LCRA’s creation

Formed to improve the lives of the people of Texas

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The Colorado River is the largest river entirely within the state of Texas. In a typical year, almost 600 billion gallons of water flow through the Colorado River, which stretches 862 miles from its source near the Texas Panhandle to its mouth near the Gulf of Mexico. The river's drainage basin spans more than 42,000 square miles — about 16 percent of the total area of Texas.

"Colorado" is Spanish for "red" — an odd name for a river that early Spanish explorers noted had such clear water. Historians speculate the explorers intended to name the river "Brazos de Dios" (Arms of God), perhaps because of the tributaries in its watershed. Mapmakers switched the river's name with the adjacent Brazos River basin, perhaps because of a clerical error.

The Colorado was home to nomadic communities of Native Americans in prehistoric times. By the early 1800s, European settlers had established what are today the communities of Bastrop and Columbus. In 1839, the Republic of Texas selected the site of present-day Austin as its capital partly because of the area's abundant resources, including the Colorado River.

Early residents recognized the potential value of building dams on the river. Adam Johnson, a Burnet County surveyor and stage driver, made one of the earliest proposals in the 1850s. He sketched a proposed dam for a location that would later become the site of Buchanan Dam.

A hard life
Residents learned early on that the Colorado was a river of extremes. Located in an arid region, the river could easily drop to a trickle during hot, dry weather. The Hill Country portion of the basin, with its steep slopes and thin soils, funneled runoff from storms into the river, resulting in devastating floods that inundated downstream communities, killed people and resulted in millions of dollars in damages.

Rural Central Texans faced an additional problem: the lack of reliable, economical electric service. Investor-owned utilities had focused on serving larger Texas cities. Hill Country communities like Johnson City had a small generator that ran for a few hours every evening. Farms and ranches had no electric service at all. Many rural residents of the early 20th century lived and worked much like their ancestors of 100 years earlier.

The birth of LCRA
In 1931, a Texas subsidiary of the Chicago-based Insull utility company began construction of Hamilton Dam on the Colorado River in Burnet County, on the site originally proposed by Adam Johnson. The project brought jobs for as many as 1,500 people in the deepening stages of the Great Depression. But the utility went bankrupt the following year, leaving the dam less than half-built.

Alvin Wirtz, a lawyer and politician skilled in water issues, was appointed receiver for the bankrupt company's assets and began looking for funding to finish the dam. The only option turned out to be a package of loans and grants from the federal government, on the condition that the money go to a public agency created and owned by the state of Texas.

In 1933 Wirtz drafted legislation creating the Colorado River Authority, modeled after the federal Tennessee Valley Authority. The billed failed three times in the Texas Legislature – as legislators were pressured by private utilities and West Texas water interests.

The Legislature approved the bill on the fourth try with the strong support of Gov. Miriam A. "Ma" Ferguson and other key leaders. As a compromise to the West Texas interests, the new entity would have jurisdiction only over the lower portion of the river. It had authority to store and sell water, generate electricity, help reduce flood damages and implement reforestation and soil-conservation programs.

On Nov. 13, 1934, Gov. Ferguson signed the bill creating the Lower Colorado River Authority. A little more than three months later, on Feb. 19, 1935, LCRA opened for business.

More information

Review 10 quick facts about LCRA's history.

Read more about LCRA's early years and recent history.

Watch a video and view a timeline featuring milestones in LCRA history.

For more information on historical LCRA photographs, documents and other materials, email Corporate Archives or call 512–473–3296.

Timeline

1821-1931

1821 — Stephen F. Austin and his band of 300 colonist families are attracted to the coastal plains between the Colorado and Brazos rivers by the rich soil, good water and adequate timber. However, life proved difficult for the settlers because of the undependable flow of the river. Sometimes their towns and farms were flooded; other times their crops perished from lack of water.

1840 to 1865 — Matagorda is the second-largest seaport in Texas and the port of entry for European immigrants. Many headed up the Colorado River to begin settlements. However, navigation up the river was stopped in the lower basin by a logjam 40 miles long and in some places 20 feet high.

1869 — The largest flood on record sweeps through the Colorado River Valley, cresting in Austin at a height of 514 feet and causing major damage from Austin to the Gulf Coast.

1890 — Austin voters, wanting a reliable source of water and electricity for streetcars and lights, approve $1.4 million in bonds to construct a dam 1,235 long and 60 feet high.

1893 — The limestone and granite Austin Dam is completed.

1900 — The Austin Dam is destroyed by heavy rains on the Colorado watershed above Austin. With the river cresting 11 feet above the dam, two large sections of the structure are shoved 60 feet downstream.

1915 — A partially rebuilt Austin Dam is heavily damaged by flooding.

1929 — Floods remove the huge logjam that had limited navigation on the Colorado.

1931 — A Texas subsidiary of the Chicago-based Insull utility company begins building Hamilton Dam on the Colorado River in Burnet County. Construction is suspended the following year when the dam's backers go bankrupt.

1933-1936
1933 — Alvin Wirtz applies for federal funding for the privately owned Colorado River Company to finish the Hamilton Dam. The application is turned down because the applicant is not a public agency. To secure funding, Wirtz writes legislation proposing creation of a Colorado River Authority.

 

1933-34 — The Colorado River Authority bill is introduced during each of four special sessions of the Texas Legislature in October 1933 and January, August and October 1934. The Hamilton Dam project is renamed in honor of a key supporter, U.S. Rep. James Buchanan.

 

November 1934 — The Texas Legislature passes a bill creating the Lower Colorado River Authority. Gov. "Ma" Ferguson signs the bill.

 

February 1935 — LCRA Act takes effect, and a nine-member Board of Directors is sworn in.

 

September 1935 — Clarence McDonough, chief of the Public Works Administration's engineering division, becomes LCRA's first general manager.

 

July 1936 — LCRA begins pouring concrete at Buchanan Dam.