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The Dams of the Highland Lakes

We hear the term "Highland Lakes" all the time, but how many of us know the rich history behind the Dams that created them? Check out the all the cool stories of the Dams that brought the lakes (like Marble Falls, and and Inks) we know in love into existence.

Buchanan Dam (Creates Lake Buchanan)

The dam, completed in 1938, is an architectural rarity. Stretching for more than two miles, Buchanan is considered the longest multiple-arch dam in the nation. Builders no longer use the design because the amount of labor required makes construction too expensive. Today's dams require far less labor, but a thousand times more materials.

Buchanan Dam and Lake Buchanan were the first completed in the Highland Lakes chain. Their primary purposes are to store water and supply hydroelectricity. They are named for U.S. Rep. J.P. Buchanan, who helped secure federal funds to complete the project after the original builder declared bankruptcy.

Inks Dam (Creates Inks Lake)

Before Buchanan Dam was completed, LCRA began work three miles downstream on this smaller dam so the two could work in tandem.

Inks Dam, constructed from 1936 to 1938, has no floodgates, and the power plant is the smallest in the Highland Lakes chain. A small amount of water can be released through hydroelectric generation, but the bulk of floodwaters pass over an uncontrolled spillway.

The lake and dam are named for Roy B. Inks, one of the original directors on the LCRA Board.

Wirtz Dam (Creates Lake LBJ)

Wirtz Dam was built from 1949 to 1951 primarily to provide additional hydroelectric power. It was built in tandem with Starcke Dam downstream. Lake LBJ provides cooling water for LCRA’s Thomas C. Ferguson Power Plant along Horseshoe Bay.

The dam and lake originally were called Granite Shoals. The dam was renamed in 1952 for Alvin J. Wirtz, who was instrumental in LCRA's creation and served as its first general counsel. The lake was renamed in 1965 for another advocate of LCRA, President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Starcke Dam (Creates Lake Marble Falls)

Starcke Dam has the distinction of being the smallest in the Highland Lakes chain and the last one completed. The lake and dam were constructed from 1949 to 1951 for hydroelectricity. Originally named Marble Falls, the dam was renamed in 1962 for Max Starcke, LCRA's second general manager. He served from 1940 to 1955.

LCRA has replaced the dam's 50-year-old "bear trap" floodgates with hydraulic gates.

Mansfield Dam (Creates Lake Travis)

Mansfield Dam and Lake Travis are the only structures in the Highland Lakes chain specifically designed to contain floodwaters. The lake can store as much as 256 billion gallons of floodwaters, helping to manage flooding downstream. LCRA and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation built the dam from 1937 to 1942. After a severe flood in July 1938, LCRA raised the height of the dam to add storage capacity for floodwaters.

The dam was built across a deep canyon at Marshall Ford, a long-time river crossing and settlement. The Corps of Engineers still refers to the structure as Marshall Ford Dam. It was renamed in 1941 for U.S. Rep. J.J. Mansfield, who assisted in the project's development.

Tom Miller Dam (Creates Lake Austin)

Named for an Austin mayor, the dam was built from 1938 to 1940 atop the remains of two earlier structures, both called Austin Dam. The first was built from 1890 to 1893, and the other from 1912 to 1915. Massive floods destroyed the first dam and heavily damaged the second. The lake originally was called Lake McDonald.

Tom Miller Dam is leased to LCRA by the City of Austin until December 2020. The dam, built to provide hydroelectricity and store water, creates Lake Austin.

Special thanks to the LCRA and www.lcra.org for this piece.

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