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Wichita Falls moving forward with controversial Lake Ringgold project

Despite opposition and the decision of an administrative law judge, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) voted on Friday, May 10 to approve the City of Wichita Falls’ permit to move forward with building an additional reservoir in Clay County.

Lake Ringgold is part of the State Water Plan for Region B in North Central Texas. Currently, the estimated cost for Lake Ringgold is about $443 million.

The plan came about after the severe drought in Wichita Falls from 2011 to 2015. The reservoir would be built by damming part of the Little Wichita River to fill a 16,000-acre site.

Deborah Clark, who owns the Birdwell & Clark Ranch that would be impacted by Lake Ringgold, was one of the protestants to the case. She was disappointed with the TCEQ’s decision.

“We are disappointed but not defeated,” Clark said. “But it was so gratifying to see more than 40 people show up in support of the protestants.”

She said the affected landowners plan to continue fighting through an appeal in district court.

Clark said Lake Ringgold would split her 14,000-acre ranch into three portions and make her ranch road inaccessible.

The fragmentation of the ranch would have a huge impact on its operations, productivity, and profitability, Clark said. The Birdwell & Clark Ranch uses regenerative grazing under which the cattle herd is moved regularly to allow “adequate time for individual plants to grow and controls overgrazing by keeping cattle from returning to the same or preferred plants,” its website explains.

“Unfortunately, TCEQ has approved the permit for an unnecessary reservoir which, if built, would saddle North Texans with a half-billion-dollar burden, force fellow Texans from their private property and cause irreparable environmental damage,” Janice Bezanson, Senior Policy Director for Texas Conservation Alliance, said in a press statement.

She said that the area is a “quintessential prairie landscape.” 

“If you visited it on a spring morning and stood at the high point looking down the long slope, you’d see grass waist high, the river flowing through a band of woodlands, and the expansive blue sky above. You’d hear cows mowing, birds singing, and the sound of quail flushing from their hiding spot.”

According to Bezanson, the reservoir would “wipe out” 2,000 acres of native prairie grassland and ruin the riparian areas along the Little Wichita River that are home to many migratory birds and other wildlife.

“The laws regarding permits aren’t just for the convenience of the entity applying for a water rights permit,” she concluded. “They’re also for the protection of the public. This decision fails to protect many members of the public — the water ratepayers who foot the bill, the ranchers who will be forced off their land and out of their homes, and all Texans, who are the ones who own the water that TCEQ is allocating.”

In December, Administrative Law Judge Christian Sianno recommended that the TCEQ deny the request because the City of Wichita Falls failed to meet its burden of proof on several points, including demonstrating a need for the requested amount.

However, the TCEQ commissioners disagreed with Sianno and approved the permit. The decision seemed to come down to three main issues: the specificity regarding water usage, the fish and wildlife assessments, and the demonstration of need.

The opponents of Lake Ringgold claimed that the city’s permit did not demonstrate a need for the reservoir.

They claim the city is overestimating growth projections and also pointed out that the city manager acknowledged the reservoir was more than what was needed in a memo to the Wichita Falls City Council, which stated that Lake Ringgold is “obviously more water than is needed by the City, and therefore it is likely the City would need a partner that can demonstrate additional demand, in order to be eligible for the [federal] 404 permit.”

The city argued in reply that they met their burden, pointing to the inclusion of Lake Ringgold in the state water plan, and its preparations for the next possible drought and a “water secure future.”

Additionally, the opponents argued and the administrative law judge agreed that the city did not meet the standard of the Texas Water Code, which requires the application to “state the nature and purposes of the proposed use or uses and the amount of water to be used for each purpose.”

The applicable Texas Administrative Code regulation states in part, “The total amount of water to be used shall be stated in definite terms, i.e., a definite number of acre-feet annually or, in the case of a seasonal, emergency, or temporary water right application, over the period for which application is made. The purpose or purposes of each use shall be stated in definite terms. If the water is to be used for more than one purpose, the specific amount to be used annually for each purpose shall be clearly set forth.”

The landowners’ attorney argued that the city had not identified the water usage purposes as required.

The TCEQ Office of Public Interest Counsel (OPIC), created to “ensure that the public's interest is represented in issues considered by the commission,” seemed to agree with the landowners about the water usage issue.

According to OPIC, the city’s application did not state the purposes of the water uses as required by the Water Code and regulations, but believes the application could be corrected.

However, the TCEQ executive director supported the approval of the permit for Lake Ringgold because she said the city had demonstrated the need for the reservoir and met the requirements in its application. 

Concerning the fish and wildlife habitat assessments, the landowners claimed the city’s assessment was too narrow, not including upstream and downstream effects. They also argued that the city had grossly underestimated the mitigation that would be required.

OPIC again agreed with landowners that the permit application assessment was insufficient because the study area excluded some of the impacted land and did not sufficiently provide for mitigation of the project’s impacts.

However, the TCEQ commissioners supported the city’s study as “appropriate and sufficient” with a reasonable mitigation plan.

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