The Cutoff at the state-owned right-of-way where an unpermitted private fences blocks historic access. Photo courtesy of TRPA board member Alexander Neal.

Save the Cutoff – a Precedent for Loss of Public Waterways

During this hot summer of 2022, TRPA was made aware through Save the Cutoff that one of our iconic navigable streams in Henderson and Navarro Counties, The Cutoff of the Trinity River, was being illegally blockaded and backfilled by an adjacent landowner. On August 5th, TRPA President David Price wrote a letter to the landowner, Iron River Ranch II, LLC, addressing these serious violations and specifically urged the landowner to remove the unpermitted and illicit fence. As this is being written, the illicit fence still stands, blocking river users, fishermen, hunters, paddlers and bird watchers from legally accessing a long-established and cherished piece of the Lone Star State. The fact that this fence is allowed to remain erected today presents Texans with one of the most serious potential precedents concerning our access to rivers: the precedent for loss of our public waterways.

Save the Cutoff has recognized this dangerous precedent and yesterday issued an intent to sue Iron River Ranch II, LLC unless access is restored.

Read below for more details.

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Illicit fence erected in February 2022 within Texas Department of Transportation-owned Right-of-Way. Unpermitted private landowner’s fence on public property. The fence still stands today. Background: a hole emerges within The Cutoff where unpermitted dredging & filling activities were performed by Iron River Ranch II, LLC. Photo courtesy of Save the Cutoff.

The Cutoff of the Trinity River (The Cutoff, for short) has been utilized by hunters and fishermen for over 100 years and is a monument to the conservation legacy of multiple generations of families, local elected officials, and various state and federal agencies who have historically preserved and enhanced The Cutoff. A question today is whether or not local elected officials and various state and federal agencies will vow to this public natural resource.

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Youth hunter excited about their northern shoveler harvested from The Cutoff. Photo courtesy of Cooper Carter.

The Cutoff was first recognized as an important part of Texas infrastructure in 1846 when the waterbody, which was a part of the Trinity River at the time, was determined to be part of the boundary for Henderson and Navarro Counties. Following the devastating floods of the Trinity River during the early 20th century, a local flood control and levee project successfully severed a 6-mile section of the Trinity River from its original bed and confluence with Cedar Creek, rerouted the river and left Texas with an oxbow lake locally known as The Cutoff. A dam was constructed at the end of The Cutoff in 1926 by Creslenn Ranch for recreation purposes and Texans have been hunting and fishing there since.

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Pileated woodpecker fledging in a hollow tree on the banks of The Cutoff. The Cutoff provides numerous critical habitat for avian species that routinely lose habitat in Texas in addition to federally protected endangered & threatened species. Photo courtesy of TRPA board member Alexander Neal.

In recognition of the risk of losing public access to The Cutoff and the potential adjustment of county lines, the 42nd Texas Legislature passed House Bill 27 which addresses Texans’ rights of use to The Cutoff, reasserts that The Cutoff remains the counties’ boundaries, and explicitly entrusts The Cutoff to public hands forever. The bill recognizes the value of The Cutoff to the public and specifically notes that the original “river bed of the Trinity River in Henderson and Navarro Counties shall remain the property of the State and shall not be sold” and that the bottoms of abandoned channels of the Trinity River are owned by the state. In addition, the bill gives Henderson and Navarro Counties the right to procure right-of-way (ROW) to allow public access and gives the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD) the right to enforce the Parks and Wildlife Code (Texas’ hunting, fishing and boating regulations) at The Cutoff.

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Largemouth bass on The Cutoff. Photo courtesy of Thomas Ardoin.
Not everyone can afford a lake boat or lake-front property on lakes like nearby Cedar Creek Reservoir, and not everyone can put a boat in the Trinity River without risking dangerous river hazards including high flows. The Cutoff has historically offered a relief from more restrictive types of waterways and weather conditions.

Fifty years ago Texans were again ensured public access to The Cutoff by the expansion of FM 1667 in Henderson County and the procurement of right-of-way to the northern end of The Cutoff by means of the Texas Department of Transportation (TXDOT). In more recent decades, TPWD used Texans’ taxpayer money to support the productive fishery at The Cutoff by stocking it with tens of thousands of largemouth bass. Today neither of these efforts can be enjoyed by Texans due to the illicit fence placed by Iron River Ranch II, LLC which stands at the last remaining public access point (and notably within TXDOT right-of-way) on The Cutoff.
TRPA supports the efforts of Save the Cutoff and the efforts of private organizations and governmental agencies who aim to protect our wild and blue spaces. If Iron River Ranch II, LLC continues to reject TRPA’s urges to restore access to the historic Cutoff and adhere to the law, then we will support parties’ rights to intervene in the case on behalf of Save the Cutoff, which has been preparing for the worst alongside the Texas-based law firm, Perales, Allmon & Ice, P.C.

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February 2022: Illegal mining and backfilling of The Cutoff, a state waterway and navigable stream – a federal violation of Section 404 of the Clean Water Act. The US Army Corps of Engineers issued a cease & desist for the violation but, to TRPA’s knowledge, has not performed any other enforcement action such as fines or requirements to remediate damages. Photo courtesy of Save the Cutoff.

Regarding the blocking of access and illegal backfill of The Cutoff, TRPA has asked for input/enforcement from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, TXDOT, the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, the Texas Water Development Board, the Texas General Land Office, and Henderson County officials.

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Scars left within the original bed of Cedar Creek, The Cutoff, from unpermitted instream dredging and filling activities performed in February of 2022 by Iron River Ranch II, LLC. Large fish including mature alligator gar can be seen stuck within the scarred riverscape as water from The Cutoff has drastically receded in recent months. Photo courtesy of TRPA board member Alexander Neal.

More on this to come.

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Youth angler at The Cutoff where she had caught her first fish. Photo courtesy of Alexis Johnson.

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