The Sabine River Authority (SRA) was created by the Texas Legislature in 1949 to store, control, preserve, and distribute water. With 115 employees and a service area of over 7,400 square miles, the SRA helps conserve water and distribute it to large Texas cities, such as Dallas and Longview, and industrial customers near the Gulf of Mexico.
David Montagne is the executive vice president and general manager of the SRA and has worked for the authority for 34 years. In this interview, he tells Municipal Water Leader about the SRA’s current projects and its plans for the future.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
David Montagne: I’ve been working with the SRA for 34 years. I have an accounting degree from Lamar University in Beaumont, and I previously worked in accounting and served as the executive director of a housing authority for a brief stint. That was an interesting job, but I saw how many federal overlays there are for everything and couldn’t accomplish some of the things I wanted to, so it was also a pretty frustrating job. Since coming to the SRA, I have represented Texas on the Western States Water Council, served as president of the Texas Water Conservation Association, and been a member of the Texas Ethics Commission. I currently serve as a member of the Texas State University System’s board of regents.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about the SRA and its history.
David Montagne: The SRA was created by an act of the legislature in 1949. It has a nine-member board of directors whose members are appointed by the governor. The SRA’s first project was purchasing a canal system in Orange, Texas, that had solely rice-field contracts. Then the SRA entered into negotiations with the City of Dallas, and in the late 1950s, it started to build Lake Tawakoni, a 37,000‑surface-acre reservoir with a firm yield of over 238,000 acre-feet. That reservoir was finished in the early 1960s. Like a lot of reservoirs in Texas, it was built because of the drought of the 1950s. The SRA’s next major project was Toledo Bend Reservoir, which got a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission license in 1963 and was completed in 1968. It is the largest surface-acre reservoir in the southern United States at 185,000 surface acres and has a firm yield of over 2 million acre-feet. It has two 40‑megawatt water turbine generators. It’s a bistate project involving the Sabine River Authority of Texas and the Sabine River Authority, State of Louisiana. The most amazing thing about that reservoir is that it was built for a total of $70 million. Today, it would cost you $500–$600 million just to get the permit for a bistate project on the main stem of a river. To compare, Bois D’Arc Lake Reservoir, which is being completed right now in Texas, has 16,641 surface acres and cost around a billion dollars to construct. Our third major project was the Lake Fork Reservoir, located north of Tyler, which was completed in 1981 and has 27,690 surface acres and a firm yield of 188,660 acre-feet. Toledo Bend and Lake Fork are considered two of the best bass lakes in America. Toledo Bend has been ranked the number 1 bass-fishing lake in the United States several times. The inaugural Toyota Bass Classic fishing tournament was held at Lake Fork in 2007 and has returned four more times. The next event, the Toyota Texas Fest fishing tournament, is scheduled for November 2020. Our canal system, which was our first project, is now almost 100 percent industrial, serving major corporations like Dow and Firestone as well as power plants. We actually sell less water today than back in the 1950s, when we were supplying rice fields. Today, there are no rice farmers left in Orange County. We currently employ 110–115 employees, depending on the season.
Municipal Water Leader: How large is your service area today?
David Montagne: With an area of 7,426 square miles in the Sabine River basin, our customer cities and water districts stretch from Dallas down to Orange, Texas, on the Gulf Coast. Our industrial customers are located in Gregg and Rusk Counties in the upper basin and in Newton and Orange Counties in the lower basin. The Sabine River basin has a population of about 800,000; its biggest city is Longview, with about 80,000 people. Our customers include a lot of cities and water districts, as well as some industrial facilities. I’d say our total industrial sales are about 60,000 acre-feet per year, while our municipal sales are more than 400,000 acre-feet per year.
Our most northwestern customers are the City of Dallas and North Texas Municipal Water District (NTMWD), which are located in the Trinity River basin. We serve them with water from Lake Tawakoni and Lake Fork. Dallas and NTMWD provide water to over 3 million customers.
Municipal Water Leader: Do you deliver raw water to those customers?
David Montagne: Yes. We are a wholesale raw water customer. We do a little bit of sewage treatment, but we do not have any water treatment plants. We control some of the pump stations, and some of our customers, including the City of Dallas and NTMWD, own and run their own pump stations on land we have given them.
Municipal Water Leader: How does the SRA raise money?
David Montagne: We have no tax authority and receive no appropriations. In Texas, river authorities are relatively autonomous entities with governor-appointed, senate-confirmed boards, usually with nine members. The Texas Legislature’s Committee on Natural Resources and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality have oversight over us.
We don’t have a monopoly; a lot of our cities and industrial customers could use groundwater or other surface water sources. We need to have willing buyers. Our contracts cover the costs of maintaining our reservoirs and operating our pump stations and pipelines. In a sense, we don’t sell water—we sell the services of producing, storing, and transporting water.
Municipal Water Leader: Do you also have flood control responsibilities?
David Montagne: All the river authorities in Texas with reservoirs or lakes have some flood control abilities. Our reservoirs were built on a shoestring budget and don’t have much flood storage. For example, the conservation pool of our major reservoir, Toledo Bend, has a conservation elevation of 172 feet and goes into gate operations at 172.5 feet. It was primarily built for water supply. Sam Rayburn Reservoir, a major U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project about 20 miles away, is a little bit smaller but was primarily built for flood storage.
Municipal Water Leader: Are the mussels in your reservoirs, or just in the rivers?
