Water Wars Pit Rural and Urban Texas Against Each Other

Fast-growing North Texas towns need water. But a reservoir project will displace families who have lived in Fannin County for generations.

The Red River on the Oklahoma-Texas border.
The Red River on the Oklahoma-Texas border. Wikimedia

Fast-growing North Texas towns need water. But a reservoir project will displace families who have lived in Fannin County for generations.

The Red River on the Oklahoma-Texas border.
The Red River on the Oklahoma-Texas border. Wikimedia

You know you’re getting close to Harrold Witcher’s place when you pass the water tower in Carson, a community of 22 people in northeast Texas just south of the Oklahoma border. A mere 20 minutes from the Red River, this is a part of the state that’s predicated on precipitation. Folks here can count on Bois d’Arc Creek to flood several county roads at least once a year, and a chief source of recreation is fishing in one of several nearby lakes.

All that rain makes this ideal country for growing soybeans and raising cattle on verdant green pastures. That’s the line of business Harold Witcher is in.

Witcher, who also raises cattle on an additional 300 acres in eastern Fannin County—which is about an hour northeast of the water district’s headquarters in Wylie—has worked in agriculture for most of his life, he says. He credits ample rainfall for much of his success. Bonham, the county seat, sees 46 inches of rain a year, nearly double the amount the West Texas town of Abilene gets. But the rain that’s helped keep 68-year-old Witcher in crops and cattle for so long will be his undoing. With the help of a Dallas-area water supplier, Witcher’s land, along with his business, will soon be underwater.

Fannin County is the future home of the Bois d’Arc Lake Reservoir, a 26-square mile body of water that will stretch across the central and eastern parts of the county and hold 367,609 acre-feet of water. The projected cost of building the reservoir, which includes a pump station, a dam, and pipelines, is $1.6 billion. Once completed, it’ll be the first major reservoir built in Texas in nearly three decades.

Mike Rickman, deputy director of the North Texas Municipal Water District, said the project is needed to ensure the region doesn’t run out of water in the next big drought.

“We need enough supply to take us through what is the equivalent of the drought of record,” Rickman said. “In our world, that would be seven years in duration. It is a lot of water that’s needed.”

The water district, which is building the Bois d’Arc lake, plans to pipe water from the reservoir 40 miles southwest to McKinney starting in 2022. The town of McKinney, along with other suburban enclaves bordering Dallas, represent some of the fastest growing communities in the entire nation. Rickman says all those residents expect a steady source of water—but meeting the demand is a tall order.

But some residents of Fannin County, including Witcher, will pay a high price to provide urbanites with water—namely their homes and land that’s been in the family for generations.

“A lot of the people in urban areas I’ve talked to about this that were raised in the urban environment, they say, well, just go get yourself another place,” Witcher said. “That is easier said than done. You just can’t go replace something that you’ve worked at your whole life. It’s not like going and buying a new house. It’s not the same.”

The Bois d’Arc project is one answer to a perennial question asked by water providers in Texas metros: Where will we find our future water source? Historically, they’ve eyed rural areas to fill that need, said Jim Blackburn, a Texas water expert and professor of environmental law at Rice University.

“It has been a priority for many, many decades in Texas for municipalities to be supplied with all the water they need in various and sundry ways, mainly though reservoirs and sometimes through groundwater development,” Blackburn said. “Historically, reservoirs have been located in rural areas and there’s no question that there’s been disproportionate impact.”

The Bois d’Arc project isn’t the only one where urban interests appear to be foisted on rural areas. The North Texas Municipal Water District is pursuing another major reservoir project in East Texas, called the Marvin Nichols Reservoir, where people’s homes and productive farmland will be flooded to make a lake. In Wichita Falls, city leaders are spearheading a hotly contested project to build a new reservoir in rural Clay County, despite an outcry from ranchers who stand to lose their property.

In Fannin County, public opinion seems divided on Bois d’Arc lake. County Commissioner Jerry Magnus, whose district includes the future reservoir, said he once was against the project. He’s since come around because of the anticipated economic benefit of having thousands of workers in the area and the possibility of tourism at the lake.

“It’s a boon to Fannin County as far as economic value because it’s gonna bring people who’ve got some money, and it takes money to make money,” Magnus said.

But Paul Vaughn, a farmer who was eating lunch at the senior citizen’s center in Bonham when I visited in June, said the Bois d’Arc project was simply a ploy to shift the cost of developing urban Texas to rural residents.

“In my personal opinion, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer all the time,” Vaughn said. “Fannin County isn’t gonna gain much off this lake for years to come. You can forget that.”

Either way, there’s nothing Witcher or other affected landowners can do to stop the project. The water district has the power of eminent domain, and he and other area landowners who stood to have their land flooded for the reservoir have unsuccessfully gone to court over the matter. Some of them have reached settlement agreements with the district, though they say they’re unable to speak on the confidential agreements.

Witcher says he and his wife plan to move from their home to property her family owns near Windom, about 20 miles away, this year. He says he’ll try to start his farming and ranching operation all over again from there—if he lives long enough to do it.

“Thing about it is I’m 68 years old,” Witcher said. “I don’t have a lot of productive time left to get a place back in production.”

More of these fights are expected to crop up as time goes on. By 2070, the state projects water demand to rise from 18.4 million acre-feet per year to 21.6 million. It also includes plans to build 26 new reservoirs, a strategy that some critics say is expensive, inefficient, and tends to disenfranchise rural people. Janice Bezanson, executive director of the Texas Conservation Alliance, a group that generally opposes new reservoir projects, notes that a significant portion of water used by households in suburban North Texas is used simply for landscape irrigation.

“We’re planning to spend billions of dollars, force people to sell land that provides their livelihoods . . . so we can build reservoirs so that people can water their lawns,” Bezanson said.

Rickman, the water district official, notes that Bois d’Arc Creek is only expected to meet the region’s future water needs through the year 2040. They’re already searching for new ways to bring water into the area, which may further impact surrounding rural counties.

“Even though we already have this reservoir online,” Rickman said, “we’re already looking for our next source of water because we know we’re going to continue to grow.”

This story was produced and published with KUT/Texas Standard.

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Christopher Collins is an Observer staff writer covering rural Texas. He can be reached on Twitter or at [email protected]


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