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Lake Waco: An engineering marvel, a political struggle

Lake Waco

By J.B. Smith, Waco Tribune-Herald

In April 1957, Waco got a reversal of fortune it would rather have avoided.

Texas ' worst drought of 20th century had dragged into its seventh year. The modest reservoir the city had built in 1930 had silted up and dwindled to a mud pit. Grass and sunflowers flourished in the lake bed and once caught fire.

Even with water rationing, taps sometimes ran dry in parts of town. Factories scaled back production when water supplies were low. Lake Waco manager C.S. Turner urged the public to haul away silt in pickup trucks.

Then, on the afternoon of April 19, the rain started. Turner learned a 12-foot rise was coming down the North Bosque River from Valley Mills.

He opened a spillway gate to lower the lake before the flood hit. The river kept rising. At 5:10 a.m., he opened the last of the 16 gates, watching as several years worth of potential city water supply roared downstream to wash away cows, flood houses and damage $2.5 million worth of property in the heart of Waco .

Everyone agreed this cycle of flood and drought was economically destructive for Waco . Nearly everyone, including the federal government, agreed the solution was a new, larger Lake Waco . But it took the efforts of a devoted and politically connected group of Waco civic leaders to push the project through Washington , D.C.

Today, 38 years after the gates at the new Lake Waco dam were closed, water rationing is unheard-of in Waco , even in the driest summers. And the city has worked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to raise the lake level seven feet, starting this fall. City leaders say the pool rise will allow Waco to become the main water supplier for McLennan County for the next 50 years or more.

The floods along the Brazos also are a distant memory, thanks to Lake Waco and other dams in the Brazos River basin .

The Brazos River corridor in Waco , once considered too flood-prone for valuable buildings, has become hot property.

Waco 's ample water supply and flood protection, so easy to take for granted, are results of past decisions, struggles and investment — and a dose of luck.

"It was a matter of the right people being in the right place at the right time," says Jack Jeffrey, Waco city manager in the 1950s. "I have the feeling that Waco never realized what an impact it had on such a large area of the state of Texas . There's no question the average citizen didn't get that deeply concerned about what was going to happen all those years from now."

The right time was the mid-20th century, the great era of federal dam building. The right place was Texas , home state of Lyndon B. Johnson, the master of the U.S. Senate who made sure his state got its share and more.

The right people included Waco Congressman Bob Poage, Waco Tribune-Herald publisher Harlon Fentress and car dealer Jack Kultgen, all of whom worked with LBJ for more than a decade to get the dam built. Between 1945 and 1956, Waco civic leaders made 35 trips to Washington to push for the project.

But the impetus for a high dam on the Bosque stemmed from the record floods of 1936, which submerged East Waco and displaced 2,000 people.

The city had built the original Lake Waco strictly for water supply in 1930, and it afforded only minor flood protection. The old dam was located where the South and North Bosque met, just upstream of the current dam and 4? miles from where the Bosque meets the Brazos at Cameron Park.

After the flood, Congressman Poage won authorization for an Army Corps of Engineers flood control study of the Brazos watershed. The corps in 1938 recommended a new Lake Waco among other flood control projects.

But the dam projects were interrupted by World War II. When it ended, Lake Waco had to take a back seat to more urgently needed dams. Lake Whitney , needed for flood control on the Brazos itself, and Belton Lake , needed to supply Fort Hood , were authorized in 1946. That same year, the need for a new Lake Waco dam was underscored when the old dam nearly washed out during a flood.

Waco leaders pressed on, with help from the Brazos River Authority, a state-chartered agency created to manage all surface water in the Brazos basin.

Then a small agency known for building Possum Kingdom Lake , the BRA had spent most of its political energy trying unsuccessfully to get six more hydroelectric dams on the upper Brazos .

In the 1950s, it began working with communities to get federal reservoirs that would provide both flood control and water supply. The chairman of the board through much of that decade was Jack Kultgen.

A Chicago native, Kultgen had first seen Waco in 1936, when its east side was under two feet of water. He moved to Waco during World War II and set up a Ford dealership. He became a powerful advocate for his city, helping to bring Interstate 35 and Texas State Technical College to Waco as well as the dam.

"Jack Kultgen was a doer," Jeffrey recalls. "He worked day and night to get (the lake project) going. Waco never fully realized how much he did for everybody."

