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The State of Lakes

In the 1950s, more water demand meant more reservoirs — now it’s a little more complicated.

By Larry McKinney

A satellite view of Texas today looks significantly different from the Texas of the early 1950s. Yes, the roads, cities and other engineered infrastructure of the state have exploded along with the population but the single most striking difference today is the color blue. That expanded color and various shades toward green come from another engineering feat: the construction of reservoirs. Texas, once devoid of all but one or two “natural lakes,” now has enough reservoirs to cover more than 5,056 square miles (3,235,840 acres). In Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lakes, water covers some 4,783 square miles (3,061,120 acres). The 2007 water plan for Texas proposes the construction of 16 new reservoirs covering an additional 246 square miles (157,208 acres). Minnesota, eat our dust!

These numbers represent not only big reservoirs, but also small lakes, ponds and stock tanks. Thanks to an aggressive soil conservation program, an acute awareness of drought, and individual landowners who build their own lakes, we probably have far more than Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes — sorry Minnesota, second place again. Anyone who has flown over Texas in early morning or late afternoon and looked out across the horizon toward the sun knows what I mean. The whole landscape can glitter with water. It is a startling realization if you have never seen it — an engineering feat worthy of Texas.

All of this reservoir building has helped insulate Texans from periodic droughts. The disastrous drought in the early 1950s was the driving force behind the explosion of reservoir construction. Other positive benefits are the recreational opportunities and economic growth these reservoirs have created. Texas did not start off with a nationally recognized big bass fishery — it created one. Reservoirs, and the freshwater fisheries they contain, serve as the foundation for a multibillion-dollar fishing industry in the state. Fishing, boating, skiing and water-related recreation are big business here, and some of the most expensive and desirable real estate in Texas is lakefront property. Many of the state’s busiest parks are located on these reservoirs. As an economic engine for the state of Texas, the development of water resources is an unparalleled success. The question is, are we smart enough to know when we have too much of a good thing?

This is an important question for all Texans, as we are at a crossroads similar to the one we faced following the drought of the ’50s. Our population grew from 8 million in 1950 to 21 million in 2000. Our water supplies basically kept pace, and the means of doing so was, at the time, an easy decision: build another reservoir. We are just now realizing the true costs of those seemingly easy solutions.

According to a 1990 report by Roy Frye (TPWD) and David Curtis (USFWS), the most current statewide study available, Texas has lost at least 63 percent of our original floodplains and some of the most valuable, hardwood bottomlands, have been lost to reservoir construction. It is no coincidence that the best place to grow these diverse and productive wetlands is also often the best place to build reservoirs. At just 7 percent of all woody vegetation and less than 3 percent of land area in the state, these valuable and diverse habitats are a diminishing commodity. Because they are all but impossible to regenerate in any practical time frame, the hardwood bottomlands we have left are essentially irreplaceable.

Willie Sutton, who robbed more than 100 banks in his 30-year career beginning in the mid-’20s, supposedly responded to the question of why he robbed banks by saying, “because that is where the money is.” It is the same reason that reservoirs are built on rivers, because that is where the water is. Water blocked behind a dam, where it can be stored or diverted to various uses, is a valuable asset, but it also means that water does not flow downstream. A reservoir not only drowns the river within its footprint, it also changes the quantity and timing of downstream flows, which in turn can severely alter the downstream river’s ecology. The ecological health of a river is not just important to an aquatic biologist, it is important to you. Your health depends upon it. Just about every major inland city discharges its wastewater into a river and their discharge permits require them to treat their waste only to a specified level — a level which is typically not adequate for safe consumption. It takes additional treatment to make that water fit for taking into a downstream city’s drinking water system. We depend upon a healthy river ecosystem to provide that natural treatment. It saves us millions of dollars and helps preserve our health. We would otherwise be subject to polluted and untreated waters. Healthy rivers that support multiple recreational uses are increasingly recognized as valuable economic assets, especially in rural communities. The explosion in development of paddling trails and river walks over the last several years gives visible testimony to that fact.

Additionally, that water, if not disrupted by a reservoir, may also flow all the way downstream and into an estuary. The freshwater inflows from rivers are the lifeblood of our coastal estuaries, bringing nutrients and sediments and establishing the salinity gradients that are the basis of estuarine health and productivity. Texas’ multibillion-dollar recreational and commercial fisheries and the communities they support depend upon those inflows. Dams not only diminish overall inflows, but they can alter hydrology just as they do with rivers. The annual spring and fall floods deliver much of the benefit of these inflows to our estuaries; indeed, many estuarine organisms have evolved to depend on such spring and fall floods. Reservoirs can capture some portion of the larger spring floods and, by holding and then releasing water over an extended period, can greatly alter the ecology of a receiving estuary. The smaller fall floods may be captured in their entirety.

There are no more easy solutions to water development, although some individuals and organizations seem not to realize it. Their first thought when faced with a water shortage is to recommend, even demand, that a new reservoir be built. The urgency is understandable but the lack of forethought is inexcusable. Texas’ population is expected to double over the next 50 years to something over 46 million. The water to meet that demand is scarce but not impossible to find. The construction of new reservoirs will be only a part of that solution. A thoughtful assessment shows that, of all the strategies, it is but one and not necessarily the best. Many strategies are available; it is essential that we weigh the real costs and benefits of any strategy, but especially the construction of expensive new reservoirs.

