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ZAPATA — This small South Texas border community 200 miles southwest of San Antonio hugs one of the largest reservoirs in Texas, along what was once one of the nation’s mightiest rivers. But on a hot summer day in mid-August, Zapata was dangerously close to running out of water.
Joe Rathmell, the Zapata County judge, remembers getting the call from a worried water plant manager. It wasn’t good. The only thing flowing into the county’s intake station seemed to be mud. The pumps were failing as they struggled to suck the silty water from Falcon Lake.
“We had what I would argue was the worst water along the whole [Rio Grande],” Rathmell said.
This summer, as Texas baked — the hottest July on record fueled its worst drought in a decade — water levels in reservoirs across the state fell dramatically, prompting hundreds of mandatory water restrictions.
By late October, water storage in Texas reservoirs had fallen to 67% of capacity, down from 80% a year earlier, according to state data. Reservoirs on the Rio Grande saw their lowest levels in decades in August — Amistad Reservoir dropped to 30% of capacity, its lowest level since 1998, while Falcon Lake, about 50 miles south of Laredo, dropped to 9% of its capacity, the lowest level in two decades, before rebounding slightly after heavy September rains.
Zapata County, desperate for water, requested money and equipment to dredge the mud away from its intake station. The federal government gave $2 million to help and the local congressman, Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, hosted a celebratory press conference when the dredging equipment arrived.
But it was a temporary fix for a long-term crisis: Climate change has brought higher temperatures that dry soil more quickly, enhancing the effects of drought and causing less rain to flow into Texas’ rivers and streams. At the same time, longer-lasting and more intense heat brought by climate change accelerates water evaporation from Texas’ reservoirs.
“It’s not going to go away,” Rathmell said. “Over the years, our area does seem to be getting drier. It seems like it rains less year after year.”
“And of course,” he added, “the demand for water just keeps increasing.”
Surface water — mainly rivers and reservoirs — accounts for roughly half of Texas’ existing water supply, and is becoming less and less reliable for the state’s fast-growing population as the effects of climate change intensify, experts say. Hotter temperatures brought by climate change made the drought across the U.S. and Europe several times more likely this year, a study by international climate scientists found. And scientists who study Texas rivers predict that climate change will reduce their flows in the decades to come.
“Surface water is one of, if not the most, susceptible [water] supplies to climate change,” said Robert Mace, the executive director and chief water policy officer for the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University.
But adding surface water is the centerpiece of Texas’ long-term water plan. And the Texas Water Development Board, the state agency charged with managing the state’s future water supplies, does not attempt to account for the effects of climate change in its long-term planning. Instead, Texas’ water plan relies on past droughts to determine how much water will be available and needed in the future as the state’s population is forecast to increase by 11 million people in the next two decades.
“Climate change is unfortunately very political in Texas, and so the board cannot [plan for climate change] because of those politics,” Mace said.
The state’s GOP leaders have supported huge infrastructure projects to protect coastal property and industry from hurricane storm surges that climate experts say are enhanced by rising sea levels and more powerful hurricanes — two effects of climate change. But they’ve resisted federal efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change — arguing that such efforts would hurt oil and gas jobs in Texas. State agencies don’t mention climate change in planning documents, instead using terms like “extreme weather.”
Matt Nelson, the deputy executive administrator of planning at the Water Development Board, said that while climate change projections are not included, the state water plan contemplates how to supply enough water during the worst drought that’s ever occurred in each region of the state, without restricting water use to the public.
Nelson also said the plan is updated every five years, so as “the climate may change, the five-year planning cycle constantly updates.”
By 2070, demand for water in Texas is expected to increase 9% to 19.2 million acre-feet during a severe drought, up from 17.7 million acre-feet in 2020. An acre-foot is enough water to cover an acre of land with one foot of water.
Meanwhile, the state’s water supply is expected to fall 18% over the same period, which would leave Texas between about 5 million and 7 million acre-feet short of water during a statewide drought of record, a time when water supplies are lowest and water demands are highest. That’s more water than Lake Livingston in East Texas, Amistad Reservoir in South Texas and Lake Travis in Austin can hold combined when full.
The Water Development Board’s analysis estimates a severe drought could cause $153 billion in economic damages to the state per year by 2070 if new sources of water are not built.
“Until this state gets serious and has a sense of urgency, we will be woefully deficient [for water] in the future,” state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, said during an interim Senate committee hearing on water this year. “Pockets of this state don’t have until 2070,” he said, referring to the time span of the state’s water plan.
Almost two dozen new major reservoirs are proposed in the state by 2070, part of a sweeping plan to alleviate almost 40% of the state’s potential shortage by adding surface water. The rest of the gap must be absorbed by more efficiently using water statewide, pumping more water from underground aquifers, reusing wastewater and building desalination plants to make brackish groundwater and seawater drinkable.
The Dallas-Fort Worth region in particular is pinning its hopes on several new reservoirs — including the recently completed Bois d’Arc Lake in Fannin County, which is still “waiting on rain” to fill up.
Two counties to the east, plans to dam the Sulphur River and flood thousands of acres for the benefit of growing North Texas cities have alarmed local residents whose homes and land could be swallowed by a new reservoir.
First: Gary Cheatwood, a longtime resident of Red River County, discusses with other residents the possible construction of the Marvin Nichols Reservoir, which could flood their homes and land. Last: Red circles on a map mark homes that could be flooded if the reservoir is built. Credit: Ben Torres for The Texas Tribune
Proposed reservoir “divided” a rural Northeast Texas community
Hickory, pecan and walnut trees dot the Sulphur River Basin a little more than 30 miles south of the Oklahoma state line. South of Clarksville, FM 910 cuts through tree farms and cattle ranches to Cuthand United Methodist, where around two dozen residents gathered in late July to discuss the planned Marvin Nichols Reservoir.
Gary Cheatwood, 83, began by spreading out a large topographical map of Red River County overlaid with the footprint of the planned reservoir, which would cover a swath of the county with as much as 1.5 million acre-feet of water within the next three decades. He’d marked their best guess for the outline of the reservoir with a blue highlighter. Inside the blue lines, he’d drawn red circles to represent occupied homes. Almost 100 red circles fill the map.
His family’s land is inside those blue lines — all 142 acres of it. He leases most of it to cattle ranchers. Some of the trees on his land are among the largest and oldest in the state, and Cheatwood is old enough to remember the legendary 1950s drought that dragged on for nine years and prompted the creation of the Water Development Board.
He wonders if a worse one is coming.
“If you don’t have any water to go into your reservoir, where are you going to get water?” he said. “We don’t know what the future holds with this weather. It may stay dry.”
Cheatwood is the president of the local volunteer fire department, a Sulphur River Basin Authority board member, a Sunday school teacher, an archaeological steward for the Texas Historical Commission and “whatever else needs to get done.” He’s also one of the reservoir’s chief opponents, leading meetings, pressuring local politicians and knocking on his neighbors’ doors to warn them about what’s coming.
“People will scatter if this lake gets built. It won’t be the community that we have now.”
He and Janice Bezanson, the senior policy director of the Texas Conservation Alliance, organized the meeting. They’re part of a group called Preserve Northeast Texas, a group of environmental advocates and local residents — along with a handful of timber companies and a paper mill with a financial interest in stopping the project — united in opposing the reservoir, a $4.5 billion project being pursued by the Tarrant Regional Water District and the North Texas Municipal Water District.
The districts would put up a portion of the cost and likely finance the rest with low-cost loans from the Water Development Board. They plan to finish the project — which has been mentioned in the state water plan since the late 1960s — by 2050.
First, they will have to obtain the required environmental permits, seize about 66,100 acres of land through eminent domain and provide landowners compensation for the condemned property. Kathleen Vaught, a spokesperson for the North Texas Municipal Water District, said the district does not plan to file for an environmental permit this year.
At Cuthand Methodist, some of the people in the reservoir’s path resolved to resist it.
“My land is not for sale, at no price,” said Eddie Belcher, 61, who owns 718 acres where he raises cattle and hunts. It’s been passed down in his family for generations; his grandchildren would be the sixth generation to own it, if there’s anything to pass down.
He and his neighbors hope they can persuade the utilities to find another place to get water for the growing cities. But they know there’s little they can do to save their land if the project goes forward. “I hope if they do end up [building the reservoir] that I’m not here to see it,” he said.
“They’re the ones that are going to miss out,” he said, gesturing to his 6-year-old grandson, Briar, who played around the adults.
The church’s leader, pastor John Purviance, 52, has convinced his nervous congregation to back around $650,000 worth of new construction in the past decade for the growing flock despite the threat that it could all end up underwater.
“It’s like a cloud that hangs over you,” said Purviance, who also manages a local farm and cattle ranch in the reservoir’s path that covers about 9,000 acres and employs 15 people. But as he puts it, the kingdom of God will not wait on the Marvin Nichols Reservoir.
“You can’t live with that, in fear of something,” he said. “So we moved ahead.”
First: Belcher holds a family portrait with his father and mother outside his grandfather’s home. Last: Belcher and his grandson E.J. McGoarty, 7, ride through the Belcher property. Credit: Ben Torres for The Texas Tribune
The project has divided the roughly 11,000 residents of Red River County. Some county residents, including L.D. Williamson, the 85-year-old county judge, believes the reservoir could bring much-needed economic development, attracting anglers and people seeking lakefront property.
“It’s a major thing here that has caused us a lot of heartburn, and it’s divided a lot of people to where they won’t speak to each other anymore,” Williamson said during an interview at his office in Clarksville. “I hate that.”
Williamson has supported the reservoir plan for decades. He said he understands why people who own property in the reservoir’s path are upset, but to him, the trade-off will be worth it.
“You could have a dock, you could have vacation homes and everything right there,” he said.
One analysis included in the state water plan estimates the reservoir would create 1,800 permanent jobs. And Williamson points out that the water utilities have offered to pay Red River County for any lost tax revenues when the reservoir is built and allocate 20% of the water for local use.
He also finds it pointless for a rural county like his to try to fight the big cities to the south.
“When Dallas-Fort Worth needs the water, the reservoir is going to be built, and that’s a given,” Williamson said.
The reservoir has become the county’s defining political issue. Williamson is retiring at the end of the year, and a majority of his fellow county commissioners passed a resolution opposing the reservoir in December. At the Texas Democratic Party State Convention in Dallas this summer, Hunter Evans, a young Red River County resident, convinced Democrats to approve a similar resolution.
“If we elect somebody, Democrat or Republican, we want them to reflect our values,” said Lindy Guest, 68, who has lived in the area most of his life and whose family has lived in the area since the 1800s. “So that’s one of the first things people down here ask: Are you for or against the lake?”
The water “going to Arkansas for free”
At a Chili’s restaurant in Dallas this summer, Kevin Ward said he doesn’t understand why the people of Red River County weren’t “patriotic to Texas.” Any water in the Sulphur River that Texas doesn’t capture, he said, flows right across the state line.
“It’s going to Arkansas for free,” said Ward, who is chair of the state’s water planning group that proposes water projects for North Texas and helped author the plan that includes the Marvin Nichols Reservoir. Years of analysis have convinced Ward that there’s no other feasible area to put a reservoir large enough to supply as much water as the Dallas-Fort Worth area will need.
Ward’s philosophy has dominated the state for decades. Texas is already home to almost 200 major reservoirs as well as thousands of smaller ones. The rationale: Rely on the rivers until you can’t. Because, as Ward explains, droughts inevitably come, and when it happens, “You want that groundwater to be there.”
But some experts point out that groundwater — which acts like a savings account Texas has long relied on — is already being depleted. Some of the state’s aquifers are already being pumped faster than they can recharge — the Houston area was forced to wean itself off groundwater after it pumped so much that the ground below the city began to sink.
As the state’s population grows and climate change brings more severe droughts, some water experts and state lawmakers are pushing for a pivot to alternative and in some cases long-shot strategies including seawater desalination, rainwater harvesting or wastewater reuse rather than building reservoirs.
“Dams don’t make water,” said Samuel Sandoval Solís, a professor in water resources at the University of California Davis who has studied the Rio Grande Basin. “If it doesn’t rain, as suspected [with climate change], we are going to have monuments to stupidity built with taxpayer dollars.”
He estimates that the water rights allocated on the Rio Grande are up to twice the amount of water actually available in the river and he has encouraged communities downstream from El Paso to start finding ways to reduce consumption, reuse their wastewater and to consider drastic measures like planting fewer crops.
Mace, the water resources expert at Texas State University, said Texas should focus more energy on water conservation, such as reducing leakage from old pipes and encouraging people to replace traditional sod yards with drought-tolerant landscaping. Demand reduction already makes up a big chunk of the state’s water plan — which anticipates that the state can save 2.3 million acre-feet of water per year by 2070 with better conservation.
Mace thinks that number should be even higher because he thinks the state water plan “includes plans for water that probably won’t exist in the future” due to climate change.
“What are you really going to be getting out of these reservoirs under a warming planet versus just looking at the drought of record based on the past?” Mace said. “There won’t be as much [water] as we think there will be.”
The state’s strongest attempt at incorporating climate change into water management thus far has been meetings between the Water Development Board and John Nielsen-Gammon, the state climatologist, at the request of the Texas Sunset Commission, which periodically evaluates state agencies’ effectiveness and makes recommendations to lawmakers for improvements.
Nielsen-Gammon said he’s talked to the agency since August about how they might incorporate the latest climate science, such as projections for higher evaporation rates and declines in soil moisture.
“It’s one thing to say we need to worry about climate change, but what does that mean? What numbers do we put into our model with climate change, and what makes sense to do?” Nielsen-Gammon said. “That’s the issue we’re exploring.”
Matt Nelson, the deputy executive administrator of planning at the Water Development Board, said in an interview earlier this summer that it’s difficult to downsize global climate models to the local level necessary for water planning, but added: “We want the best information possible.”
He also pointed out that the agency’s plan is built around providing water without restrictions if every region of the state has its worst drought on record at the same time — without requiring Texans to reduce water use.
In 2020, Texas was already running a deficit of about 3.1 million acre-feet of water in order to be fully prepared for a drought of record, according to the plan, about 18% of current supplies. By 2070, that gap is expected to double, but the state’s plan projects that it will have created enough new water supplies to make up the gap.
But some have questioned whether the billions of dollars in water projects in the plan — particularly the 23 new major reservoirs — will actually be built.
That’s because few viable sites for large reservoirs remain and reservoirs are vastly more complicated and expensive to build than they were in the 1960s and 1970s, when many of the state’s 187 major reservoirs were constructed.
Perry, the Lubbock senator, serves on the Sunset Commission and has worked on water issues in the Legislature for years. He said that while he thinks the state’s water planning process is solid, he’s concerned that some reservoirs in the plan will never be built due to problems with financing, environmental regulations, land acquisition or local opposition.
“I’m not against [reservoirs],” he said, “I’m just saying … the plan has to be as close to reality as possible.”
The South Texas town “still paying the price” for a reservoir
Zapata had survived for two centuries next to the Rio Grande before the U.S. and Mexican governments agreed to create the reservoir that would force the entire town to evacuate and relocate in 1954.
Zapata County Judge Rathmell’s family was one of them.
Rathmell remembers his mother’s stories about having their land seized through eminent domain. His grandparents, parents and older siblings moved to the new “town” of Zapata, which was just a tent city set up on a bulldozed patch of ground. He recalled her description: “It was just one constant dust storm, everything was just dirt.”
“Our little community 70 years ago was sacrificed to the reservoir,” he said. “For the sake of progress, for the sake of the Valley to have a secure water source.”
The reservoir was a miracle for the cities 100 miles downstream in the Rio Grande Valley. It tamed the river’s frequent floods and provided water to irrigate farmers’ citrus trees, sugarcane, cotton, onions and other crops. And it provided a steady water supply to the growing Valley cities.
Zapata, its Mexican sister town of Guerrero and other small settlements in the reservoir’s path lost most of their farm and ranching land along with centuries-old historical buildings. More than 4,000 people were displaced from their ancestral homes and provided far less compensation for their land than it was worth, according to a book about the forced relocation by Patsy Jeanne Byfield.
The reservoir eventually created a new economy. Competitive anglers started coming to Zapata County, drawn by some of the country’s best black bass fishing — Texas Parks and Wildlife stocks the lake each year. Hotels, restaurants and bait shops opened to cater to the new tourists.
Falcon Lake’s fishing spurred James Bendele, who grew up in the Hill Country town of LaCoste in Medina County, to buy a vacation home in Zapata in 1990. In 2008, he moved there permanently and bought a local tackle shop after the prior owner died. That was during the heydey of Falcon Lake bass fishing, when huge fishing tournaments brought droves of anglers to Bendele’s shop across the street from a popular boat dock.
But during the past decade, the reservoir’s water level has dropped to well below half of its capacity. This stretch of the Rio Grande relies heavily on water from the Río Conchos in northern Mexico, which has been reduced by a more than 20-year-long drought in some areas and illegal irrigation pumping. The Conchos’ flow could be reduced by as much as 20% more in the coming decades due to climate change’s impact on worsening droughts, according to an analysis by water resources engineering expert Eusebio Mercedes Ingol Blanco.
On top of that, researchers have found that the U.S. and Mexico overestimated the Rio Grande’s natural flow by about 17% when they signed the 1944 treaty that allocates the river’s water between U.S. and Mexican states, said Sandoval Solís, the Rio Grande researcher. For example, the Pecos River, which feeds into the Rio Grande north of Del Rio, is several times smaller than what the U.S. government originally thought, according to Sandoval Solís’ calculations.
Meanwhile, the Valley cities keep growing — Hidalgo County, which includes McAllen, expects its population to double to more than 2 million by 2070 — and there are few alternative water sources. Most of the area’s aquifers have brackish water that’s difficult to treat for human consumption; the eight desalination plants built since 2000 to do so can supply 24,000 acre-feet of potable water a year. Hidalgo County’s municipal demand for water alone is more than 160,000 acre-feet per year.
“Things look kind of grim already,” Sandoval Solís said.
The receding reservoir has exposed the remains of Old Guerrero and dried up tourism in Zapata. Bendele, the tackle shop owner, said the drought is “killing the whole town,” which hasn’t hosted a fishing tournament in about a decade. Texas politicians describing border communities as plagued by “dangerous gangs and cartels” hasn’t helped. “People are afraid to come down here,” he said.
Rathmell, the Zapata County judge, no longer sees the reservoir as the economic driver it once was. If anything, it’s the opposite.
Rathmell’s office is adorned with paintings of pump jacks and cattle. Behind his chair sits a miniature replica of a wind turbine. Two wind farms have been built in the county and local leaders are trying to attract other green energy companies to replace lake tourism and natural gas production. “We’ll take anything,” he said.
The irony of his family losing their homes to make way for a lake that has nearly dried up isn’t lost on Rathmell.
“Here we are 70 years later, and we’re still paying the price for the reservoir to be built by not having good quality access to water,” he said.
Disclosure: The Texas Historical Commission has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.