Water Works

Should the last free-flowing river in Texas be dammed?

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The confluence of the Lavaca and Navidad rivers.
Photograph by Charlie Llewellin

When the nine members of the board of the Lavaca-Navidad River Authority met in January 2010, they considered the following question: Should the last free-flowing river in Texas be dammed so that a Taiwanese company could make more plastic bags. That, starkly put, was the issue on the table when the board approved a $300,000 study into the feasibility of a new reservoir on the Lavaca River. The LNRA, headquartered just outside Edna, one hundred miles southwest of Houston in Jackson County, has two main customers: the city of Corpus Christi and the Formosa Plastics Corporation in Point Comfort, which is located in neighboring Calhoun County. Formosa Plastics, the largest privately owned corporation in Taiwan, is the one of the biggest manufacturers of PVC and other plastic resins in the world; a former subsidiary, Inteplast, located a few miles north of Point Comfort in the Jackson County town of Lolita, is one of the largest suppliers of plastic bags in North America. Every week Inteplast produces enough plastic film to cover Texas.

A dam on the Lavaca has been a possibility since 1968, when Congress authorized the Palmetto Bend Dam on the Navidad River, creating Lake Texana. That project was known as Stage I, but permits were also issued for Stage II, on the Lavaca, as a hedge against future water needs. The issue has been dormant for more than forty years, until, according to LNRA manager Patrick Brozowske, an inquiry from Formosa about future water supply necessitated the new study. The company wants to increase production, but that would require more water. For people living along the section of the 115-mile river just south of Edna, a reservoir would mean inundation. In addition, there’s the question of the ecological damage that would come from building a dam on the only river left in the state that doesn’t have one.

None of this sits well with Mac Lee, a fit-looking white-haired man in his sixties who is a fourth generation Edna dentist and the owner of a working ranch on the Lavaca. When he and his neighbors found out about the study, they assumed that it would most likely conclude a dam was indeed feasible—and they wanted none of it. “Freese and Nichols [a Houston engineering company] is doing the work, and that’s the same firm that will build the thing if the LNRA gives the go-ahead,” he told me. Together with his daughters, Lindsey Lee Bradford and Shelley Srp, Lee started the Leave Our Lavaca Alone advocacy group. They tapped into the same vein of property rights concerns that galvanized opposition to the Trans-Texas Corridor, and LOLA signs are now a common sight across the county. Bradford, a UT graduate, and Srp, who went to A&M, have brought a modern spin to the group’s campaigning—their Save the Lavaca River Facebook page now has more than 1,500 fans. Bradford’s Fireflies T-shirt shop in downtown Edna, next door to her father’s dental practice and across the street from her sister’s real estate business, now vies with Jacob’s Feed and Animal Supply, a few blocks to the east, as the top place to get dam gossip.

The issue has pitted landowners against the LNRA and Formosa, but it has also rekindled Jackson County’s long-standing resentment of Calhoun County. When Lake Texana was built, Lee says that residents were promised “the moon.” “There was going to be a hundred thousand people moving here, new businesses, tourism,” he said. “None of that happened, and all we got was a muddy reservoir. This time around we’re not going to be fooled.” To put it bluntly, nobody in Jackson County made any money, while Calhoun County got the water and the jobs. Sentiment among the LOLA folks tends to ignore that Corpus Christi is the LNRA’s biggest customer, and that Jackson County did get Inteplast. Instead, they paint Brozowske as being in cahoots with Jack Wu, Formosa’s vice president of business development, to build what they call “Lake Brozowske” at the expense of the local tax rolls and at the cost of their family ranches. No wonder certain outspoken residents refer to Jack Wu as the devil.

Though he is charming, extremely intelligent, and highly pragmatic, Jack Wu, a slight Taiwanese man in a rumpled white linen suit, is not the Devil. “We’re thinking ten years ahead,” he told me. “We need to see if the resources are available for growth in the future.” His factory needs water to move, clean, and heat raw materials, and if Wu can’t get enough from the LNRA, he will simply build a new facility somewhere else.

And that’s a proposition that no one in Calhoun County wants to hear. Port Lavaca, the county seat, used to be a big center for fishing and shrimping, but all that has dried up, and now most people work for the school district or at Formosa, Inteplast, or the old Alcoa plant that still employs five hundred or so workers. Compared with Edna, the city is bustling with activity, and there’s a real Friday Night Lights feel—Sandcrab pride runs high. El Taco, a popular Mexican restaurant, stays open until midnight on game nights. The Calhoun High School team is 2–2 this season, but has been to the state playoffs every year since 2005, when coach Richard Whitaker was hired away from Kingsville and transformed a shambling band of underachievers into an unstoppable machine with a punishing ground game. School superintendent Jim Story confirmed that Whitaker is well-renumerated. “The school district has a great relationship with Formosa,” he told me. The company pays about fifty percent of county property taxes, and it’s unlikely that Calhoun could have afforded to hire such a successful coach without that contribution.

