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Will Denton's Greenbelt remain open? The answer lies in its past, future.
  • 6 min to read

Denton’s easy access to the Greenbelt off U.S. Highway 380 is back after years of closure, and a local partnership is working on a long-term solution to keep it that way more often.

Extended floods have killed trees and kept locals out of what is meant to be a natural treasure for Denton County. Despite the partnership, there was no solution in sight Friday.

The Greenbelt took decades to plan and build, but its most convenient Denton access point spent most of the past decade closed to the public.

Its roughly 11 miles of trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding, along with kayaking access, are part of Ray Roberts Lake State Park.

Courtesy photo/Richard Rogers 

Greenbelt Alliance board chairman Richard Rogers took aerial photos of flooded areas of the Greenbelt in fall 2020. "What's happened is this logjam has created just a large dam, and it's filled in with sediment," he said. 

How did we get here?

The Greenbelt was originally built with an understanding that paths would occasionally be underwater, according to Denton Record-Chronicle reporting from 1998.

Despite that, it wasn’t until the area was nearly complete that people began to realize the full extent of the issue.

The Record-Chronicle, speaking to the project manager for the company hired by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to build the Greenbelt at the time, reported annual maintenance and operation could cost “several hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Denton and Dallas were considering altering their lease agreement with TPWD at that point after becoming displeased with the agreements’ terms. Twenty-three years later, the state parks department still handles daily operations and takes in revenue generated from admission fees.

The Army Corps of Engineers drew up the first Greenbelt plans in 1972 at the request of Dallas and Denton, but it was another 10 years before the issue of flooding began to regularly surface at Denton City Council meetings.

The final public hearing on the Greenbelt proposal wasn’t until 1992. The City Council approved a $1.6 million cost to help with construction two years later.

Stops and starts among various levels of government dragged out progress for years, and public access was repeatedly pushed back from the original projected November 1997 opening.

Federal budget changes, contractor issues and municipal displeasure with lease agreements continued at pace.

Access finally opened on June 5, 1999, but impatient nature lovers had been using the trail for several weeks at that point, according to Record-Chronicle reporting at the time.

Its opening was the delivery of a promise that some recreational land would be created to compensate for land inundated when Lewisville Lake’s water level was raised decades ago, and some advocates see lack of access to the land as a poor execution of that promise, at the least.

Sixteen years passed before 2015 brought the most rain in recorded history.

In 2015, coming off a prolonged drought, North Texas found itself with the heaviest annual rainfall recorded for more than a century. The National Weather Service, which tracks Denton rainfall back to 1913, recorded 65.07 inches of rain in Denton during 2015 — more than ever recorded here by the NWS.

“We had a lot of trees that went from drought to inundated for a long period of time,” said Katherine Barnett, sustainability manager with the city of Denton. “And I’m thinking that’s what helped create all that deadfall that we saw coming into the river and into Clear Creek.”

Jeff Woo/DRC file photo 

A large jam of logs and brush that came down the Elm Fork between Ray Roberts and Lewisville lakes is seen Sept. 12, 2019. 

Floods that preceded the flood

The Greenbelt in its present state wouldn’t exist without more than a century’s worth of work and large sections of Denton County flooded to create two lakes along the Elm Fork of the Trinity River.

Lewisville Lake itself covers swaths of land inundated in order to provide more water to the growing Dallas-Fort Worth area. It joined nearby Lake Dallas — the lake, not the city — in 1955.

The elder lake, which was a major source of water for Dallas residents, was built in the 1920s.

The dam separating the two bodies was breached to combine them, and the name “Lewisville Lake” was later adopted.

Ray Roberts Lake, in comparison, is much younger. Construction on the dam that birthed it didn’t begin until 1982, and “deliberate impoundment of water” began five years later, according to the Texas Water Development Board.

The Army Corps of Engineers, which owns the Greenbelt; the city of Denton, which leases the Greenbelt to Texas Parks and Wildlife; Texas Parks and Wildlife, which handles day-to-day operations at the Greenbelt; and the Greenbelt Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for the land, were still in the early stages of a long-term solution Friday morning.

Barnett has worked for the city for nearly 28 years and has worked with the Greenbelt since it opened more than 22 years ago.

She said Denton intends to ask the Army engineers to complete a more in-depth study into the causes of the flooding around the Denton section of the Greenbelt.

