This Land Is Your Land, Until Dallas Needs It

How a big chunk of East Texas might end up underwater to keep Dallas swimming in growth potential.

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Much like the rest of Texas, Dallas is enjoying a boom. Real estate prices are rising; huge corporations are relocating to the area; the Olympics may even come to town. But with great power and prosperity comes great responsibility—in this case to slake the thirst of a metropolis that is projected to double in size by 2060. For decades, local leadership has been lobbying to dam the Sulphur River in northeast Texas to provide the city with a much-needed new water source. The resulting 72,000-acre lake would be known as the Marvin Nichols Reservoir, and the water would be pumped hundreds of miles west to the well-watered lawns of Dallas.

The problem is that someone is already using that 72,000 acres. Much of the land that would be flooded has been held for generations by farmers and timber companies, many of whom have no interest in selling. Not that they would have a choice: authorities in Dallas could use eminent domain to force them to accept fair market value for the land. And because construction of a new reservoir would require flooding the river bottom, which includes relatively rare stands of mature hardwood habitat, federal environmental regulations dictate that an enormous amount of extra land be set aside and left undeveloped to compensate for the loss of wetland habitat. This land—as much as 160,000 acres—would also likely be taken through eminent domain.

The longstanding disagreement over Marvin Nichols has highlighted a public policy conundrum: Each region in Texas does its own water planning, but what happens when plans drawn up by neighboring regions disagree? Earlier this month, the executive administrator of the Texas Water Development Board recommended that the board’s members use their authority to compel water planners in northeast Texas to officially drop their opposition to the project, so that the official State Water Plan would be consistent. This did not sit well with East Texans, including Representative David Simpson, of Longview, one of the leading standard-bearers for the tea party wing of the Republican party in Texas. At a hearing in Arlington early this month, he called the agency a “bully.” We caught up with Simpson recently to get his thoughts on what the fight over Marvin Nichols is all about.

Nate Blakeslee: Plans for this dam have been sitting on a shelf in Dallas for decades. It never gets built, but it never seems to die either. What in your mind is this whole fight about?

David Simpson: It’s not just about water. It’s about power, control, and property rights. And it’s also about local control, protecting the environment, and protecting one’s own region’s economic development. It’s also about the free market, or lack thereof.

Why is this a story about the free market?

Well, it’s really simple. If the price of water was not subsidized by various government authorities—and by taking either the water or the land to collect the water—the price of water would be higher in some places and lower in others depending on demand and supply. I think East Texas would be glad to help supply the water to DallasFort Worth or other areas, but we just don’t want to do it unwillingly, to be forced to do it. Certainly the best way is to negotiate freely. So the free market’s really critical to this.

The biggest issue is the way in which we compensate people for property that’s taken by force using eminent domain. You pay them at the present value of the land, but I think you need to take into account the future use of the property. One of the things that I think would make it more attractive and more equitable is if you give to the former property owners an interest in the project from which they could profit. Another way would be to give a hundred-year lease on the property. But to deprive them of the future profits and value of the property seems to be unjust. We’ve been prohibited by case law from taking into account the value that accrues through the taking of the property. Yes, we’re saving the state—and the public in general—money by doing it the way we do it now. But it’s only benefiting those in the locale who may be able to participate in the development.

You called the Texas Water Development Board a bully at a hearing in Arlington recently. What did you mean?

Another way to put it is they are acting like a dictator. The executive administrator has recommended that the Water Development Board members exalt Region C [the planning area that includes Dallas] over Region D [which covers northeast Texas] in an effort to say that there’s no conflict. And you can certainly do that, but it’s like telling two quarreling children that one is going to win and another’s not. One of the good things about regional planning is that you have the motivation to take care of your own environment, your own economic development, and another region doesn’t have that motivation.

What in your mind could Dallas be doing differently to meet their water needs?

