The Story of Texas Water July 2017

Throughout the history of Texas, water has helped define where people lived, when they moved, and whether they survived. Water has always been the main—but sometimes invisible—character in our colorful history. The story of Texas water is the story of Texas.

Where the Water Flows

Historical evidence of Texas' earliest Native Americans shows that many lived along rivers, streams, and the Texas Gulf Coast for easy access to fresh water. For hundreds of years following, communities were formed along water for the same practical reason, with early European explorers and settlers creating communities and missions along the Rio Grande, the Texas coast, and East Texas bayous, among other areas.

A permanent civilian settlement in Texas, San Fernando de Béxar (later renamed San Antonio), was formed in March 1731 along the San Antonio River by immigrants from the Canary Islands. The Spanish chose to establish a civilian colony there to lay claim to the territory and block the French from westward expansion.[1] The San Antonio River area was also home to several Spanish missions in the 1700s, including Mission San Antonio de Valero (the Alamo). The clean, reliable river water and nearby springs supported agricultural operations through gravity-fed irrigation channels called acequias.

When Stephen F. Austin was granted a contract to settle 300 Anglo-American families in Texas, he decided on the rich river bottom areas along the Brazos, Colorado, and San Bernard rivers, extending from present-day Brenham, Navasota, and La Grange to the Gulf of Mexico. Ranching families were each given frontage on the river. Most of the "Old Three Hundred" had arrived by mid-1824, transforming the areas from unsettled wilderness into rural communities.[2]

In 1839, the Capital Commission of the Republic of Texas was considering a permanent location for the new capital. They chose a picturesque area known as Waterloo along the east bank of the Colorado River and renamed it Austin in honor of Stephen F. Austin.[3]

Because navigable waterways were the spine connecting the country's shipping before the advent of the railroad, numerous Texas cities were also founded because of their potential as ports. Houston was established in 1836 on Buffalo Bayou and was promoted to potential settlers as the "interior commercial emporium of Texas," where ships could deliver their goods to and from the port city of Galveston, a shipping gateway to the rest of the world.[4] And to the north, Dallas was initially settled in 1841 to become a port city on the Trinity River. Although early attempts to navigate the Trinity proved impractical, the city thrived via other industries and by 1890 was the most populous city in Texas with 38,000 residents.[5]

Windmills, Railroads, and Agriculture

The invention of the American windmill in 1854 and the ability to pump water from beneath the ground was a game changer for Texas. Soon whole new areas of Texas, especially the western parts of the state, were opened up to settlers, ranchers, and farmers. Windmills and barbed wire enabled ranchers to enclose and water livestock without requiring direct access to a river. Most farms and ranches relied on at least one windmill to pump groundwater through wells, and by the turn of the 20th century, Texas was the largest user of windmills in the country.[6] The famed XIT Ranch in the Panhandle was known to have 335 windmills in operation at once, and one was believed to be the world's tallest at 132 feet in height.[7]

Railroad companies were completely dependent on water to fill their steam engines, which required water about every 10 miles. The companies began promoting windmills to attract settlers to regions where they planned to lay track. As the railroad lines expanded across the state, so did water stops. Constructed by the railroad companies, water tanks sat adjacent to the tracks and were typically elevated and gravity fed by water from rivers or streams uphill or pumped from a well. The railroad water tank sometimes also served nearby residents' needs.

As the railroads and water stops fanned out across the state, communities formed around them. For example, Midland, known as the "Windmill Town" because almost every house had a windmill in its backyard, was originally founded by the railroad and called Midway because of its location on the rail line between El Paso and Fort Worth.[8]

Existing cities like Dallas saw an opportunity to bring the railroad to town by offering a reliable water supply. In 1871, Dallas leaders used Browder's Springs, located southeast of the Dallas County Courthouse, to lure the Texas and Pacific Railroad and mandated that it cross the Houston and Texas Central line. Because of this strategic move, Dallas became the first rail crossroads in the state and the shipping center for north central Texas. Browder's Springs later became the first public water supply for the city.[9]

