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.)