Thursday, March 27, 2008

H2O Hell No, Some Say, But County Finally Says Yes

Fannin County, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, is 899 square miles of mostly pasture, and water making up about eight square miles, or 0.86 percent of that real estate. In a few decades, though, that ratio of water to land will change quite a bit. Monday, Fannin County commissioners voted to approve a contract between the county and the Upper Trinity Regional Water District for Lake Ralph Hall. As I've mentioned before, the first paper I worked for when I came to Texas was in Leonard, Texas. Leonard is about two hours or so from Dallas, in Fannin County. Actually, it's right there in the corner of Fannin, Hunt and Collin counties, if you want to get very technical. While there, the Upper Trinity Regional Water District began sniffing around the area - around 2003 or so, looking for a new spot for a man-made lake. You see, it's a not so-little known fact that water is and/or will be a premium for booming areas in Denton County and northern Collin County - and the UTRWD serves Lewisville, and 20 other smaller towns like Celina and Prosper, whose populations are increase with great rapidity. Prosper, for instance, had a population just shy of 3,000 in 2003, but topped 6,000 in 2007. All those places, with their extra peoples, need water. Fannin County is one of the poorest counties in Texas. Its median income per family was, in 2004, $35,434. It's largely an agricultural area, where gravel roads still outnumber the paved and a citified reporter can get lost trying to find a road called Raggedy Ann Road because nobody tells her it's now numbered CR something something, but everyone still calls it Raggedy Ann Road because there was once - but no longer - a large Raggedy Ann cutout at the edge of the road. But I digress. Nestled in Fannin County is a hard-luck town called Ladonia. A few years ago, Ladonia was in high cotton. But then Supreme Beef shut down and laid everyone off, and suddenly a major source of tax income dried up. Mayor Leon Hurse tried everything. There was even talk of INS - back when it was called INS and not ICE - building a facility there, but it never came to fruition. This deal from the UTRWD sounded like a blessing to Hurse. They wanted to build a lake that would butt up right next to Ladonia. A lake, of course, would mean people would drive to Ladonia. I remember him explaing how people could boat and swim and fish in the lake ... and thinking it sounded more like a Tampax commercial than a presentation for a lake. But the presence of boaters and swimmers and fishermen would, Hurse said, mean people would stop in Ladonia for gas, food, and ice. Sure, there would be other towns on the way to Lake Ralph Hall, and near the lake, but they lacked one thing Ladonia had - beer. Ladonia is the only wet spot (for lack of a better term) in the county, the one dark place in the bastion of good Baptists. Hurse, UTRWD folks and then Fannin County Judge Derrell Hall held an informational, town-hall meeting to float the idea. Right away, you could tell quite a few of the residents in the area - specifically those that were about to find their pastureland that had been in their families for hundreds of years - wanted to float it right back over to them. "I have a family cemetery there," I remember one lady saying. "You're gonna flood that?" A strong group of opposition the community of Gober organized fairly quickly, and the commissioners were pretty loathe to move as quickly as Hurse would like. At one point, Hurse even entered into an agreement with the UTRWD - even though it wasn't entirely obvious what course the county would take - and even though a lot of the land wasn't even under Hurse's purvey. That, by the way, went over like a turd in a punchbowl. "I'm tired of them trying to shove this lake down my throat," I remember one man complaining. There was even a beef about the name of the lake. Congressman Ralph Hall is revered in Fannin County - even switching parties couldn't get him unseated, and I'm pretty sure he diapered the tiny baby Jesus once. But naming a lake "they" knew a lot of people would hate after him, it was murmured, was just a dirty trick to make people feel bad about hating the lake. It didn't get any better in the years following. The opposition was pretty vocal, and at one point it seemed that the county was going to block the Upper Trinity's application with the TCEQ. There were many bones of contention - land owners were certain they'd not get fair market value for their land, the county wanted a guaranteed percentage of the water for its own use, and there was also the matter of how much the county would be paid for the water, as well as how it would be compensated for the loss of tax revenue while the lake was being built. From what I understand, that vocal opposition is still opposed. It seems that if the county didn't get the exact deal it wanted, it got close, so it will be interesting to see if the fireworks continue when it comes time for the Upper Trinity to sit down and negotiate with the land owners themselves.