Threatened Rural Landowners Hope the Plug Gets Pulled on Marvin Nichols Reservoir

By Jacob Vaughn

The Dallas Observer, April 12, 2023

If you really want to get to know people in Cuthand, just go to the local church on Sundays. Whether they know you or not, the people in the tiny community 135 miles northeast of Dallas will greet you as though you’re one of them just returning from a long trip away from home.

The red-brick United Methodist Church is the town’s place of worship, but it’s also where the community meets from time to time to plan its opposition to the Marvin Nichols Reservoir, which may one day inundate their land.

It would flood at least 65,000 acres across Red River and Titus counties, all to help serve the estimated 14.7 million people who may live in the Dallas-Fort Worth area in 2070. The property rights and concerns of landowners in the rural northeast part of Texas where the reservoir would be built seemed to mean little to those trying to meet that demand. For decades, suggested alternatives to the proposed reservoir have been shrugged off by state water planners.

But the tide is starting to turn, said Janice Bezanson, senior policy director for the Texas Conservation Alliance, an advocacy group focused on preserving wildlife. “There’s beginning to be a deeper understanding with policy makers around the state that just building another reservoir is not the right way,” Bezanson said. “That’s the 1950s solution to a 2023 problem.”

The road ahead is looking bright to Bezanson. She said there seems to be hope for Northeast Texas landowners coming from the governor and the state Legislature.

Gov. Greg Abbott commented on the reservoir earlier this year saying that other options should be considered. “There are water needs, whether it be in the Dallas area or even in the Tyler area,” Abbott told CBS 19 in February. “But what we must do, we must explore other options before we start taking people’s lands or flooding property that’s been around for literally centuries. … I think that [the] Texas Water Board as well as legislators, they’re looking for possibilities that would be something other than taking the land.”

The Marvin Nichols Reservoir is not a recommended strategy for Dallas Water Utilities, but it is listed as an alternative. The reservoir is still up for consideration in the North Texas Municipal District plan, which serves Plano, McKinney and other communities north and northeast of Dallas. It’s also a recommended water strategy for Tarrant Regional Water District and the Upper Trinity Regional Water District. The reservoir has made it into the state’s overall water plan.

Kevin Ward, general manager of the Trinity River Authority and chair of the DFW regional planning group, helped create the state’s water plan. He says planners have considered alternatives to the Marvin Nichols reservoir, but those options would produce too little water or cause too much environmental damage, Ward told the Observer in 2021. He said then there’s no other area in the state that could accommodate a reservoir big enough to serve DFW’s water needs.

But Bezanson said she hopes legislation can remove the reservoir from the state water plan and fund alternative water sources. There’s potential for this to happen through Senate Bill 28 and House Bill 1565, now pending before the Legislature.

Sen. Charles Perry, a Lubbock Republican, filed SB 28 to establish a new Water Supply for Texas Fund to ensure the state has enough water to serve the estimated 2070 population. Without intervention, Texas is set to be short some 7 million acre feet of water every year by 2070, Perry said. (An acre foot equals 325,851 gallons, or enough water to cover one acre one foot deep.) If Perry’s bill passes, the funds could be used to buy water from other states, invest in desalination projects and fix aging water infrastructure across Texas, among other things. Perry said the state loses about 136 billion gallons of water every day because of its aging water infrastructure.

Perry has said he supports new supply options over reservoirs because he’s concerned with how feasible the dam projects are. These projects can often be delayed by financing, environmental concerns and local opposition, as can be seen in Northeast Texas. “I’m not against [reservoirs],” he said, according to The Texas Tribune. “I’m just saying … the plan has to be as close to reality as possible.”

“These people have had this proposed reservoir hanging over them for 22 years not knowing whether they should expand their business, build a house, cut trees, grow trees,” Bezanson told lawmakers during the House Committee on Natural Resources hearing on the bill. “They’ve suffered significant economic loss and enormous anxiety and bitterly oppose this, most of them.”

