Editor’s note: This is part of Drifting Toward Disaster, a Texas Observer series about life-changing challenges facing Texans and their rivers.
Mary Kelleher knew she was moving to a floodplain when she bought a farm on Fort Worth’s east side in 2003. But the risk was worth it. “I just fell in love with it because there was still so much country over here,” she said.
She did not expect that, nearly two decades later, the 100 acres she loved would nearly cost her her livelihood, propel her into public office, and drive her to become a flood control activist.
At first the high-water incidents were about what she’d expected for a floodplain: manageable if you prepared. Her house was on a high point on the property, safely away from flood-prone areas.
But the water rose faster than usual in 2010, killing some of her livestock and ruining thousands of dollars of equipment. “Our sheep were down by the barn, and they got confused. Instead of running to the house and up to high ground, they ran toward the water,” she recalled tearfully. “I still have nightmares about watching the sheep wandering off [into the water] and never coming back up.”
What’s more, the water didn’t return to normal levels for about eight months.
Tropical Storm Hermine played a major role in the flooding, local officials told her, adding it would never happen again. But massive flooding did happen again, just two years later. This time, there was no tropical storm to blame. Instead, many local people blamed the water release policies of the Tarrant Regional Water District (TRWD). On the strength of outrage over those policies and others, Kelleher was elected to the district’s board the following year.
“When I needed help from my elected officials, they looked the other way. I ran for election so no one would have to experience that at the water district,” she said.
For many years, the TRWD was a little-known, uncontroversial agency that provided water to numerous Tarrant County cities and was responsible for flood control for 11 counties in North Texas.
But critics charged that the agency had gone astray from its flood control mission, was riddled with nepotism, and was abusing its eminent domain powers to carry out its billion-dollar Trinity River Vision project, ostensibly designed to improve flood control but also to remake about 800 acres north of downtown into a San Antonio Riverwalk-type development.
Opponents question whether the project, which has gone by several names over the years, will improve flood control at all, although its continually increasing price tag and increasing focus on economic development has eaten up federal funds available for actual flooding problems in the area. They object to the water board’s practices in forcing some private owners to sell their land for the project, and then reselling the land to private developers. Since the project started, three new bridges have been built over dry land (where the river is supposed to be rerouted), plus one apartment complex, a brewery and a drive-in movie theatre in the area the water district has dubbed “Panther Island.”
A broad coalition of opponents recruited Kelleher to run. They ranged from billionaire hotelier Monty Bennett, a major conservative Republican donor in Dallas who joined the fight when the agency tried to put a pipeline through his East Texas ranch, to former state Representative Lon Burnam, once named the most liberal member of the Texas House.
Burnam joked that he’s had issues with the water district since the 1970s when he drove from Austin, where he was studying at the University of Texas, to vote for a pro-environmental candidate running for the board. However, the Fort Worth native found out he didn’t qualify to cast a ballot: His parents’ home in Benbrook, a Fort Worth suburb, was not part of the patchwork map of areas included in the water district’s boundaries.
Two decades later, in 1996, Burnam won election to the Texas House from a Fort Worth district that included downtown and the future Panther Island. While in the House, he filed numerous bills to reform the TRWD.
The agency is also a textbook tale of cronyism: U.S. Representative Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, is one of the project’s biggest advocates and also the mother of J.D. Granger, who served for years, until 2022, as executive director of the Trinity River Vision Authority (TRVA), an unelected board that acts as a buffer between the public and the elected water board. Then-TRWD General Manager Jim Oliver also landed his nephew Matt Oliver a gig as TRVA’s communications director.
Kelleher is warm, joyful, and tough. Working in juvenile services for Tarrant County for two decades, she saw many harrowing cases. But her first term on the water board often brought her to tears.
She was officially censured by her board colleagues. Jim Oliver stonewalled her when she asked for agency records. Her relationships with other board members were fractious. Still, Kelleher inched the board toward further studies of flooding in other areas of Fort Worth, not only in downtown and the other places that the agency had treated as priorities.
“The water district started taking a much more proactive approach. If they knew that a lot of rain was coming, they would discharge depending on the levels of the lake,” she said.
Her critics still sought revenge. She was defeated in 2017, placing fourth among five candidates. But Kelleher ran again and won in 2021.
These days, the board sometimes has a kumbaya feel, with Kelleher often voting with the board majority. But she still dissents sometimes, usually objecting on eminent domain and equity grounds to what her fellow directors want to do.
Doreen Geiger is a longtime Democratic activist in Fort Worth. She’s also a founder, with Burnam, of the Water District Accountability Project, monitoring the agency’s dealings. They are regular visitors at the TRWD’s monthly board meetings.
Geiger has been a fan of Kelleher’s since she met her in 2013. “Mary is the best one on the board for a lot of reasons. She’s not there to financially benefit. She cares about water, flooding and good governance,” she said.
“Her being there has been critical,” Burnam said, although he thinks she’s been too quiet in her second term.
Geiger hopes more members like Kelleher will be elected in May to the two at-large seats (of five) that are up for election. Members serve four-year terms, and elections are staggered. Kelleher is up for reelection in 2025.
For Kelleher, the top concern is not the next election but making sure North Texas has the water resources it needs and the policies in place to control flooding.
“Water—you can’t live with too much of it, but you can’t live without it. I mean, it’s just probably the most important natural resource that we have,” she said. “We have to be good guardians of it.”