AUSTIN – Feb. 19, 2010, marks the 75th anniversary of the Lower Colorado River Authority – better known to many people as LCRA.
Born in the Great Depression, LCRA today provides energy, water and community services to more than 1 million people in all or parts of 61 Central and South Texas counties.
“Seventy-five years ago, LCRA opened for business to put the Colorado River to productive work for the people of Texas,” said LCRA General Manager Tom Mason. “Through various cycles of floods, droughts and economic expansion and recession, LCRA has been a constant, dependable, and stable servant for this region. We plan to continue to be that reliable, stable source to the people we serve for the next 75 years.”
LCRA has launched a special section on its Web site at www.lcra.org that highlights LCRA’s 75-year history.
Early attempts to build dams led to LCRA creation
LCRA grew out of a series of attempts by various community and business interests to develop the Colorado River to provide the basin with a reliable water supply against prolonged droughts and protection from catastrophic flooding. LCRA began developing a third major benefit – electricity for small communities and rural areas in the Central Texas region – with the completion of the first of what would become the chain of Highland Lakes dams.
But the birth of LCRA was a long time in coming. For nearly a century, private investors and communities struggled to develop dams along the Colorado. But lack of adequate funds either prevented most dams from being built or forced investors to abandon partially built projects. The City of Austin twice built a dam in the early 20th century, only to see the structures destroyed or severely damaged by catastrophic floods.
In 1932, the bankruptcy of the Insull utility empire left behind a partially built structure that would eventually become Buchanan Dam, located in the Hill Country upstream of Austin. The project fell into receivership under Alvin Wirtz, a politically connected attorney and former state senator, who was unable to attract adequate private funding to finish the dam.
By 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” administration was in power. Wirtz appealed to one New Deal agency, the Public Works Administration (PWA), which was offering funds for large infrastructure projects. The PWA offered to help – but only if its funds went to a public agency.
Wirtz drafted legislation creating such an agency and had it introduced in the Texas Legislature in 1933. He modeled the agency after the Tennessee Valley Authority, a New Deal agency created that year.
But the bill was defeated three times, opposed by a coalition of utility and West Texas water interests. Only on the fourth try did the bill pass, after Gov. Miriam A. “Ma” Ferguson engaged in some political horse trading to appease the bill’s opponents.
The Legislature passed the bill on Nov. 10, 1934, and Gov. Ferguson signed the bill three days later. But a 90-day delay pushed the bill’s effective date to early February the following year. Following selection of a nine-member Board of Directors, LCRA formally opened for business Feb. 19, 1935, in the Travis County Courthouse in Austin.
By 1938, LCRA had completed construction of Buchanan Dam, even as it was carrying out other responsibilities listed in its enabling legislation.
Providing energy, water and community services
Seventy-five years later, LCRA provides a variety of energy, water and community services to the people of Texas:
• Energy: LCRA provides wholesale electricity to 43 customers, mostly cities and electric cooperatives, serving more than 1.1 million Texans in all or part of 55 counties covering 29,699 square miles. Four LCRA fossil-fueled power plants generate most of the electricity provided to LCRA’s wholesale electric customers. LCRA is a leader in providing renewable energy from its original six hydroelectric generating stations along the Highland Lakes and from West Texas wind farms. A nonprofit corporation created by LCRA provides transmission services to help maintain electric reliability in Texas and increase deliveries of wind energy from West Texas.
•Water: LCRA’s chain of Highland Lakes and dams provides a reliable water supply and minimizes the worst effects of floods. LCRA delivers clean water for homes, businesses, industries, agriculture and the environment. LCRA programs and ordinances help keep the Highland Lakes and lower Colorado River among the cleanest bodies of water in the state. Thirty-five LCRA water and wastewater utilities, along with a raw-water transport system and biosolids composting facility, serve about 135,000 residents in 11 counties. An updated LCRA Water Management Plan recently approved by state officials helps ensure LCRA can meet the region’s needs, and LCRA is developing a Water Supply Resource Plan to help meet future water needs through the end of this century.
• Community: More than 1 million people each year have access to the Colorado River and Highland Lakes through more than 40 LCRA parks and recreation areas. Each year, more than 70,000 people visit one of LCRA’s three natural science centers, participating in a variety of programs and activities that promote stewardship of the basin’s natural resources. A Public Safety staff protects billions of dollars of public utility assets, as well as folks who enjoy the Highland Lakes and LCRA parks. LCRA programs and grants help promote community and economic development. LCRA employees in 2009 logged more than 6,000 community volunteer hours and contributed more than $400,000 to local and regional nonprofit organizations.
About LCRA: As a nonprofit agency, LCRA cannot levy taxes or receive tax money but must operate on the revenues it receives for its services. For its current fiscal year, LCRA estimates total revenues of nearly $1.2 billion, 92 percent of which come from its electric generation and transmission operations. But LCRA spends 43 percent of those revenues for coal and natural gas for its power plants and to purchase power from other utilities to meet its customers’ electric needs. LCRA is governed by a 15-member Board of Directors appointed by the governor, with the consent of the Texas Senate. Tom Mason, a 22-year LCRA employee, was appointed general manager in November 2007, LCRA’s ninth in its 75-year history. More than 2,200 regular full-time employees operate the facilities, programs and activities that enable LCRA to provide energy, water and community services to the people of Texas.