Robbie Merritt, parks superintendent at Ray Roberts Lake State Park, said logjams, silt and increased rainfall over the past few years have surely contributed to reduced access to the Greenbelt.

“We have seen some significant changes, it seems, in the amount of rainfall that we’ve been seeing and flash flooding events … the in the last 10 years,” he said.

He said more trees along a waterway also naturally increase the chances of those trees ending up in the water and creating a logjam.

“In this case, I think we have a larger problem in the Greenbelt river system, which is that Lake Lewisville is silting in,” he said.

Richard Rogers, board chairman of the Greenbelt Alliance, sees the buildup of silt added to existing logjams as a primary contributor to the difficult problem the waterway finds itself in.

“It is in the floodplain, and it does flood regularly, but floodplains by definition flood, and then they drain,” he said. “What’s happened is this logjam has created just a large dam, and it’s filled in with sediment.”

His family has owned land along the Greenbelt since 1958. He and his wife took over the land from his uncle 23 years ago.

He remembers a time when the area was heavily treed and not flooded as frequently before the logjams grew in intensity roughly six years ago.

He has since flown above the area and seen what extended flooding has done to the area. He describes seeing hundreds, if not thousands, of dead trees that he attributes to the floods.

“I think there has continually been a question about who is responsible for keeping the trails open and holding to the commitment that was made to the public that the recreational area be accessible,” Rogers said.

He said governments purchased land from private owners to build out the area, but no dedicated pot of money was created to pay for maintenance.

Merritt, who oversees day-to-day operations of the Greenbelt, said more funding wouldn’t solve the problem.

Even with unlimited money, he said taking a team of bulldozers down to a remote part of the river wouldn’t be his preferred course of action. That’s why the partnership with the Greenbelt Alliance, the Corps of Engineers and the city of Denton is important to develop a long-term solution.

Denton, as a lessee, is somewhat responsible for the big picture and longevity of the Greenbelt, and Barnett said the city has a seat at the table regarding a long-term solution to the problem the land presents.

Courtesy photo/Richard Rogers 

A flooded section of the Greenbelt north of U.S. Highway 380 is seen in September 2020, in an aerial photo taken by Greenbelt Alliance board chairman Richard Rogers. 

What’s the problem?

But what is the problem, exactly? To some extent, the section of the Greenbelt prone to flooding is meant to do exactly that: It’s in the floodplain.

Elyse Zavar, a professor who specializes in emergency management at the University of North Texas, said that essentially means that section of the Greenbelt is a place where water is naturally stored.

She said there’s a tendency in Denton County to build public trails and recreational areas in floodplains.

“That means open space is in the floodplain and not someone’s home,” she said, but it also means “that amenity isn’t available when water is sitting there.”

She said there are several reasons the Greenbelt is perhaps additionally prone to flooding. To start with, it’s located between two dams, and sections of it run along a spillway.

Denton and Denton County also regularly rank high on lists of the fastest-growing areas in the county. While it might not be intuitive, development of natural spaces can increase flooding in other locations in ways that can be complicated to predict.

“We do know as we lose the ability to absorb ground water … that’s going to have impacts downstream and in other locations,” Zavar said.

Development doesn’t even need to be adjacent to the Greenbelt for that to take place. Conversion of soil to concrete, slabs, asphalt and other building materials elsewhere in the area can create changes elsewhere.

Outcomes might be more varied and extreme, but little of what is happening in the Greenbelt isn’t naturally occurring. Floodplains flood and logjams can occur without human intervention.

One particularly large jam known as the “Great Raft” spread for hundreds of miles and birthed numerous lakes, Caddo Lake in East Texas being among them.

Barnett, Denton’s sustainability manager, said Friday she couldn’t speak to whether the Greenbelt’s logjam is harming anything other than human enjoyment.

None of the people interviewed for this article could speak to how common logjams of the variety seen in Denton County are in the country, though it’s clear they are far from unheard of.

Barnett said discussions about the balance between allowing a habitat to behave naturally and maintaining it for human enjoyment are constant. She said such discussions relating to the Greenbelt are at “a very low level” with the Army engineers.

“Well, that’s habitat, that’s a naturally occurring process, it’s also a recreation resource,” she said people say in such talks.

“There’s always a balance there,” she said.

