The 66,103-acre reservoir, one of several projects before the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB), is expected to provide 451,500 acre-feet of water per year at a $4.4 billion cost to taxpayers — according to 2018 estimates.
With rampant inflation driving up the cost of building anything, the price tag today is likely significantly higher.
Another 130,000 acres of land is needed for flood mitigation purposes in tandem with the reservoir itself.
Nearly 80 percent of the reservoir’s supplied water would be piped 150 miles to the Dallas-Fort Worth area to supplement its 7.6 million population. The state plans to have the reservoir operational by 2050. In total, about 30 percent of the reservoir’s water acreage would be available for municipal supply.
While the state oversees this and all other projects at an aerial level, each undertaking is led by local water districts which sponsor the project. They accumulate the funding for each project and take on any debt required. This reservoir’s sponsors are Tarrant Regional Water District and North Texas Municipal Water District.
The project’s Northeast Texas location — at the intersection of Red River, Titus, and Franklin Counties along the Sulphur River — is a source of controversy. Vast tracts of privately owned land lay in the project’s titanic path, setting the table for a considerable deployment of eminent domain.
A groundswell of opposition from residents in the area has thrown sand into the project’s bureaucratic gears, dredging up roadblocks to the state’s plans.
Marvin Nichols Reservoir, named after one-half of the namesakes of the Freese and Nichols engineering firm that has previously been involved with studying the project, was first conceived in 1984. But the push for its construction really didn’t begin until the turn of the century.
Nichols himself oversaw the construction of two bodies of water supply: Lake Bridgeport in 1931 and Eagle Mountain Reservoir in 1932. He was also the first appointed chairman of the Texas Water Development Board — the agency evaluating the project, tasked with regulating the state’s water issues.
Its operational date moved up two decades in this year’s state water plan, accentuating the frenzy of the project’s already building opposition. That change was made to account for the population growth the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex has experienced in recent years, documented by the 2020 Census. The region also added just shy of 100,000 people from 2020 to 2021.
With a booming population comes a booming water supply need — but while the state’s population is projected to increase 50 percent over the next half-century, the necessary water supply increase is only expected to be 9 percent.
Opponents of the reservoir generally take two shapes: local landowners and area residents focused on the land rights and daily life impact, and environmentalists focused on the reservoir’s effects on the ecosystem.
A group has formed to oppose the project, named Preserve Northeast Texas (PNT) which has collected 1,600 signatures from across the state for its petition objecting to Marvin Nichols.
Eminent domain is a touchy subject — often used ham-handedly by the government for projects essential and gratuitous. In its 2005 ruling Kelo v. New London, the U.S. Supreme Court watered down the “public purpose” justification required of the government to seize private land, along with providing “just compensation.”
Marvin Nichols Reservoir surely serves a public purpose, but not primarily the public whose land is at risk. State Water Region D’s land would serve to benefit Region C’s residents above any other.
“When are large metroplex areas going to stop taking small town’s land?” asked one area resident named Pedro in a release from PNT. “Who’s to say your land isn’t next?”
And it’s not just land within the reservoir’s boundaries on the table. Those along the pipeline path to Dallas-Fort Worth may also face eminent domain usage unless some alternative solution is found.
While not a one-to-one comparison, the eminent domain fight over the Texas Central Railway holds some similarities: the proposed high-speed railway would connect Dallas-Fort Worth with Houston and needs the privately-owned land in between.
Last year, the Texas Supreme Court knocked down a challenge by landowners arguing against the project’s ability to use eminent domain, ruling that it qualifies as a public use railway under state law. Any legal challenge to Marvin Nichols would take its own path, but the Texas Central decision would undoubtedly play into however a court may rule on this issue’s eminent domain aspect.
Opponents of the reservoir also assert that the water supply gains are unnecessary.
Alternatives suggested to the reservoir include water conservation, recycling and re-treating used water, and repurposing part of Lake Texoma’s water for Dallas-Fort Worth’s supply needs.
Howard Slobodin, general counsel for the Trinity River Authority which serves as an administrative agent for Region C, told The Texan that he isn’t sure about the sufficiency of Lake Texoma’s water supply abilities beyond its current output. He also said that the region is already utilizing conservation and re-treatment.
“In water use, you go after the cheapest water first,” he explained, pointing to those two strategies. “Water planning is a 50-year exercise, and so we need to be thinking about these things now.”
The fight over Marvin Nichols has pitted two regional water districts against one another. A decade ago, Region D, where the reservoir would be located, objected to the project citing an “interregional conflict.”
But after mediation by the agency, the project remains in the state plans and no such contest was reapplied during the 2021 water plan process. Currently, the project is still at the beginning stages, having yet to reach the “water management strategies” stage at which construction begins.
The lengthiest part of the process lies in the federal government permitting process, which can take up to 10 years, along with a permitting process with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
Various externalities accompany digging such a large ditch and filling it with a biblical amount of water. Foremost among these is the displacement of property owners whose land is subject to eminent domain. Others include the loss of the land’s logging and farming capabilities, its effect on the local political subdivisions’ tax base, and the flooding of any historical sites or cemeteries within the reservoir’s range.
Rivercrest ISD Superintendent Stanley Jessee, who opposes the project, sees the reservoir reducing the district’s land mass by half. He told The Texan that means less school funding through the property tax system; the value of the unaffected land would also increase, making it harder for landowners to continue to pay taxes on their property.
Jessee also has a personal stake in the issue, saying that a portion of his own land is in the reservoir zone and much of it falls into the surrounding mitigation zone.
According to a Freese and Nichols analysis, about 43,000 acres of timberland and 15,000 acres of farmland fall within the reservoir’s prospective boundaries — 1.6 percent and 0.8 percent, respectively, of the region’s resources.
“Mitigation is accomplished by investigating and recording archaeological sites and proper relocation of cemeteries,” reads the analysis. The engineering firm says that the potential cost for all these externalities is included in the total estimate.
Sorting out all of that is feasible, but it’s no easy task. Such a big change comes with a massive command for adjustment to the new status quo.
As the fight over this project rages on, that adjustment period sits just shy of 30 years and dropping.
Correction: An original version of this story misstated Freese and Nichols’ role in the Marvin Nichols Reservoir project. We regret the error.
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Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.