A history of the Tarrant Regional Water District

Earl G. Alexander

In recent weeks, many have sought my opinions concerning the Tarrant Regional Water District (TRWD), both about its board and of its management and staff. Many misconceptions revealed themselves. For the past 13-plus years, I have attended – as an interested public citizen – almost all of the regularly scheduled open monthly board meetings of the TRWD. I have carefully observed the workings of the board in its decision making and oversight of the district’s staff. From that and from numerous discussions with members of TRWD’s management and staff, I offer this information, hoping to dispel some of the false ideas about the district and its operations. The TRWD is a political subdivision of the state of Texas. It was created in October 1924 by the Commissioner’s Court of Tarrant County, invoking the authority of an earlier amendment to the state’s Constitution (Article 16, Section 59), that pertained to conservation and reclamation and various Texas laws. Boundaries were established. TRWD is a single-county district, but it is authorized to develop projects throughout the state. Presently it supplies water from 11 counties – proceeding from northwest to southeast – (Jack, Wise, Denton, Parker, Tarrant, Johnson, Ellis, Kaufman, Henderson, Navarro and Freestone), while at the same time servicing the water needs of those counties. TRWD is a wholesale provider of raw water. Its biggest customers are the cities of Fort Worth and Arlington, comprising some 1.1 million residents. And there are 28 other customers that supply treated water to 70 towns and cities. TRWD’s four primary customers include the cities of Fort Worth, Arlington, Mansfield, and the Trinity River Authority, which serves a large portion of northeast Tarrant County. One frequent misunderstanding: The TRWD does not send your monthly water bill. It furnishes raw water to all those customers that pass along the water to you and bill you for it. TRWD is chartered to deal with water supply (present and future), flood control, recreation and conservation. The district was created in response to the flood of 1922, which was the second worst in history. The district is very much concerned with water quality issues, due largely to both federal and state laws and regulations instituted since the 1970s. The district is both a general law district, responding to Texas Water Code, Chapters 49, 50 and 51; and a special law district, responding to an amendment in Vernon’s Civil Statutes, 8280.207, which authorized the addition of recreation to its purposes (some 10 years ago), and (about eight years ago) an Economic Development Corporation, known as the Trinity River Vision Authority, whose board serves at the pleasure of the TRWD Board.

History Between 1929 and 1932, Lake Bridgeport (located on the West Fork of the Trinity River in Wise and Jack counties) and Eagle Mountain Lake (located on the West Fork of the Trinity River in northwest Tarrant County) were built. TRWD contracted for construction of these two reservoirs. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was not involved in these projects. It did not arrive upon the local scene until after the flood of 1949. There’s far more rainfall in east Texas than here in the more populous Metroplex. Consequently, between 1960 and 1964, TRWD contracted to build the Cedar Creek Reservoir (located in Henderson and Kaufman counties); and between 1982 and 1987, it contracted to build Richland-Chambers Reservoir (located in Navarro and Freestone counties). The four aforementioned lakes and reservoirs are owned and operated by the district. Two other lakes figure in the story: Lake Arlington, built by the city of Arlington, and Lake Benbrook, owned, built and operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Movement of water by the district into, or out from, those lakes is by contracts with those entities. The biggest and most expensive activity of the TRWD is moving water from one reservoir through a mighty plumbing system to other reservoirs/lakes. Working to achieve efficiency and effectiveness in the system is paramount. The pipeline originating at Cedar Creek Reservoir is 72-inches in diameter; the pipeline from Richland-Chambers Reservoir is 90-inches in diameter. TRWD uses as much as 0.1 percent of all the electricity being used in Texas. The pumps transmit the water from the East Texas reservoirs to Tarrant County (to Lake Arlington, Lake Benbrook, Eagle Mountain Lake and directly to several water treatment plant locations). The district begins daily pumping of the water at full pump capacity early in January, and continues well into the summer, in order that a sufficient supply of water will be on hand for its customers throughout Tarrant County.

Interesting point Eighty percent of the water used by the TRWD and its customers comes from the two East Texas reservoirs. And yet, one almost never sees local television coverage of the levels of Cedar Creek and Richland-Chambers Reservoirs! Why? Our residents should definitely be interested in the rainfall and runoff in those areas. Having sufficient water to satisfy and fulfill the district’s growing number of residents and customers 50 years from now is a responsibility requiring actions that began decades ago. TRWD’s service area population is expected to double, exceeding four million by 2060. Many approaches have been, and are being, considered. Some are far more attractive than others. An Integrated Pipeline Project (with the city of Dallas) is under way to bring water to the Metroplex from Lake Palestine, just west of Tyler. Using a 108-inch pipeline, at its largest, the project will be fully operational by 2020 for the Tarrant component, and later for Dallas. On June 13, the U.S. Supreme Court rendered a decision on the suit brought by TRWD against the state of Oklahoma. The district sought to be treated like any other water user in Oklahoma. Runoff water from Oklahoma presently is going down rivers unused to the Gulf! Since the decision was “for” the state of Oklahoma, TRWD now has less flexibility in dealing with its future water needs. More pressure will now need to be brought to build the Marvin Nichols Reservoir on the Sulphur River in northeast Texas, and/or to pump water through a new pipeline running from Toledo Bend Reservoir. In the meantime, the district’s present success stories with conservation efforts provide more time to resolve the future water supply “opportunity.” Thus, the district continues to plan for the future. As a member of the Texas Water Development Board’s Region C Water Planning Group, the district works with other local stakeholders to identify solutions to the region’s anticipated water needs. The Texas legislature recently passed House Bill 4, which would authorize $2 billion to start a revolving water fund that is contingent on voter approval in the Nov. 5 election. The initiative would pave the way for billions of dollars for local and regional water projects to meet the long-term goals of the state water plan. During the last four or five years, TRWD has devoted considerable emphasis and additional investment to the area of promoting water conservation. Daytime watering restrictions were passed along to the district’s customers, beginning in the summer of 2007. This action brought about a 13 percent reduction in the peak to average water usage ratio. Then, in the summer of 2011, a twice-weekly watering schedule was implemented. This action resulted in another 8 percent reduction. Annual savings of the various campaigns have been substantial, equivalent to one-third the amount of water TRWD provides each year from its West Fork reservoirs.

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Conservation success The George W. Shannon Wetlands Water Reuse Facility at Richland-Chambers is one of the first of its kind in the United States. The system naturally treats water diverted from the Trinity River and puts it back into the district’s water supply system (at Richland-Chambers Reservoir) for future use. The project began about 12 years ago and is now in full scale operation (just finished) at 1,800 acres. This project has received both state and national awards for its design and operation. The amount of water that this provides back into the system is equivalent to the yield of the West Fork. A similar wetlands project is being planned to be adjacent to Cedar Creek Reservoir. I’ll not say much of this, but the district manages a 27-mile flood control system that spans through Fort Worth. Working together with the United States Army Corps of Engineers, TRWD maintains the levees and related structures that provide vital protection to residents along the Clear and West Forks of the Trinity. TRWD is committed to providing recreational opportunities for local residents and visitors to the area. This includes maintaining the 40-mile Trinity Trail system that winds through much of Fort Worth, and providing at the district’s four reservoirs a place to boat, fish, sail, swim or just get away with family and friends. For Fort Worth, truly “a river runs through it.”

An appreciation I am very favorably impressed with what the TRWD (board, management and staff) has done in accomplishing the district’s goals and responsibilities. Among similar districts across the state and nation, the TRWD stands as a clear leader. Local residents should be proud and grateful.

Earl G. Alexander is a physical chemist, retired from Lockheed Martin Aeronautics.