While the natural cycle is somewhat to blame for the Greenbelt’s troubles, Zavar was clear the natural cycle itself is changing.

Rain is coming in larger amounts over fewer instances year after year. That means we could get the same average rainfall each year but have large amounts over short periods of time, short enough that natural and manmade infrastructures have trouble handling them.

That then could be followed by long stretches without as much precipitation.

Zavar said it would be naive to look at this situation without acknowledging the influence of climate change.

“The reality is we’re seeing changes in precipitation — we’re seeing changes in what we’d expect,” she said. “What we know about the warming atmosphere is it kind of supercharges the hydrologic cycle.”

Denton's homeless vaccinated against COVID-19 where they are — in the shelters

As those experiencing homelessness are more at risk for COVID-19 and other illnesses, local organizations have been planning out vaccine clinics — sometimes after those clients have asked.

Although Denton County Public Health doesn’t and hasn’t administered every COVID-19 vaccine dose in the county, the county has done many of them and has coordinated with organizations such as Our Daily Bread, the Salvation Army and the Denton County Homeless Coalition to schedule vaccines for people without homes.

Alva Santos, the shelter director for Our Daily Bread, said it was a two-way coordination with DCPH because each entity reached out to the other to do these vaccine clinics.

“We had our guests asking us,” Santos said. “They were interested in getting COVID-vaccinated. We can send them to Walgreens and pharmacies around the place, but it’s [a] transportation [issue]. From us to walk to the closest CVS is over two miles. You have to get there and come back, and there’s the issue of transportation.”

That’s why their vaccine clinics have been on site at Our Daily Bread’s soup kitchen on 300 W. Oak St., although they have organized transportation with Grace Like Rain, as well. Santos said 32 clients received a dose the first time they had a vaccine clinic, and they’ve had three more clinics since where they’ve vaccinated dozens more. On average, the soup kitchen sees 80 to 100 guests per day.

The Denton Fire Department, who is now authorized to provide COVID-19 vaccines, did the most recent round of vaccinations at Our Daily Bread last month.

Battalion Chief Brad Lahart, the emergency medical services chief, said Monday they’ll be focusing on providing vaccines to pockets of people who may find it harder to find them. Jennifer Rainey, a spokesperson for DCPH, said they’ll continue focusing on serving smaller and underserved pockets throughout the county as their mass vaccine clinics dwindle.

For Our Daily Bread client Donald Fagan Jr., 61, getting vaccinated was important to him because it meant helping others.

“People were just dying off easy from the virus,” Fagan said. “Children were dying, and here I am at 61 years old, and I’m a great-grandparent. So what can I do to protect my great-grandchildren?”

Fagan said he got vaccinated over the summer after hearing about the different COVID-19 variants.

“What really captivated me was how many people who weren’t [vaccinated] were dying,” he said. “I was noticing that people going into the hospitals weren’t going out the same way they went in. The virus is attacking our immune systems.”

Dani Shaw, the city of Denton’s director of Community Services, said they also coordinated vaccines with the local shelter. With the local organizations, she said she knows of the clinics at Our Daily Bread and one at the local Salvation Army over the summer.

“There’s no specific plans scheduled [for more clinics], but we will as plans are needed and something is available,” she said. “One of the other things we’re having conversations about is testing, so we’re definitely keeping up with those needs.”

Vaccine clinics and other health checkups with Our Daily Bread aren’t new, either.

“We did flu shots in early October,” Santos said. “We’ve done flu shots before yearly by the [county] health department. The health department has an HIV unit, an STD unit that comes out. … We try to cover all of it.”

Danny Williams Jr., another client on Friday, was at the soup kitchen with his pitbull, Shadow. He said he was vaccinated last month. While he himself hasn’t gotten sick with COVID-19, he said he knows people who have.

“I needed to,” Williams said. “It’s getting worse, so I might as well. I’m a son of a veteran, and I always got a vaccine wherever my dad went.”

Jazz phenom Herschel Evans, born in Denton, burned bright before early death

Herschel Evans was born in Denton on March 9, 1909. His parents, Lee L. and Laura Evans, were in their 40s when he was born. He had one older sister, Edna, and four older brothers, Lee Jr., Freeman, Albert and Frank.

