Tarrant Regional Water Board challengers question how agency does its business

Posted Monday, Apr. 08, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Three candidates running for the Tarrant Regional Water District Board are questioning how the agency conducts its business, including making too many crucial decisions behind closed doors.

John Basham, Timothy Nold and Dwayne Herring all criticized the five-member board for "rubber stamping" recommendations from staff at its meetings and for discussing the issues at subcommittee meetings outside of the public eye.

A fourth challenger, Mary Kelleher, also is seeking one of three open board positions on the May 11 ballot now held by Vic Henderson, Hal Sparks and Jack Stevens.

Basham, Nold and Herring point to a recent lawsuit filed by an east Texas landowner that alleges that the water district violated the Texas Open Meetings Act when it approved a $2.3 billion pipeline project that would cut across his 1,000-acre ranch.

"I've said again and again that I'm really concerned about corruption," said Basham. The issue also surfaced in the 2010 election when two other seats were open on the board. "They've (the water district) finally gotten sued. Someone finally got mad."

But incumbents Henderson, Sparks and Stevens -- with over 60 years of service between them -- said the board is complying with the Texas Water Code and is not violating open meetings laws.

In a statement released by the water district after the lawsuit was filed, the agency said that it thought the lawsuit was "baseless and without merit" and said that the agency complies with all applicable laws, including the Texas Open Meetings Act.

Henderson, who also serves as president of the board said: "We do satisfy all of our open meetings requirements."

The incumbents also all stressed the work they've done to plan for the future water needs for a thirsty Metroplex where the population is expected to double by 2060.

The top three vote getters will serve four-year terms. Board members are paid $150 each time they represent the water district, such as attend meetings or events, but their salary is capped at $7,200 per year.

While the district provides water to about 1.7 million people, only those living in a handful of cities -- Fort Worth, Edgecliff Village, Westover Hills, Westworth Village, a portion of River Oaks and the Tarrant County portion of Azle -- are eligible to vote. An area in unincorporated Tarrant County around Eagle Mountain Lake is also part of the water district.

Vast agency

The Tarrant Regional Water District is one of the largest raw water suppliers in Texas, with its operations spanning an 11-county area reaching from Jack County to Freestone County.

The board oversees the operation of more than 150 miles of pipeline and maintenance of dams at its four reservoirs including Cedar Creek and Richland-Chambers in East Texas and Lake Benbrook and Eagle Mountain Lake. It also maintains the more than 27 miles of floodway levees designed by the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers that provides flood protection to area residents along the West and Clear Forks of the Trinity River.

As a result, in recent years, it also has been a key player in the sometimes controversial $909 million Trinity Uptown project, a flood control and economic development effort that stretches from an industrial area on Fort Worth's near north side to the green spaces in Gateway Park on the east side. Its plans include a bypass channel and a Town Lake north of downtown.

But recently it's been the district's core mission of providing water to North Texas that has created controversy.

On April 23rd, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in the district's lawsuit against the state of Oklahoma over control of water that flows from several of its river basins into the Red River. The water district sued Oklahoma in January 2007, seeking to divert more than 130 billion gallons from those basins just north of the Red River as part of a long-term water supply for North Texas.

And, last month the district was sued over the Integrated Pipeline Project. The district is working with Dallas Water Utilities on pipeline to bring more water from existing East Texas reservoirs. The first phase that will go to Cedar Creek Lake is expected to be completed in 2021.

Monty Bennett of Dallas, who maintains a wildlife refuge at his ranch about seven miles southeast of Athens, filed a lawsuit contending the district violated state law in how it approved various portions of the project, stating that the board approved decisions and recommendations made by the agency's staff and key committees without any public deliberation.

Henderson, Stevens and Sparks defended the district's water development and conservation projects.

Henderson, 75, who is a petroleum engineer and served on the board since 1985, said it is critical for the district to capture 130 billion gallons of water before it reaches the Red River. In its lawsuit against Oklahoma, the district said it is entitled to the water under an interstate water compact.

Sparks, 72, an attorney who has been a board member since 1988, said the pipeline project bringing water from East Texas is crucial, as are the conservation efforts the agency is doing to ensure that there is enough water.

Stevens, 69, a retired engineer from Vought Aircraft, also praised the water district's efforts to promote conservation, saying that the Lawn Whisperer campaign has helped reduce water use by 20 percent. There are also wetland projects that the district is involved in that are adding to the water supply, he said.

"People realized that we had to get together and do something," said Stevens, who has been a board member since 2004.

Too much secrecy

Basham, 42, a meteorologist, ran for the board in 2010 saying the board hadn't done enough to critically question the water district's efforts in many areas. He also added that when board members do debate issues, it is done behind closed doors, outside public scrutiny. He also ran unsuccessfully for the board in 2008.

Besides working as a meteorologist, Basham has worked as a police officer and served as a Texas Army National Guard combat medic. He used to live in Fort Worth, but now lives in northern Azle and qualifies for candidacy through his ownership of a small piece of property near Eagle Mountain Lake that was formerly owned by Clyde Picht, another critic of the water district's operations.

Nold, 40, a registered land surveyor who lives near Eagle Mountain Lake, ran unsuccessfully for the water board in 2006. Nold previously has said he has experience in land development projects like the DART light rail system and water projects in West Texas.

When Nold ran in 2006, he criticized the water board over decisions he felt were made behind closed doors to sell a neighborhood park near Eagle Mountain Lake, and he also criticized the Trinity Uptown project and he said he believes the trend is continuing, referring to the lawsuit filed by Bennett.

Nold said he is concerned that the water district hasn't done enough to emphasize conservation. He questioned the effectiveness of the Lawn Whisperer campaign and said more needs to be done.

"We've got to do something besides going out and building pipelines and lakes..." Nold said. "I'm a very Libertarian guy. I don't like telling people what to do, but water is a limited resource."

Herring, 46, a political newcomer who lives on Eagle Mountain Lake, said he is also concerned about conservation and the lake levels. He criticized the water district for not maintaining adequate lake levels.

"The levels have to do with ongoing drought. They've spent money on pipelines to maintain constant levels, but they (consistent water levels) are just not there."

Herring said he is also concerned about Bennett's lawsuit and said decision about people's land should have been discussed in public.

Kelleher, 50, a supervisor for Tarrant County's juvenile court system, owns a 12-acre farm in east Fort Worth said she has grappled with issues including flooding on her land and opposing natural gas compressor stations. Kelleher said she is interested in water conservation and serving on the water district would be a "perfect fit."

"I am an accidental activist turned politician," she said of her first time to run.

Elizabeth Campbell, 817-390-7696

Twitter: @fwstliz

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