"Water and Wires: Flood Control and Electrification in the
Lower Colorado River Valley"
L. Patrick Hughes
Rivers and Dreams
Since the dawn of time, rivers have been magnets for mankind. Human civilization first sprang up along the banks of major tributaries. Ancient Mesopotamia thrived between the Tigris and Euphrates while the Egyptian world centered around the Nile. The attraction continued through the centuries. London on the Thames, Paris on the Seine, Rome on the Tiber. Again and again the process of settlement repeated itself. It was no different on the other side of the Atlantic. Americans, even before the revolution that brought nationhood, situated themselves in ever-larger numbers alongside the waterways: New York on the Hudson, Boston on the Charles, Philadelphia on the Delaware. In the middle of the continent, New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Memphis, and St. Louis straddled the Mississippi. Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Louisville along the Ohio; Kansas City and Omaha along the Missouri. The list of examples is virtually endless.
Practicality underlay the demographic phenomenon. A good, navigable river was essential as a cheap and reliable means of transporting goods and people. The river connected settlers with the rest of the world, allowing the importation of goods necessary for survival while simultaneously enabling the exportation of raw materials and finished products to distant markets around the world. Secondly, the river was the municipal reservoir for residents, the source of drinking water for urban dwellers and life-giving liquid for irrigated agriculture. Finally, the flow of water was a cheap source of power to run machinery. Long before electricity, waterpower ran the world's manufacturing equipment.
Texans through time have been no less drawn to rivers than their ancestors on every continent of the globe. Reasons didn't change, only the names of the towns and tributaries. Spanish Texas featured Bexar and La Bahia along the San Antonio. El Paso del Norte, Albuquerque, and Santa Fe flourished along the Rio Grande. When settlers from the United States began to flood into Mexican Texas under the empressario program of Stephen F. Austin, they sank their roots - almost by second nature - in the rich soil between the Brazos and Colorado. Through the decades the fascination has endured. Houstonians seized the opportunity early in the twentieth century to become a great inland port facility by dredging out the Houston Ship Channel to connect their thriving metropolis with the Gulf of Mexico. Residents of Dallas even to this day and time periodically talk about dredging out the Trinity in order to allow vessels to travel hundreds of miles from the coast up to the Metroplex.
Along with the beautiful landscape and central location in the vast Republic of Texas, Austin or Waterloo, as it was originally known, came about in large part because of the Colorado River. It held out the potential of a transportation route to the Gulf coast, a reliable reservoir of drinking water, and the means to power machinery. City leaders dreamed big. Austin would simultaneously be the seat of government for the new nation and then state, an inland port, and a great manufacturing center.
Flaws in this sweeping vision, however, quickly became apparent. The Colorado proved too shallow to accommodate vessels of any real size. More importantly, highly variable rainfall patterns and topography combined to create two seemingly totally different rivers. The Colorado would all but dry up in periods of extended drought. But when heavy downpours blanketed the Hill Country west of town, the river became a raging torrent leaving physical destruction and loss of life in its wake. Situated along the Balcones Fault at the edge of the Edwards Plateau, the area was particularly prone to flooding. Precipitation raced off the limestone uplift into narrow channels - the Llano, the San Saba, the Pedernales, and others - before hitting the Colorado. The immense watershed channeled all the moisture towards Austin where it spread out after meeting the flatter land to the east.
Repeated attempts to corral the Colorado proved futile. The original Austin Dam, a hydroelectric structure completed in 1893, fell victim to floodwaters on April 6, 1900. Rebuilt in 1913, the dam failed yet again just two years later when monsoon-like thunderstorms inundated the Hill Country. Despite the investment of much money and even more energy, the dreams of Austinites lay dashed. The lesson of such efforts was clear; a single structure was insufficient to the task. If the potential benefits of the Colorado were ever to be realized, a whole series of hydroelectric dams would have to be constructed. Such a massive undertaking lay beyond the financial resources of the capital city.
Living in an Earlier Century
Farmers and ranchers just outside city limits had yet another problem. Like ninety-five percent of their brethren in rural America, they lived their lives without the modern conveniences of the electricity which urbanites in the United States had enjoyed for decades. Privately owned utility companies refused to provide such service, maintaining that rural electrification would be prohibitively expensive. There were simply too few people spread across too vast an area. The costs of constructing a distribution system under such circumstances would be astronomical. Sales of electricity to farmers and ranchers could never justify the expenditure of such sums. While government studies revealed that rural service would in the long run be profitable, private enterprise refused to move. As a result, those outside of urban areas such as Austin lived a lifestyle little different from that of their forefathers in the nineteenth century.
