Trouble Right Here in River City

 

The flood that raged down the Colorado last month was a startling reminder that the river isn’t just a nice recreational centerpiece for Austin. It is the defining geographical feature of the entire Central Texas region. And disastrous flooding isn’t just part of history. It’s the risk we take every day for the privilege of living in this location.

I got interested in the Austin Dam Disaster of 1900 a few years back because I saw the parallels with the Austin I had grown up with and resided in today. It’s one of the great themes of Austin’s existence to be a city on the move and on the make. But occasionally, Mother Nature administers a dose of humbling reality. Watching these events unfold over the last couple of weeks was like watching the 1900 flood come to life—fortunately, the consequences this time were far less permanent.

Austin was chosen as the capital of Texas in part because of the potential water power of the Colorado. But for the first century of the city’s history, the river was more of a foe than a friend. It may come as news to Austin’s many newcomers, but Central Texas happens to be the most flood-prone region of the entire United States.

The reason? Austin sits at the intersection of the Gulf, Pacific, and Plains weather systems—a recipe for rain events of incredible magnitude. Pair that with hilly geography, thin soil, and shallow creeks and rivers. Well into the 1930s, Central Texas was subjected to devastating flooding on a regular basis. And as we saw last week, even the full capacity of the six dams and lakes operated by the Lower Colorado River Authority can only mitigate a major flood event, not prevent it altogether.

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A rare view.

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As in 1900, the 2018 flood began with an unusual series of rain storms that soaked Central Texas with the wettest September on record. On October 8, a rain bomb over the small Hill Country town of Junction dumped 12 inches into the Llano River in just a few hours, rampaging through an RV park and sweeping four people to their deaths. It was the LCRA’s job to move this water carefully through Wirtz and Starcke dams and into Lake Travis, which was specifically built to protect the city of Austin from flooding.

A week later, a weekend of heavy storms climaxed with a strong cold front. This time, the Llano came out of its banks even more disastrously. Most dramatically, the FM 2900 bridge at Kingsland was carried away by the force of the waters, and Kingsland, Granite Shoals, Marble Falls, and other lakeside communities endured major flooding. For the first time in history, all six of the Highland Lakes dam were open in a remarkably orchestrated ballet of floodgate operations. Lake Travis reached an astonishing 143% of capacity—the fifth highest on record.

Several people have asked me if the dams were ever in any danger of failing, as the “Great Granite Dam” did in 1900. Fortunately, the answer is no, that is not a realistic fear. The river is far better understood than it was in the 1890s, and the Highland Lakes dams are infinitely better designed and constructed. The LCRA performs frequent upgrades on the dams to keep them current—in fact, the river authority began work in August to replace the floodgates on Tom Miller dam at Lake Austin, one of the most extensive modernizations the dam has ever received. I believe the success of the Highland Lakes system is the most significant (and under appreciated) component in the exponential growth of Austin over the last 70 years.

The fallout for the city of Austin in 2018 was far short of the death and destruction wrought by the 1900 disaster. However, the city did not escape unscathed. On Monday, October 22, the unprecedented amount of silt contaminating the city’s drinking water supply caused Austin Water to issue a citywide boil water notice that remained in place for an entire week. For a short time, it was feared that the city’s water pressure might drop below the level necessary to supply the fire hydrants. Our 1900 counterparts didn’t have it so easy. Back then, residents digging out from the dam disaster had to haul water, and it was nine months before any basic utility service returned to the city.

Want to know more? Check out my book The Austin Dam Disaster of 1900, available on Amazon or at your favorite Austin bookstore. It also makes a great gift for the Austin history lover or the engineer in your life.

Announcing My New Book, “The Austin Dam Disaster of 1900”

5cec2c9c-8ee7-4e23-b0ae-0fc4781c6f9cI am so pleased and excited to announce that my new book, The Austin Dam Disaster of 1900, is now available! Pre-orders are underway and the book’s release day is January 29–next Monday!

Part of the Images of America series from Arcadia Publishing, this book tells one of the great forgotten stories of Austin history–how a little town of 15,000 people built the largest dam ever constructed in the 19th century, anywhere in the world. It’s a story about dreams, and hubris, and Central Texas weather. Most of the research was conducted at the Austin History Center, and the book contains dozens of historic photos from the Austin History Center, the Lower Colorado River Authority, the Texas State Archives, and the Briscoe Center for American History, among others.

As a lifelong Austinite, I grew up in a city still celebrating the taming of the Colorado by the Highland Lakes dams. Aquafest attracted thousands each summer to celebrate the existence of Town Lake. A few years back, I learned that Red Bud Isle, now a beloved dog park, was formed from the wreckage of the old Austin dam. As I delved into the subject matter, I discovered that the Austin dam disaster of 1900 not only illuminated the journey of Austin from dusty frontier capital to modern-day tech magnet–it embodied the ambition and hubris that even then characterized the city.

I’ve always been fascinated by our unique weather, and the drama of the dam’s failure is the centerpiece of this story. I’ve learned over the years that people really do love to discover their own history. This was something I had never heard of, and it has so many fascinating aspects–politics, engineering, geology, disaster, and the sheer grit it took for our city to come back from a catastrophe that was as much self-inflicted as it was an act of God.

In 2016 I learned that Arcadia Publishing was looking to add some more Texas titles and I approached them with the idea of this book. The City of Austin and the Austin History Center gave permission to use their material, which makes up the majority of the images, and we are grateful for their generosity.

I hope you will enjoy this book as much as I did putting it together. The Austin Dam Disaster of 1900 is available on Amazon, directly from Arcadia Publishing, and will be available at your favorite Austin bookstores including BookPeople, Book Woman, and Barnes & Noble.

Please check out the events calendar! I would love to see all my friends at the book launch party on February 18 at BookPeople or any other of my upcoming “book tour” events! There are several more in the works, and I am actively seeking more local speaking engagements–feel free to reach out.