Disagreeing with Dallas-Fort Worth-area water officials, the Texas Water Development Board decided on Wednesday that a years-long conflict over a yet-to-be-built reservoir in the region’s 50-year water plan is serious enough that it should be resolved.
The water-planning agency voted unanimously to deem a disagreement between two contiguous water-planning regions in North and Northeast Texas an “interregional conflict,” setting into motion a third-party mediation that must begin by Oct. 5.
The move is a small victory for the Region D Water Planning Group in Northeast Texas, which requested mediation amid its opposition to the $3 billion-plus Marvin Nichols Reservoir that the thirsty D-FW region wants to build in Red River and Titus counties.
The project would require flooding 70,000-plus acres in the area and take even more land as an environmental protection measure — something local officials say would devastate the region’s lucrative timber industry. Officials from North Texas' Region C Water Planning Group, meanwhile, say the manmade lake is key to meeting the fast-growing area's future water needs, and they accuse the Northeast Texas region of abusing the water-planning process.
“Region D’s allegation of an interregional conflict is an attempt by it to use the water planning process to thwart, rather than encourage, the development of adequate water supplies for the state of Texas,” Jody Puckett, the chair of the Region C Water Planning Group, wrote in a brief to the water board.
For years, the water board has avoided picking sides, choosing to accept both regions' 2012 water plans even though Region C’s includes the reservoir and Region D’s specifically opposes it. But pressure to resolve the disagreement has mounted because neither region will be eligible to receive any of the $2 billion that voters recently approved for water infrastructure financing until the issue is settled. That's because a project has to be firmly included in the State Water Plan to be eligible for state funding.
Two years ago, the water board also lost its appeal of a lower court decision that found that there is an interregional conflict. In May 2013, Texas’ 11th Court of Appeals ruled that an interregional conflict exists if a proposed water supply project will have a substantial impact on the region’s agricultural, economic or natural resources.
Given that, “I would be hard-pressed to say that there’s not substantial impact,” Bech Bruun, the water board’s new chairman, said Wednesday.
If outside mediation is not successful, however, Bruun warned that the board will again be faced with resolving the conflict itself.
“At that point, the record before us … will look different,” he said, describing the mediation process as relying on “a lower threshold and standard.”
Water board spokeswoman Kimberly Leggett said the agency "is in the process of writing new rules for the definition on an interregional conflict."
"We hope to have the new rule finalized this fall," she said.
Leggett also explained that Wednesday's vote covered "the initially prepared 2016 regional water plans, which will be rolled up in the 2017 State Water Plan," rather than the 2012 State Water Plan.
That document, updated every five years, contains water plans produced by 16 regional water planning groups that estimate how much water their area will need in 50 years and the projects and measures that will deliver it.
State Rep. David Simpson, who unsuccessfully pushed a bill during this year’s legislative session that would have banned the reservoir from the State Water Plan, applauded the board’s action Wednesday but said “this issue is far from resolved.”
“We must be ever vigilant on this issue,” the Longview Republican, who does business in the timber industry, said in a Facebook post. “Region C has demonstrated they have little incentive or interest to work with us and I fear the force of government could still be used to take East Texas water, land, resources, and more.”