly because of the protracted permitting process. The $1.5 billion project would include a mile-long dam, plus pipelines and pumping stations to carry water to the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Creating the reservoir, however, would mean inundating a large tract of bottomland hardwood forest, a scarce habitat for waterfowl, songbirds and other wildlife. About 80 percent of the state's original 16 million acres of bottomland hardwood forest already has been converted to other uses, according to Bezanson. "We can't afford to lose any more," she said.
Environmentalists also said the dam would endanger aquatic life by changing the river's dynamics -- its wet and dry periods, its depth and speed.
"Our view is that this planning process could be a real opportunity to put together a comprehensive plan that includes environmental concerns," said Myron Hess, a lawyer for the National Wildlife Federation in Texas. "But the plans as they exist right now haven't really done that."
Knowles, of the Water Development Board, appeared unfazed by the opposition.
"When you have this many new projects, there's going to be criticism," he said. "But the fact is, we're going to need more water. And there's nothing we can do to change that."
-- Martin Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org), March 03, 2001