Evans began his musical career at age 4; he became an accomplished pianist. He spent time in Kansas City, Kansas, with his cousin Eddie Durham, a trombonist and guitarist. Durham persuaded Evans to switch to tenor saxophone, instead of trombone and alto saxophone. Evans perfected his technique in the famous 12th to 18th Street Kansas City jazz quartet.

After returning to Texas in the 1920s. Evans performed at age 18 with Trent’s Number Two Orchestra. At age 19, he played with the St. Louis Merrymakers. He joined a San Antonio territory band called the Troy Floyd Orchestra in 1929. Census records show Evans living on Wyoming Street in San Antonio with his aunt Bertha Boster and cousin LZ in 1930. The band broke up in 1932.

From 1933 to 1935, Evans played with Benny Moten’s Kansas City Band. The band included Count Basie and Oran “Hot Lips” Page. They recorded prolifically with Victor Records.

After performing with Jones’ Chicago Cosmopolitans, Evans joined the Charlie Echols Band in Los Angeles. He also played stints with Lionel Hampton and Buck Clayton.

In September 1936, Evans joined Count Basie’s big band, where he rose to prominence playing tenor saxophone. Band members nicknamed him “Tex.” Evans’ duets with fellow saxophonist Lester Young are jazz standards. Their rendition of Basie’s “One O’Clock Jump” demonstrated a split tone style contrasting Evans’ full-bodied emotional timbre with Young’s high-pitched light tone. The piece received critical acclaim.

Basie defined swing, which was deeply rooted in Kansas City jazz. His style had a blues aesthetic anchored by a riff, a repeated chord progression, structuring a pulsing four-beats-to-the-bar swing.

Although Evans wasn’t a prolific composer, he wrote several pieces, including Doggin’ Around and the Texas Shuffle. His co-author, Edgar Battle, sued the Lewis Publishing Company in 1952 for failing to adequately promote the songs they published.

Evans’ recording of Blue and Sentimental was his greatest single success. He also recorded with Lionel Hampton, Teddy Wilson and Harry James (husband of Denton’s Louise Tobin).

While performing with Basie at the Howard Theatre on Jan. 13, 1939, Evans became ill. His illness caused him to miss a recording session with Decca records in New York City on Feb. 5. Evans collapsed at a Feb. 6 performance at the Crystal Ballroom in Hartford, Connecticut. He was rushed to a New York City hospital. Evans died of heart failure three days later, one month before his 30th birthday.

Evans is buried in the Angeles-Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles. He’s credited with influencing Illinois Jacquet, Arnett Cobb and Buddy Tate, who left the Nat Towles Band in Omaha to replace Evans. Evans’ musical talent burned brightly in his short lifetime.

Man arrested on murder charge Thursday night in March homicide

A 39-year-old man was arrested late Thursday night on one count of murder for a homicide from March in Denton, according to a news release.

Zeniff Rudd was arrested in Dallas at a homeless shelter Thursday night in connection to the homicide in March 6. At the time of Mindy Tenerias’ death, the Tarrant County Medical Examiner hadn’t ruled her death a homicide and it was pending until it was ruled a homicide last month. Tenerias was 26.

Courtesy | Denton Police Department 

Zeniff Rudd

The news release from the Denton Police Department says police responded to a shooting around 12:57 a.m. that day in the 1800 block of Teasley Lane. Rudd called 911 and reported a gun fell, fired on its own and shot his girlfriend, saying he was lying in bed when this happened.

Police found Tenerias on the floor with a gunshot wound. Tenerias was taken to a hospital where she was pronounced dead about an hour later due to a gunshot wound to the chest, according to the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s public portal. The portal shows she was shot and killed in her home at the Oak Meadows Apartments.

Amy Cunningham, a spokesperson for the Denton Police Department, said officers got a warrant for Rudd’s arrest Thursday. She said the case on Tenerias’ death was pending until the homicide ruling from the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office in October.

A spokesperson for the medical examiner’s office confirmed it was ruled a homicide on Oct. 11. Medical examiners were waiting on firearms testing results from the Department of Public Safety.

Rudd was booked into the City of Denton Jail Thursday night. He was still booked in as of Friday morning with a $50,000 bail.

Tenerias’ death is the first of three homicides in Denton this year, although it is the most recently reported.

A 19-year-old Denton woman who was pregnant was allegedly killed by her boyfriend in April and a 22-year-old man was allegedly killed by his roommate at their apartment in September.