Impact study kicks Northeast Texas planners into high gear

Nov 4, 2014

Water planners in Northeast Texas might have as few as two and a half weeks to respond to a revised application by Dallas-area water planners who want to build a roughly 70,000-acre reservoir on the Sulphur River north of Mount Pleasant.

At issue is whether the proposed Marvin Nichols Reservoir would be included in the next draft of the state water plan published by the Texas Water Development Board. Inclusion would not guarantee construction – new reservoirs must receive approval from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality as well as the federal government.

Two of the Texas Water Development Board’s regional planning groups have been at odds over the proposal for years. The Region D Water Planning Group, which represents Northeast Texas, opposes the project for environmental, economic and property-rights reasons. The Region C Planning group, which represents North Texas, says that the reservoir is necessary for future water resources for the Dallas area.

Many observers expected the Texas Water Development Board’s three-person governing body to approve the project at an August hearing, but in a surprise move, the board voted 2-1 to require Region C to provide a more detailed impact study of the reservoir’s expected environmental and economic effects.

That report was provided to the Texas Water Development Board on Oct. 29, according to Walt Sears of the Northeast Texas Municipal District, based in Hughes Springs, which is one of the stakeholder entities in Region D.

Region C’s 125-page study places the size of the reservoir at just over 66,000 acres.

Sears said that Region D attorney Jim Thompson would provide the Texas Water Development Board with a response to the Region C document.

While the size of the reservoir itself is not a matter of particular controversy, the amount of Northeast Texas land that would be taken out of agricultural production as a result of the Marvin Nichols Reservoir is a matter of dispute. The process is called mitigation.

Mitigation refers to a federal law designed to offset the environmental damage caused by flooding land. Inevitably, making a new lake involves inundating low-lying areas in or near flood plains that typically host a diversity of flora and fauna necessary for local ecosystems. To make up for the loss of such habitat, this mitigation law mandates that a certain amount of land comparable to the land that’s being lost is set aside as a protected area.

In Northeast Texas, wetlands typically host bottomland hardwood forests which are a central resource for the timber and related industries, such as paper.

“My initial take on the report that was submitted by (Dallas-area) Region C suggests, in broad numbers, fairly modest acres would be needed for mitigation,” Sears said. The Region C study suggests that about 47,000 acres would be lost to mitigation.

“There are other estimates out there that place the mitigation at significantly different from that — higher,” Sears said.

The Texas Water Development Board has given Region D until Nov. 19 to provide a response to the region C study. Sears said that Region D might have a response ready by then, but also might petition the state agency for more time.

“I believe Nov. 19 is aggressively optimistic,” Sears said. “This conversation has been years in the making and years in the discussion and it’s difficult to condense this conversation into a two-and-a-half-week window,” Sears said.