While business and industry boomed in North Texas and West Texas was becoming more populated, South Texas was also seeing changes. Many ranchers in the Rio Grande Valley began investing in land along the river and experimenting with crops like sugar cane, cotton, corn, and citrus. A drought in the 1890s made large-scale irrigation solutions necessary, and farmers began building pumping systems with water from the river.[10]

Growth Leads to Public Water Systems

Between 1870 and 1880, the population of Texas increased 94 percent to more than 1.5 million people; it doubled to 3 million residents by 1900, making Texas the sixth most populous state.[11] As urban populations increased, so did the need for larger public water systems and storage. Private water works companies and cities began proactively putting into place and improving their distribution systems with water tanks, reservoirs, elevated storage tanks, pumps, and pipelines.

The City of Fort Worth built the Holly Pump Station in 1892 in response to rapid growth, and it's still in service today as a main high-service pump station for the city. Years later, Fort Worth was again facing growing pains and insufficient water supplies, as were many cities and areas across the state. In 1911, engineers recommended building a storage reservoir, an innovative solution for the city of 73,000 people. In 1914 the Lake Worth dam and reservoir were completed—the second municipal water supply reservoir built in Texas (following White Rock Lake in Dallas) and one of the largest in the country at the time.[12]

By 1940, Texas had more than 40 reservoirs as cities continued to construct them as both flood control and storage to meet growing demands for water.[13] With a population of 7.7 million in 1950, post–World War II Texas saw a great increase in water consumption per capita, rapid urbanization, population growth, and industrial expansion—all while continuing to face competition for the state's limited water supplies.[14]

On the verge of the worst recorded drought in Texas' history, the state would soon have to address water policy and planning to ensure a positive future for Texans.

Stay tuned in August for part two of Texas' water history, "The Story of Texas Water: History in the Making."


  1. Texas Almanac Online, "The First Official Permanent Civilian Settlement," accessed July 06, 2017, http://texasalmanac.com/topics/history/first-official-permanent-civilian-settlement.
  2. Handbook of Texas Online, Christopher Long, "Old Three Hundred," accessed July 06, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/umo01.
  3. Texas Almanac Online, "Rivers," accessed July 06, 2017, http://texasalmanac.com/topics/environment/rivers.
  4. Handbook of Texas Online, David G. McComb, "Houston, TX," accessed July 06, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/hdh03.
  5. Handbook of Texas Online, Jackie McElhaney and Michael V. Hazel, "Dallas, TX," accessed July 06, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/hdd01.
  6. Plaque text, Texas Windmills, The Bullock Texas State History Museum, Austin, TX.
  7. Handbook of Texas Online, Daniel B. Welborn, "Windmills," accessed July 07, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/aow01.
  8. Handbook of Texas Online, John Leffler, "Midland, TX," accessed July 06, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/hdm03; Handbook of Texas Online, John Leffler, "Midland County," accessed July 06, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/hcm12.
  9. Handbook of Texas Online, Michael V. Hazel, "Browder's Springs," accessed July 06, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/rpb04.
  10. Lila Knight, Historical Studies Report No. 2009-01: A Field Guide to Irrigation in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, accessed July 07, 2017, http://www.thc.texas.gov/public/upload/preserve/survey/survey/Irrigation.pdf.
  11. Handbook of Texas Online, "Census and Census Records," accessed July 06, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/ulc01.
  12. Freese, Simon W., and Deborah Lightfoot Sizemore. A Century in the Works: Freese and Nichols Consulting Engineering, 1894–1994. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1994. 14–32.
  13. Texas Almanac Online, "Lakes and Reservoirs," accessed July 06, 2017, http://texasalmanac.com/topics/environment/lakes-and-reservoirs.
  14. Texas State Library and Archives Commission Online, "United States and Texas Populations 1850-2016," accessed July 07, 2017, https://www.tsl.texas.gov/ref/abouttx/census.html; Freese, Simon W., and Deborah Lightfoot Sizemore. A Century in the Works: Freese and Nichols Consulting Engineering, 1894–1994. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1994. 232.
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