Unruly Waters: A Social and Environmental History of the Brazos Rive

By Kenna Lang Archer

Kenna Lang Archer is a history instructor at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas. She has a Masters Degree in Environmental Science from Baylor University, and a PhD in American History from Texas Tech University. In her book, Unruly Waters: A Social and Environmental History of the Brazos River, Dr. Lang utilizes her expertise in environmental science and history to provide a holistic look at a unique waterway. The Brazos is the longest river within the state of Texas.   It flows from the deserts and canyons of northwest Texas— populated by ranchers, farmers, and Native Americans—south through prairies, plantations, and coastal wetlands on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. This trajectory steers the Brazos through the intersection of southern and western geography and culture in the United States. The differing geological realities within the Brazos River basin, and the competing economic and political goals of the people at different points along the river have posed significant challenges to its development since the early 1800s. In Unruly Waters, Dr. Lang chronicles the attempts, and many failures at developing the Brazos River, and the cultural, economic, and technological consequences of those attempts.

Chapter one opens on a group of men during the Civil War tasked with mapping Texas. The group’s analysis of the Brazos River provided the first glimpse of the ecologic, geographic, and cultural diversity along the different sections of the river. Dr. Lang uses this imagery to foreshadow a discussion of the differences between the Upper, Middle, and Lower Brazos River. The distinctions between the three segments of the river are significant to understanding the difficulties each has experienced in development, and how efforts to develop each region has affected the others.

The Lower Brazos River empties into to the Gulf of Mexico after flowing through wetlands, wooded areas, oxbow lakes, and areas of rich fertile soils. The soils around the Lower Brazos are ideal for agricultural production. However, its flat landscapes and fertile, but unstable soils make the region susceptible to flooding. The Middle Brazos River is characterized by a combination of prairie lands and forests. The significant majority of the river’s tributaries empty into the Brazos in this section, which also experiences the largest flows of any segment of the river. While the heavier flow creates an environment with no shortage of water, it also fosters flood risk and creates stretches of rough waters that make navigation difficult. The Upper Brazos River flows through canyon lands and red clay soils. Though located in a more arid climate where drought is common, the rolling topography and steep riverbed walls make the Upper Brazos River tamer, more predictable, and less susceptible to flooding. Consequently, the Upper Brazos has become a popular region for farmers and ranchers.

In chapter two, Dr. Lang highlights the cultural heritage along the different segments of the river in order to set up a discussion of the different development strategies Texans would eventually employ. Since the early 1800s, Texans have immortalized the Brazos in folk tales, songs, photographs, and paintings. Famous artists, laborers, Native Americans, and everyday people have commented through different mediums on the heritage of the region. The lower half of the river basin is most comparable to the landscapes and culture of the Deep South. Early Texans saw the opportunity to maximize economic production by establishing prison farms and utilizing convict labor. At these camps, prisoners sang songs that told stories of work on cotton and sugar plantations. Eventually photographers captured the same stories. Photographs portray the harsh conditions in which they worked, but also show prisoners bathing in the sun or playing sports during their free time.

There is a distinct geographic and demographic shift from the Lower Brazos to the Upper Brazos. Contrary to the Lower Brazos, aspects of American western culture emerge along the Upper Brazos River. The transition manifests itself in artwork and literature that depict beautiful desert scenes and discuss the interactions and activities between American emigrants and Native Americans. Dr. Lang points out that the river is a centerpiece of artistic expression throughout the entire river basin. Through allegory or direct communication, Brazos centric artwork depicted an admiration for the river, but also a frustration over the lack of control of its waters.

In chapter three, Dr. Lang provides a survey of what fostered the original desire to develop the Brazos River, and illustrates why the first undertakings proved cumbersome. Geological factors make the Brazos difficult to develop at every point along the river. The fertile soils of the Lower Brazos River basin attracted immigrants from the United States, Europe and Mexico in the early 19th century. Boosters and politicians knew that if they could make the waterway consistently navigable, it would provide farmers and ranchers access to domestic and foreign markets. However, the region experienced a combination of drought periods and flood seasons that hurt agriculture and create dramatic fluctuations in water levels, rendering navigation difficult and sometimes impossible.

