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.