Waco, TX

The Rise and Fall of One of Texas' Most Important Flood Control Lakes

Melinda Crow

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Lake Whitney dam with gates open in 2015, releasing floodwater into the Brazos River.Photo by Gary Crow.

LAKE WHITNEY, TEXAS --The water is rising today at one of Central Texas' most valuable resources, yet one of its most misunderstood. While most lakes in Texas are Meccas for recreation and waters-edge real estate, Lake Whitney, and its severe dock restrictions imposed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and its oft-closed recreation facilities lags behind far smaller lakes in popularity.

But those diehards who know and love Whitney with all its quirks seem to like it that way. It's a lake where buying lakefront property doesn't automatically mean you can have a dock. The Corps owns the lakeshore and adjacent property owners have a long list of rules governing what they can and cannot do on the shore in front of their lake house.

And it's a lake where rainfall conditions (or lack thereof) in almost half the state dictates the water level, and thus the ability to utilize the lake's multitude of public recreation opportunities.

History of Lake Whitney

According to the Corps of Engineers website:

"Whitney Lake was originally authorized by Congress in 1941. However, when the U.S. became involved in World War II, the funding was taken away because all resources were needed for the war effort. The construction was authorized again in the Flood Control Act of 1944. The primary purpose of the lake was (and is) flood control. Other purposes of the lake include water conservation and the production of hydroelectric power. Construction began on the dam in May 1947 and was completed in December 1951. Construction of the powerhouse began in April 1951 and was completed in June 1953. The construction cost of the dam was $41,880,000 and the cost of the powerhouse was $2,208,354."

While the Corps manages the dam, most of the recreation facilities, surface activities, and the shoreline, the top thirteen feet of the water at "normal" level, known as the "conservation pool, is controlled by the Brazos River Authority. The BRA, with offices in Waco, is a quasi-governmental entity that essentially manages the right to use water in the entire Brazos River Basin, which stretches from near Lubbock to the Gulf of Mexico. Water is sold to adjacent landowners, industry, and governmental entities. It's used for agriculture and power generation, among other uses. The BRA also manages four lakes on the Brazos that are not under the purview of the Corps of Engineers, including the two lakes immediately above Whitney: Lake Granbury and Possum Kingdom Lake.

Currently, no water from Whitney is used for drinking purposes. There are entities that retain rights for that, but the salinity level of the lake would require desalination, making it a costly proposition for most of the cities and towns that have the rights to use the water, including Whitney and Cleburne.

In 2006, the City of Cleburne began making plans to install a desalination facility at Lake Whitney, then pipe the water to nearby Lake Aquilla which they already draw water from, and where it would be mixed with that lake's water, further lowering the salt content. Plans for that project fell through.

Flood history

The lake has a massive flood pool with a depth of 38 feet. Compare that to nearby lakes operated by the Corps where flood pools average in the teens. Only Lake Waco has a comparable pool in terms of depth, but the overall size of Whitney gives it far more containment capability than Waco. The former holds 155,631 acre feet of water, while the latter holds only 89,067 at peak capacity.

Locals typically avoid using the "f" word "flood" to describe what lake was designed to do. In fact, when the lake was built, the U.S. government bought all the necessary land to the top of the flood pool, in an effort to retain full control over the rise of water without impacting adjacent landowners. Only a handful of property owners at the time fought legal battles and bought back parcels of their land that lay within the flood pool.

Those landowners agreed to deed restrictions granting the Corps flowage easements on the land that could be flooded. What all of that means is that very little private property around the lake is ever flooded. Damage from high water is limited to the public parks and private boat docks, but even those are required to be constructed in a manner that allows them to float to the top of the flood pool at the elevation of 571 feet. That often makes docks inaccessible from flooded shorelines until the water recedes, but with proper construction and maintenance, rarely causes damage.

Even though the Corps has the ability to raise the water level to 571, it has not ever had to do so. The closest was in 1957 when the high water topped out at 570.25 feet. The second highest water was in 1990 when it rose to 564.89, or almost 32 feet above normal. The following year it rose to 561.45 feet in elevation. Painted marks for both of those floods can still be seen on a rock wall near Uncle Gus' Marina and on one of the pillars supporting the Katy Bridge across the lake on FM 1713.

More recently, high water has occurred in 2007 (556.88 or almost 24 feet), 2015 (556.19 or 23 feet above normal), 2016 (561.33, barely missing outdoing the 1991 mark), and in 2019 (555 feet, or 22 feet over normal.)

Following each of those highwater marks, it takes weeks or even months for the water to recede and for parks and campgrounds to return to normal, which is why Whitney has a reputation among visitors, particularly boaters, unfamiliar with the lake as being a challenge to plan around.

This week's rise in water is due to heavy rains throughout the Brazos River basin. The current water level is 539.36 feet or just over 6 feet above normal. With the water arriving from Lake Granbury, we can expect the level to continue to rise at a rapid pace.

Stay tuned for more in the latest "flood" story of Lake Whitney.

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Waco, TX
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