Overview

Lake Travis is a reservoir on the Colorado River in the central Texas Hill Country located 30 minutes northwest of Austin. Lake Travis is one of seven reservoirs that make up the Highland Lakes which stretches 65 miles upriver from western Travis County into southern Burnet county.

Formed when Mansfield Dam was built in order to protect a highly prone flash-flood region, Lake Travis has the largest storage capacity of the Highland Lakes and is used additionally for water supply, electrical power and generation, and recreation.

In recent years Lake Travis has experienced extreme fluctuation in lake levels plummeting to its third lowest level ever on record. However recent reversal of weather conditions brought Lake Travis's levels back to full capacity in April 2016.

Sources:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Travis
Image: https://theculturetrip.com

History

In the early 1900s, the Lake Travis area as we know it today was little more than a collection of farms and large swaths of undeveloped land. The urbanization that was seen across many places in the nation was yet to extend down to Central Texas. But, on August 17, 1936, the LCRA Board chose what is known as the Hughes site at Marshall Ford as the location for what was to be the Colorado's main flood control dam.

The Highland Lakes chain is one of the early successes of the Lower Colorado River Authority, which built them from 1935 to 1951, transforming hard-scrabble farm and ranchland.

Highland Lakes Chain

The idea of building dams on the Colorado River did not originate with LCRA in the 1930s. It developed during the 19th and early 20th centuries, as basin residents struggled against the river’s cycle of extreme floods and harsh droughts and sought to put the river to more productive uses, including generating electricity.

Sources:
Image: Mansfield Dam Construction, 1938 | by Lower Colorado River Authority

Statistics

  • Original Name: Marshall Ford Dam
  • Primary Purposes: Flood Management, Water Storage, Hydroelectric Power
  • Location: Travis County, Texas
  • Construction Dates: 1937 to 1942
  • Length of Lake: 63.75 miles
  • Miles of Shoreline: 270 miles
  • Maximum Width: 4.5 miles
  • Lake Area: 18,929 acres
  • Lake Capacity: 1,953,936 acre-feet
  • Full Elevation: 681.1 mean sea level (msl) (382,092,882,600 gallons of water)
  • Maximum Depth: 210 ft
  • Average Depth: 62 ft
  • Historic High: 710.4 feet msl on Dec. 25, 1991
  • Historic Low: 614.2 feet msl on Aug. 14, 1951
Dam Statistics
  • Dam Dimensions: 278 feet high , 7,089.39 feet long
  • Spillway Elevation: 714 feet above msl
  • Top of Dam: 750 feet above msl
  • Number of Floodgates: 24
  • Total Discharge Capacity:
    More than 130,000 cubic feet per second (cfs):
    23 floodgates @ more than 5.250 cfs each
    • 1 variable discharge gate @ 2,285 cfs
    • 2 turbines @ 2,500 cfs each
    • 1 turbine @ 2.400 cfs
    • Generating capacity: 108 megawatts
Current Conditions

View all current conditions at waterdatafortexas.org

Top 10 Highest Lake Levels
Rank Date Height*
1 Dec. 25, 1991 710.44
2 May 18, 1957 707.38
3 June 25, 1997 705.11
4 Feb. 9, 1992 704.68
5 July 6, 2007 701.51
6 Nov. 25, 2004 696.7
7 July 7, 2002 693.5
8 June 14, 1987 693.48
9 June 7, 2016 692.7
10 Oct. 7, 1959 692.58
Top 6 Lowest Lake Levels
Rank Drought Date Height*
1 1947-57 Aug. 14, 1951 614.18
2 1963-64 Nov. 8, 1963 615.02
3 2008-16 Sept. 20, 2013 618.64
4 1983-84 Oct. 7, 1984 636.58
5 1999-00 Oct. 15, 2000 640.24
6 2005-06 Dec. 13, 2006 643.55

*Height is represented as feet above mean sea level (MSL)

Highland Lake Concept

Adam Rankin Johnson in 1887 founded the town of Marble Falls, Texas and worked to harness the water power of the Colorado River

Idea of the Highland Lakes chain originated in the mid-19th century. The credit for the idea of a dam on the Colorado may go to Adam Rankin Johnson, a farmer and entrepreneur who established the city of Marble Falls. In 1854 he marked an “X” at a location where one of the dams should be built.

