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Troubled Waters

Reused Wastewater Key to Trinity River's Survival

By virtue of its proximity to three major Texas cities, nearly half of the state’s population relies on the Trinity River for some of its water needs.

An official with Fort Worth's water department on steps that lead down to the Trinity River, where unreclaimed water from the wastewater treatment plant gets dumped.

Troubled Waters

Six years ago, state leaders launched an effort to better manage the health of Texas' rivers. But environmental advocates fear that ecology still takes a back seat as legislators fret about having enough water to sate Texas' fast-growing cities. Now, every Texas river is threatened by nearly unprecedented drought and the looming effects of climate change. Our series explores the history, health and future of some of Texas' most important and legendary rivers. More in this series 

The Trinity River begins in far north Texas as four distinct forks. One passes through the heart of Dallas, another two through Fort Worth. Once the paths converge south of the two cities, the river continues southeast another 200 miles through piney woods and past Houston before draining into the Gulf Coast.

“You’ve got Dallas on one end and Houston on the other,” said Carl Fentress, a former Texas Parks and Wildlife biologist who has worked on preservation efforts in the Trinity Basin. “Obviously the river means a lot to a lot of people in Texas.”

Nearly half of the state’s population relies on the Trinity River for some of its water needs. While an ongoing drought has threatened the vitality of rivers in other parts of Texas, that has been less of an issue for the Trinity, which attracts far more debate over riverside development plans in Dallas and Fort Worth.

The Trinity's flows have remained relatively strong thanks in part to a robust reuse program in North Texas, according to officials and environmentalists working along the river. The Dallas area returns much of the water it takes from the river back in the form of treated wastewater. Downstream, Houston residents rely on that reused water.

“Every drop of water that’s being consumed in Houston has been through the wastewater treatment plants in Dallas and Fort Worth,” said Andy Sansom, director of the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University. It’s an approach other states and other parts of Texas are expected to employ more broadly as populations grow and water sources become more valuable.

Wetland development and other projects along different parts of the river, much of it on private land, are also helping maintain and strengthen the river’s vitality, according to Ken Klaveness, executive director of Trinity Waters, a nonprofit conservation group. 

“We’re trying to stimulate the quality of the soil which has been depleted by 100 years of farming and over-fertilization,” Klaveness said. “We’re doing projects like planting native grasses that revitalize soil health, which is vital in retaining water.”

Though parts of the Trinity River still remain polluted, the river has become cleaner in recent years. The Trinity River Authority, which oversees much of the wastewater treatment efforts in the river basin, is currently studying the ecology of the river in partnership with Texas Parks and Wildlife and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said Glenn Clingenpeel, a senior manager with the Trinity River Authority.

“The preliminary results are that the ecology of the Trinity is surprisingly good,” Clingenpeel said. A key reason for those results, he said, is that a large proportion of the river’s flow downstream is from treated wastewater, which is so clean that the basin now supports species such as darter fish that are sensitive to pollution and would not have survived in the river in the past. 

Sansom noted that the relationship between various communities along the river could become strained as they jockey for more of the river’s resources.

“In the case of the Trinity, it ain’t the rice farmers downstream,” Sansom said, referring to a long-standing battle over water in the Colorado River between Austin and rice farmers south of the city. “It’s the city of Houston.” 

Denis Qualls, senior program manager with the city of Dallas’ Water Utilities Planning Division, said Dallas officials are aware that the Trinity’s resources are limited. He added that the city is required to deposit a certain amount of water back into the river based on the water rights permit the city has with the TCEQ. 

“We’re looking at more conservation and we’re looking at re-use. In my mind, those are a given,” Qualls said. “Beyond that, that will not be enough water for the future so we are looking outside the basin.”

The Houston area is looking both within and outside the basin to meet its future water needs. The city is moving forward with the Luce Bayou project, which will transport more than 400 million gallons of water per day from the Trinity River to the Lake Houston reservoir 30 miles away. 

Environment Texas, an environmental advocacy group, has expressed concern that the project will endanger wildlife in Galveston Bay, which gets about half of its water via the Trinity.

“In peak drought periods, it would reduce the levels below the minimum levels necessary for ecosystem health,” said Luke Metzger, the group's director. “I think that in general, we need to be exhausting our potential for conservation before we consider projects like this.” 

Alvin Wright, a spokesman with Houston’s Public Works and Engineering Department, said the project was thoroughly studied and has been approved by TCEQ.

“All public comments including those pertinent to environmental flow were carefully considered and the inter-basin transfer project underwent a rigorous federal permitting process, including a comprehensive environmental impact study that has addressed any and all issues related to protecting the environment,” Wright said in an email.

A growing concern for communities that rely on the Trinity’s waters is the recent discovery of zebra mussels in the river in Denton County, prompting fears that the invasive species will spread downstream. In other parts of the state, zebra mussels have clogged pipes and restricted the flow of pumped water, prompting water providers to spend millions to combat the problem.

Apart from the efforts of managing the river’s water supply and wildlife, major urban development projects in Fort Worth and Dallas are attempting to tame the Trinity’s historic tendency to flood while remaking both cities’ landscapes.

In the 15 years since Dallas voters approved a $246 million bond package for its Trinity River Corridor Project, city officials and community activists have argued over the details of the flood control project, including the inclusion of a possible toll road. Though major portions of the project remain in limbo, an environmental impact statement from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is due next year and could pave the way for construction to begin on the toll road. A recent city-sponsored urban design competition aimed at exploring ways to connect downtown Dallas and the Trinity River has also revived discussion. Organizers are expected to announce a winner of the contest next month.

In Fort Worth, the Trinity River Vision Authority is overseeing the decade-old Trinity Uptown, likely to soon be renamed Panther Island. The project aims to redevelop 800 acres north of downtown and modernize flood control in the area. The project’s current price tag is $909 million, including $487 million in federal funding, of which about $59 million has so far come in, according to Trinity River Vision Authority Executive Director J.D. Granger. Granger, the son of U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, projected that the project would be completed in 2022 or 2023, assuming the Texas congressional delegation can secure about $50 million a year for it.

“We’re not just making parts of the city safer. We’re actually putting value back into the system,” Granger said. “It’s economic development and flood control.”

The project has long drawn controversy and allegations of cronyism. Earlier this year, east Fort Worth resident Mary Kelleher won her seat on the board of the Tarrant Regional Water District, a key partner on the project, with a campaign that included questioning the wisdom of the project. Kelleher thinks its price tag is too high and that the federal funding assumptions are unrealistic. A pure flood control project would be less costly and likely be completed much sooner, she said.

“Obviously everyone loves San Antonio and the River Walk,” Kelleher said. “I just don’t see a need for it in Fort Worth.”

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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