What effect Bezanson’s testimony might have on the state’s water plans won’t be known until later in the legislative session, but she’s confident the Marvin Nichols Reservoir can be defeated and more can be done to supply thirsty DFW with water.

Texas was parched by historic droughts in the 1950s. In a search for ways to mitigate damage from future dry spells, state water planners turned to reservoirs. By 1980, Texas had 126 of them. That decade, the Texas Water Development Board surveyed and mapped all the possible dam and reservoir sites. That’s when the Northeast Texas land was marked for a reservoir named after Marvin Nichols, the board’s first chairman, appointed in 1957.

Every five years, 16 regions across Texas submit their water supply plans to the state. These plans help determine the statewide water plan. Dallas-Fort Worth is in Region C. Cuthand is in Region D. There are 23 new major reservoirs recommended in the state’s current water plan. Bezanson said she and others worry about how destructive these reservoirs can be.

“They disrupt people’s lives,” she said. “They force people to sell their land. They’re taking land out of production for agriculture.”

Marvin Nichols would disrupt timber cutting in Northeast Texas, the biggest industry in the region, Bezanson said. But she said people like Perry are looking for other options. They are starting to ask themselves, “How do we really want to approach water supply?”

At least she hopes this is the case for people like Jim Marshall, who stands to lose land to the reservoir.

Marshall, 60, grew up in Central Illinois with a family that’s owned and operated farmland since they immigrated in the early 19th century. His wife had a similar upbringing in Louisiana. Now the two own land in Northeast Texas that could either be flooded or used for environmental mitigation if the reservoir is built.

Federal law requires that land be set aside for the wildlife that could be flooded out by projects like the reservoir. Between the land covered in water and what might be taken for mitigation, some estimate the project could require nearly 200,000 acres of Northeast Texas.

Marshall and his wife moved to Texas about 20 years ago looking for farmland. Eventually, they found Red River County. Marshall said it’s a very undeveloped county with “lovely pasture and hay meadow land mixed with woodlands, which is unusual in the state of Texas.” It has reliable rainfall, “so for agriculturalists like us, it really seemed ideal,” he said.

Marshall is a children’s physician at the Cooks Children Medical Center in Fort Worth. The family owns about 917 acres and raises black Angus cattle. “So, we own the mama cows and the bulls, and we sell the calf for beef, and we raise hay for our own [herd’s] consumption.”

They also have a significant portion of the ranch set aside for wildlife habitat. “I would say we’re a pretty typical cow-calf, Angus operation in East Texas with the exception that we specifically purchased a fairly large piece of bottom land to dedicate that to the riparian environment that obviously needs protection in our world,” Marshall said.

He said the family knew about the reservoir when they bought the land, but it seemed like it would be a while before it was built so they weren’t too worried at the time. “Just about as soon as we moved to Texas back in 2002, one of the first articles I remember reading, it was either a Dallas paper or a Fort Worth paper, was a full page, above the fold headline about this reservoir that was going to destroy this beautiful part of Texas. I read that and thought ‘Well, that sounds awful,’” Marshall recalled.

But it seemed like it would be a long time before construction on the reservoir would begin so he didn’t initially follow the story.

In 2016, water planners for regions C and D agreed to hold off on building the reservoir until 2070. “So, we knew about it, but it seemed so far away, you know, a generation and a half, that it didn’t impede our purchase,” he said.

Eventually the build date was moved up to 2050. “The threat certainly has increased lately,” he said.

He said the reservoir still seems like a real possibility. Whenever opponents bring up alternative water sources to Region C, no one will listen, he said.

“The only thing we hear kind of out of the side of people’s mouths is ‘Well, that’s not what we planned’ or ‘That’s not in the plan’ or ‘We might do that in the future,’” he said. “We don’t understand why that’s not the first thing on the list.”

“Our sense of it is that when alternatives come up the unstated understanding is that it doesn’t matter. ‘We’re going to build that reservoir,’” Marshall said.

The construction of the reservoir would be destructive, but even the threat of Marvin Nichols is having effects on people who live nearby.

