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From Stygian Blackness to Community Asset: A History of the Trinity River

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There have been three periods of permanent human occupation of the Upper Trinity River basin. For most of the last 11,000 years only Native Americans have lived here. These first citizens hunted, fished and lived with nature … they made no substantive changes to the land or water resources … and they thought it would always be that way.

The colonists began arriving in the mid-1800's. They soon divided into ranchers raising cattle on the western prairies and farmers raising cotton on the eastern blacklands – cows and plows. They used the lands for their agricultural livelihood … they made no substantive changes to the water resources … and they thought it would always be that way.

The 20th Century brought a revolution of “industrialists.” They sought to tame and harness the river with reservoirs, levees and the dream of a federally-funded navigation canal with barges transporting goods more than 300 miles to and from the Gulf. An 1898 promotional button proclaimed the dream: “Dallas – The Inland Seaport of Texas.” In 1925 the Trinity River was characterized by the State Health Department as a “mythological river of death” because Dallas led the state in deaths associated with typhoid. Even in the 1980's the river suffered poor water quality and several significant fish kills. The 20th Century approach to land and water resources has been to make very substantive changes which can be characterized as imperviousness and impoundments.

And the obvious question is … will it always be this way?

The DFW region has grown into America's largest metropolitan region located on an inland waterway. The region's population, now exceeding 6 million, and its geographic area are larger than the entire State of Maryland. While Dallas itself has a population of 1.2 million, the next two largest cities along the river corridor of Fort Worth and Arlington are themselves equal in population to Denver and Pittsburgh respectively.

When the 19th-Century dream of a barge canal died in the early 1980's because of changing federal priorities, it was replaced by new local pressures to fill and reclaim significant portions of the floodplain, which itself is one-fourth the size of the State of Rhode Island. Studies by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with the North Central Texas Council of Governments demonstrated the devastating effects that massive reclamation would have on existing properties, especially to the downstream Dallas levee system.

From these discussions emerged an unprecedented local/state/federal partnership to more comprehensively address the problems and opportunities of the river corridor and watershed towards a Trinity River COMMON VISION for the 21st-Century:

SAFE Trinity River, with stabilization and reduction of flooding risks

CLEAN Trinity River, with fishable and swimmable waters

ENJOYABLE Trinity River, with recreational opportunities linked by a Trinity Trails System within a world-class greenway

NATURAL Trinity River, with preservation and restoration of riparian and cultural resources

DIVERSE Trinity River, with local and regional economic, transportation, and other public needs met

This paper describes the history of the region through three stages of development, outlines the evolution of the Trinity River COMMON VISION, highlights successful regionwide initiatives to protect water quality such as the Regional Storm Water Management program, and shows the remarkable progress over the past decade of the region's three largest cities – Dallas, Fort Worth and Arlington. All illustrate the movement from reclamation to restoration, from structural to nonstructural, from stygian blackness to a community asset, from a 19th-Century barge canal to a 21st-Century Trinity River COMMON VISION.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2006-01-01

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