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Official Says Marvin Nichols Reservoir Should Stay in Water Plan

UPDATED: The Texas Water Development Board's executive director issued a final recommendation Monday that the controversial Marvin Nichols reservoir in northeast Texas remain in the state water plan for now.

by Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal
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Updated, May 19, 5:30 p.m.: 

The Texas Water Development Board's executive director issued a final recommendation Monday that the controversial Marvin Nichols reservoir in northeast Texas remain in the state water plan for the time being, and he asked interested groups in that region to drop their opposition to the plan. 

The executive director, Kevin Patteson, also suggested that the Dallas-Fort Worth region, which wants to build the reservoir, accelerate its consideration of other water supply strategies, including conservation measures. He added that the region should be willing to "share mitigation measures" for Marvin Nichols, which could include incurring extra costs for environmental damage or other problems that arise from the construction of the massive reservoir. 

The recommendation drew an immediate rebuke from the Sierra Club, which said that Patteson's instructions "[make] no sense" and would only lead to more conflict between the Dallas-Fort Worth region and northeast Texas, with little gain. 

"The proposed Marvin Nichols reservoir will never be built. The environmental, financial, and social costs of pursuing this grandiose project are simply too huge to ever make it viable," said Ken Kramer, the water resources chairman for the Sierra Club's Lone Star Chapter. 

Original story, March 3:

After years of fighting between North and East Texas residents over the Dallas-Fort Worth water planning region's plan to build the controversial Marvin Nichols reservoir, the Texas Water Development Board has recommended leaving the northeast Texas project in the State Water Plan for now.  

"To remove Marvin Nichols from the ... plan would leave a substantial unmet need in [North Texas'] water supply by 2060," wrote Kevin Patteson, the water board's executive administrator. "As many as 141 municipalities, communities, and water suppliers would be affected." The agency's three board members — Carlos Rubinstein, Bech Bruun and Kathleen Thea Jackson — now have to vote on whether Patteson's recommendation should be turned into explicit orders that northeast Texas water planning officials withdraw their opposition to the reservoir. 

Patteson said the reservoir was decades away from being built, and that studies of its environmental impacts are underway, which should help allay concerns with the $3.4 billion project. But Bret McCoy, who leads the regional water planning group that includes northeast Texas, said the conflict is far from over. 

"I'm disappointed, but not surprised," said McCoy, whose family has farmed for generations on northeast Texas land that would be affected by Marvin Nichols. Building the reservoir would require flooding of around 70,000 acres in the region, and more land would have to be condemned for environmental protection reasons. McCoy said that would result in “complete decimation of our local economy, specifically the timber industry, which this area relies heavily on. You’re looking at 10 to 20 percent of our jobs."

Officials in the Dallas-Fort Worth area say their region is expected to double in population by 2060, and Marvin Nichols would fulfill a growing need for new water supplies. 

Two of the state's water planning regions — one that includes Dallas and Fort Worth, and McCoy's northeast Texas region — have long disagreed over whether Marvin Nichols should be in official water plans. The Water Development Board resisted getting involved in the conflict, but it was forced to do so last May by the Texas 11th Court of Appeals. Patteson's recommendation instructs both regions to hold public hearings and then give the public several months to submit written comments.

The group Environment Texas also immediately criticized the decision. "This is the water board's first big test since voters entrusted them with billions in new water spending and they are blowing it," the group's director, Luke Metzger, said in a statement. "This project is wasteful, it would destroy a river and pristine forestland, and it has no place in our state's water future." Other environmentalists also believe that the Dallas-Fort Worth region is focusing too much on expensive water projects, rather than conservation measures. 

Conservation is a part of the answer, officials in the Dallas-Fort Worth area say, but won't change the need for a new reservoir. 

The State Water Plan has long been considered to be no more than a "wish list" of water projects for Texas, many of which are unlikely to ever be built. But the document — and the Texas Water Development Board, which plays a significant role in writing it — is getting more scrutiny now that voters have approved using $2 billion to finance water projects in the plan. The agency is working on rules for how that money should be allocated, and many environmental advocates hope that projects like Marvin Nichols would not become eligible for such funds because of their huge environmental impact and cost

But Marvin Nichols could be built regardless of those rules, McCoy says, because cities like Dallas and Fort Worth do not need help from the Water Development Board to build their own projects. They could issue their own bonds instead. North Texas officials say they are considering whether it would make sense to ask for money from the new $2 billion fund to build Marvin Nichols.  

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