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Report on proposed Marvin Nichols reservoir downplays impacts

By Glenn Evans
Nov. 8, 2014 at 11 p.m.

The state agency that will decide whether Marvin Nichols Reservoir goes into the Texas water plan has given Northeast Texas water planners more time to respond to a report on the lake's impact.

The report was submitted Oct. 31 by Dallas water officials hoping to build the reservoir on the Sulphur River.

The staff of the Texas Water Development Board and the Northeast Texas Regional Water Planning Group now have until Dec. 17 to comment on the 125-page technical report, said planning group director Walt Sears. The initial response window was to close Nov. 19, but the water board added a month after a request from state Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler.

The director for the Region D Water Planning Group, Sears also said the three-member water board set a Jan. 8 hearing in Austin to possibly settle the interregional conflict once and for all.

The latest chapter in the conflict over the lake spanning some 15 years comes after the state water board told the Dallas-based Region C Water Planning Group to quantify the impacts on natural resources and agriculture concerns the lake is expected to have.

The resulting report, by Fort Worth-based Freese and Nichols engineers, estimates minor impact on both.

"The short answer is, they think the impact to the environment are the 66,000 acres it takes to build the lake and the 47,000 acres it takes to offset those impacts," Sears said.

And while the 66,000-acre direct lake imprint is revised down from an initial 70,000 acres, owing to a lowered elevation estimate, the 47,000 acres of so-called mitigation land is likely to draw doubts from the Region D officials opposed to Marvin Nichols.

"One of the most visible impacts is how much of the land is impacted because of the mitigation law," Sears said, referring to set-aside land that is not part of the future lake bed but must be preserved to offset that loss. Agricultural activity, including timber harvesting, is not allowed on mitigation property.

How much mitigation?

"Reasonable minds can differ on what that impact will be," Sears said. "Region C suggests 47,060 acres, and the Texas Water Development Board's review, it will likely provide insight on whether they think that estimate is within the range of normal or not."

Jim Thompson, the attorney for Region D preparing the water planning group's response to the report, could also have his own take on how much mitigation acreage will be required.

Thompson did not return a phone message seeking his reaction to the Freese and Nichols report.

The firm submitting the report for Region C was once run by Marvin Nichols, the lake's namesake who was born two years after Freese and Nichols was founded in 1894.

The Dallas region wants to build the lake and pipe water to the Dallas-Forth Worth area to sustain population growth expected to mushroom in the 50-year planning period the state uses for water forecasts.

Northeast Texans, especially along the Sulphur River where the lake is planned, object largely along economic lines.

Timber and paper mill owners, by far the two chief industries in Red River County where most of the lake would lie, are especially alarmed over the mitigation land. Much of the land surrounding the site is prime softwood timber fields.

The report seems to downplay the loss of timber by taking a wider view of Marvin Nichols' impact on the greater East Texas timber harvest. It says none of the 23 biggest timber-producing counties would be affected by the lake.

Environmental groups opposing the lake focus on rare bottomland hardwoods that will be lost beneath Marvin Nichols' surface.

The report lists relatively little impact there, as well. Of four categories of protected species - on state and federal "endangered" and "threatened" lists, the report says there is a moderate, or mid-level, chance that three species listed as threatened by the state will be impacted.

Those species are the creek chubsucker, which is a stream fish, the northern scarlet snake and the timber rattlesnake.

Location of mitigation

At least one major question remains unanswered in the report - where will the mitigation land be?

Sears said that largely will be up to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the impoundment of moving waters, and the entity seeking the lake permit.

The North Texas Municipal Water District, which supplies Dallas and some suburbs with water, is the lead applicant for the Marvin Nichols permit. Other Metroplex suppliers, including the Fort Worth's Tarrant Regional Water District, also are participating in the permit request.

The Corps of Engineers, Sears said, typically prefers that mitigation land come from the same river basin where a lake is proposed. He also noted the Sulphur River flows through Regions C and D.

"The location (of mitigation land) - that has yet to be negotiated between the project sponsor and the federal government issuing the permit, if there is one," Sears said. "It's possible some of the territory would be within Region C. ... And while Region C talks about where the lake is, it is a little bit uncertain how mitigation will affect agriculture and timber.

"Region C did submit their estimation, but I assure you this is a partial view. The technical staff of the water development board needs to weigh in. And so does Region D."



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