Texas is taking my land to build an unnecessary lake

By Deborah Clark

Dallas Morning News, October 20, 2023

Texas is a proud private-property state. Ownership and stewardship of land are lauded, celebrated and written into our state’s storied history. But what if the government was taking your land and there was nothing you could do about it? What if you were threatened with having the prairie, cattle and wildlife that shape your environment and provide your livelihood taken away?

For nearly a decade I’ve been fighting an uphill battle to keep my ranch from being taken by the government and drowned. I’ve fought alongside my fellow ranchers and neighbors whose property is being threatened by the government’s use of eminent domain.

In a few short weeks an administrative judge will make a recommendation which may ultimately decide whether we get to keep our land. We’re participating in a contested case we brought against water developers and the city of Wichita Falls who claim to need a reservoir — dubbed Lake Ringgold —that would permanently flood some 16,000 acres of productive agricultural land and take a total of as many as 40,000 acres out of production in our region, according to Texas Water Development Board planning documents.

Wichita Falls doesn’t need Lake Ringgold. Its current water supplies are adequate to meet demands for at least the next 50 years. And Wichita Falls is not growing. It was the only one of Texas’ 10 biggest metro areas that lost population in the last census. The Texas Demographic Center projects its population will continue to decline.

During the hearing we were told the impact on landowners is not relevant in a contested case hearing and is not considered in a feasibility study. But the negative impact on our properties and community is at the very heart of this debate.

If building a reservoir came with no negative impact, it wouldn’t matter if Wichita Falls built an unnecessary reservoir. But the people of Wichita Falls and surrounding communities will face a $442 million price tag for Lake Ringgold. The tremendous negative economic, social, and environmental impact will be devastating and irreversible to our entire region.

I believe all of us — urban and rural community members — share the same goal of a vibrant, thriving Texas and Texoma region. But building a reservoir we don’t need doesn’t help anyone.

Wichita Falls has been a pioneer in water reuse. During the 2011-15 drought, it made headlines and won an award for its efforts to cope with the drought and prepare for future times — like now — that are hotter and drier. But today the city claims it is a hardship for residents to limit lawn watering to just twice a week.

When a project that is unnecessary, environmentally damaging and would cost nearly half a billion dollars is proposed, you have to look at who stands to gain if the reservoir goes forward. The city has said no engineering company has been contracted for this project. But one company has been pushing it since the 1950s: Freese and Nichols. They produce studies that say this reservoir is necessary. Estimates like these inflate the city’s water demand figures and undercount its supply by excluding 20% of existing reservoir water from available resources. That’s two years’ worth.

Freese and Nichols testified as experts for the city in the hearing, claiming that landowners would be adequately compensated by the reservoir. But what, pray tell, is adequate compensation for five generations on the land?

Lake Ringgold would forever drown homes, ranches, cemeteries, historic structures, archaeological sites, most of the remaining woodlands left in Clay County and 165 miles of river and creeks. It would force more than 25 Texas ranching families like mine to sell all or part of the land that provides their livelihoods and their homes.

It is easy to ignore arduous administrative proceedings like the ones my neighbors and I are going through. A reservoir miles away from your home probably doesn’t feel like something to be concerned about.

But what if it were your land?


Deborah Clark is a cattle rancher and co-owner of Birdwell & Clark Ranch in Clay County, Texas. She wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.