“Every time this comes up, it scares people, so people stop making progress,” Marshall said. “They stop making plans. They stop building barns. They don’t keep up their fences.

“… It’s actually almost more devastating than just knowing that it’s going to be gone and here’s the timeline. Some of my elderly neighbors, it’s about all they can talk about and they don’t know where to turn. They don’t know what to do. There’s no answers, and it’s very hard particularly on elderly people and people with limited resources, like most rural people. So, it’s a problem even as a threat that’s tangible, and I feel bad for those folks every day.”

Marshall’s calf business is set up as a family corporation. He said it costs him money to operate but with it he’s able to employ family members. All of them are still pursuing their education and, meanwhile, learning the trade. “It’s a net zero for me in the end,” he said. “All farming and ranching these days, the land owner basically makes money by operating the land as long as they can, preserving its value and then selling it at some point.

“We all say the farmer or the rancher is the only guy who lives poor and dies rich. … The margin is so incredibly thin it’s very difficult to make a living without capital from some other job. Our investment really is in the land and the people, and that’s the way my family has always operated our farms.

“There’s just no profitable money in agriculture, so you only do it if you love it and you have to have an off-ranch or off-farm operation to make it work,” he said.

He said his whole ranch would be lost to the reservoir. If it’s not underwater, it’ll be taken away for mitigation. “Underwater or not under water, it’s the same destruction of a way of life,” he said.

Marshall said he might get paid for his land, “but money’s not land you can walk around on.”

He would lose a lot, but he said it’s likely nothing compared to what families who’ve lived in the area for generations would lose.

Aaron Rolen lives in Cuthand, a small town of a couple dozen people. “Basically when people think of Cuthand they think of the Cuthand Church,” Rolen said. It’s about 300 yards away from his home.

“If you wanted to get the best view of what it’s like in Cuthand, who the people are in Cuthand, whether you’re religious or not or spiritual or not, just show up on Sunday at Cuthand Church,” he said. It’s a tightknit community, he said. There’s a new cafe down the road called Mal’s Place that’s become popular in town. He goes there two or three times a week to meet with his neighbors.

There’s a community fish fry fundraiser every year at the Cuthand fire department that raises between $25,000-$50,000.

Rolen grew up in Cuthand. “I joke with people that I’ve really gone a long ways in life. I live about 100 yards down the road from where I grew up,” he said.

Rolen was born in Longview but he moved to Cuthand when he was 2 years old. When Rolen was a teenager, his family moved to the nearby town of Bagota. But, his grandparents continued living in Cuthand like they had since the ’70s. He went to South Dakota for college. After he met who would later become his wife, the couple moved to the DFW area. They ended up in McKinney but eventually wanted a change of pace after having kids. They built a house on a small plot in Cuthand next to his grandparents’ ranch. They’ve lived there since 2019.

He remembers hearing about the Marvin Nichols Reservoir periodically as a kid. “I suppose, looking back on it now, it was probably every time the Texas Water Development Board was putting together its plan,” he said. “As a kid, I didn’t care. I didn’t know anything about it.”

He said there are some who say the reservoir is inevitable. Some think they can only prolong the process. Others, though fewer, believe they can stop it.

Rolen said talk of the reservoir died down after the two regions decided not to build it until 2070. In 2019, though, Region C said it wanted to start building the reservoir in 2050. That’s when it popped up on Rolen’s radar again.

If he was asked about this 10 years ago, he would’ve said the reservoir was inevitable. But today, he thinks it can be stopped. “I think with social media and how small the world has gotten, it is a lot easier to draw attention any time there’s any type of injustice,” Rolen said. “I do not think it’s inevitable, and I think we can draw attention to it much more easily. I think just the people of DFW generally don’t know enough about it because it’s just not going to come up on their radar. When it does, at least the people that I’ve talked to, they generally say ‘Well, yeah. That sounds a little crazy. Why would you do that? Why is that necessary now?’”