Running water was impossible without electricity. Hill Country residents, therefore, depended upon water wells for their needs. By their thirties, women had stooped shoulders from hoisting four gallon buckets of well water weighing thirty-two pounds apiece up from average depths of fifty to one hundred feet. And everything, whether for house or field, required water. The average rural family in Central Texas went through two hundred gallons of water a day - 73,000 gallons a year (weighing 300 tons).
Clothes washing - over wood fires in the yard - was a chore for the beginning of the week. Only with tremendous physical exertion could clothes be kept clean. After filling # 3 zinc washtubs with water from the well, wives manually agitated clothes with a broomstick, scrubbed apparel by hand using lye soap, and moved each piece from tub to tub using a pole. Four to eight loads of wash a week took endless hours of labor.
Without electricity, housewives pressed clothes using six to seven pound wedges of iron heated atop wood-burning stoves. "Sad irons" were unwieldy and required near continuous cleaning to avoid smearing soot on shirts and dresses. The heat could be withering in the dead of August in homes with neither fans nor air conditioning.
No electricity meant the refrigeration of food was difficult. Instead of a modern refrigerator, food was placed in an insulated wooden box holding twenty-pound blocks of ice hauled in from the nearest ice plant. Without refrigeration, families' survival during the winter months between growing seasons depended on the canning of vegetables, fruits, etc. Vegetables from the garden and fruit from the orchard had to be canned as it came ripe, day after day, week after week, month after month from late spring to late autumn. Water had to be hauled from the well, wood carried in to stoke the stove, and the tray for wood ashes constantly emptied.
Without electrical service, it is no exaggeration to say that Hill Country farmers and ranchers just west of Austin were trapped in an earlier time. It might be the third decade of the twentieth century for urbanites but it looked an awful lot like the mid-1880s when one motored past city limits.
Bad Times Bring Possible Solutions
Austinites and Central Texans had by the 1930s found no solutions to the dual problems of periodic flooding of the Colorado and the absence of electrical service. Only with the advent of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal program to cope with the worst economic depression in all of American history did the means for successful action emerge. Those solutions lay not in Texas but Washington, D. C.
The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), launched in Roosevelt's first months in office, was the fulfillment of conservationists' dreams dating back to the Progressive era. Any number of river systems across the continent, including the Tennessee, lay uncontrolled and undeveloped. They suffered a variety of problems - flooding, soil erosion, grinding poverty, etc. Conservationists looked upon this as a needless and tragic waste of the nation's natural resources. If hydroelectric dams could be constructed in an orderly and systematic fashion in such watersheds, flooding could be controlled, soil erosion minimized, reservoirs created which would be a hedge against drought, and electric power produced and marketed on a non-profit basis in rural areas to transform people's lives. Proposals for the federal government to undertake such a program produced howls of protest from private utility companies about socialism and unfair competition with the business sector. Their opposition and the scope of such proposed undertakings stalled authorization.
Only when Americans demanded a full-blown government effort to end the Great Depression by whatever means necessary were such objections overcome. At Roosevelt's behest, Congress authorized and funded TVA as a multi-purpose effort to systematically develop natural resources in the Tennessee River valley. The federal government would pay for the construction and operation of an entire series of hydroelectric dams. Not only would flooding and soil erosion be brought under control, unemployed residents of the watershed would be given jobs, cash pumped into the deflated regional economy, and cheap electricity made available to rural Americans historically neglected by private utility companies.
Looking at these developments in the nation's capital, a group of Central Texans saw the TVA initiative as a blueprint for resolving similar problems in the Lone Star State. After years of hard work, influential Austin attorney Alvin J. Wirtz convinced the Texas legislature in 1934 to create the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) as an independent state agency to develop the water resources of the river system. The state, however, lacked the financial ability at the depths of the Great Depression to fund the agency it had just created. Money to tame the river would have to be found elsewhere. Thus, Wirtz and others looked to Washington, D. C.