In response, boosters and politicians devised development plans modeled after Southern port cities. Two of the first projects included a 10-mile canal from the Brazos to Galveston (one of the largest ports in Texas), and a series of jetties where the river empties into the Gulf of Mexico. The goal of these projects was to provide people inland with access to a port, as well as to provide an inland entry point for ships. In both cases, loose soils on the river bottom made finishing and maintaining these projects expensive and time consuming because the waterways required frequent dredging. A combination of rising and falling water levels and soil deposits on the river floor often made navigation possible for only small vessels.

In chapter four, Dr. Lang details the continued determination to render the Brazos navigable. Beginning in 1890 and into the twentieth century, stakeholders shifted their focus to the Middle Brazos River. Instead of dredging the low-lying Lower Brazos, they attempted to implement a series of locks and dams that could calm the river and provide avenues around difficult stretches. Again, natural limitations, including erodible soil and changing elevations, prevented the projects from finishing within their budgets. At the end of the chapter, Dr. Lang emphasizes that failure did not fatigue the stakeholders’ resolve, but it did force them to reflect on their efforts to turn the Brazos into a riparian highway.

Flooding and drought remained the prominent problems in the river basin. The failure of navigation projects spurred a political outcry by 1929 that shifted the focus of development from navigation to flood control. In Chapter 5, Dr. Lang chronicles perhaps the most successful period of development between 1929 and 1958, during which the focus of development shifted from the lower two-thirds of the river to the Upper Brazos River. There, developers envisioned a series of dam projects that more closely resembled development on the Colorado and Tennessee Rivers, rather than Southern-style development like that on the Mississippi.

The dam projects along the Upper Brazos and its tributaries were designed to quell flooding throughout the entire river basin, conserve water for irrigation, reclaim and conserve soil for agriculture, and produce hydroelectric power. The first few projects accomplished these objectives, but also ended up costing much more than originally planned. However, it was not economic considerations that eventually derailed this phase of development, but disagreements over its purposes. Some thought the projects focused too much on energy development, while others argued that they focused on flood control at the expense of hydroelectric power. Additionally, interested stakeholders in the Lower Brazos region were concerned that development on the Upper Brazos would diminish water supplies downstream. Ultimately, political disagreements and limited resources halted several plans for more dam projects.

In chapter six, Dr. Lang discusses the most ambitious of the Brazos River development plans. In the second half of the 20th century, concerns about water supply became a real threat due to an increasing population in West Texas and other areas. In response, national and state politicians proposed a series of importation and diversion schemes. The idea was to take water from areas with a surplus to areas of the country that often experienced shortages. Groups proposed plans that would divert and import water from other major United States waterways to West Texas and Eastern New Mexico, and store the water in underground aquifers. One plan, the Mississippi-Brazos diversion project, proposed developing a North Texas Canal that could transport water from the Mississippi River to West Texas.

None of the diversion plans ever took hold, in part because of the significant costs for the technology and infrastructure necessary to move forward. In addition to technological and monetary challenges, political barriers proved to be the greatest difficulty with these projects. People in the west needed more water, but people in East Texas and people from out of state erected several roadblocks to prevent moving too much water out of their ecosystems.

The final chapter of the book is aptly named, “A Defiant Brazos and the Persistence of its People.” In this chapter, Dr. Lang reflects on over 100 years of attempted development on the Brazos, and identifies several interrelated themes underlying each attempt. The combination of floods and droughts has motivated every development attempt. From the Upper Brazos to the Lower Brazos, problems have spawned great conviction amongst successive generations to improve upon the work of the generation before, but the nature and magnitude of the projects thwarted every attempt. In the end, Dr. Lang determines that the stories of the many attempts at development along the Brazos River are not stories of failure.   The stories are about a steadfast conviction that they may eventually optimize conditions, and that the lives of individuals will improve once they employ the right solution.

Unruly Waters: A Social and Environmental History of the Brazos River transcends a discussion of how people utilized technology in an attempt to preserve and perfect water resources in a region. In Unruly Waters, Dr. Lang examines how the Brazos River’s stakeholders have worked together through history to shape the lives of people who live near, develop, and seek to control it. Dr. Lang endeavors to show how politics, innovation, individuals, and community needs have coalesced in a bigger picture. This is not a narrative about how a political machine, or a technological giant conquered, or failed to conquer a stubborn river. Rather, the book presents a sociopolitical analysis of how all of the parties involved are actually interested in the same end: maximizing the safety and utility of a significant waterway.