His grandpa started buying land in the area in the ’70s and owns a few hundred acres. “It’s a family treasure,” said Rolen, an attorney who does much of his work remotely from home. “I know there are quite a few folks like me that would not have been able to live in an area like this and live the lifestyle we have if not for remote work. I think rural areas, small town living, finally have a path forward. You know, small towns have been dying since, what, the ’50s? Slowly dying this long, prolonged, sad death. But I think now there’s a path forward because you’re seeing more and more folks who kind of retreat from the fast life and do what I’m doing.”

But the lifestyle he’s grown to love could be taken away if the reservoir is built.

When it comes to what people will lose, Rolen said, “Everything’s based on estimates right now, and kind of guesses and approximations.” But the latest maps he’s seen put the reservoir about a mile from his front door. Depending on where flood plains are drawn for the reservoir and what mitigation land is taken, he said he could lose his house and the family land.

He’s hoping that if the reservoir does happen that he’ll be able to take what the state gives him and move somewhere close. But he thinks that’s what everyone is planning, so it may be difficult to get land.

People on both sides of the political spectrum oppose the reservoir, Rolen said. “In fact, it’s so funny to be at these meetings and to have someone you would typically associate with like, a ‘California liberal’ … standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a rural rancher with completely different values but both standing there saying ‘We have to preserve the land. We have to be shepherds of the land. We can’t just bury it under water to continue growing a concrete jungle.’”

All of the land that could be lost could have a big impact on the school district that serves the area.

Stanley Jessee, the former superintendent for Rivercrest Independent School District, was born in Clarksville but has lived in Cuthand nearly his whole life, where he worked on his parents’ swine farm while growing up. He attended what’s now called Rivercrest Independent School District and earned a degree in animal science from Texas A&M University. He farmed before moving into education. “Education is what I was meant to do,” he said.

After working at a couple other local schools, he was hired at Rivercrest ISD, where he spent the last 19 of his 30 years in education and was the district’s superintendent for eight years before retiring in 2022.

He first heard about the reservoir back in 2000. From his understanding, he would lose at least a portion of his land to flooding. The rest could be taken for mitigation. Then he started thinking of how the land loss could affect Rivercrest ISD.

The district is made up of students who come from mostly blue collar homes.. “Rivercrest, educationally, is doing great,” he said. Several programs at the district including from athletics, fine arts, health sciences and agriculture, have become contenders in the state.

“The boundaries of Rivercrest cover 151,000 acres. Half of the footprint of Marvin Nichols is set to be built in [the] Rivercrest district,” Jessee said. “It’s going to actually cut our district in half.”

He added, “Here’s the concern with that: To be able to have the programs that we have and be able to serve our kids, you have to have funding.”

The land covered by Marvin Nichols would be taken off the tax roll. Enrollment could start to dwindle and the district could lose state funds because of it.

“If we don’t have enough money coming in to run the programs that we have now, then we have to start making changes,” he said. “You’d have to start looking at reducing staff and reducing programs.”

The alternative would be to try to make up for the funding by raising property taxes. But that could price people out of the area, Jessee said. “It’s kind of rough anyway for the people who actually live here and are stable,” he said. “They have jobs, they’re working hard, they’re paying their mortgage, they’re paying their bills and they’re raising their kids. And this could be damaging, devastating for them.”

Some people tell the Marvin Nichols opposition, like Jessee, that they’re fighting a losing battle. Jessee disagrees. “We do have a mind set that it can be stopped. We just need to keep going. If it happens, it does, but we’re not going to let it and just roll over and play dead. …

“We’re going to continue trying to get information out and trying to get support in this battle against it.”

Bezanson said part of the plan is to fight the reservoir for so long through lawsuits and other means that the state has no other choice but to find alternative water sources.

“But we would much prefer that state leaders and DFW leaders would realize that the damage from the reservoir is too great – it’s not a good option – and begin pursuing those other options now,” she said. “No one wants a lawsuit. We just want sound decisions that avoid unnecessary social, economic and environmental damage.”