Q: I followed my Texas-born and -raised wife back to the Lone Star State five years ago. One of the many things I have learned since then is that there is only one natural lake in Texas! Back up in Washington state, where I come from, there are many such lakes. How did all the “other” lakes appear in Texas?
Scott Bishop, Southlake
A: Welcome to Texas, Mr. Bishop! The Texanist is impressed with how well you’ve acclimated yourself in the unfamiliar land in which you’ve found yourself. You arrived just five short years ago and yet you’ve already managed to flawlessly unspool one of Texas’s oldest yarns as well as any Texan the Texanist has ever heard.
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“What in tarnation are you talking about, Texanist?” the Texanist can hear you, as well as a chorus of his native countrymen and countrywomen, loudly declaim now. Well, since y’all asked, here’s what in tarnation the Texanist is talking about: the pervasive and oft-repeated “fact” that the Lone Star State is home to but one single, solitary natural lake is false, on two grounds. There are plenty of natural lakes in Texas, and the lake you surely have in mind, East Texas’s Caddo Lake, isn’t one of them. Not entirely, anyway.
It’s a long story, but a couple centuries or so ago the Red River, which serves as Texas’s northern border between Texas and Oklahoma before running down through western Louisiana, started getting clogged up with downed trees. Over the decades the plug grew and grew, eventually reaching more than a hundred miles in length. The Red River Raft, as this wonder of nature came to be known, was such a massive jam that it caused a great deal of water to back up into the river’s various tributaries. One of them, Big Cypress Bayou, in the northeast corner of the state, is the waterway upon which Caddo Lake formed. After much effort, the raft was cleared by the federal government in the late 1800s. Caddo drained a bit before the outflow was stanched by a manmade dam in 1914, preserving the impressive body of water that both Texans and Louisianans (Caddo straddles our eastern border) had already started making commercial and recreational use of. In the Texanist’s opinion, the scenic beauty possessed by today’s Caddo Lake, with its ancient Spanish moss-draped cypress trees, is unsurpassed.
But is Caddo a natural lake? Well, if you take your goggles off and don’t look too closely, you can maybe sort of see it that way. But even if we do categorize it as a natural lake, it would not, contrary to popular lore, be Texas’s only one. The truth is that Texas has hundreds of natural lakes, most of which are, unlike Caddo, of the little oxbow variety, remnants of rivers that have shifted course over time. (In the Rio Grande Valley, such lakes are known as resacas.) Eagle Lake, in Colorado County, is at least as natural as Caddo, and so is Green Lake, in Calhoun County.
In fact, not counting its deserty western portion, Texas is pretty darn damp. There are about seven thousand lakes scattered across Texas, the majority which are found in the wetter eastern third of the state. Some of these are smallish affairs, of the sort into which the Texanist will occasionally drop a fishing line or a badly hooked tee shot, but others are great big bodies of water like Possum Kingdom Lake, Toledo Bend Reservoir, or Grapevine Lake, in your neck of the woods. Altogether, and including rivers and streams, Texas is blessed with more inland water than any other of the lower forty-eight states. (Though that has a lot to do with the fact that we’re much bigger than any other of the lower forty-eight states.)
But this wasn’t always so; as you seem to have guessed, Texas has a lot of manmade lakes. And they’re there for a reason. As you’ve also probably learned in your five years of Texanhood, your new home can be unpredictable when it comes to the weather. Precipitation, especially, can be hit-and-miss. Sometimes the rain comes in gigantic Texas-size buckets and sometimes it doesn’t come at all.
To deal with these occasional bouts of flood and drought, Texans have, over time, constructed numerous large reservoirs across the state. Most of these came into existence after the devastating drought of the 1950s—a.k.a. “the time it never rained,” which was the title of Elmer Kelton’s novel set during this particularly parched period. A hundred years ago there were only eight major reservoirs in Texas. By 1960 there were more than a hundred. Today there are more than two hundred dotting the Texas landscape.
Southlake, where you live, is called Southlake because, as you probably know, it sits south of Grapevine Lake, which was impounded in 1952, when Denton Creek was dammed. And the mighty Colorado River, which flows through the Texanist’s neck of the woods, in the Hill Country, was diced up into a string of six lakes, the Highland Lakes, beginning in the 1930s.
The fringe benefits to drought and flood control, of course, are hydroelectric power generation and watery recreation, which are both nice. Especially in the summer. It gets hot here, in case you hadn’t noticed.
So, to sum up: contrary to what you and many other Texans, including whomever it was that relayed this misinformation to you, have heard, Caddo Lake is not Texas’s only natural lake, and may not even qualify as a natural lake at all. Texas is, as many an angler and bather and boater can tell you, something of an aquatic paradise, partly by design and partly by nature’s gift. The Texanist believes this matter should now qualify as settled.
Was it your wife who told you otherwise? If so, the Texanist advises that you go easy when you show off your newfound Texas bona fides by correcting the record for her. One of the many things the Texanist has learned over the years, in addition to a few things about natural lakes, is that Texas gals, including his own Texas-born and -raised missus, are tough.
Have a question for the Texanist? He’s always available here. Be sure to tell him where you’re from.
A version of this is published in the December 2019 issue.