If Roosevelt's New Deal provided the model for the LCRA, it now extended the funds necessary to make it reality. LCRA directors applied to Harold Ickes and the Public Works Administration (PWA) for the money it could find nowhere else. Launched during the Hundred Days of 1933, PWA attacked the depression by lending or granting money to other governmental entities across the nation for construction projects, thereby reducing unemployment and attacking deflation. Competition for such monies was, however, extremely keen in a country devastated by economic disaster.
Luckily, the LCRA benefited from the tremendous political muscle exercised by Texans in the nation's capital. Such influence was critical in securing the financing to dam the Colorado. John Nance Garner of Uvalde was both vice president of the United States and FDR's invaluable liaison to Congress. Jesse Jones of Houston served as the nation's banker as head of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. The Texas congressional delegation was perhaps the most influential on Capitol Hill, chairing no fewer than twelve committees through which all New Deal legislation had to pass. Perhaps most important for the LCRA were James P. Buchanan of Brenham who served as chair of the House Appropriations Committee and Joseph J. Mansfield of Columbus who chaired the House Committee on Rivers and Reservoirs. Buchanan, pivotal to Roosevelt's success, intervened successfully with the president to overcome PWA resistance to expending funds on the Colorado River project. Before completion in the early 1940s, Ickes and the PWA would authorize tens of millions of federal dollars for Central Texas.
Creation of the Highland Lakes System
Acquisition of a half-finished privately financed structure outside Burnet represented the new river authority's first order of business. Samuel Insull's gigantic utility combine had undertaken construction of Hamilton Dam in 1931. The collapse of the Insull empire the following year caused work to be halted after an expenditure of $3.5 million. The half-completed dam seemed an appropriate place to start. Congressman Buchanan intervened with President Roosevelt, securing a $4.5 million loan from the PWA to purchase the structure and resume construction. Before completion in 1937, the price tag for Hamilton Dam, subsequently renamed to honor Representative Buchanan, rose to $10.4 million. The undertaking proved two thousand jobs at the depths of the depression and proved an economic godsend for the people of Burnet and surrounding counties.
Buchanan by itself was nonetheless insufficient to conquer the flooding problem. While it could "help" constrain the river in times of rampage, Buchanan existed primarily to create a massive reservoir and generate electricity. As the City of Austin's earlier efforts demonstrated, one dam was insufficient to tame the Colorado. Only a series of dams could accomplish the objectives. Therefore, a much larger dam would have to be built downstream.
That structure, located in western Travis County at a historic crossing on the Colorado known as Marshall Ford, would be incredibly expensive. Fearing that Ickes and the PWA would not provide that much money, LCRA and Buchanan developed a two-phase strategy. They would get the appropriation for a "low dam" in order to get started and would subsequently seek additional funds to build the upper portion of the dam without which the whole function of flood control would be unattainable.
It was a tremendous gamble and one that seemed to backfire when Buchanan died unexpectedly. The river authority had lost its most important champion in budgetary battles. The low dam was well underway but unless elevated could not be the flood control lynchpin of the Highland Lakes system. Fate, however, intervened. Enter Lyndon Johnson, who won the special election to fill Buchanan's seat by endorsing the president's highly controversial court packing scheme. Having triumphed by championing the president's cause, Johnson became FDR's fair-haired boy. Word went out within the administration that LBJ was to be rewarded in every way possible. He received deferential treatment from Harold Ickes and the PWA that no freshman congressman could ever have expected. The necessary additional funding was quickly approved.
The cost for the dam at Marshall Ford, later renamed in honor of Congressman Mansfield, grew to a staggering $29 million. Subsequent lobbying by Representative Johnson resulted in LCRA having to repay but $5 million of that total; the rest was converted into an outright grant from the federal government. Over two thousand Central Texans found employment on the construction project which, in conjunction with other LCRA dams, finally tamed the Colorado. Every time a deluge inundates the Hill Country, Austinites give thanks for Mansfield Dam. One example must suffice. When floodwaters raced down the watershed in 1954, Lake Travis rose fifty-four feet in twelve hours! The devastation such waters would have caused in and below Austin boggle the mind.
Structural and political problems remained regarding Austin's inoperable dam, which had lain in ruin since the flood of 1915. The City of Austin, which owned its utility system and used the revenue it generated to keep property taxes down, wanted the dam rebuilt but failed to convince Ickes to bankroll the project. The stubborn Ickes refused to lend funds to another governmental entity that would be in competition with the river authority as a supplier of electricity. Such competition would hamper LCRA's ability to repay its PWA debts. He demanded the city give or sell the dam to the authority. Equally adamant, Mayor Tom Miller balked because lower electric revenues would drive up property taxes. LCRA refused to expend its funds rebuilding a dam it neither owner nor controlled.
