As Fort Worth attracts thousands of new residents each year, the Tarrant Regional Water District is tasked with estimating how much water will be required to support population growth, not just a decade from now, but 50 years into the future.
By 2070, demand for water across 11 north central Texas counties will grow by at least 54 percent, according to a 2020 analysis published by TRWD officials.
That reality has led the water district to invest millions into the Cedar Creek Wetlands project, a water reuse facility that is expected to provide 80 million gallons of water per day and support an additional 560,000 people in the Fort Worth area. The district’s first wetlands project, located at the Richland Chambers Reservoir near Corsicana, opened in 2013.
“This option just keeps coming to the top as the next obvious water supply strategy for us because we’ve done so much legwork that we can get it done in a timely manner,” Rachel Ickert, the district’s chief water resources officer, said. “It produces a large amount of water for a relatively low cost when you’re comparing it to other supply sources.”
The new 3,000-acre wetlands facility will be constructed at the water district’s existing Cedar Creek Reservoir, located southeast of Dallas near Athens. Last month, the district’s board of directors approved an $11.2 million budget to obtain permits and finish designs by the end of 2024.
If all goes to plan, construction on the wetlands will begin in 2025 and conclude in 2032. Water district officials are exploring avenues to expand the amount of water brought to the facility so that it can produce up to 150 million gallons per day, according to the district’s announcement.
What makes the wetlands project any different from a reservoir? Reservoirs collect rainfall that filters into lakes, and those lakes then discharge into the Trinity River, Ickert said.
At a wetlands facility, river water containing wastewater effluent – sewage that has been treated at a wastewater treatment plant – is run through plants and vegetation that clean the water, removing sediment and nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous. The product is high-quality water that can be pumped back into reservoirs, Ickert said.
Wastewater effluent is a reliable resource that will be available even during droughts, she added.
“It increases the amount of water we can pull from our reservoirs,” Ickert said. “It just allows us to more fully and efficiently utilize the water supply in the region. That water otherwise would just be making its way down the river.”
New reservoirs may still be necessary in the future, Ickert said. North Texas water planners, including Dan Buhman, the water district’s general manager, pushed to have the controversial Marvin Nichols Reservoir added to the 2022 state water plan. The Texas Water Development Board unanimously approved the plan last summer.
The Marvin Nichols Reservoir would cost at least $4.4 billion and consume thousands of resource-rich acres in northeast Texas. In turn, the reservoir would provide billions of gallons of water to the Metroplex each year. North Texas water planners are seeking to build Marvin Nichols sometime during the 2050s.
Members of Preserve Northeast Texas, a coalition of business owners, activists and longtime residents opposed to Marvin Nichols, want Metroplex water planners to delay the reservoir’s completion until at least 2070 and only after all other water conservation and reuse options have been exhausted.
Janice Bezanson, who sits on the steering committee for Preserve Northeast Texas, “heartily supports” the water district’s latest wetlands project and its efforts to reuse wastewater effluent.
“What frustrates me is that they’re not planning to do more reuse than they are,” Bezanson, the senior policy director for the Texas Conservation Alliance, said. “There should be more reuse projects and more conservation – lots more – before they think of doing something as destructive as building Marvin Nichols.”
The district could also do more to encourage water conservation, particularly reductions in lawn watering, before flooding 66,000 acres of land that support the Northeast Texas timber and agriculture economies, Bezanson said.
“If they were to get their per-person water use down to levels that other cities in the state have already accomplished, then they shouldn’t need any new reservoir and certainly not any time in the foreseeable future,” Bezanson said.
Regardless of outside perceptions, North Texas is home to several successful water conservation programs, Ickert said.
The water district also has plans to build an experimental aquifer storage project to explore the possibilities of holding water underground rather than in reservoirs, where significant amounts are lost to evaporation. Those plans have been delayed due to higher construction costs during the pandemic, she said.
The district will continue exploring new ways to conserve and reuse water as explosive growth in North Texas shows no signs of slowing down, Ickert added.
“We can’t let this region run out of water,” Ickert said. “This region is an economic engine for the state and even for the country. It’s our job to make sure that there will be water available.”
This story has been updated to clarify the types of nutrients removed at the wetlands facility.
Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from the Marilyn Brachman Hoffman Foundation. Contact her by email or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.