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What Made Orange Great: Sabine River Authority manages the Sabine River Watershed

By Mike Louviere

Early Spanish explorers called the river “Rio de las Sabinas” because of the majestic cypress trees growing along it. Sabinas is the Spanish word for cypress. Later French and early Americans corrupted the name into simply “Sabine” and she became the “Sabine River”.

Orange has had three prosperous periods, the first were the years of the sawmills and the amount of lumber they produced, the second was the shipbuilding boom of World War II, and the third were the years of petrochemical plants building in Orange and producing numerous products.

The one thing that made these periods of prosperity possible was the river.

Logs could be floated to the sawmills. Finished lumber could be shipped out by schooners to the worldwide market. Warships could be built on the shore of the river and sailed down the river to help win the war. The petrochemical industry needs enormous amounts of fresh water for their equipment and processes. The river provides more than enough.

The river is the route that allows some materials tocome to the plants by barge and leave as finished products by barge.

The constant flow of fresh water was the major reason the U.S. Navy maintained the inactive ship facility in Orange for several decades.

It is not much of a stretch to say that without the Sabine River there would be no Orange.

The Sabine River flows about 550 miles from its headwaters in Hunt County near Celeste at a fork called “Cowleach Fork.” It flows eastward to the Texas and Louisiana border near Logansport, then turns southward to the mouth of the river at Sabine Lake and the Gulf of Mexico.

Eventually, it was decided that the Sabine River watershed needed to be managed.

In 1949, the Texas Legislature formed the Sabine River Authority to be a conservation and reclamation district with responsibility to control, store, preserve, and distribute the waters of the Sabine River and its tributary system.

The boundaries of the act that formed the Sabine River Authority-Texas comprise all of the area lying in the watershed of the Sabine River and its tributary systems within the State of Texas. The watershed area comprises all or part of 21 counties.

SRA-Texas is governed by a nine member board who serve six year terms. Three members are appointed by the Texas governor every two years. Directors must reside in a county covered by the watershed.

Operation in the lower Sabine River basin began in 1954 when the SRA purchased the Orange County Water Company. The canal system was operated first as the Orange County Canal Division and consisted of 75 miles of gravity flowing canals and a pumping station.

Later named the John W. Simmons Gulf Coast Canal System, the system originally provided water to industries, a municipality, rice farmers, and crawfish producers in Orange County.

Water usage for rice farming and crawfish production has been greatly reduced but the canal system continues to provide a source of water to industrial, municipal, and agricultural customers.

The next operation facility was for a water supply reservoir in the upper Sabine River basin. Construction of the Iron Bridge Dam and Lake Tawakoni Reservoir began in 1958 and was completed in 1960. Construction of the Lake Tawakoni Reservoir was funded through a water supply agreement with the City of Dallas to provide water for municipal and industrial purposes.

In 1958, the engineering study on the feasibility of building a dam and reservoir at Toledo Bend was completed. The reservoir would provide a water supply and hydroelectric power generation station with a secondary benefit of providing recreational opportunities.

Construction of the dam, spillway, and power plant began in April 1964 and was completed in 1968.

The Lake Fork dam and reservoir was later built to provide water for an electric power generating facility. Construction started there in 1975 and was completed in 1980. The reservoir would also provide water for many communities on the upper Sabine River basin.

In 1981, Lake Fork became a water supply source for the City of Dallas when Dallas assumed the electric companies right to use Lake Fork water.

The Sabine River Authority Gulf Coast Division began with the purchase of the Orange County Water Company in 1954 and is now responsible for SRA water supply and related operations of the Orange County area. The division office building, pump station, shop, and maintenance facilities are located on Highway 87 eight miles north of Orange.

The John W. Simmons Gulf Coast Pump Station and Canal System is operated and maintained by SRA personnel on a 24 hour per day basis. It supplies fresh water for its customers and its electric generating plants. Water is also supplied for irrigation and other purposes.

The pump station has a capacity of 180 million gallons per day and is located on an intake canal off the Sabine River. The station lifts water 22 feet to the main canal where it then flows by gravity through 40 miles of main canals and 35 miles of lateral canals.

The canal system provides water to a municipality, several industries, including petrochemical plants, a pulp and paper mill, a steel mill and two electric generation plants.

During the fiscal year 2020 SRA provided 47,673 acre feet or 15,534,351,000 gallons of fresh water delivered to customers on the canal system. An acre foot is one acre covered one foot deep.

Several projects are ongoing in Orange and Newton Counties to increase water supply for future needs, assist with flood hazard mitigation projects, and maintain current facilities. SRA continues to work with surrounding county agencies to assure the canal system remains unrestricted and provides dependable fresh water.

The SRA also works to maintain and improve recreational  facilities in the watershed area, including those located at Lake Tawakoni, Toledo Bend, and Lake Fork.