The Story of Texas Lakes: Functional and Fun June 2018

Across its vast landscape, Texas has lakes of all sizes, many of which are admired for the special value they bring to the local community, be it recreation, tourism, or natural beauty. No doubt, these lakes are an asset, but were they built for our recreation and enjoyment? Not so much.

With only one exception, Texas' major lakes were man-made, created not for fishing, boating, and picnicking but to address serious problems within their region. The history behind many of these lakes gets lost when ski boats leave the dock and fishing reels lower into the water. But for more than a century, the state was plagued with ongoing disasters of either too much water or too little.

For generations, devastating floods took a harsh toll on many parts of the state, destroying property and taking lives. The 1950s ushered in another dilemma, a historic drought.

By 1920, Texas had only 10 major lakes (also known as reservoirs) with a combined storage capacity of approximately 375,000 acre-feet. But floods, drought, and population growth changed that. Construction activity picked up as regions realized that building reservoirs would help alleviate water shortages for growers, businesses, and municipalities and, in many cases, help protect communities from floods.

Today, Texas has 188 major lakes—lakes that each hold more than 5,000 acre-feet water. The Texas share of those lakes now totals more than 32 million acre-feet.

Northwest of Austin, Lake Travis is well known for boating, scuba diving, camping, and zip lining. On weekends, a platoon of houseboats park in scenic coves and serve as party central for college students and visitors. These lake lovers have nothing more on their minds than fun in the sun. If only they could peer deep below the surface, they'd be surprised to see what remains of houses, docks, and even an orchard—all standing when the lake began to form from the damming of the Colorado River in the 1930s. When Mansfield Dam was built in 1942, the 65-mile-long lake was complete.

Lake Travis serves a crucial role as the primary flood control reservoir in the Highland Lakes chain running through Central Texas, which is famous for flash floods. The lake, covering more than 19,000 acres, is used not only for flood control but also for water supply and electrical power generation. Recreation served up by the lake is a happy by-product. The Lower Colorado River Authority operates the lake and dam.

In East Texas, Sam Rayburn Reservoir is regarded as a fishing mecca. The largest lake wholly within the state's borders, the reservoir has a premier largemouth bass fishery operating year-round and hosts an estimated 300 tournaments a year.

Although "Big Sam" is beloved for its recreational value, it was designed for flood control and power generation and is operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Fed by the Angelina River, the lake covers more than 100,000 acres. The mega-lake also supplies water to Beaumont, Lufkin, and the Lower Neches Valley Authority.

Possum Kingdom Lake in North Texas claims to have the clearest, bluest water in the Southwest. Anyone who traverses its surface area of nearly 18,000 acres is bound to be impressed by the steep cliffs and rocky shoreline. The lake, mostly in Palo Pinto County, draws boaters, fishermen, and primitive campers.

The lake's Morris Sheppard Dam, completed in 1941, impounds water for municipal and industrial uses, as well as mining, irrigation, flood control, and power generation. But its millions of visitors each year come for another reason: recreation. Improvements to the surrounding land, such as roads and campsites, were the handiwork of the Civilian Conservation Corps, marking its last public works project in Texas. The Brazos River Authority operates the reservoir.

In May, the North Texas Municipal Water District broke ground on a new water supply lake in Fannin County, the North Texas Municipal Lake. The first major reservoir to be built in Texas for some time, it will provide water for approximately 1.7 million Texans and recreation for the visitors who will enjoy its fishing, boating, and swimming.

Remember that one exception we mentioned? Caddo Lake is believed to be the only naturally occurring major lake in the state. With a surface area of 26,800 acres that overlaps the Texas-Louisiana border, Caddo is considered one of the state's most photogenic sites with its towering bald cypress trees and abundant waterfowl. Visitors are fond of camping, hiking, and canoeing in this lush wonderland, northeast of Marshall. One explanation of how the lake formed is that a substantial logjam formed in the Red River creating a natural dam. While still considered natural, Caddo's current surface area can be attributed to dams built to raise its capacity. The Northeast Texas Municipal Water District oversees its use for water supply and recreation.

So it's easy to assume that Texas lakes are there for all to admire, to be used for recreation, and to generate local economic activity. But the water stored in these lakes plays a leading role in ensuring that our growing population has an adequate water supply—and that's why they were really built. Fortunately, that doesn't prevent us from enjoying their recreational benefits, too.

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