Fentress, who owned the Austin and Port Arthur daily papers as well as the Tribune-Herald, worked closely with Kultgen and knew Sen. Johnson well.

The boisterous senator, known for clutching people's lapels when he was making a point, towered over Fentress, who was more reserved and refined.

Despite their different personalities, "he and Johnson really hit it off," recalls Kultgen's son, Waco lawyer David Kultgen.

In 1954, Kultgen, Poage and Johnson — then Senate minority leader — testified before a U.S. House flood control subcommittee on the need for Lake Waco .

Johnson said Lake Waco was the "key project" for flood control in the Brazos basin, the "next natural link in the chain that is being forged to control the great Brazos River and its tributaries."

The men warned that if the federal government did not act quickly, Waco would build a second lake upstream from Lake Waco for water supply, which would complicate the corps' flood control efforts.

Congress that year authorized Lake Waco as part of the nation's first general public works bill since the war. The project got $100,000 in planning money, but none for construction.

Design work began, with the BRA arranging to reserve drinking water capacity in the new lake for the city of Waco . More planning money trickled down from Congress over the next few years.

Meanwhile, the drought of the 1950s worsened. Lake Waco was silting up at an alarming rate because of farming upstream. The Soil Conservation Service estimated that about 60 percent of the lake's capacity was gone, and it would be unusable as a water supply by 1973.

It took another flood to spur the project into a gallop in 1957.

Once again, the river flooded parts of East Waco and South Waco . It stranded people in pecan trees in Cameron Park and washed 60 cows away.

Jeffrey, the city manager, says the dam operator was in an awkward position when the flood hit.


"People below the dam would tell him, 'Close the dam, we're about to wash away,' " Jeffrey recalls. "People upstream would say, 'Open the dam.' He said, 'The city manager tells me to open them and the mayor tells me to close them. I'll just forget about them and do it my way.' "

The Brazos peaked at 32.5 feet, about eight feet below the 1936 level, and city leaders were grateful for the big Lake Whitney dam upstream. But they said the new Lake Waco dam could have kept Waco from flooding at all.

When the Lake Waco team encountered a logjam in Congress that year, it was Fentress who found a way to break it, according to Kenneth Hendrickson Jr.'s The Waters of the Brazos: A History of the Brazos River Authority , 1929-1979.

To rein in spending, Congress in late 1956 froze spending on all public works projects on which construction had not yet begun, Hendrickson writes.

Fentress approached Kultgen with an idea: A loan to the federal government. The BRA could put up $250,000 — payable from city water revenues — to start construction of the dam. Then the project would be eligible for immediate federal funding.

The BRA board agreed to the innovative deal and presented it to federal officials.

On Jan. 14, 1958, President Eisenhower included $1 million for the project in his proposed budget, and Lyndon B. Johnson, now Senate majority leader, told reporters he would "follow this budget request personally through every phase of the legislative process."

Congress approved the request and, on July 5, 1958, LBJ arrived in Waco to break ground for the Lake Waco project. Because of heavy storms, the ceremony was held at Waco Regional Airport . Johnson turned dirt in a planter box alongside a ticket counter.

Carson Hoge, then city of Waco utilities director and later general manager of the BRA, says Waco was fortunate to be in LBJ's good graces.

" Texas has more inland surface water than any other state except Alaska , and we have only one natural lake," he says. "The reason we are in that situation is because of Lyndon Johnson."

But the struggle for Lake Waco was far from over.

Construction and additional federal funding for the $40 million dam proceeded on schedule, and Waco voters committed to pay $6 million for water rights.

By fall 1961, an impressive earthen dam was towering over the old dam. But on Oct. 4, Army Corps of Engineers officials began to notice a problem: cracks running laterally along the new dam.

Over the next few weeks, the cracks spread 1,200 feet lengthwise across the dam, and the east side of the dam fell 16 feet and slid about 20 feet downstream. As news got out about the failure, the corps faced a serious public relations problem.

Engineers discovered that the weight of the dam had squeezed out a layer of Pepper shale, compressed clay deep in the ground. The dislocated shale caused mounds of dirt to pop up downstream.

J.W. Dixon, head of the geology department at Baylor University , publicly criticized the Army Corps of Engineers for not consulting Baylor geologists, who he said knew the weaknesses of underlying soil structure.

