The Brazos River proved to be both a blessing and a curse for Waco, providing a constant water supply, means of transportation, and fertile farming ground, but also serving as a site of frequent flooding and destruction. This tension shaped the history of the communities which developed upon the banks of the Brazos.
The longest river in Texas, the Brazos is 840 miles long and drains an area of 41,700 square miles. Spanning from its headwater source in New Mexico to where it drains into the Gulf of Mexico, the river flows through varying terrain, from canyons to the rolling plains of West Texas to its meandering course through the relatively flat Coastal Plain.
Efforts to improve the Brazos and to make it navigable were begun as early as 1870. McLennan County cotton planters began looking for a water route to ship their produce at lower prices than railroads could offer. Barges and steamboats, notably the Kate Ross captained by early Wacoan Shapley Prince Ross, plied the river for a while until the channel shifted and more railroads came into the county. A bridge constructed in 1870 spanning the banks of the Brazos increased the amount of commercial activity within the city.
Notable attempts to build a series of locks and dams on the Brazos were made under the terms of the River and Harbor Act of 1905 and later under a New Deal project in the 1930s. However, the river shifted its course multiple times and floods wrecked construction sites.
Frequent flooding made life near the Brazos River a struggle for many Wacoans. On May 27, 1885, a tornado and flood resulted in the deaths of eleven people and $300,000 in property damage. In 1913, tumultuous flood waters inundated much of East Waco and took the lives of two people. The flood which occurred in September of 1936 resulted in $1.5 million in property damage in the county, especially in East Waco, although no lives were lost.
A United States Army Corps of Engineers study in 1937 recommended a series of dams on tributary streams of the Brazos and a major dam at Whitney on the main stream as the best means of controlling floods. World War II intervened, but in 1946, the first tributary dam was begun in Belton, and soon thereafter the Whitney Dam began to rise on the Brazos. The Flood Control Act of 1954 authorized a dam on the Bosque River at Waco, and as well as several others in different cities in line with the 1937 study.
When Waco Dam was finished in 1965, it completed, with the Whitney Dam, the major flood control instruments to protect Waco and the lower Brazos Valley. The floodplain at Waco became available for development. In 1967 Waco voters approved a $1.5 million bond issue to build a channel dam to create a bank-level lake through the heart of the city for recreation and beautification purposes. Lake Brazos was filled in 1972.
The Brazos River Authority, an independent organization established by legislation in 1929, continues to develop and manage the waters of the entire Brazos River basin. Today, the river continues to serve as an important water source for power, irrigation, and other resources for Waco and McLennan County, as well as other regions throughout Texas.