Along Salty Red River, Communities Seek Feds' Help

Russell Schreiber, the director of public works for Wichita Falls, has a one-track mind these days.

“I go to bed thinking about how we can shore up our water supply, and I wake up trying to do it,” he said.

Take a quick glance at the dwindling, increasingly murky waters of Lakes Arrowhead, Kickapoo and Kemp — the city’s major drinking water sources, whose levels hover near or below 30 percent — and it is easy to understand Schreiber’s narrow focus. Water is hard to come by in Wichita Falls, which sits in a pocket of Texas that is gripped by “exceptional” drought, the most extreme classification forecasters use.

“Make no mistake, this is a crisis,” Darron Leiker, the city manager, told reporters this month as the city unveiled an unprecedented drought response, which includes a total ban on outdoor watering and an audit of water consumption by local businesses.

Along with conservation efforts, Wichita Falls is spending tens of millions of dollars on new infrastructure to help confront the drought. Still, city officials say they could also use a little help from the federal government, in the form of upgrades to a salt-control project along on the Wichita River, which the city depends on, and the much larger Red River that it flows into.

The upgrades, long ago planned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, would improve the water supplies not only in Wichita Falls but also in parched communities throughout the Red River Watershed, which stretches across parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas. The project would keep tons of naturally occurring salt from flowing into the river, boosting the amount of usable water and lowering municipalities' costs of filtering the water they already draw. 

“You would definitely directly impact all water supply users,” said Richard Bilinski, a project manager for the Army Corps. 

But one big hurdle stands in the Army Corps’ way: Congress. Lawmakers long ago authorized construction, but they have yet to approve more than $70 million required to finish a sprawling system of dams, brine reservoirs, pumps and pipelines. That has relieved some environmentalists who viewed the projects as a threat to local ecology, but it has frustrated water managers who are looking to shore up every ounce of supply.  

“It’s just a bunch of crap,” Kyle Miller said of the congressional delays. Miller is the general manager of the Wichita Falls Water Improvement District 2, which has water rights to Lake Kemp — a Wichita River reservoir now at 26 percent capacity and falling. “It’s almost like you just keep hitting your head against a brick wall,” he said. 

The problem with water in the Red River is much of it is too salty and requires costly treatment, if it is usable at all. The saltiness is caused by a natural phenomenon that dates back to ancient times. About 250 million years ago, long before Texas and Oklahoma began sparring over water that now divides them, an inland sea blanketed parts of what is now those states. As time passed, that sea evaporated, leaving salt deposits — mostly sodium chloride. Rock and silt eventually buried the deposits, but the salt continues to leech through natural seeps in tributaries above Lake Texoma, sending as much as 3,450 tons of salt per day flowing down the Red River.

For Wichita Falls to use water from salty Lake Kemp, for instance, it spent $118 million to build a plant, dedicated in 2008, that filters water using reverse osmosis, which costs two to three times as much as the normal treatment process, Schreiber said. (For now, most Lake Kemp withdrawals have been suspended because the low water levels make it too salty to clean.)

In the 1950s, the salt problem prompted the Army Corps of Engineers to design a project intended to remove thousands of tons of salt from the tributaries before the water reached the Red River. Parts of that project have been built. That includes a nearly 50-year-old ring dike at Estelline Springs, which suppresses salt seeps. And on Wichita River’s south fork — upstream of Lake Kemp — an inflatable dam captures brine and pumps it 22 miles to a containment facility.

Local officials say those projects have improved the area’s water quality, but they need more help from stations planned on the north and middle forks of the Wichita River that have not been built. Together, those two projects would remove more than 300 tons of salt per day. 

The Army Corps says it stands ready to build the additions that lawmakers long ago approved but never funded.

The project’s financing has been tenuous since the 1980s, observers say, because recent presidents have not included it in their budgets. For that reason, funding for the salt removal plans depended on congressional earmarks, pricey add-ons to legislation — sometimes only benefiting a sponsor’s district — that have prompted eye-rolls in and outside of Washington. But Congress cracked down on earmarks beginning in 2010.  

“That has pretty much put the halt on it,” said Curtis Campbell, executive director of the Red River Authority of Texas, which has championed the project.

U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Clarendon, said he has been exploring other options for completing the project. Those options include pursuing a deal with a private company to generate solar power on salt disposal reservoirs and use the proceeds from energy sales to finance the project. He has also supported legislation to allow nonfederal bodies to carry out authorized federal projects.

“Folks in our area have been dealing with the drought for many years,” he said. "This could potentially offer future help.”

But not everyone would like to see the project revived. Lack of action on the project seems to have moved it off environmental groups’ radar today, but it faced past opposition from wildlife advocates and agencies in Oklahoma and Texas.

“The whole ecology of these rivers revolves around that salinity,” said Phil Durocher, a former director of inland fisheries at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, who recalls the fight. “There would be a price to pay.”

In 1997, a groundswell of opposition led the Army Corps to halt some of its additions to the project and re-evaluate potential impacts.

That year, the national advocacy group American Rivers named the Red River one of its 20 “threatened rivers,” largely due to a chloride control project, which the group said could eliminate shrub land and transform the river channel.

"Lower water levels would also affect the breeding habits of least terns, bald eagles and whooping cranes," The Oklahoman quoted the group as saying at the time. "Entire species of fish would be eliminated."

Critics also worried that reducing the salinity would harm the popular — and lucrative — striped bass, which thrives on salt water. The fish were introduced to Lake Texoma, which is home to the only self-sustaining population of striped bass in Texas.

In its studies, the Army Corps said it could minimize the environmental consequences.

“It still has a good benefit to cost return for the region," said Bilinski.

Schreiber, of Wichita Falls, agrees, but said he is not going to sit and wait for Washington to deliver. “We’re not going to hold our breath,” he said. “We’re going to press on with projects that we can control.” 

This story is part of the Texas Tribune's "Troubled Waters" series, examining the state of Texas' rivers. Find the rest of the stories and a map of the rivers in the series here

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