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Water woes

Plans for future fall on shoulders of private property owner


By Bobby Horecka
Field Editor

Wayne Ryser grazes his hand along the feathery tops of what seems to be miles of waist high wheat nestled along the banks of the Lower Bois d’Arc Creek.

A couple more good rains over North Texas could produce one of the better crops he’s seen over the last few dry years, he says, but crop conditions are really the least of his concerns.

Ryser’s family and neighbors have farmed this land since before the Civil War. They’ve outlasted droughts, disease and critters of all sorts to raise their crops in these rich riverbed soils. They’ve got history on their side.

But it’s the future they worry about.

"You see that ridge of trees over there," he says, pointing north to a hillside cluster of rich green growth. "That’s where they say they’ll build the dam."

The dam would form the headwaters of what state water planners label the Lower Bois d’Arc Creek Reservoir, one of as many as 19 sites statewide targeted for possible reservoir construction to meet the water needs of a growing Texas.

If it gets built, this vast piece of farmland—the largest contiguous piece of productive acreage in Fannin County—would cease to exist. If it gets built, miles of lush pastures where Ryser and his neighbors keep livestock would be swallowed by roughly 350,000 acre-feet of water. And if it gets built, that beautiful ranch house neighbor Thump Witcher recently built would be forever lost.

If, that is, it gets built.

"I’ll probably never see a single drop of water from any of these reservoirs," Witcher says. "In fact, many of the lakes within the state proposal may never get built."

But if Texas lawmakers successfully approve the state water board’s proposed list of designated reservoirs, Witcher says the approval alone could be just as devastating as the wall of water the dam would form.

"Just by signing off on the plan, they’ve effectively made my property worthless," he says. "It might as well be under a lake."

It’s exactly that type of property devaluation Texas Farm Bureau State Legislative Director Billy Howe is fighting this year in Austin as lawmakers debate the future of water resources across the Lone Star State.

But the Texas Water Development Board’s proposal involves much more than water, Howe says.

"We cannot allow a blanket proposal to occur that would adversely affect so many landowners," he says. "This is a private property rights issue, one that will work for years into the future to the detriment of rural Texas."

Not only would such designations lower property values by forever clouding the title of lands in the footprint of the proposed sites, Howe says approval of the proposed water plan effectively snubs the accepted standards involving land acquisition for public projects.

Farm Bureau has championed private property rights for years, and this session has fought vigorously against the perils of eminent domain. Howe said several bills are under consideration to ensure landowners receive fairer treatment under the law.

But that water plan may trump those efforts.

"You can’t very well fight for the best possible price on your land if the starting price is next to nothing," says John W. Welch, a retired lieutenant colonel with the U.S. Air Force who, like Witcher, stands to lose a lot if the water plan is approved. "Besides, it’s not for sale in the first place."

Welch’s family has owned the sprawling cattle ranch he calls home since the 1870s. Most of it would be buried under water should the Lower Bois d’Arc ever be dammed.

"I was born in the same cattle pasture where my house is today," the 76-year-old Welch says. "Even if they built that dam tomorrow and I had to relocate, it’s not like I could ever be a rancher again. It takes at least a decade before you can get a cattle herd even headed in the right direction. I don’t know about everybody else, but I doubt I have that many years left in me."

Stewart Richardson is about half Welch’s age and owns acreage elsewhere in the county. While he may not seem to have as much to lose in the fight against the reservoirs, nothing could be further from the truth, he says.

He and Ryser lease much of the farm acreage located in the rich flood plain soils along the Lower Bois d’Arc.

"My entire livelihood would have a black cloud over it when it came to long-term financing," he says. "It’s mighty hard to convince a loan officer you’ll be able to pay him back when your farmland becomes a lake bed."

The thousands of acres covered by water won’t be the only land affected.

Environmental laws require that an area of "like acreage" be set aside as "mitigation lands" to provide habitat for all of the wildlife displaced by new reservoir constructions, which could claim tens of thousands more acres in addition to the lands designated as reservoir sites.

As the main artery for most of the wildlife in Fannin County, the Lower Bois d’Arc would need some 30,000 additional mitigation acres if the dam is ever built, Richardson said. And because of the "like acreage" stipulation, those lands would come at the expense of farmland, the single largest money-maker in Fannin County.

"You couldn’t have hills or marginal lands set aside for the mitigation acreage," he says. "They have to be the same soil type and elevation. In other words, we could pretty much kiss our very best farmlands goodbye if the reservoir ever gets built."

Adding insult to injury for the folks along the Lower Bois d’Arc, the proposed lake site isn’t even a feasible one, Ryser says. In addition to owning land along the Fannin County creek, Ryser also serves on the local water district board. He has stacks of studies showing the creek a poor choice for reservoir construction.

The Army Corps of Engineers, for example, has twice (in 1968 and again in 1999) ruled against reservoir construction along the Lower Bois d’Arc. Their 1999 report says dam building could cause "potential technical and environmental problems," stating that the "shallow nature of the reservoir would potentially pose water quality problems."

Those studies also indicate Fannin County has available water resources for decades to come. New reservoirs would only serve to provide water for people in other parts of the state, who as Witcher put it, would be better served by increasing capacities of existing lakes, better networking of service pipelines, improved urban water conservation measures, and ultimately, construction of desalinization plants to make use of Gulf waters.

Ryser agreed.

"We don’t even need the water, and we have to sacrifice in order to provide it to others," he says. "Just think what would happen if this went the other way. We’re running out of farmland, so we’re going to have to plow down this subdivision. There would be outrage."

That’s why Ryser and his neighbors say they don’t intend to give up. The Fannin County group, along with several others from northeast Texas, have already traveled to Austin to testify before committee hearings against the state water plan.

Yet despite their pleas for another solution to the water issues, Welch says their biggest obstacle lies right in their own backyards.

"I’ve talked about this at church, at the bar and just about any place I could get three men to stand and listen," he says. "But they don’t seem to hear me. Most everyone just sings the praises of all the economic benefit these reservoirs will bring."

But those benefits come at significant cost.

"They may look at this in terms of some big vision for the future," Richardson says. "But this is all about our property rights. You take away someone’s land or start telling him what he can and can’t do with it, you don’t just ruin what he has now. You ruin all he’ll ever have, all his children will ever have. That’s not what our right to own property is all about."