David Montagne: They are in our reservoirs, the river, and even in our water supply canals. Mussels and their life cycles are generally poorly understood. The lack of scientific data complicates the evaluation process. We are currently evaluating how operating pump stations, canal systems, and gated structures may affect mussels. Issues related to the operation of a federally licensed hydroelectric facility complicate an already difficult process. We don’t believe current data are sufficient to support a listing for the two species being evaluated. For example, in the previous 18 years, only 107 of one species had been found in the entire lower Neches River, but one of our fellow river authorities recently found over 100 in 6 days of sampling a 2.5‑mile stretch of their canal system. We’re working on some studies to fill in the gaps in the data and to get a better idea of mussel populations in the Sabine River basin. We’d like to get better data before a decision is made that might change the way we operate our reservoirs.
Municipal Water Leader: How is the COVID‑19 pandemic affecting your operations?
David Montagne: We’re being careful in our day-to-day operations. We are having our employees check their temperatures before coming to work so as to avoid spreading the virus. We have been lucky: None of our employees or their family members have tested positive. We’ve had a few get a fever, stay at home, and recover without meeting the criteria to be tested.
We’re doing most of our meetings through conference calls and other types of media that we have never used regularly before. We’re allowing high-risk people to work from home. We’re trying to have fewer people in any building at the same time and staggering when people come in and when they leave. In our lunch area or in conference rooms, we’re requiring people to stay 6 feet apart. Operations staff who maintain and mow the dams are allowed to go straight to the site without contacting other people. Texas is reopening public business with reduced occupancy, and most water districts are trying to limit the number of people in their offices.
Our area is mostly rural, although there are a couple of hotspots in our basin. There’s one county that has over five infected people per thousand, which is high—the Texas average is less than half a person per thousand. We do have four employees who live in Louisiana, so when the governor shut down the border, those four people worked from home.
Municipal Water Leader: What projects will you be working on in the future?
David Montagne: We recently completed a major contract with the City of Dallas. The Lake Fork contract was renewed in 2014. We had been trying to negotiate the terms of that contract since 1991, and in 2014 we set a rate Dallas disagreed with. We were in court for 3 years, which cost millions of dollars. In October 2017, we came to an agreement and signed a 40‑year contract, which we’re happy with. The old contract included no provision for Dallas to help us build the next project, and the city was not paying any recreation costs. With the new contract, we’re now able to construct new parks and improve existing ones to bring them up to the standard of parks on most reservoirs in Texas. In addition, the old contract wasn’t a cost-of-service contract with depreciation return on capital—Dallas paid maintenance but no depreciation or return on capital. Our current contract lets us move forward with Dallas participating as a customer in our next projects.
The SRA has been out of water in the upper basin area due to the sprawl of the Dallas–Fort Worth metroplex. We have plenty of water in Toledo Bend, but moving that water 150 miles and 200 feet in elevation is a billion-dollar project. There are some reservoirs nearer to Longview that have some water supply for sale that we might be able to buy, which would cut down on the amount of pipe and electricity that would be needed to supply the upper basin.
At this time, Dallas’s contract represents 66 percent of our current water contracts and can be used to help pay for the SRA’s next project. That puts us in a situation in which we can now plan for the future. In Texas, we do water planning over 50 years. We had been sold out of water in Lakes Fork and Tawakoni for about 10 years. In the new contract with Dallas, we did get 12,000 acre-feet back, which has given us a cushion, but it may not last for long. We need to find the cheapest way to take care of future needs.
Municipal Water Leader: What is your vision for the future of the SRA?
David Montagne: Our main concern is our water supply. Our number 1 job, as far as the State of Texas is concerned, is to supply water to the economy. You can’t have people move in or construct new power plants without available water supplies. Our main goal for the next 50‑year planning horizon is to find 50,000 acre-feet of water for the upper Sabine River basin at the best price possible.
Municipal Water Leader: What are the SRA’s top issues today?
David Montagne: Our top issue right now is how to operate safely amid the coronavirus pandemic. We’re following Governor Abbott’s instructions on how many people to have in buildings and how to work safely.
Aside from that, we’ve got several projects going right now. We currently have a $75 million project to build a new pump station in the lower basin. The existing pump station dates back to 1934, making it hard to get replacement parts. The pump station also draws its water from a tributary that, over the years, has been receiving less water flow. We’re moving the pump station about 5 miles north to access the main stem of the river and putting in 7 miles of 66‑inch pipe to tie it back to our canal. The new pump station and pipeline will provide a new level of reliability for our customers. They will give us access to the total flows of the river. We’re also going to put in an extra retention reservoir, which will give us another 10 days of storage.
We’ve gotten hit by a lot of hurricanes, including Rita and Ike, and in 2016, we were hit by the biggest flood we had experienced since the reservoir was put in. We had to install temporary pump stations several times during these weather events. The new pump station we are building will be elevated, will have vertical rather than horizontal pumps, and will be built well above the water. We also recently completed improvements to the Toledo Bend spillway, which was damaged during the 2016 flood event.
We are also working on increasing recreational opportunities throughout the basin with the development and improvement of park facilities at our reservoirs. These recreational parks will increase public use of the reservoirs and provide a venue for fishing tournaments that will help promote tourism and economic growth in the Sabine River basin.
In addition, we are dealing with some federal issues right now. In general, legislation on the Waters of the United States continues to be a big issue. We’re also collaborating with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Department of the Interior on how best to evaluate and protect threatened and endangered mussels. They’re currently evaluating them in the Rio Grande and in central Texas; East Texas will be next. We’re looking into how our operations will be affected if the data justify a federal listing of several mussel species as endangered.