Conservationists Win Neches River Battle

by Published on
photo by Adrian Van Dellen
Neches River refuge

Big conservation news today…

Lake Fastrill is dead and the Neches River wildlife refuge is finally a reality.

Today the Supreme Court declined to hear a lawsuit brought by the city of Dallas and the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) over the proposed Neches River National Wildlife Refuge.

photo by Adrian Van Dellen

For years, Dallas water interests and East Texas conservationists have been squabbling over the fate of a stretch of the upper Neches River near Jacksonville. Dallas wanted to eventually dam the river there and create a new water-supply reservoir called Lake Fastrill.

Conservationists and most locals were fiercely opposed to the idea, accusing Dallas of destroying a sizable portion of East Texas in order to continue profligate water habits.

Indeed, this portion of the upper Neches contains one of the last relatively pristine, contiguous bottomland hardwood forests left in Texas.

The conflict came to a head in 2006 when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service created a 1-acre wildlife refuge in 2006 to block the designation of Lake Fastrill. A lawsuit by Dallas and TWDB against the feds followed quickly.

With the Supremes’ declining to hear the suit, the 25,000-acre wildiife refuge is all but a done deal.

Refuge proponents are jubilant. Here’s part of a statement from the Texas Conservation Alliance.

“We heartily endorse the Court’s decision — the Neches River Refuge will be great for East Texas!” said Dr. Michael Banks, Co-Chair of Friends of the Neches River.  “It’ll provide recreation, draw tourists, protect vital habitat for wildlife and waterfowl, and protect the landowners along the river from condemnation.”

[Note: Banks is running against state Rep. Chuck Hopson (R-Jacksonville) in the Republican primary.]

“There is enough water in existing reservoirs for Dallas to have all the water it needs for future growth,” added Janice Bezanson, Executive Director of Texas Conservation Alliance.  “Dallas could tap Lake Texoma, Wright Patman Reservoir, or Toledo Bend Reservoir for its future supplies.”

Dallas’ plans were to draw only about 3% of the City’s future demand from the proposed Fastrill Reservoir.

“The proposed Fastrill Reservoir was not a particularly good source of water for Dallas,” continued Bezanson.  “Dallas and other cities in the Metroplex can get a lot more water for similar or less cost from existing reservoirs.  Using water from already-developed reservoirs avoids condemning people’s land and harming the timber-agribusiness economy of East Texas.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service identified the site of the Neches River National Wildlife Refuge decades ago as a priority site for conserving habitat for wildlife, songbirds, and migratory waterfowl.  Plans are in place for the Neches River Refuge to acquire more than 6,000 acres once the case brought by Dallas and TWDB is finalized.  In the long term, up to 25,000 acres may be added to the refuge.

“This decision is a win for East Texas and in the long run also a win for Dallas,” concluded Banks.  “The Refuge will benefit everyone – local residents and folks from Dallas and other urban areas in need of a place to get outdoors.”

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is associate editor of the Observer. Forrest specializes in environmental reporting and runs the “Forrest for the Trees” blog. Forrest has appeared on Democracy Now!, The Rachel Maddow Show and numerous NPR stations. His work has been mentioned by The New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Time magazine and many other state and national publications. Other than filing voluminous open records requests, Forrest enjoys fishing, kayaking, gardening and beer-league softball. He holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin.