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Dam proposals threaten land in Big Thicket: water authority considering rural reservoirs to sell water to cities. (Adjacent Lands).

BEAUMONT TX.--Environmentalists and Texas water authorities have entered into a heated battle over two dam proposals that, if approved, could inundate parts of a wildlife management area, almost completely submerge a nearby state park, and possibly alter water flows through Big Thicket National Preserve. Though the proposals have yet to enter the first phase of the environmental review process, many local residents and conservation groups are gearing up to prevent what they believe is an unnecessary and destructive project that would flood thousands of acres of bottomland hardwood forests and disrupt an ecosystem across seven counties.

The proposed dam projects are part of a regional effort to supply water in the state, said Lower Neches Valley Authority (LNVA) engineer Scott Hall. "Texas routinely experiences droughts, and water planning is a forefront issue," he said. The agency is proposing the dams to the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB), and looking to the Neches River, 85 miles of which runs through Big Thicket, to boost state water supplies.

Enlarging the Town Bluff Dam, which creates Steinhagen Lake on the northern boundary of the preserve, and building Rockland Dam above Steinhagen are options that the agency is considering. The projects would enlarge Steinhagen Lake from 13,000 surface acres to 21,000 surface acres and create a 100,000-surface-acre reservoir at Rockland. Combined, they would inundate a 12,000-acre Texas Parks and Wildlife Management Area above the dam and submerge most of Martin Dies, Jr., State Park, a heavily used recreation site that compliments the preserve. The impoundments could also increase daily mean water flow and decrease peak flows inside Big Thicket. These seasonal flows are essential to the health of the preserve's cypress, tupelo, magnolia, beech, and oak trees and the wildlife that depend on them.

"The trees can only take a certain level of inundation with flood and dry episodes; they can't live through extended periods of either," said Gary Calkins, a biologist with Texas Parks and Wildlife. Even if the dams were to be destroyed at a later date, the habitat is specialized and "regeneration of that habitat would be extremely slow," he said. "I imagine it would take several generations."

LNVA's Hall said that his agency has only begun looking into the projects and is surprised by the quick reaction of environmentalists. "It's too soon to say anything," Hall said. "We haven't even started the feasibility studies," the first step of environmental review. Even if the project is approved after the assessments are completed, he estimates it will be seven to ten years before the project is started.

But Chuck Hunt, a park biologist at Big Thicket said that the proposals have a fair chance of winning support because of strong business interests and believes that there is ample cause to be proactive. Big Thicket is considered a biological crossroads of four ecosystems: the Southwest desert, the Central Plains, the Eastern forests, and the Southeastern swamps. The nine separate units of the preserve make up only a fraction of the total ecosystem that is home to bobcats, roadrunners, swallow-tail kites, marbled salamanders, and four of the country's five carnivorous plants.


The wildlife management area, the state park, and surrounding timber lands are all part of that web of life, Hunt said, and he fears that losing large portions of these areas will jeopardize the greater ecosystem. That concern is increased by the threat of several timber companies considering selling their land for development. "Logging has impacts on the forest, but it's a better alternative than suburbia," Calkins said.

In comments submitted to the TWDB over the proposed draft state water plan for 2002, park staff at Big Thicket urged the agency to "ensure that the plan fully assesses and mitigates impacts to the environment before the plan is implemented." The park offers the caution that, if not properly implemented from the start, the project could become "a future `Everglades-type' situation where the federal government and the State of Florida are spending billions of dollars to undo the damage from poorly conceived water projects."

Big Thicket is not the first, or the last, national park unit to face the pressure of growing public water needs that might be satisfied by tapping these seemingly protected park resources. Conservationists say that LNVA is pursuing the project to profit by selling the water to communities in West Texas. According to a draft plan by the TWDB, the water needs of 20 counties in East Texas will be met until 2050 with only one new reservoir. That dam would be located farther north and would not directly affect the Big Thicket region.
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Author:Daerr, Elizabeth G.
Publication:National Parks
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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