Bill Harvey, a local photographer and former marine agent who has lived in Port Lavaca for five years, explained that he was doubtful about Formosa when he moved to town, but readily admits that they have become model corporate citizens. “At first they ran foul of several agencies, but they are practical people, and when they understood the regulatory and social environment they were working in, they shaped up quickly. They had a big fire in 2009, and I was shooting it from this side of the bay until I began to realize that I was probably taking pictures of people dying. But not one employee lost their life in that fire, and only one person was seriously injured. That’s incredible.” In addition to an excellent safety record, Formosa now has a good report in the environmental arena—it has built 245 acres of wetlands, actively monitors the water quality in Lavaca Bay, and aggressively manages its own water use.

I was given a tour of both the Formosa and Inteplast plants. The Formosa plant uses 1,200 acres of a 1,600-acre lot—it is gigantic, bigger than a medium-size city, and tidier than Singapore. Apparently only one man, an engineer called Walter Chin, understands how all the parts work together. Huge gantries run the length and breadth of the plant, carrying pipes full of chemicals from one vast knot of reactors to the next. Petroleum is heated and cooled, cracked apart and bent to the will of man. It is formed into PVC sheets and pellets of plastic resin, and sent all over the continent. Being at the plant, a thing of vast, intricate, infinitely complex beauty, was like watching a computer run from the inside.

In one of Inteplast’s eight hangar-size metal barns, I saw Formosa’s pellets transformed into endless streams of plastic film billowing up and away to the distant ceiling before they were pulled back down through a series of rollers into a row of machines that sliced the wide ribbon into trash bags, carrier bags, kitchen bags, any kind of bag you want. The vast room was noisy with a constant clattering whoosh and smelled strongly of polyethylene. The mostly automated process was awe-inspiring in its relentlessness. I was standing in the heart of the beast, and it was beating with massive precision. The factory runs night and day to feed the needs of companies like H-E-B, Costco, Kohl’s, and PetSmart—Inteplast is the third-largest plastic bag supplier in North America. Back in the administration building, Bob Coen, the site manager, showed me their line of green products, including bags that decompose faster than paper—nasty stuff, anyway, with all the chemicals in it—but admitted that these products comprise less than ten percent of sales. “We’re customer-driven,” he said.

The previous afternoon Bradford and Srp had taken me out to the family ranch, some twenty miles north of Formosa’s shining metal acres. Their meadows are covered with big oak trees, and the grass was high and lush. The women pointed out the line that would mark the edge of the new reservoir. We drove down a dirt road to the river, swollen with all the rain that Hermine had brought to the area. “We call it a ‘flashy’ river,” said Srp, “up one day and down the next.” The brown water rushed by furiously, like a herd of buffalo, snorting spray into the air. It looked viscerally alive.

A dam on the Lavaca would do more than engulf many people’s homes and land—words that are inseparable in rural areas. Dams disrupt plants and animals and are barriers to the movement of fish and other aquatic creatures. A river with a dam on it is no longer the living thing it was—the original environment is replaced with the very different ecology of an inland lake. A recent study of the Brazos River by geochemists at Rice shows that dams and other human activity have completely overprinted the river’s native carbon cycle. Possum Kingdom Lake is slowly turning saline, and the freshwater mussels that were abundant before the lake was built have now all but disappeared from the river. Although the LNRA is legally bound to maintain sufficient flow in the Lavaca River to satisfy Texas Commission on Environmental Quality standards, building a dam would still be a major step in the destruction of the Lavaca as a living ecosystem, and a detriment to the health of Lavaca Bay. But nobody knows how to put a price on a living river. At a recent board meeting, David Rose, the largest landowner in Jackson County, asked whether the LNRA process would include any consideration for the value of the natural stream. Mike Reedy, the Freese and Nichols employee who is in charge of the feasibility study, replied that “it was important to keep subjectivity out of the process.”

Brozowske knows he has to act. His fear seems to be that some larger entity, perhaps San Antonio, maybe the State of Texas, will take away his water rights if he fails to use them. At a recent LNRA board meeting, Brozowske explained, with only a hint of impatience, that saying “we don’t want a dam” is not enough. The LNRA needs answers from both the economic and environmental standpoint to be able to respond to inquiries from customers and regulatory agencies. After the meeting, Srp told me that this was the most communicative that Brozowske had been about the process, allocating nearly an hour to answering questions from landowners and the LOLA group. “He never allowed that before,” she said, adding that he now seemed more open to the possibility that the process might end with a recommendation of no action. The engineers intend to have the study completed by the end of November, and, sometime after that, the LNRA board will vote on its recommendations. Whatever happens, there will be loss, either in the form of jobs and quality of life, or as flooded farms, and the slow death of a river.

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