Happy 80th, Possum Kingdom Lake!

Possum Kingdom Lake is not just a reservoir, but a way of life for many, a source that sustains life and a tool from our past that continues to protect our future.

This water supply reservoir has continued strong these past 80 years since the Brazos River was dammed to protect us from Texas' extremes: drought and flooding.

The history of the Brazos River basin has always been one of water feast or famine, according to the Texas State Historical Association, El Río de Los Brazos de Dios, the river of the Arms of God, as she's called, has a watershed that stretches from the New-Mexico-Texas boundary area to the Gulf of Mexico, gently splitting the Lone Star State in half.

The power of the Brazos has not gone unnoticed over the years, especially in the state's early history. Roughly 542 died, and about $54 million in property damage occurred between 1891 and 1932 alone due to floodwaters from the Brazos, according to a 1959 edition of The Southwestern Historical Quarterly published by the Texas State Historical Association. In 1899, a storm centered over the Brazos watershed resulted in $9 million in damage and the loss of 30-35 lives when an estimated 30 inches of rain drenched the area. And then, the great flood of 1913 destroyed all standing crops and much of the wealth from the city of Waco to the Gulf, according to the article.

With a watershed that stretches 1,050 miles and comprises 44,620 square miles, the Brazos River can have an impact.

When the Brazos River wasn't flooding, drought devastated farmers trying to provide for their community and survive. The weather was (and remains) unpredictable in Texas, and precipitation can be hit-and-miss.

Something had to be done.

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So, in the 1930s and 40s, officials began building dams along Texas rivers to create flood-control reservoirs that would absorb the floodwaters and alleviate damage and loss of life. People, of course, had been creating reservoirs for thousands of years, the oldest dam in the world, being located in Jordan, according to National Geographic.

Though its purpose would evolve and change over the years, the first water supply reservoir built to help address drought also addressed flooding and the need for electricity. Its name: Possum Kingdom Lake. The structure that impounds that water, the Morris Sheppard Dam.

Located on the main stem of the Brazos River northwest of Fort Worth, Possum Kingdom Lake was the first water supply reservoir constructed in the Brazos River basin.

This project was authorized through a permit issued by the State of Texas in 1938. Located in Young, Palo Pinto, Stephens, and Jack counties, the construction of the Morris Sheppard Dam began in 1938 and was completed in 1941 with the aid of the Works Progress Program.

The dam itself was named for the United States senator who was instrumental in obtaining funding for the project. An engineering marvel, the Morris Sheppard Dam is 2,700 feet long and 190 feet high. That's taller than Niagara Falls.

The dam consists of nine crest "roof weir" type gates. Each one of those gates is about 74 feet long and 13 feet high. And when open, each gate can pass an impressive up to 9,600 cubic feet per second of water.

Construction on the dam began by the BRA – then known as the Brazos River Conservation and Reclamation District - on May 29, 1938, under general contractors C. F. Lytle and A. L. Johnson and completed on March 20, 1941 according to the Texas State Historical Association. The dam, a heavily buttressed concrete structure with an adjacent earth embankment, was built at the cost of $8,500,000, which represented a $4,500,000 grant from the federal government, supplemented by $4,000,000 from ad valorem taxes in ten counties along the lower Brazos watershed.

Momentum for flood control projects picked up during the 1950s, and the US Army Corps of Engineers was tasked with building several more reservoirs for flood control over the next several decades.

Built for water supply

Possum Kingdom Lake is one of three water supply reservoirs owned and operated by the Brazos River Authority. The other two are Lake Limestone on the Navasota River and Lake Granbury in Hood County. Possum Kingdom holds approximately 540,000 acre-feet of water, with 230,750 acre-feet available as water supply for the Brazos basin.

The BRA was tasked by the state to develop and manage the water resources of the entire river basin. These three reservoirs are part of that system which aims to provide water to cities, water districts, water supply corporations, agricultural users, irrigators, steam electric generating facilities, manufacturing entities, and mining operations. When you turn on your faucet for a glass of water or water the garden, countless people have worked to protect that resource to supply our homes.

