Water district history lesson missed the boat


Clyde Picht

The narrative and chronicling of the “history of the Tarrant Regional Water District” by Earl G. Alexander (Fort Worth Business Press, June 24) was interesting and enlightening, but in this case the past isn’t prologue. The commendable past practices don’t excuse the “outrageous, infuriating, unacceptable” practices of today described in the July 1-7 editorial in the Business Press. That editorial focused primarily on TRWD General Manager Jim Oliver. The greater disgrace is the abuse of the public trust by the TRWD board and top management. The water district has moved on from maintaining reservoirs, coordinating flood control and supplying clean and adequate water supplies to taking property, spending inordinate amounts of tax money on self-serving projects and totally avoiding public oversight and accountability in its activities. Before delving into the scum of public process let’s look at a couple of Mr. Alexander’s declarations. He duly notes that the TRWD has authority in 11 counties, providing water as far away as Corsicana. Yet not even the whole of Tarrant County can vote for representation on the board. The district has spent $6 million in lawsuits aimed at getting water from Oklahoma and “sought to be treated like any other water user in Oklahoma.” It may come as a surprise to some that we are in Texas. The claim of water conservation through wetlands development and twice weekly watering is overstated. The water customers must institute watering restrictions, not TRWD. The wetlands project that encompasses 1,800 acres is a good thing but it is a drop in the bucket compared to the hundreds of thousands of acre-feet in a reservoir. We need a lot of water to satisfy projected growth. Now, to the scum. Sometime prior to 2004, an ingenious plan was developed to use tax money for economic development. A public/private development scheme was concocted that would use tax revenues to finance a giant, water-oriented development along the Trinity River that would include waterfront restaurants, a constant level lake, condos, apartments, canals and gondolas with real Italian gondoliers singing strains from La Boheme. Well, scratch the gondoliers; they weren’t actually in the plan. But everything else was. This boundless plan was to cost a mere $360 million and generate an astounding $1 billion tax base. Conveniently overlooked was any effort to seek approval of the project by the voting public. The genius aspect of the whole thing was that there was no single public entity in charge that could be voted out of office if the public soured on the idea. Funding would come from Fort Worth, Tarrant County, TRWD, and state and federal contributions. This wondrous project would materialize over a mere 40 years. Wow! It only took 150 years to almost fully develop an equivalent area downtown. Probably 90 percent of Fort Worth residents don’t realize the vaunted Trinity River Vision project will cost them an arm and a leg in taxes while the private developers and insiders reap all the profits. It took only a few months for the cost to escalate to $435 million. In the meantime, state Rep. Charlie Geren was able to get a bill passed by voice vote in the Legislature that would dissolve a Rio Grande Valley water control district. That turned out to be a smokescreen to get the votes to enact provisions that allow TRWD to take property anywhere in its jurisdiction for economic development. The district assumed the authority to lease, give or barter property and to establish a separate governing entity to manage development – the Trinity River Vision Authority. The TRVA is representative of all participants but is responsible to none. Needing a director for the TRVA with high qualifications – someone versed in construction, engineering and hydrology, to name a few essential skills – the water district’s general manager, Jim Oliver, went for the best. This being potentially a billion dollar project, Oliver zeroed in on the Tarrant County District Attorney’s office and found a tier 4 law school graduate working as an assistant DA. Selecting J.D. Granger to head TRVA was rather fortuitous because his mother, Kay Granger, happened to be a member of Congress and federal money was required for the key requirement of building a bypass channel and dams and hydraulic locks and all the really expensive stuff. Under the astute guidance of Mr. Granger, with his six-figure salary, the projected cost of the Trinity River Vision development has risen to $909 million. But wait – that amount represents 2009 dollars and anyone who believes the cost won’t eventually escalate to $2 billion would be a good candidate for Congress. The taxpayers are faced with what in the parlance of car dealers would be termed an upside down loan. In other words, we owe more on the TRV junk heap than we could ever recover in potential revenue. Like most every public/private development scheme that I’ve observed over the years, the cost is vastly underestimated while the return is grossly overestimated. Ah, but surely it’s worth it if we can copy San Antonio’s River Walk and have dinner on the lake in the setting sun, with sailboats gliding by and children frolicking at water’s edge. Hello, wake up!

Clyde Picht is a former member of the Fort Worth City Council.