By Joe Parker Jr.
Try as you might, you cannot raise cattle without land. They either need plenty of space to graze or to be fed forage and grain from land elsewhere.
Fortunately, generations of Texans have had access to plentiful grazing lands, making Texas the largest cattle-producing state in the nation. With 12.7 million head at the beginning of this year, we aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean we can rest easy.
Around 83% of our lands are rural, yet 85% of the population lives in urban and suburban areas. As Texas grows at an unprecedented speed, so does the competition for land and other resources.
We are an easy target in rural Texas — where land is plentiful and people are few. The latest fight is playing out between the City of Wichita Falls and the citizens of rural Clay County.
As the city plans for future water needs, it’s moving to construct a massive reservoir in the county next door, which is mainly rural and dominated by agriculture. If the project moves forward, more than 16,000 acres of prime agricultural land and wildlife habitat will be flooded to create the reservoir.
According to the latest USDA Census of Agriculture, Clay County is home to more than 1,300 agricultural producers and 77,500 cattle. Thousands of acres of agricultural production will be lost, and ranches will be flooded out of existence or cut into small pieces with a lake standing between them. Other producers will likely suffer from decreased water flow elsewhere along the basin they rely upon to water their cattle.
Businesses supplying these agricultural operations also stand in harm’s way. Every county citizen does, too.
They will all suffer increased costs or decreased services, such as waiting for emergency responders to drive around a 16,000-acre lake unless the county expands operations. All while removing more than 40,000 acres from the county’s tax rolls.
There’s another wrinkle in this precedent-setting battle. According to the state water plan, the city’s water needs will remain relatively flat throughout the next 50 years. Further, a new water reuse project at Lake Arrowhead is now operational to help protect supplies during times of drought.
With the enormous impact on agriculture, the questionable need and the implications for similar water projects across the state, Texas & Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association has taken an active role in the fight.
To proceed, the City of Wichita Falls must get a water use permit from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. We sought affected party status and are contesting the permit issuance before the agency. The hearing process will culminate in fall 2023, and we continue to explore other avenues of opposition.
The proposed Lake Ringgold project reminds us why we must continually advocate for rural Texas.
Developing new water sources is sometimes necessary, but not this time. We cannot allow rural citizens and communities to foot the entire bill for urban growth, or our grocery store shelves are sure to suffer.
Joe Parker is a past president of Texas & Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association and ranches in Clay County.