Colorado River Municipal Water District

By: Joe Pickle

Type: General Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: June 1, 1995

The Colorado River Municipal Water District, established in 1949, was authorized to impound the storm and flood water and the unappropriated flow of the Colorado River and its tributaries, and also to distribute it to cities and other agencies for municipal, domestic, and industrial purposes. The enacting legislation was the first of its kind after World War II and was used as the blueprint for subsequent municipal water districts. The district was originally brought into being and organized to furnish water to the member cities of Odessa, Big Spring, and Snyder. The board of directors governs the district and is composed of four representatives from each member city, appointed by the governing body of each city. The administration has a general manager, assisted by an administrative assistant and a staff of eighty-two employees. Although the cities own the district, it operates independently, subject to terms covered originally by a trust indenture. The district's charter was amended in 1961 and 1963 to permit use for mining (secondary recovery of oil), pollution prevention, and water-quality enhancement. In 1981 the service area was expanded to include the home counties of the original three member cities as well as thirty-one other cities in the vicinity. The principal office of the district is in Big Spring, Texas. By September 1952 the new district had developed a water-well field to provide water for Odessa and Big Spring. This well field was enlarged and for a short time artificially recharged during winter months with water from Lake J. B. Thomas. Surface water was injected into the de-watered aquifer and recovered in summer months to furnish water for peaking purposes. Upon completion of Lake J. B. Thomas the city of Snyder received its first water from this source on July 1, 1953. The district later contracted to furnish water-flood projects for oil companies; recovery of oil was doubled or tripled by this means. These contracts are subject to cancellation if water is needed for municipal use.

Initially the district installed 115 miles of pipeline, varying from twenty-one to thirty-three inches in diameter. A series of pump stations capable of delivering a total of 44 million gallons a day was developed. In 1994 the district operated twenty-one pump stations and pumped water through some 560 miles of pipeline. Pump capacity in 1994 was 150 million gallons a day. The district originally issued $11,750,000 in revenue bonds, then added $4,600,000 in 1958 for pipeline and terminal-storage construction and $2,750,000 in 1963 for additional pipeline. Bond funds, without assistance from the state or federal government, purchased land and financed the cost of a dam and channel for a lake, pipelines, and rights-of-way, a pair of eighty-million-gallon storage reservoirs, three fifteen-million-gallon reservoirs, twenty-one pump stations with microwave equipment for automatic operation of the system, basic equipment and supplies, and several houses for key employees at pump-station locations. The organization it has also invested several hundred thousand dollars in dam improvement, recreation facilities, and extensive studies for a new lake and other improvements. Since the district's inception in 1951, an aggregate of over 576 billion gallons of water has been supplied to cities and oilfield consumers; the district grossed over $263 million in revenue. As of January 1995 the face value of all original bond issues was $247,015,000, of which $198,355,000 was outstanding.

A permit was granted on September 1, 1965, by the Texas Water Rights Commission authorizing the district to build a reservoir near Robert Lee in Coke County, which was scheduled to impound a maximum of 488,760 acre-feet of water on the Colorado River, and to divert 40,000 acre-feet per annum from this source. This permit, along with existing rights for Lake J. B. Thomas, authorizes the district to divert a total of 73,000 acre-feet annually from the Colorado River. Construction of the dam began in 1966 and was completed by 1970. The reservoir, E. V. Spence Reservoir, along with its related pipelines and other facilities, was financed through the sale of $30 million in revenue bonds. It supplied approximately 70 percent of Midland's water requirements in accordance with a sixty-year water-sales agreement.

Hardly had the system become operative in 1952 than the district made a presentation to the Board of Water Engineers to divert Deep Creek (Scurry County) into Lake Thomas to increase reserves. Though nothing came of this, the district continued seeking more supplies. A permit for a second reservoir on the Colorado River was granted June 11, 1959, but when the original site was changed from southern Mitchell County to Robert Lee in Coke County, the Lower Colorado River Authority protested. Finally, the permit was granted on September 1, 1965, for 488,760 acre-feet (40,000 acre-feet annual diversion) at Lake E. V. Spence, costing $34,500,000. Completion was early in 1969 and dedication on June 15, 1969. Simultaneously, a 57.4-mile, forty-two-inch pipeline was laid to Moss Creek Lake and on to Big Spring, where the water was mixed with Lake Thomas water for that city and for Midland-Odessa. (Midland contracted for water from the district in 1966 and received first deliveries in 1970.)

