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Texas Close To Gaining First Reservoir In 20 Years

Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson for The Texas Tribune
Harold "Thump" Witcher Jr., a Fannin County native, and his wife, Patty, live on 485 acres of farmland that sits in an area slated to be flooded to create the Bois d'Arc Creek Reservoir. The reservoir will provide water for parts of North Texas.

Life in the rural, North Texas county of Fannin is about to change in a big way as construction begins on Texas’ first new reservoir in nearly two decades.

The Bois d’Arc Creek Reservoir is expected to eventually provide water for 1.7 million people serviced by the North Texas Municipal Water District. But first, nearly 2,000 workers will converge on the 10,000-person county seat of Bonham during the five-year project that will create a 16,641-acre lake in the backyard of the town by 2022, said City Manager Sean Pate.

Bonham "is expecting something like an oil boom to come with the construction,” Pate said. “Then, we expect people to stay because of … Texans’ fascination with lakes. This is going to create a lot of changes in our community.”

The last time a major reservoir was constructed in Texas was 1999, and water-supply reservoirs seemed to be going out of fashion as environmental regulations tightened and different avenues for water supply opened up. The Bois d’Arc Creek Reservoir could point to a changing tide in the search for additional drinking water resources, said former Texas Water Development Board Chairman Bech Bruun, who oversaw the agency when it approved the project's plans.

But in the rural Fannin County land that’s slated to become a lake bed, opposition to the reservoir is stronger than ever.

“They have water already, and they just want to build this reservoir for inessential uses,” said Harold “Thump” Witcher Jr., a Fannin County farmer and rancher whose land is located in the lake’s planned boundary. “They want to turn it around and take people’s farm and ranch land away so people can water their lawns.” 

Landowners like Witcher are likely out of options to block the reservoir because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued the final federal permit earlier this month for the water district to begin construction.

Fannin County won’t receive most of the reservoir's drinking water, which will be piped 35 miles away to a treatment plant in Leonard and will provide water to much of northeast Dallas, but the county — and the city of Bonham — are expected to experience the most direct economic impact from the lake. The lake will increase housing values and generate roughly $20 million annually in recreational economic activity in Fannin, according to a study done by the Army Corps of Engineers before it issued the final federal permit.

The anticipated economic upside has city and county officials excited about the reservoir, despite the adjustments to daily life that may be needed, Pate said. The planned lake is expected to draw boaters, fishers and sightseers to the area, Pate said.

“There are definitely some challenges that come with a population jolt,” he said. “A lot is going to change, but there’s just too much good to come from a project like this that it outweighs any of the drawbacks.”

Witcher said there’s a disconnect between what local leaders and average citizens think about the reservoir.

“The Bonham City Council and the mayor all think it’s going to be the finest thing in the world, but if you actually talk to the populace themselves, they’re actually not that in favor of it,” he said. “People are losing their homes and their way of life, and people need to remember that this is a water reservoir, not a recreational facility.”

Construction will begin in the coming months on the reservoir, which is expected to cost $1.2 billion, said Janet Rummel, spokesperson for the North Texas Municipal Water District.

The massive price tag for the reservoir is going to be paid by the district through loans from the Texas Water Development Board’s State Water Implementation Fund for Texas. The board has approved  two loans of more than $500 million, the most recent on Feb. 15. The loans will be paid back over several decades by raising water rates in the district, Rummel said.

“It’s one of the bigger price tags that we’ve seen in Texas in recent history in terms of water infrastructure,” said Bruun.

Part of the price will go toward acquiring the land needed for the dam and reservoir from Witcher and his fellow landowners. He estimates 200 people live in the area.

The water district has already purchased 85 percent of the land necessary for the reservoir, Rummel said. Witcher said he has not begun negotiating with the company. If he refuses to sell his property, the state government could use the power of eminent domain to acquire it.

"I’m not doing anything until I’m forced to leave, but right now we’re kind of just dead in the water," Witcher said.

Construction on the dam is expected to take three years, followed by another two years for the lake to fill. The region is currently enduring a moderate drought, but Rummel said the dry conditions shouldn’t affect the timeline of the project, assuming the rain returns by the time the dam is completed.

As Texas heads toward building its 189th major water-supply reservoir, the rural farmers and ranchers of Fannin County are bracing for change as their land becomes a water source for the Dallas suburbs.

"I’m going to retire at the end of March, and my whole dream my whole life has been to retire and live here and enjoy my place finally," said Witcher, whose family has owned the land since 1865. "I’m going to have to move. I don’t know what I’m going to do and how this is all going to shake out."

The Texas Tribune provided this story.