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Thirsty:

From the Trinity to Our Tap

By SHELLEY KOFLER / KERA News

SAINT JO, Texas - A hundred yards off Highway 59, at the wooded edge of a pasture, water gurgles up through a rocky creek bed. This is Bill Meador's family farm.

"This is Elm Creek, what we're looking at," Meador said. "It's where the permanent water starts for sure, yes ma'am. It's what some people consider in Montague County the Head of Elm."

STORY AUDIO:
Head of Elm is what gold prospectors and cattle drivers called this spring and the community that grew up around it in the mid-1800s. Meador's sister, Lucy Martin, has documented the history.

"My grandfather probably purchased this land back in the 1900s, and it's been in our family since," she said. "This was a watering hole for early settlers and early cattle drives. They stopped because the water was dependable and it was fresh."

Dependable water in drought-prone Texas is just as vital today as it was a century and a half ago. The Head of Elm settlement is now Saint Jo, a town of around 1,000 people located northwest of Dallas. The always-flowing spring is still the headwaters of the Elm Fork, one of four major tributaries to the Trinity River.

"What I found is this was a border area between North and South between the Red River system and the Trinity River system," Martin said.

The border is a high ridge near the springs called Devil's Backbone. Raindrops falling on the north side of Devil's Backbone flow into the Red River Basin. On the south side they flow down into the Elm Fork and the Trinity River Basin.

Don't be fooled by the mucky Trinity that cuts through Dallas and nearly disappears in the summer heat. City of Dallas Assistant Water Director Charlie Stringer said the Trinity is a life-giving force for North Texas.

"When you talk about the Trinity watershed, you're talking about more than just the Trinity River and the Elm Fork of the river," Stringer said. "You're talking about the areas that drain into those tributaries, that drain into the lakes that ultimately drain into the river."

Stringer said Dallas customers currently get water from four lakes in the Trinity watershed.

"We have four lakes in the Trinity watershed, (including) Ray Roberts, Lake Lewisville, Lake Grapevine and Lake Ray Hubbard," he said. "Those are the lakes where we get water. They make up a little over 50 percent of our total combined yield that we use."

Dallas is just one of three major utilities in the D-FW metropolitan area that's pulling water from the Trinity basin for homes and businesses to use. The Tarrant Regional Water District and the North Texas Municipal Water District are the others.

How they deliver drinkable water to our faucets is truly a miracle of technology. Let's go back to the Elm Fork: Some 70 miles downstream from the spring, the Elm Fork empties into Lakes Ray Roberts and Lewisville. Those reservoirs were built by damming up the Elm Fork. Yes, they're great places for boating and fishing. But the lakes' primary purpose is to store a water supply for North Texas.

Twenty-four hours before customers turn on their taps, Charlie Stringer and utility employees have estimated the amount of water two million people will need that day. For those in, say, Carrollton, the Army Corps of Engineers has opened the reservoir gates at Lake Lewisville. It's released water from the lake back into the Elm Fork where it flows downstream to a treatment plant.

The treatment plants have made the water drinkable and pumps have pushed it through storage tanks, then pipes and into household faucets.

"I guess there are close to 600, 700 people who are out there working 24 hours, 7 days a week, to try to keep the water running at all times," Stringer said.

He has witnessed explosive growth in population and water use during his 40 years with the city, and that only continues. State planners say the 16-county North Texas region is poised to double its population in the next half century. The demand for water will increase 87 percent.

Dallas-Fort Worth water providers want to do what they did before when faced with soaring needs. They want to build reservoirs. Four of them. This time, however, all the new reservoirs would lie in East Texas, outside the Trinity basin. Charlie Stringer's boss, Dallas Water Director Jody Puckett, says the Trinity is tapped out.

"The days of being able to just rely on the Trinity Basin as a water supply ended with the construction of Lake Ray Hubbard, mostly, and Ray Roberts," Puckett said. "Lake Ray Roberts was the last major lake to be built in this basin, so the region's been importing water for a long time."

East Texas landowners are already battling the new reservoirs in a modern-day range war over property rights and water. At Head of Elm, Lucy Martin says nothing's really changed since cattle drivers camped here long ago and competed with prospectors and developers for water. Water is still the currency of commerce.

"Water is an important resource to us now as it was to them," she said. "The lack of good water has always been a problem in Texas."

Sam: How important are the proposed reservoirs to filling North Texas water needs?

Shelley: Water planners say they would be the single biggest source of new water for North Texas. We'll tackle that issue Friday when we also hear from opponents who say there are less destructive ways to quench our thirst. Tomorrow Bill Zeeble takes a look at predictions for drought in North Texas and how we're planning for it.

Sam: To learn more about water in our region visit our new website, trinityrivertexas.org.

Email Shelley Kofler

(This story originally aired on KERA-FM on May 12, 2009.)

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