The Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) is a nonprofit multipurpose public agency established by the Texas legislature in November 1934 as a conservation and reclamation district with a statutory authority of ten counties, from San Saba in Central Texas to Matagorda on the Gulf Coast, that encompass the lower two-thirds of the Colorado River of Texas.
LCRA receives no state tax money and cannot levy taxes. It operates on revenues from sales of electricity, water, and other services; as of early 2012, 72 percent of its revenues came from the generation and sale of electricity. Its total electric and water service areas include all or parts of sixty-one Central and South Texas counties, serving a total population of more than two million. Its responsibilities include managing the lower Colorado River; generating and selling electric power; ensuring a clean, reliable water supply; operating parks; and supporting local economic development initiatives. A nonprofit corporation created by LCRA also provides transmission services to help maintain electric reliability in Texas.
The LCRA board of directors, appointed individually by the governor for six-year terms, consists of fifteen members. For its 2012 fiscal year ending June 30, 2012, LCRA projected operating revenues of more than $1.2 billion, 72 percent of that from generation and sale of electricity. LCRA employees totaled 1,924 as of early 2012.
The creation of LCRA resulted from various efforts to harness the Colorado River—which alternated between cycles of extreme floods and drought—to provide protection from floods, a reliable water supply, and a source for generating electricity. The earliest interest in building a dam on the Colorado was in 1854 by Adam Johnson, who marked a site near present-day Buchanan Dam.
Johnson’s water rights were eventually transferred to the Syndicate Power Company, which in 1926 proposed a series of dams upstream of Austin. Syndicate’s water rights and dam permits were acquired by a subsidiary of the nationwide Insull utility company, which in 1931 embarked upon the most ambitious project on the Colorado to date: a two-mile-long dam near Burnet designed for hydroelectric generation and flood control. But the company went bankrupt the following year, and the half-completed project fell into the hands of the company’s attorney, Alvin Wirtz, a former state senator. Wirtz searched for funding to complete the dam. The only viable offer came in 1933 from a federal agency created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal administration. But the agency would provide funding only if the money went to a public agency.
Wirtz drafted legislation that would create a “Colorado River Authority,” modeled after the federal Tennessee Valley Authority that had been set up that year, and had it introduced in the Texas legislature in October 1933. The legislation lingered through three called sessions, supported by Austin and downstream interests but opposed by private utilities and West Texas interests. During a fourth called session in October 1934, Governor Miriam A. “Ma” Ferguson garnered support for the bill by offering to designate Dallas (home base of the utilities opposing the bill) as the site for the upcoming Texas Centennial. To allay concerns of the West Texas interests, the bill had been revised to limit the agency’s jurisdiction over the river to ten counties encompassing the lower portion of the basin (thus the name “Lower Colorado River Authority”). The bill passed on November 10, 1934, the last day of the session; Governor Ferguson signed the legislation three days later. LCRA formally opened for business on February 19, 1935, with temporary offices in the Travis County courthouse in downtown Austin. It was the fifth conservation and reclamation district to be created by the Texas legislature. Clarence McDonough became LCRA’s first general manager.
The new agency set to work to complete the abandoned project, now known as Buchanan Dam, and soon began work on other dams along the Colorado. In 1938, under the strong encouragement of U.S. Representative Lyndon B. Johnson, LCRA used the electricity from its dams to launch a public power program that helped electrify much of rural Central Texas and provided lower-cost electricity to communities in the region (see RURAL ELECTRIFICATION).
In the early 1940s LCRA general manager Max Starcke noted a rising interest in recreational opportunities at the reservoirs that were being created by the dams. He commissioned a study that recommended naming the reservoirs the “Highland Lakes” as part of an overall campaign to build recreational interest in the region. By 1951 LCRA had completed the present-day chain of Highland Lakes and dams that include Lake Buchanan and Buchanan Dam; Inks Lake and Inks Dam; Lake LBJ and Wirtz Dam; Lake Marble Falls and Starcke Dam; Lake Travis and Mansfield Dam; and Lake Austin and Tom Miller Dam.