Johnson secured the water rights for a multi-dam project but never developed his idea. He eventually sold his rights to C. H. Alexander, Sr. In 1909 he began construction of a dam near Marble Falls but was able to build only one-third of the structure before his money ran out.

Downstream, the City of Austin briefly succeeded in building the first dam across the Colorado. That structure lasted only seven years before being destroyed by a catastrophic flood in 1900. The city had barely finished rebuilding the dam in 1915 when it was again heavily damaged by floods.

1900 flood event that destroyed the original dam

Bankruptcy of dam builder leads to LCRA’s creation. In the 1920s, catastrophic floods across the United States, coupled with the construction of massive Boulder Dam in the West, increased national interest in dam projects that coupled hydroelectric power generation with flood control. That led one utility company in 1931, which had purchased Alexander’s rights, to begin building a massive structure on the Colorado at the location marked by Johnson. But a year later, less than halfway through construction, the company went bankrupt, a victim of the Great Depression and corporate mismanagement.

Sources:
http://www.hillcountrynews.com
https://texashistory.unt.edu/
http://kxan.com/blog/2010/04/07/tom-miller-dam-turns-70/
Image: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stovepipe_Johnson

Construction Begins on the Highland Lakes

In the 1920s, catastrophic floods across the United States, coupled with the construction of massive Boulder Dam in the West, increased national interest in dam projects that coupled hydroelectric power generation with flood control. One utility company that had purchased Alexander’s rights , began building a massive structure on the Colorado. But just a year later, less than halfway through construction, the company went bankrupt, a victim of the Great Depression and corporate mismanagement.

The abandoned dam passed into the hands of Alvin Wirtz, a savvy attorney and former state senator who eventually secured the promise of federal funds if a state agency could be created to finish the project. Thanks to his influence, the Texas Legislature eventually created LCRA in November 1934.

Possessed with the defunct utility’s properties and fortified with $20 million in federal grants and loans, LCRA resumed construction of what eventually became Buchanan Dam and a companion project, Inks Dam, downstream. The work provided hundreds of jobs to depression-stricken families.

Completed in 1938, the two dams were designed to offer the hydroelectric production and flood protection that the project’s originators had promised. The water in Lake Buchanan would provide the “fuel” for the Buchanan Dam powerhouse, and the dam sported 37 floodgates to moderate the release of Hill Country floodwaters. As waters from Buchanan flowed into Inks Lake downstream, Inks Dam would discharge the flows through its own powerhouse, increasing the waters’ hydroelectric output.

With Buchanan and Inks dams completed, Mansfield Dam was planned for additional flood protection.

Construction on Mansfield Dam (Lake Travis)

Lake Buchanan alone could not provide adequate protection from floods. LCRA determined that a second massive structure downstream was needed to collect floodwaters from the Llano and Pedernales rivers, as well as floodwaters that the relatively shallow Lake Buchanan would be unable to hold.

In 1937, LCRA broke ground on what would eventually be named Mansfield Dam. Built to create a bowl-like structure on the river, the dam would form Lake Travis and provide storage for the massive floodwaters that could be generated by the river’s Hill Country tributaries.

Marshall-Ford Dam Construction Site - 1937

Tom Miller, Wirtz and Starcke dams complete the chain. A year later, LCRA reached agreement with the city of Austin to rebuild its dam, renamed Tom Miller Dam and forming Lake Austin. That project was completed in 1940, with Mansfield Dam completed two years later. During that time, a study commissioned by LCRA and state and federal agencies recommended naming the chain “the Highland Lakes” to promote their recreational potential.

By the end of the 1940s, growing demand for additional electric generating capacity prompted LCRA to build two additional dams between Inks Dam and Lake Travis, in the middle of the chain. Completed in 1951, the dams eventually would be known as Wirtz and Starcke.

The two dams created lakes LBJ and Marble Falls, completing the Highland Lakes as we know them today — and fulfilling Adam Johnson’s original vision.

Sources:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mansfield_Dam
Image: Marshall-Ford Dam Construction, 1937 | by Lower Colorado River Authority