Not a single new major reservoir has been built over the last 20 years and few have been permitted. Many in the water development community have been quick to blame environmental problems and “environmentalists” for this apparent lack of progress. And, in fact, during the period following the reservoir construction boom, essentially starting in the mid-’80s, that was clearly the case. For the first time reservoir developers and the general public stepped back and reflected on what had been wrought. It was mostly good, as noted earlier, but the true costs were also being recognized. The idea of mitigating, or compensating for environmental impacts, was considered and incorporated into water permits for reservoirs. No state permits before the mid-’80s had such provisions. All major permits since have mitigation provisions.

The late ’80s was a bitter time for water developers. The teams of lawyers and engineers that so blithely sold reservoirs to local and state leaders hit roadblocks that were at one time mere bumps on the road. Where reservoirs were once eagerly sought and celebrated, Texans began to tap on the brakes. The first evidence of change was the Little Cypress reservoir in far northeast Texas. The water permit was issued after a contested and often contentious hearing. The permit included significant mitigation requirements, but the developers were re-signed and ready to roll as usual until the local people said no. Twice, bond elections were defeated. Voters were not willing to fund a reservoir for which they could see no need, one that could be rationalized only by the promise of selling the lake’s water to Louisiana. To this day, Little Cypress Reservoir has not been built.

As new reservoirs have been proposed and opposed from the late ’90s to today, developers have continued and even amplified the mantra that environmental issues are derailing progress toward meeting our water needs. They miss the point. All the mitigation issues have reasonable answers. They do have costs, yet they can and do reduce a reservoir’s adverse impact to a level where they can and have been permitted. Reservoir proposals like Marvin Nichols on the Sulphur River face significant environmental challenges, but the real obstacle is people. Today, the flooding of people’s homes and heritage will face stiff opposition whenever there are reasoned doubts about the need for a new reservoir. What many in the water development community have not come to realize is that Texans today are increasingly sophisticated about these issues and are not tolerant of accepting a fiscal burden or the taking of their fellow Texans’ land without a compelling reason.

Much has been written in the new state water plan and elsewhere about the consequences of not meeting our future water needs as our population doubles. It is mostly dire and dark. There is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek argument that, in fact, we do have more than enough water to meet the needs of those future Texans. It is the water needs of their lawns that we cannot meet! The serious point being that there are numerous water development strategies that should be fully realized before contemplating a reservoir. More and more Texans demand we do so, and it is just common sense. One of those strategies is water conservation. It is the most cost-effective and least disruptive means of preserving water for other uses, like keeping riverine and estuarine ecosystems healthy and productive. It is a strategy in which all Texans can participate and, taken together, can make a significant contribution. The lawn comment is no joke. It is where we waste huge amounts of water, often to create unrealistic tropical micro-climates in semi-arid deserts. Think about your own lawn in this way and I bet you can come up with a number of ways to save water. All we have to do is act on those good impulses.

Desalination, water reuse, more efficient use of groundwater and existing reservoirs, along with conservation, are a few of the more environmentally friendly water management strategies that can also help meet future water needs. The 2007 Texas water plan recognizes that reservoirs are just a part of the solution and lists some 4,500 individual water management strategies to meet water supply needs that regional planning groups have put on the table for serious consideration. Altogether they would generate some 9 million acre-feet of water by 2060. Major reservoir construction accounts for only 1.1 million (12 percent) acre-feet of that total.

Nonetheless, it is reservoirs that get the attention. They are a highly emotional issue for those involved, water developers, environmentalists and affected landowners alike. It makes any reasoned consideration of them difficult at best. Just mentioning the names of proposed reservoirs like Marvin Nichols and Fastrill can have folks running for their lawyers or their guns, and sometimes both!

If we are to ever have a chance to decrease the level of hyperbole associated with this water supply strategy, two things must happen. The development community must come to grips with the fact that reservoirs have real costs beyond those to construct them, environmental costs that must be addressed through mitigation. The environmental community must come to grips with the fact that some new reservoirs are needed and they must work with all sides to come up with reasonable mitigation for them. One avenue to begin that process might be to identify those sites where reservoirs could be considered and those sites where they should not. The original SB 1 water legislation, signed into law by then Governor George Bush in 1997, contemplated this in its beginnings. By the time the bill was passed into law, much of that intent was lost and only some much-misunderstood provisions for the recognition of ecologically significant streams and the designation of future reservoir sites remained. Designating one group of sites without simultaneously identifying the other will not work, especially if done unilaterally without all stakeholders’ participation. It would not be an easy task, but it might be the basis, the beginning, of something positive.

Whether you consider it a curse or a blessing, the Texas reservoir system is a remarkable feat of engineering. The key point for TPWD is that the lakes are here and they are not going away. They provide us both opportunity and challenge in meeting our responsibilities. We are better equipped than ever to make sure that future reservoirs can meet their water supply goals and recreational potential while minimizing adverse environmental im-pacts. Seems easy enough, doesn’t it?

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