The End of Austin

an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas

Goodbye to a River?

Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries. Via Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries. Via Wikimedia Commons

In May of 2014 I returned to Austin for one last research trip before finally sitting down and completing my book on Austin’s history. Having been gone from Texas for a couple years I’ve retained a general interest in its history and traditions, and I used the opportunity to read John Graves’ Goodbye to a River, long considered a foundational work in the history of Texas conservation and about as good a work on the relationship between ecological history and regional history as I’ve ever read. Published in 1960, Graves narrates his float down a stretch of the Brazos River, Texas’s largest, south and west of Fort Worth. He intended to get in one last trip before the river was dammed, forever altering its landscape and, to Graves anyway, its spirit. The book is wonderful because it seamlessly blends the often appalling history of the Indian-European conflicts in the area with descriptions of the landscape that make each turn in the river both breathtaking and mundane. The Brazos is both awesome and simply there. By showing us each and every detail of the landscape and so meticulously describing the ecological particularities of the region, Graves also demonstrates just how far we’d come from the “old ones,” who settled the region in the nineteenth century, in terms of local knowledge: the particularities of trees and soil, how to read the weather, what is edible, the subtleties in the river’s flow, and of course who might greet a tired passerby with a shotgun. Between then and now, I shudder to think. Who now knows a river or an ecological landscape in that intimate way, or has to, other than professionals? In this essay I’m going to discuss the interesting history of the Colorado River, concentrating on why we’re now in danger of saying goodbye to it, although in a different way than Graves’ ode to the Brazos. Like much of modern Austin, its future is implicated in its history.

On its surface, the Colorado River is quite similar to the Brazos. Like all rivers it moves with the topography and reflects local ecologies. Tumbling down from the highlands in far Northwest Texas it too makes its way slowly through the Hill Country on the Balcones Escarpment, down through Austin and environs, and then onto the massive coastal plain where its slow moving waters eventually merge with the saltwater marshes before meeting the gulf. Perhaps more than the Brazos it has been stubborn and erratic, able to produce some of the worst floods American history and alternatively slowing to a trickle (literally).

For the “old ones” of Central Texas the river was always a deal with devil. Its waters produced and sustained life, and in good years it made the region beautiful and verdant. The exploration party sent by Mirabeau Lamar to find the capitol for the new republic in 1839 happened upon Waterloo in a good year, one of those rare years with some rain but not too much. They wrote that the site “would give delight to every painter and lover of extended landscape,” jubilant that they’d found the nicest spot in the state for the future seat of empire in the Southwest. And Austin was born.

The river, though, turned out to be more problem than boon for the few hardy people who settled in Austin in the four decades after the city’s founding. As anyone who has lived in or around Austin for even a few years knows, the area is prone to some meteorological oddities. The army corps of engineers dubbed Central Texas “flash flood alley” for its propensity to flood and flood brutally. Storms can come in from any direction and are apt to stall out for numerous days over the Balcones Escarpment. In rare cases they will pass over an area, stop, back up, and dump rain a second time. In 1859 such an event likely occurred, and thousands of buffalo carcasses were reported stuck in the river bed near Austin. To make matter worse, the limestone bottoms just to the west and north of Austin are poor at absorbing water; run off has nowhere to go but down, leading to intense water walls in creeks and rivers that wreak havoc. Eventually, all the water makes its way to the Colorado. Half of the worst 20 floods in US history occurred in Central Texas. At the other end of the spectrum, Central Texas is also prone to severe droughts that can last up to a decade; up into the 1880s the City of Austin routinely ran out of water.

After the university was located in Austin in 1883, city leaders decided it was time to harness the river. And controlling the river would remain the foremost planning initiative for Austinites over the next half century. Led by Alexander Wooldrigde, through the 1880s the city council and business league were able to garner significant support for a dam to make life in Austin more predictable and to attract more economic activity. Citizens passed a bond initiative in 1888 to pay for the dam. Engineers sited it just upriver from downtown, almost exactly where Tom Miller dam is today. The gravity dam was as sophisticated as any engineering structure in the country when it was finished in 1893. Harper’s gave the dam national attention with a piece in 1893, declaring that Austin could become “a modern day Athens” once the dam was finished. Scientific American wrote multiple stories on the dam and kept up on its progress. City leaders imagined it as a panacea and spoke of the civic pride and dedication that gave it life and the stability and cheap power it would bring to the town. They centered it in booster literature and began actively courting industry for the first time.