Well, I know that Toledo Bend [a giant reservoir in southeast Texas] has a million acre-feet that’s available for future use. Why take hundreds of thousands of acres from northeast Texans when we have a reservoir that can supply the water? The difference is that they have to pay for the pipeline and for the pumping from Toledo Bend. But that means Dallas–Fort Worth pays for it instead of thousands of East Texans losing their jobs and giving up their farms and our own economic development. I think East Texans are willing to sacrifice, to give up some of their normally abundant future supplies of water to other areas of the state that need it. But they don’t want to give up their land and their jobs and their own economic development.

Also, I think they can improve the dam there at Lake Wright Patman. And they could save more water through conservation efforts. I think they’ve begun to do that in Dallas, but in San Antonio they have been doing that since the city was established. They had cisterns collecting water in the earliest days in San Antonio.

I think what some people shy away from when it comes to conservation, especially if they’re conservatives, is that the really effective conservation programs seem to involve the government essentially telling you what you can and can’t do at your house with water.

And I fear that as well, and that’s why I think the price of water should be allowed to fluctuate with supply and demand. It would be the property owner’s choice. If he wanted to use water to grow a garden, he could do it. He might be willing to pay for that, but he might not be willing to pay to fill a swimming pool.

So you’re saying if homeowners were paying what the water actually costswhich would presumably mean much higher ratesthen people would just voluntarily conserve? 

That’s right. Look at Sun City, Arizona. They can grow grass there, but they choose to have pebble lawns instead. It’s more efficient, it’s more economical. Some people do have lawns, and they have to pay for the irrigation of them.

I rarely hear people talk about the really big picture question of whether or not it’s a good idea for Dallas to be twice as big as it is now in forty or fifty years.

And I don’t know that I have the knowledge to make that judgment. But if there is more water in East Texas, and they’re reaching some of the limits in the Dallas–Fort Worth area, I would think that more people would consider locating to East Texas and putting the businesses there. So I think again it’s an issue of freedom and responsibility. If there are limits to infrastructure or supply of this or that, we’ll have to be thinking of some other alternatives.

I think most people in Texas aren’t familiar with the Sulphur River bottoms. Tell me what’s so special about that area in your mind.

We have a lot of trees, hardwoods, in the bottomlands primarily, which also can be used for farmland. Northeast Texas is generally fertile and has an abundance of water, game, and other natural resources. It takes a lot of land to sustain a timber industry. You don’t have to have much real estate to do computer programing and e-commerce, but if we’re going to continue to feed the world and supply paper and lumber, it does require a substantial amount of land. And those trees aren’t just supplying paper and lumber, they’re also eating up a lot of that carbon dioxide that comes from Dallas–Fort Worth.

Some people have compared the fight going on now to the one that happened in Southern California almost one hundred years ago. Los Angeles was growing, and there was no water available locally, so they ended up taking it from the foothills of the Sierras, basically draining a lot of farmland dry. Do you see this as a kind of classic urban-versus-rural fight?

It’s certainly an urban-versus-rural fight, but it’s really more about freedom and property rights. On the rural-versus-urban issue, we’re going to lose that battle because we don’t have the votes. There are just a few representatives in the Region D area. There are probably fifteen in the Region C area. But we’re not a democracy; we’re a constitutional republic that requires that there be due process of law before you take someone’s life, liberty, or property. Generally, you just don’t do that unless you’re a criminal. To say that the life, liberty, and property—the pursuit of happiness—of these Texans is less valuable than those of people who choose to reside in the Dallas–Fort Worth area is anti-republic. It’s anti-American and anti-Texan.

When it comes to infrastructure, there’s nothing that compares to the size of the public investment needed for a new reservoir. The number of people who are going to get paid if a project like this gets built is just enormous. I wonder if the hope that someday that big payoff will come is what has kept this thing alive for all these years.

