DFW wants controversial reservoir. Northeast Texans hope new study will build opposition

By Haley Samsel

Fort Worth Report, November 12, 2023

J. Kevin Ward expected a bigger crowd. 

As the longtime chair of Dallas-Fort Worth’s regional water planning group, Ward has been in rooms with hundreds of northeast Texans upset over the group’s proposal to flood 66,000 acres of hardwood forest for a massive new reservoir along the Sulphur River. 

He recalls breaking bread with a few opponents, sitting down to explain why North Texas water planners believe the controversial Marvin Nichols reservoir is necessary to create enough water supply for the region’s explosive population growth. 

Marvin Nichols was on the agenda at a Nov. 6 water planning meeting in Arlington, but opportunities for public comment came and went.

“I’d have thought we’d have a more robust discussion,” Ward, general manager of the Trinity River Authority, said. “I don’t know in the long run how this will work for them, if it will ever get built. That’s going to be up to a lot of factors going forward. We don’t even know if we’re going to have it in the (future) water plan yet.”

Widespread opposition to the reservoir stems from concern over residents being forced to sell their land to the state through an eminent domain process and the impact on the region’s timber industry.

Thanks to a study ordered by the Texas Legislature, the decades-long debate over the reservoir’s potential to permanently alter the face of northeast Texas is entering its next chapter. 

The Texas Water Development Board will analyze the feasibility of Marvin Nichols by examining the project’s timeline, associated costs, land acquisition considerations and economic impact on the region. Officials estimate the reservoir would cost $4.4 billion to build.

“We consider this feasibility review to be an important step,” said Janice Bezanson, senior policy director for the environmental advocacy group Texas Conservation Alliance. “This really matters in terms of building that understanding that this is not the way to go, and we need to be figuring out the best way to go without considering taking this much land out of production and taking this much land away from the current owners.” 

The water development board will deliver a report to the Legislature and Gov. Greg Abbott by Jan. 5, 2025, the beginning of that year’s legislative session. The agency will accept “meaningful input” from residents, along with supporting documentation, through Dec. 1, 2023. 

Opponents of Marvin Nichols hope this will draw more attention and legislative opposition to the reservoir, first introduced in the 1960s. Dallas-Fort Worth’s 2021 water plan sets a 2050 completion date for the project, while the northeast planning group recommends against building it before exploring other strategies, including alternate water supply options and water conservation measures. 

Because federal permits often take decades to obtain, local project sponsors — including the Tarrant Regional Water District — must start the process over the next few years to bring the reservoir online by 2050. 

In addition to the 66,000 acres for the reservoir, the state would have to acquire at least 130,000 more acres to mitigate the loss of wildlife habitat and meet federal requirements. 

Bezanson said there’s still time to prevent that outcome. She serves on the steering committee of Preserve Northeast Texas, an opposition campaign formed in 2021

The average Dallas-Fort Worth resident doesn’t understand how heavily the prospect of Marvin Nichols weighs on landowners near Mount Pleasant, Bezanson said. North Texans turn on their faucet, water comes out, and they have no reason to ask how. 

“But the people in the Dallas-Fort Worth area are not going to want to cause these impacts if there’s any other way to do it,” she said. “You’re taking people’s homes and you’re destroying an entire river watershed to water lawns in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. And there are better ways to do that.” 

Bezanson’s organization wants planners to explore storing more water underground, creating more opportunities for water reuse and making a stronger push for water conservation in North Texas. 

However, Ward’s position has stayed the same: His region requires another reservoir to sustain rapid population growth, and Marvin Nichols is the best opportunity to meet that need. 

The latest feasibility study won’t resolve differences between the two regions, Ward said. At their Nov. 6 meeting, Dallas-Fort Worth water planners voted to send their previous studies on Marvin Nichols, including its economic impact, cost and timeline, to the Texas Water Development Board. 

They asked the state to consider the negative economic impact of failing to meet water needs in North Texas. Some Marvin Nichols supporters also point to economic development opportunities stemming from the creation of waterfront property and new recreation attractions. 

Ward also awaits a decision from the three local sponsors — the Tarrant Regional Water District, the Upper Trinity Regional Water District and North Texas Municipal Water District — on whether they want to continue pursuing Marvin Nichols. 

Those agencies are reviewing data on the baseline amount of water that the reservoir will produce and if that yield will be worth the cost of moving forward. Ward expects a decision by next spring. 

“That’s why we haven’t engaged in any coordination with us and the other regions, because I don’t want to get engaged in any coordination on something that may never occur,” Ward said. “I don’t know what these folks want to do yet. They haven’t decided, so we’re just waiting.” 

In the meantime, Bezanson wants to keep Marvin Nichols front of mind for legislators and the general public. While property owners in the reservoir area would be paid for their land, northeast Texans never want to see that prospect become a reality, she said. 

“It reaches into every aspect of society to do a project this massive,” Bezanson said. “How do you compensate someone for having the home they grew up in destroyed and being forced to move out of it? How do you compensate somebody for the fact that the cemetery where their grandparents are buried is now under water? There’s no compensating for that.”


Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. You can reach them at haley.samsel@fortworthreport.org.

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