Seven years later a real storm came. On April 7, 1900 a 40 foot wall of water came crashing down the channel, on a bright and sunny day to boot. It arrived with such force that a 60 foot section of the dam, which later proved to be structurally unsound, was lifted and taken hundreds of feet down river. The wall of water then crashed into the power house on the east bank, killing the 17 men inside in front of hundreds of onlookers who, hearing about the upriver storms, had gathered to watch water cascade over the dam. The incident made national news, and for decades to follow a large chunk of dam sat in the river adjacent to downtown, the sad symbol of what could have been for Austin.

Construction started and stopped on the dam for the next 30 years, stalled by inadequate funds, derelict builders, engineering failures, and legal issues. It was functional for a brief period in 1913, but succumbed again to the raging water in the flooding of 1915. Dozens more died from flooding and untold money was lost in damaged property. It took the federal government’s help to finally harness the river. While the legal story is too much to narrate here, suffice it to say that the state of Texas formed the Lower Colorado River Authority in 1934 with the singular purpose of finally corralling and subduing the Colorado.[1] Lyndon Johnson and the Brown Brothers cemented what would be a lifelong relationship in building the first couple, Buchanan and Mansfield, the principle flood control structures in the string. Tom Miller Dam was dedicated in 1940. By the end of the second World War, five were completed, and two more were finished by 1960. In all, the dams impounded seven reservoirs with a total coastline of over 700 miles, more than the entire Texas gulf coast. Although the unique ecological characteristics were forever altered, in Austin no one seemed to mind. The intractable river was finally harnessed, “put to work for people” as LBJ proudly announced in 1937. Power and light from the hydroelectric turbines completely modernized even the most remote properties, engendering a collective moment of catharsis for the hardscrabble farming families who eked out a meager existence from the marginal Hill Country soil.

Almost immediately after the war, Austin’s economic and political elite understood that water differentiated the small city from the usually desiccated Southwest and could be used to market the area. They brought in a professional planner from New York in 1947 who studied the city and advised them to avoid industry and focus on the area’s unique attributes, the university and the natural environment. They began a promotional campaign that linked water with obvious economic engines like recreation and tourism, but also with a lifestyle that would be attractive to research and development workers and other skilled members of the labor force. In an era when consumption became a way of life and an aspect of American greatness, they portrayed water as abundant. As luck would have it, the worst drought on record hit Texas and much of the continental U.S. in the mid-1950s, and there was Austin, as well-provisioned as possible to deal with it. Boosters sent a tanker full of Highland Lakes water to drought-ridden New York City in 1950s to advertise robust Central Texas resources. For the small but growing region, water was indeed a sign of both prosperity and the good life.

Aquafest, the city’s annual celebration of water, prosperity, and civic pride from 1962 into the 1990s (and the forerunner to SXSW), made water appear eternal, portraying its abundance as natural rather than the creation of technology. Developers bought up property fronting water and transformed pristine rural areas west of town into suburban communities that catered to the robust leisure needs of Austin’s growing professional class. The university enrollment doubled in size in the 25 years after World War Two, and Austin’s population did the same, largely based on growth among knowledge workers. And slowly people forgot what the “old ones” knew all too well (and what few transplants even considered): that water in Central Texas is a scarce resource and historically the region’s biggest natural obstacle. When the high tech industry exploded in Austin in the 1980s, growth became even more intense and, it seems, has yet to slow down.

As growth surged Austin’s dynamic environmentally-conscious citizens keenly sensed that irresponsible overdevelopment was one of the most significant threats to the city’s sense of place and its well-being. They recognized that overdevelopment and population growth could impact Austin’s water supply and won some key developmental restraints in 1991 and 1997 after two decades of bitter contestation. But they concentrated on Barton Springs and the Edwards Aquifer. All the while newcomers and longtime residents treated the lakes as abundant, a source of civic pride as well as fun.