No doubt. That is a huge part of what kept this on the books. We have a huge constituency of engineers, bankers, and politicians who like to look like they’ve done something for someone. What we don’t ask about is what we would lose because of decisions that were forced on people, on farmers, on timber growers. We just see the paychecks for the engineers and the manufacturers of the pipeline. It’s like the Texas Enterprise Fund and the Emerging Technology Fund. When they’re giving the $40 million to the Toyota headquarters in Plano or the Apple service center in Austin, that money is not just created out of thin air; it comes from Texans. I see it as arrogant that the politicians, instead of property owners, make these decisions. I just don’t think that’s what’s made America or Texas great. It’s been the responsible use of freedom. It’s not been forced. It’s not been five-year planning or fifty-year planning like the Soviet Union would do. It’s responsible property owners making decisions for their families and their children. And for their shareholders.

I think that’s a good note to end on. I appreciate your making the time to visit with me.

You’re welcome. Keep using that First Amendment; we don’t want to have to use the Second one!

(Graphic above from the Texas Water Development Board report.)

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  • WaterGOD

    So he thinks it’s not ok to mess with his water in East Texas but hey…..SE Texas has T bend…..Just take theirs. It’s called the a junior Water Rights Bill shmuck! We already fought this battle and won convincingly. That’s why Dallas does not mess with SE Texas cause we will tell them where to go! OH…and by the way….nice comment at the end. Wear your tin foil hat much!

    • David Simpson

      No, I was NOT suggesting Region C use force with my neighbors to the south. It is my understanding that Toledo Bend has more water they need (at least a million acre feet) and would be glad to sell some or all of it. However, Region C has been reluctant to rely on this solution because of a pipeline’s high cost of construction and ongoing high costs of operation. The comment about the first and second amendment is a fun way I have commonly thanked journalists who have interviewed me to encourage them in their role of facilitating civil discourse, the flow of ideas and dialogue such as this in a free society. Force is never a good way to settle differences. It should only be used in self-defense. Hope this helps.

      • William Andrew McWhorter

        David, I appreciate your point about the closing comment, I know that it is a cursory way to summarize a very serious and detailed line of argument, and I understand what you meant because we happen to see eye to eye on that issue. It deserves its own separate feature-length article.

        However…that’s the sort of comment that only a thoughtful few will easily embrace. For so many others, especially the city-dwellers that give Region C its political heft, they’ll perceive it differently than you or I. They’re more apt to perceive it as a sign of political weakness, not of strength, and they’ll discount what you’ve said, they’ll discount you, and they’ll discount your entire constituency by association. There are more of them than there are of you, so you’ve got to tune your rhetoric to their sensitivities just so that they’ll begin to listen.

        Something else you can do in order to get traction is to make this less of a zero-sum proposition. What does the city-dweller have to lose from a new reservoir in East Texas? You need to figure it out quickly and sell it hard.

    • IndyTexan

      Hey Water GOD, if you knew Rep. Simpson, you would know he’s one of the most peaceful and respectful human beings on the planet. I can’t say much about his brethren in the lege — on either side of the aisle.

  • Jeebus

    Let ’em build the lake…then poison the water. That would thin the herd considerably.

    • YEEHAWMAN

      ummm that sounds highly illegal and immoral

  • Bill Hunt

    My great uncle was born and grew up on a farm, lived there his entire life, until the Houston Power Company took it for eminent domain when he was age 95. He was moved off the property to a very nice home in town and died a week later, heart broken.

    • IndyTexan

      That is very sad and too common a story in our “great” state of Texas.

  • William Andrew McWhorter

    Ah, jeez…there are good points to be made about rationing the use of water with demand pricing. And its probably true that the TWDB is surely ripe for an external audit and targeted administrative and policy reforms.

    But, for goodness sake, that closing comment is so polarizing, incendiary, and distracting to so many people that he probably ended up doing more hurt than harm to outsiders’ impressions of what east Texas has and deserves.

    • James Peinado

      I agree Will, it is an awkward ending but then again, the United States has dropped 13 spots on the Press Freedom Index. Now ranking 46 out of ~181. Our Nation is becoming one less and less concerned about the Bill of Rights, and so as odd as it does come out, I think expressing a passion for them is important in this day and age. Unfortunate as it is, America is becoming less concerned with ‘negative rights’ or liberties, and starting to desire more ‘positive rights’ entitlements from their government.