The corps modified the dam design to relocate the spillway and stabilize the shale by broadening the embankment with 1.8 million tons of dirt. The dam slide cost $7.7 million to fix. A struggle over whether Waco should help pay for it ended in 1967 when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed legislation saying it wouldn't.

Charles Ferguson, hired by the corps in 1962 as construction inspector for the dam, says the dam today is as safe as any in Texas .

"It wouldn't bother me to build my house on that berm," he says.

Gates on the new dam closed in spring 1965. Corps officials were hoping to raise the lake to its new level over several years to ensure the dam was safe.

But heavy spring rains filled the lake to its standard level of 455 feet above sea level by May 15. By May 18, it was above 467 feet, and corps officials were sweating.

"We were out there 24 hours a day," recalls Ferguson , now a city of Waco water official. "We were watching it closely and everyone was a little nervous. If you had seen the cracks in the dam and the way it opened up and fell, you'd be a little concerned."

The lake would prove more than adequate for Waco 's water and flood control needs up to the present. It contained a record North Bosque River flood in 1991 that otherwise would have caused major flooding in Waco , Ferguson says.

In the mid-1950s, Kultgen and city officials had negotiated with the Army Corps of Engineers to cut Waco 's costs by $4 million. To do so, they reduced the amount of water Waco would buy from 170,000 acre-feet to 104,100 acre-feet.

That meant the lake that was designed for a normal elevation of about 465 feet would only hold 455 feet. The corps agreed to allow the BRA and Waco to buy extra water later.

In the late 1970s, the city of Waco began working on plans to raise the lake by seven feet. The plan got BRA approval in 1983, and corps approval in 1984.

The corps contract required Waco to pay $15.4 million for the water and other costs for environmental work and relocating recreational areas and roads.

John Hatchel, retired assistant city manager who worked on the lake rise project in the 1980s and '90s, says city leaders knew they wouldn't need the extra water for decades. But they feared the state could assign the unused capacity to other Texas cities if Waco didn't speak up for it.

The proposal bogged down in 1990 at the Texas Water Commission. Waco had sought a state permit for the project along with a permit for Lake Bosque , a proposed reservoir upstream from Lake Waco that would serve Waco 's bedroom communities. The commission questioned the need for both projects and said Waco should share its water with its neighbors.

That's what Waco ultimately decided to do, but the reason focused more on the estimated cost of Lake Bosque , which grew from $20 million to more than $60 million, Hatchel says.

"It just got too costly," he says. "I think at some point it will happen. Water will be scarce enough that the lake will be built."

Wiley Stem, who succeeded Hatchel as assistant city manager in 1999, found the cost for raising Lake Waco also increased over the years.

In a rare move that greatly benefited Waco in the 1980s, the Army Corps of Engineers locked in $15.4 million as the water price. City officials had expected a total cost of about $20 million.

Then, at a meeting in February 2000 with Stem, corps officials laid out their cost estimate: $34 million, including millions in new environmental and archaeological mitigation costs.

"I thought, 'I'm dead,' " Stem recalls. "Hatchel leaves and the cost is $18-to-24 million. I take on the project and now it's 34. But we knew we needed the water."

Stem consulted with other city staff leaders and decided the city could do many of the environmental mitigation projects in-house, including a wetlands north of the lake to replace wildlife habitat.

The city pared the cost down to $28 million, and benefited from a low-interest loan from the Texas Water Development Board and extra federal funding from U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco. The city got the required work finished this summer, just before the contract with the Army Corps of Engineers ran out.

Lake Waco might not be the flashiest investment the city of Waco could have made, but it will ensure that Waco grows while other mid-sized Texas cities struggle for water, Hatchel says.

"The fact that we have water means that Waco will eventually become a major industrial site," he says.

If so, it will be the legacy of past generations, including long-gone community leaders such as Poage, Fentress and Kultgen.

Kultgen pointed out the value of the lake in a 1974 interview with Baylor oral historian Tom Charlton.

"I would say the building of the Lake Waco dam was the biggest single factor in the progress of Waco in the last 100 years," he said. "Because when you can get an industry to come to Waco , and they say, 'What's your water situation?' you can look them in the eye and say, 'We've got enough water to last 100 years.' "

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For more information, contact: John Young • Waco Tribune-Herald •