It wasn’t until recently that the river reached its breaking point. When the latest drought reached its apex in the brutal summer of 2011, I went out to Mansfield Dam to see for myself that sad view of the southern end of Lake Travis. The enormity of the dam made the shrunken lake look even more pitiful. Aground boats were strewn as much 40 feet above the shoreline, and the water was surrounded by dry, cracked ground that appeared more pronounced on the landscape than the water. Millions of gallons evaporated every day. And I thought to myself about the thousands of magazines ads and photos of boaters, water skiers, picnickers, fisherman, and other happy people that I’ve seen in the archives around Austin, relics from the era of unbridled abundance. Needless to say the contrast was stark. If the water created the wonderful sense of place of so many, what would the future hold when it was gone, or a shadow of itself? The day, and the entire summer, was tough. And, although Central Texas has always run on a strange drought-flood cycle where the landscape can be renewed in a single year or two, it’s questionable whether the river system will ever fully recover given the ever-growing demand on its fragile bounty and the slowly encroaching desert moving up from the southwest.

It’s tempting to do what many Austinites do whenever a stain emerges on the city’s shiny patina: blame its spectacular success. This narrative works most obviously with traffic, where Austin traffic is only so terrible because of how spectacularly the city has grown. Or Austin has only become so expensive because so many people want to live there. And of course there is lots of truth in that. We would not have to think about saying goodbye to the river if Austin was still a sleepy college town and not the runaway Silicon Hills it has clearly become. But Austin is also a place highly invested in its own good life, and the center of that good life is still, I think, abundance. As I wrote elsewhere, despite higher than normal levels of poverty, Austinites spend an incredibly high amount of money on non-necessities compared to people in other cities. They go out to eat a lot, go to cultural and musical events a lot, and spend lots of time enjoying outdoor activities. In the western hills they often drive very expensive cars and live in large houses that use a lot of energy and maybe even have a boat house that fronts Lake Austin (which is kept at a uniform level at all times to satisfy the recreational demands of the city’s elite). More people who relocate to Austin are used to similar lifestyles. This being Texas, it’s usually not in good form to comment on what private citizens do with their property and in their free time.

But it is fair to comment, I think, that the model needs to be reworked and that creating abundance where there used to be scarcity is no longer a sustainable proposition. Austin is going to continue its mercurial growth for the foreseeable future. And we will never know about the weather in Central Texas. But more importantly, Austinites must learn to think a bit more like the “old ones,” who correctly understood just how vital and scarce water is for the region, and like Graves in terms of conserving it rather than using it grow ever more. Doing this means investing in better water capturing technologies, micro and indigenous methods (a friend of mine has a large rain barrel attached to his house), and simply readjusting the relationship between consumption and the good life in Austin, and elsewhere.

[1] The story is told in John Adams, Damming the Colorado.


Andrew Busch (Ph.D. University of Texas at Austin, 2011) is a Visiting Assistant Professor of American Studies at Miami University. His work focuses on the intersections among urban development, race, environmentalism, and political economy. His current project,City in a Garden: Race, the Environment, and Progressive Politics in Austin, Texas, 1928-2011 investigates the development of Austin, Texas and the ways that ideologies of the natural and the urban shaped the race and class geography of the city. Busch comes to Miami from St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas where he was an adjunct professor of Cultural Foundations. In 2010 he was nominated for the William S. Livingston Outstanding Graduate Student Academic Employee Award at UT, and he has published essays in American Quarterly and on barbecue culture in Texas. He also helped develop a public and oral history archive on Texas barbecue with the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi. His future projects include an analysis of the relationship between progressivism and neoliberalism as well as a history of Chicago during the 1970s and 1980s.

3 comments on “Goodbye to a River?

  1. Pingback: Announcement: The winter edition of The End of Austin is here! « AMS :: ATX

  2. Marina Lake
    April 17, 2015

    Excellent review of the history of the Colorado River and Austin’s growth. Seems to me that many of our current problems (crowding, housing, water shortages, traffic, etc.) are due to the subversion of natural market forces by the politicians. Austin has always been an appealing place to live and work; but our elected officials have enacted laws and policies that make it *artificially* attractive to be here. Examples:
    – Very few constraints on development
    – Inadequate transportation strategy and budget
    – No state income tax or capital gains tax
    – Ridiculously cheap water for rice farmers
    – Tax abatements for companies moving here
    These are all things that got the legislators elected in the past, and they are coming back to haunt us.

  3. Austin guitar teacher
    July 21, 2015

    Hope you’re feeling a little better now that the lakes are nearly full. But your points are still well taken — it hasn’t rained here in June, and continuing the historic pattern of water waste will quickly get us back where we were earlier this year. The problem isn’t solved!

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