Central Texas's new congressman miraculously worked out a deal acceptable to all parties. The City of Austin would rent the dam to the authority for fifty years and accept electricity from the reconstructed facility as rental compensation. LCRA had a long-term lease on the dam and avoided competition with the city. Once the river authority secured control of the structure, Ickes relented under pressure from Johnson and lent the $2.3 million required for reconstruction, which was completed in 1940.
Over the years LCRA constructed additional flood control structures to complete the Highland Lakes chain. Construction costs eventually totaled $72.4 million. The effort, however, provided five thousand jobs and pumped desperately needed cash into the entire region throughout the latter years of the Depression. According to long-time chamber of commerce president Walter E. Long, corralling the Colorado was "the major factor having to do with the growth of Austin."
Wires Across the Countryside
While the LCRA initiative at long last dealt successfully with flooding throughout the watershed, the task of rural electrification remained. The dams up and down the Colorado would shortly begin generating cheap public power. That power would benefit rural Central Texans little without a massive transmission and distribution network. Such a grid would be both difficult and expensive to construct. Only with such an undertaking, however, would the twentieth century finally dawn across the limestone plateau ranches to the west and the fertile blackland farms to the east of Austin.
The river authority lacked authorization under its charter from the state to construct any transmission and distribution system. As far as the legislature had been concerned, the production of public power had been at best a tangential consideration. LCRA's foremost mission was flood control and every penny it could put its hands on was committed to the erection of dams. Nonetheless, the river authority's financial viability depended upon the resolution of this problem. Only from the sell of the electricity it would soon be generating could it generate the revenue required to repay its debts to the PWA in Washington, D. C. Without such sales to farmers, ranchers, and cities throughout its service area, loan default was inevitable. The entire undertaking would collapse. Lyndon Johnson, Alvin Wirtz, and others ramrodding the LCRA were determined to prevent such a nightmare at all cost. Once again, the solution lay not in Austin but in the nation's capital.
As part of the Second New Deal to reverse the depression, Franklin Roosevelt launched the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) in 1935 to enable rural Americans across the country to obtain the life-transforming benefits of electricity for the first time. In the best of economic times, farmers and ranchers lacked the financial ability to generate, transmit, and distribute power. Their inability was even more pronounced at the depths of the worst depression in the nation's history. Therefore, REA would attack the problem by lending rural dwellers who banded themselves into economic cooperatives the funds necessary to obtain electricity. Such monies would be repaid to the government over a thirty-year time span with a minimal rate of interest. A family's financial liability was limited to the $5 membership fee to join the cooperative; it was technically the cooperative which borrowed the funds from REA and was legally responsible for repayment.
With necessary funding to complete construction of the authority's hydroelectric dams secured from the PWA, Congressman Johnson, Alvin Wirtz, and others who had been instrumental in the LCRA endeavor now undertook the task of convincing Central Texas to form cooperatives and apply for funds from the REA. Farmers and ranchers, leery of going into debt and risking their property to foreclosure, must be persuaded that their liability was limited to their membership fee. Publicity campaigns throughout the region slowly converted those dubious of the benefits of electrification or of the program's practicality. The Pedernales, Bluebonnet, and other rural cooperatives resulted. Additionally, cities such as Bastrop, Smithville, Elgin, Brenham, and others abandoned private suppliers and signed on with LCRA once guaranteed that rates would fall and service would improve. Loans totaling millions of dollars from the REA followed shortly thereafter. Utility poles began sprouting across the countryside, holding aloft the transmission lines connecting the dams to Central Texas farms and ranches.
The long-delayed dreams had finally
become reality and Central Texas would never again be the same.
John A. Adams, Jr., Damming The Colorado: The Rise of the Lower Colorado River Authority, 1933-1939, Texas A & M University Press (College Station: 1990).
Jimmy Banks and John E. Babcock, Corralling The Colorado: The First Fifty Years of the Lower Colorado River Authority, Eakin Press (Austin: 1988).
Walter E. Long, Flood To Faucet,
Steck Co. (Austin, 1956).
© L. Patrick Hughes, 1999