But how much water is that exactly?

In 2020, the total water use in the BRA System was 288,968 acre-feet, the highest it's been in the past seven years. An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover one acre (43,560 square feet) with one foot of water. And one acre-foot is equal to 325,851 gallons of water.

The other eight reservoirs in the BRA System are owned and operated by the US Army Corps of Engineers. They include Lakes Proctor, Whitney, Aquilla, Belton, Stillhouse Hollow, Georgetown, Granger, and Somerville. The BRA leases water supply storage space from the federal government in these lakes, many of which were built to include flood control.

But back to the birthday girl.

Almost 573,000 acre-feet of water made its way in 2020 into the man-made water supply reservoir often called PK. Another nearly 378,200 acre-feet were released from the dam as a flood release. While almost 79,300 acre-feet were released from the reservoir via leakage or for environmental flows.

And surprisingly to many, evaporation plays a significant role too. More than 90,000 acre-feet were lost to evaporation from PK Lake in 2020.

Let's Play

Visitors to the gorgeous lake often, though, aren't thinking about water supply.

A secondary benefit to building a water supply reservoir was the recreational opportunities it provided the area.

In the Aug. 28, 1941 edition of The Aspermont Star, a newspaper article read, 'Possum Kingdom Is New Texas Playground.'

"The rugged hills, the timber growth, the canyons and the tortuous bends of the mighty Brazos River in Young, Stephens and Palo Pinto Counties have always been recognized for their scenic beauty. However, it took the creation of the 28,000-acre Possum Kingdom Lake to turn this section into a playground for fishermen, boatmen, nature lovers, swimmers, dude ranchers and what have you."

And there's lots of room for people to enjoy that playground.

The reservoir stretches across an area of 16,716 acres with 219 miles of shoreline. Popular activities on the lake include fishing, water skiing, scuba diving and swimming.

The BRA has provided 10 public use amenities along the lake for the public to enjoy year-round. These parks include boat ramps, restrooms and showers, swim areas, fishing piers, courtesy docks, picnic areas and 400 campsites. They also offer access to the award-winning hike and mountain bike trail system.

The Hike and Bike Trails crisscross the lake's central peninsula, connecting public areas with 16-miles of paths. The rest areas feature display signs with information about history, geology, and animals of the area. Twelve trailheads are located at intervals along the trails, allowing hikers to enjoy as much or as little of the trail system as they please. Signage maps posted on the trail are color-coded, identifying "you are here" notations. One of the most beautiful spots is the rest area atop Johnson Peak, where most of the lake may be seen, including the popular landmark, Hell's Gate. Hell's Gate is a break in the cliffs around the lake on the south end of the reservoir.

The area has continued to grow over the years. There now are 1,571 residential permitted boat docks and another 67 commercial boat docks on the reservoir.

Adjacent to the lake is the 1,528-acre Possum Kingdom State Park and run by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department.

Residents and guests are no strangers to seeing planes fly near the area as the Possum Kingdom Airport is located on the reservoir's east side.

Fishing remains popular on the reservoir, often stocked with fish by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. Striped bass are stocked in most years, and the lake record is 34.19 pounds, according to TP&WD. Also abundant in the lake are White bass, largemouth bass, crappie and catfish. There are even brush piles and artificial fish habitat structures that have been placed in sections of this reservoir. Anglers can use GPS in conjunction with a fish finder to locate these structures provided by TP&WD.

As we stop to celebrate Possum Kingdom Lake 80 years after the completion of the Morris Sheppard Dam, we continue to be thankful for the water she supplies this state we call home. And the Brazos River Authority continues to provide a rigorous maintenance routine to prolong the service life of a dam that holds back so much precious water.

A complimentary map of Possum Kingdom is available from the BRA Public Information Office at information@brazos.org.