      • William Andrew McWhorter

        I don’t disagree with you or with his closing comment in principle. It’s just that there’s a time and place for all things to be said. He’s going to need to appeal to all of Texas, both urban and rural constituents if he wants to prevail on this reservoir issue; but he’s going to have to write off the pro-growth wing of his own party that resides in the urban areas. That may mean taking in some strange political bedfellows. To that end, his closing comment may be counterproductive.

    • Kristina

      Oh come on the closing comment is witty. Y’all need to get a sense of humor and a reality check. The framers of the constitution chose the article and order carefully.

  • Ed_Stark

    How about you greedy bastards in the city governments stop your growth you power-hungry statist scumbags? You disgust me. This is not Texan. This is not good.

    • YEEHAWMAN

      Don’t bite the hand that feeds you. How do you think your local infrastructure is paid for Ed.

      • IndyTexan

        It is paid for by citizens, while the real estate “growth lobby” offload the costs of growth onto the backs of homeowners and renters alike.Current residents pay for most of the costs of the new infrastructure for the newcomers. This is the shell game that most citizens are unaware of, but it’s why you’re getting squeezed on your property taxes or rents — while wages are stagnant. IndependentLeagueTX.org/cost-of-growth

      • Ed_Stark

        The hand that feeds me is attached to my arm. The only one responsible for you is YOU.

  • James Peinado

    Greatest article in the history of TEXAS Monthly! Wow, Simpson’s answers are poignant and easy to understand. Two thumbs up Texas Monthly, double Gig’em!

  • Jason

    So he opposes eminent domain being used to create the Marvin Nichols Reservoir? And he supports as an alternative using the Toledo Bend Reservoir? Well, guess what, Toledo Bend is man-made, and the land for it was acquired through… anyone?… that’s correct, eminent domain.

    • David Simpson

      See my reply above to WaterGod.

    • IndyTexan

      The point is that Toledo Bend is already there. Reservoirs are an anachronism. There are far cheaper and quicker ways to produce more water supply — mainly through conservation and reuse. Do your homework!

  • CAW

    Classic case of NIMBY. These types of conflicting points of view have been occurring since the beginning of time. Not the first and won’t be the last. I actually understand both sides of the argument. I grew up in East Texas, but now live in DFW. Dad and other family still lives in East Texas (and I may move back for retirement). It will get sorted out, but (as always) there will be winners and loosers.

    • IndyTexan

      In this case, the backyard you mention happens to be 70,000 acres of prime farmland. Yours is a classic case of urban indifference, if not ignorance.

  • Ande

    I for one being an urban dwelling moderate Texan love this article, Simpson’s points and his witty conclusion!

  • Rufus Peckham

    Erect a goddang statue of this Statesman NOW!
    Someone has finally got it. Seeing past the Red vs Blue paradigm in Austin. The good ol boys club of wealthy corporate donors in the big cities have more voice than less affluent rural areas where people aren’t stocked on top of each other and easier to control.

    Go get em Simpson!

  • Walt Longmire

    It is a bit of a dilemma, for sure. But some such plan is absolutely critical if Texas as a state is to survive. With global warming and hot summers, it will be less than 5 years before Dallas begins to lose population because of water shortages. Phoenix, AZ, is in a similar place. Such boom towns are about to go bust unless they develop large reserves of water resources. If the Desert south, including the Metro-plex, don’t do something quickly, they are toast [no pun intended].

    • Alyssa Burgin

      Arizona is now predicted to run out of water in six years, partially because all the new transplants brought their concept of what a lawn looks like from non-arid regions. Take a drive through the Park cities in Dallas and look at how many residents have tried to re-create English gardens. It was my impression that we won the Revolutionary war, so why are we still emulating the vanquished enemy’s lawns? Some Metroplex cities use up to 396 gallons per capita per day. End that–by ordinance, with permanent drought restrictions for what some scientists say will be a permanent drought—and get real, Metroplex. Then Marvin Nichols will not be necessary.