By 1975 CRMWD began looking seriously at the USGS "Stacy" site on the Colorado River below Ballinger. It filed an application on October 11, 1977. After six months of hearings (the longest and costliest to that date) the Texas Water Commission overrode protests by LCRA and others and issued a permit on April 10, 1979. This was tied up in courts for five years until the Texas Supreme Court overruled lower courts in November 1984 and denied the permit. On rehearing, the case was remanded to TWC; in the meantime, Gov. Mark White insisted that the parties agree, and a permit for 554,340-acre-foot Lake O. H. Ivie (named for the CRMWD general manager) was issued on May 14, 1985. Construction began in May 1987, and the reservoir was completed in March 1990. Unprecedented rains in December 1991 filled the lake to capacity in two years instead of the projected eight. This brought to 1,247,000 acre-feet the total impoundment permitted to CRMWD for its three supply reservoirs. Growing municipal demands, plus a brimming but unused lake, led CRMWD in 1991 to issue $115 million in bonds (supplemented with $9 million more in 1994) to finance a 157-mile pipeline from Lake Ivie via San Angelo to Odessa-Midland. At the time it was the longest and most expensive water-supply line in Texas under a single contract. All CRMWD water has to be pumped uphill, but this one required six pump stations to lift water 1,400 feet over the distance. Earlier, Midland, San Angelo, and the West Central Texas Municipal Water District (Abilene) had contracted for one-sixth of the water in place in Lake Ivie, and now San Angelo and Midland shared in pipeline costs for twenty-five million gallons a day to San Angelo and twenty million for Midland. The Big Spring junction was staked for ten million later to Big Spring. The first joint of pipe was laid on August 20, 1992, and the last on September 27, 1994. The system was activated in January 1995. A spin-off of the project was a half-million dollar communications control center at headquarters in Big Spring to enable a single operator to control twenty-one pump stations.

CRMWD pioneered in water-quality protection and enhancement, starting in 1951 by moving the Lake Thomas site upstream to avoid salty tributaries, then recovering lost watershed by plugging Bull Creek and diverting it through an 8,500-foot canal to Lake Thomas. District efforts also led to a Railroad Commission ban on salt-water disposal pits. Other efforts led to a diversion works on the Colorado River above Colorado City and Beals Creek below Big Spring. Poor-quality normal low-flow water was diverted to side reservoirs and sold to oil companies for repressuring. Later, a 9,000 acre-foot detention reservoir was installed above the notoriously salty (4,500 ppm chloride or better) Natural Dam Lake, ten miles west of Big Spring. Previously, salty playas west of Big Spring had been pumped behind Natural Dam, on Sulphur Draw, which becomes Beals Creek and empties into the Colorado River. Finally, a 28,000-acre-foot disposal lake for evaporation of surplus bad water was built in western Mitchell County. Altogether, the district had 93,860 acre-feet capacity in quality-control lakes. In all, CRMWD spent over $20 million in quality control, which by January 1, 1995, had prevented 645,000 tons of chlorides from entering Lake Spence.

Because Lake Spence ran into a critical drought before it could catch appreciable water, CRMWD planned, financed, and completed a forty-mile pipeline from Odessa to a well field it developed in Ward County, where it got water on May 26, 1971. In another rush job, the district laid a 51.89-mile pipeline from Lake Thomas to Sun Oil in Coke County in 1963, and later this line was used to pump water from Lake Spence to critically low Lake Colorado City and keep a Texas Utilities generating plant operative. The drought induced CRMWD in 1971 to institute a precipitation-enhancement program that, except for one year, operated continuously (as of 1995), making it the oldest in the nation. Drought also led on several occasions to "pump back" operations at Lake Thomas when levels dipped below the intake of the pump station. Pumps on barges at lower elevations boosted water by canals to a pumping pool formed by mounds around the intake. Thus CRMWD recovered 33.835 billion gallons of its best water for upgrading general quality. Because of the paucity of water in semiarid West Texas, the district provides aquatic recreational services, which by 1995 called for a $275,000 annual budget. The district was among the first to set up its own pension and health benefit plans.

James H. Banks and John E. Babcock, Corralling the Colorado: The First Fifty Years of the Lower Colorado River Authority (Austin: Eakin Press, 1988).

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Joe Pickle, “Colorado River Municipal Water District,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed January 25, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

June 1, 1995