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The man behind Choke Canyon
by Gary Kent
Nov 19, 2013 | 89 views | 0 0 comments | 18 18 recommendations | email to a friend | print
When it comes to providing water for Coastal Bend communities, Beeville’s interim city manager is like a walking encyclopedia.

Marvin Townsend moved to Corpus Christi from New York in 1956 to take a job as an administration assistant with the city.

Between then and 1968, Townsend worked his way up to become the City of Corpus Christi’s top administrator when he was only in his early 30s.

At the time, cities in Texas were taking steps to avoid the problems they faced during the extended drought of the 1950s.

In 1958, two years after the Cornell University graduate arrived in Corpus Christi, Townsend witnessed the completion of the Wesley Seale Dam on the Nueces River.

That dam formed Lake Corpus Christi. But even as the dam was dedicated, an increased population in the Coastal Bend brought by oil and gas development had Corpus Christi officials looking for even more ways to provide water for South Texas.

At the time, experts were predicting that Lake Corpus Christi could meet the needs of that growing city for the next 25 years.

By the 1970s, Corpus Christi residents were debating over which one of two proposed sites would be best for developing another water impoundment for the city.

The two sites were the Choke Canyon Reservoir, which would be built on the Frio River near Three Rivers, and what was called the R&M site, which would be built downstream from the Wesley Seale Dam on the Nueces River.

Townsend said environmentalists expressed concern about building another reservoir on the Nueces because of the possible impact that could have on endangered species. That lake would have impounded water five miles upstream from Calallen.

Another source of debate was whether the federal government would help fund the project. That would mean federal help in creating the reservoir, but it would also restrict development along the lake.

Townsend said federal involvement in the project would mean that certain public access facilities would have to be built, but private development would be prohibited.

Local, state and federal leaders in the Coastal Bend ended up putting their support behind the Choke Canyon project.

Townsend was the chief of staff of the project when work began on the dam at Choke Canyon.

Townsend said the U.S. Bureau of Reclamations was responsible for the construction of the dam and the impoundment behind it. In 1982, when the dam was dedicated, Townsend was one of the persons out in front of the crowd at the ceremony.

“I wrote the speech for Luther Jones,” Townsend said this week. Jones, at the time, was the mayor of Corpus Christi.

At first, the naysayers who predicted that there would never be enough water going down the Frio to fill the expansive reservoir were being proved right.

South Texas was caught in the grip of another drought through 1983 and the first half of 1984, and Choke Canyon sat empty.

In the summer of 1984, a series of storms from the west filled the lake in a period of about two weeks. Today, Choke Canyon is 35.5 percent full. But recent rains on the Nueces River watershed have filled that lake to 98.2 percent of capacity for the first time in years, easing the water worries in the Coastal Bend for the next several years.

Townsend left Corpus Christi in 1982, not long after the dam at Choke Canyon was completed, to become the city manager in Laredo.

Townsend now lives in Austin and hopes to see Beeville hire a permanent city manager soon. When asked how long he would like to serve as interim city manager, he shrugged and said his wife would like to see him back home in Austin sooner rather than later.

Townsend is expected to help the City Council here in its search for a new city manager. That should be a great asset to Beeville.

Townsend, who is now in his late 70s, has more than four decades in running some of Texas’ most vibrant cities at a time when competent leadership was critical.

Gary Kent is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 120, or at reporter@mySouTex.com.
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