Through the mid-1960s LCRA generated most of its electricity from its dams, supplemented by the natural gas-fired Comal Power Plant in New Braunfels that it leased. Growing demand for electricity by its customers eventually led LCRA to build fossil-fueled power plants to meet the additional demand. Those plants include the Sim Gideon Power Plant and Lost Pines 1 Power Project in Bastrop County, the Thomas C. Ferguson Power Plant in Llano County, and the Fayette Power Project and Winchester Power Park in Fayette County. All use natural gas for fuel except the Fayette Power Project, which uses coal. (LCRA retired the Comal plant in 1973.)
By 2012 LCRA supplied electricity to about 1.1 million Texans through forty-three wholesale customers, including eight electric cooperatives, thirty-four cities, and one investor-owned retail electric provider in fifty-five counties. Its total generating capacity was about 3,041 megawatts.
In 2002 LCRA separated its electric generation and transmission operations, in keeping with a 1999 state law restructuring the state’s electric utility industry to allow for retail competition. LCRA created the LCRA Transmission Services Corporation, which owns the transmission lines, substations, and related assets of LCRA’s transmission services operations. As of early 2012 LCRA Transmission Services Corporation owned or leased a total of nearly 3,900 miles of power lines and more than 300 electric substations.
By 1995 LCRA was one of the state’s first electric utilities to diversify its energy sources by purchasing wind-generated electricity. LCRA has contracts to purchase up to 316 megawatts of wind-generated power. This, along with the 295 megawatts of capacity at the six Highland Lakes dams, makes LCRA the largest supplier of renewable energy in the state.
Over the years, amendments to the original legislation have brought new responsibilities to LCRA. In 1971 the legislature widened LCRA's powers to include pollution control of ground and surface waters and water-quality monitoring. Two years later LCRA inaugurated a program of inspecting and licensing sewage-disposal systems. In 1982 it established a new monitoring system to examine water quality along the lower Colorado. Since 1988 LCRA has sponsored the Colorado River Watch Network, a volunteer-based environmental-education and data-collection program along the Colorado River and its tributaries. More than 100 volunteers take part in the program. Under the Clean Rivers Act of 1991, LCRA conducts a comprehensive assessment of the region's water quality and coordinates a biennial assessment of the entire Colorado River watershed.
Meanwhile, the agency continues its traditional functions of water and river management. The Highland Lakes dams help control the river in floods and give the residents of the basin a reliable supply of water in dry times. Mansfield Dam and Lake Travis are designed specifically to hold floodwaters to protect Austin and other downstream communities. Lake Travis and Lake Buchanan provide water supplies that serve more than one million people as well as businesses, power plants and agriculture. The river supports a $300 million rice industry on the Coastal Plain. LCRA manages its water supply through a Water Management Plan that is periodically updated by LCRA in cooperation with an advisory council of water customers and stakeholders, with final approval from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. LCRA promotes water conservation by working with its water customers and providing online information.
LCRA also owns or operates forty-three parks and recreational facilities along the Colorado River, the Highland Lakes, and downstream lakes that provide water for LCRA power plants. The Highland Lakes attract nearly a million visitors a year. LCRA continues to promote tourism and public access to the river through its Colorado River Trail program, which encourages people to visit the interesting and historic communities near and along the Colorado. LCRA originated the Nobody’s Waterproof program to encourage water safety on the Highland Lakes; the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has adapted the program for statewide use.
Besides encouraging tourism in the region, LCRA provides community and economic development programs on behalf of LCRA’s electric and water customers. These services are designed to improve quality of life, foster economic sustainability, and attract investment to Central Texas communities. LCRA and its customers also provide grants through LCRA’s Community Development Partnership Program to local initiatives to develop or improve facilities or services that will benefit the communities.