A Texas County Invests $39 Million in a Lake That’s Almost a Dry Hole
By Russell Jones
The Texas Legislature is likely to downgrade the Palo Duro River Authority to a water district this year, but that won’t solve Moore County’s $39 million problem any time soon.
Residents of the county have paid that much to the authority, and continue to pay several hundred thousand dollars a year, but have received not a drop of water since Lake Palo Duro began to fill in 1991. Located in the northern Panhandle, Moore County has about 22,000 people, including 15,000 in the count seat, Dumas.
The Legislature created the river authority in 1973 to dam Palo Duro Creek, creating a water source for this dry part of the Panhandle. In 1985, Moore County voted to be annexed by the authority and to raise property taxes in exchange for piped municipal water from the yet-to-be-built Lake Palo Duro. The decision made Moore County the principal source of funds for the project.
Since the dam was finished in 1991, the lake has never held much water, and the authority hasn’t built a foot of pipeline to Moore or its other participants, Hansford County and the city of Stinnett. The lake was 3.4 percent full in May 2016, and is currently hovering about 1.5 percent. With no river or other continuous water source, the lake relies on rainfall, which hasn’t been sufficient to raise its level.
“We’re paying a tax we receive no benefit from,” Moore County Judge Rowdy Rhoades said in a telephone interview. “We’re funding a small fishing hole. We could have built a school or added on to our schools with all the taxes we’ve paid.”
The Sunset Commission, which regularly reviews state agencies, recommended last year that the river authority be converted to a water conservation district. That’s what House Bill 1920, sponsored by Republican Rep. Dan Flynn of Canton, does. The bill, which has passed the House and is now in the Senate, also lets current water authority participants leave the district, but only if the district’s finances are covered.
As of December 2016, Moore County had paid $34 million, or 72 percent, of the dam’s cost, plus another $5 million since 2013 in maintenance costs, according to authority records. The bonds that financed the dam have been paid off, but Moore County continues to generate about 75 percent of the authority’s annual revenue, about $462,000 in 2015. The authority itself generates about $17,000 a year in user fees for a park at the lake.
Flynn’s legislation would also require approval of the water district’s board for a current member to withdraw. The board has nine representatives, but Moore County has just four votes.
Rhoades said Moore County doesn’t necessarily want to leave the new water district, provided that it becomes financially self-sufficient. House Bill 1603, by Amarillo Republican Rep. Four Price, would have allowed the district to sell groundwater and develop wind energy, but groundwater development was removed from the version passed by a House committee. Rhoades said the Price bill, along with the sunset legislation, might offer Moore County some tax relief. The bill is awaiting consideration by the full House.
Jay Goodwin, a member of the authority’s board from Sunray, in Moore County, said in a telephone interview that he understands Moore County’s position, but that the bylaws are equitable the way they are. He said changing the authority to a water district would mostly just mean a new name.
Lake Palo Duro was designed to hold up to 61,000 acre-feet. An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons. On May 7, the lake held about 890 acre-feet. The Sunset Commission said the lake has performed poorly because it’s not fed by a continuous river or other water source, and better irrigation practices have reduced water runoff.
The area is also dry. According to the Texas Historical Commission’s Texas Almanac, Moore County gets less than 18 inches of rain a year, among the state’s lowest. The report said the lake’s problems had been intensified by “continuous drought” in the area.
Dave Oliver, a meteorologist at KFDA television in Amarillo, said in an email exchange that the droughts of 1995-96 and 2011-15 were particularly hard on area lakes because of their dependence on runoff from thunderstorms, which didn’t happen.
“The result was devastating to area lakes, including Palo Duro,” Oliver said.
The video accompanying this story is by permission from the Moore County Journal.