The quest to tame the Brazos River has been an epic man-vs.-nature struggle that still has no clear winner.
That’s the conclusion of Kenna Lang Archer, an environmental historian who has been researching the past century and a half of human effort to control a vast Texas river system prone to extreme flood and drought.
Archer will give a public lecture Tuesday at Baylor University called “The Brazos River and the Baylor Archives: A History of Floods and Droughts, a Story of Resilience and Ideals.”
Archer, a Baylor graduate, recently completed a dissertation at Texas Tech University that documents the river’s history, including efforts to domesticate it with jetties, locks and dams.
More often than not, she said, the river threw off its shackles and thwarted grand visions of development. But efforts persisted to flood-proof the river and make it a source of freight navigation, hydroelectric power and drinking water.
“I’m focusing on what kept people tied to this land,” she said. “One of the questions I began to ask myself is, why would people stay in the Brazos River basin when you had these monstrous floods on average of once a decade, and smaller floods every few years, and between them you had droughts. Why wouldn’t they give up and live elsewhere?”
Archer’s lecture is sponsored by Baylor’s Texas Collection, which provided her most of the material for her dissertation along with a Wardlaw Fellowship to underwrite the research.
Texas Collection director John Wilson said Archer’s research documents a fascinating story, and he hopes it soon will be published as a book.
“She looks at it in a different light,” he said. “I think she has enough of the right kind of training to do this kind of thing. She really brings a fresh perspective.”
Archer became interested in the Brazos a few years ago when she was getting her master’s degree in environmental science from Baylor. She did a cultural and natural history of Cameron Park, using modern GPS techniques to map its changes. That led naturally to an interest in the Brazos River, which hugs the park.
Archer said she found that for more than 100 years, developers and politicians have been devising grand schemes to dam the Brazos — one with 23 dams, another with 13. As recently as the 1970s, some were proposing to pump water across the country into the Brazos River, perhaps using nuclear power plants.
The three major dams that ultimately were built in the 20th century, such as Lake Whitney, at least have been successful in controlling the floods that used to regularly swamp East Waco.
But Waco remains the largest city on the vast river that flows from far West Texas to the Gulf of Mexico, and no dams have been built in the 380 miles downstream of Waco.
Archer said the Brazos basin is sparsely developed compared with the Trinity or Colorado basins.
“In many ways the Brazos is a reminder of how spectacularly people failed to transform the land,” she said. “It’s a particularly good river to show the unwillingness of the river to be transformed quickly. It resisted improvement, but people insisted on trying to develop it.
“No doubt the river has changed as the result of human manipulations, but if you read the sources, these engineers had hoped for an absolute measure of control over the river. We’ve not reached their vision.”
Archer said even the earliest explorers recognized the destructive power of the Brazos River. But in early Texas, the rich bottomland downstream of Waco quickly filled up with farms and plantations. Waco ultimately became one of the largest inland cotton markets in America, and cotton sometimes was floated from here to markets down the Brazos River.
“Periodic floods were good for farmers,” Archer said. “They were willing to put up with floods for a little while. But it didn’t take them long to realize floods were a serious problem. By the 1890s, you had the first serious flood proposals.”
Those involved jetties meant to concentrate the flow of flood water and deepen the channel through scouring action, but the jetties tended to wash away.
Throughout the late 19th century, Brazos Valley boosters experimented with bringing steamships up the Brazos. Business and political leaders pushed for the establishment of a lock and dam system to make river navigation commercially viable, dreaming of a major Brazos River port at the Gulf.
By the late 1890s, Waco had nine railroads, which were more than capable of hauling the region’s lucrative cotton crop.
But the push for a navigable Brazos continued through the early 20th century, spurred by a populist sentiment that it would challenge the dominance of the railroads and their high shipping rates.
Congressmen from Texas pushed through the lock and dam project in the early 1900s despite evidence that it would be enormously expensive. As the Corps of Engineers was building locks just south of Waco in 1913, a flood shifted the course of the river, leaving them high and dry. The project was abandoned as the Corps was called away to World War I.
“It was not going to be effective in a globalizing and industrializing world,” Archer said of the lock and dam project. “It was hardly effective in a cotton economy because of sandbars and low water. Even when it was flowing exactly right, there’s only so much you can float down a river.”
In the 1930s, the state-charted Brazos River Authority began selling Brazos water to irrigators and industries and planning for the dam at Possum Kingdom Lake.
Archer said the Waco-based agency tried to emulate the success of the Tennessee Valley Authority, which used dams and other public works to reshape a large swath of the Middle South.
In the 1950s, the Brazos River Authority proposed building a string of six hydroelectric dams above Lake Whitney, despite the unpredictable flows of the Brazos. A classic book by John Graves, “Goodbye to a River,” focused attention on the environmental impact of the proposed dams, and the project failed to find enough political and financial support.
“I look back at that, and part of me thinks it’s ridiculous,” Archer said of the plan. “It did not meet the natural realities of the river itself. But having been in San Angelo with constant water restrictions, I empathize with these men and what they were trying to do.”
Archer said the era of rampant dam-building in the U.S. fizzled out in the 1970s and ’80s.
But she said the story of the Brazos still is unfolding.
“In a world that’s increasing in population and increasingly consumed by issues of water, I think you will begin to see additional calls for development along the Brazos,” she said. “It has a huge untapped potential as one of the best water resources in the state.”
She said the new Baylor Stadium is an example of how cities such as Waco are beginning to treat the Brazos as an asset rather than a liability.
Archer, who now teaches at Angelo State University in San Angelo, said the lecture Tuesday will be a homecoming for her.
“I’m very excited about being able to come back and talk about the river I love,” she said.