News flash: Texas has a second natural lake!

Years ago, in Virginia, I had learned that Virginia had only one natural lake, the Great Dismal Swamp.  Accompanying that chunk of information in that lecture was that Texas had only two natural lakes.

But upon arriving in Texas, I could find reference to only one natural lake, Caddo, and it had ceased being fully natural when its maintenance fell to a dam.

What happened to Texas’s second natural lake?

A Google search right now on “Texas +’natural lake'” produces ten listings on the first page, all of them pointing to the fact that Texas has just one natural lake.  Here are the first five:

I have found a second natural lake in Texas. It’s not a new discovery at all — it’s just a case of people not having the facts, and overlooking how to find the truth.  It’s especially difficult when the lake hides itself.

Our testing coordinator at Molina High School, Brad Wachsmann, spins yarns that belie his youth.  In the middle of one yarn last year, corroborated by other yarns, he mentioned that he has family in Big Lake, Texas; and he described visiting and having relatives urge people to run out and see the lake since it’s rebirth in torrential rains.

“A second natural lake in Texas?” I asked.  Wachsmann knew the drill.  Yes, Big Lake is a natural lake in Texas, and yes, people forget about it.

Texas teachers, listen to your testing coordinators, okay?

All of this came to mind reading the Austin American-Statesman, still a bastion of great journalism despite problems in the newspaper industry.  On Monday, July 7, the paper ran a story and an editorial about the clean up of the oil industry refuse that killed the shoreline of part of the lake; the springs that once fed the lake have mostly gone dry, but that’s likely due to agricultural water mining.

It’s a story of boom and bust, environmental degradation for profit, and eventual recovery we hope.

Looking at the landscape that surrounds the Reagan County seat, you wonder whether the name Big Lake was somebody’s idea of joke. It’s dry and dusty, where the flora sprouts reluctantly and lives precariously.

Yet, the West Texas town of Big Lake got its name from a natural lake that was fed by springs that have long since gone dry. While the area may not fit everyone’s definition of photogenic, it has its own brand of charm – charm that could be enhanced if the damage done to the fragile ecosystem by salt spills were reversed or even minimized.

As the American-Statesman’s Ralph K.M. Haurwitz reported in Monday’s editions, the University of Texas and Texas A&M systems have benefited from the $4.4 billion in royalty payments and mineral income produced by its West Texas acreage since Santa Rita No. 1 well came in on May 28, 1923.

The salt water byproduct of oil and natural gas production, however, contaminated 11 square miles near Big Lake, killing most everything that grows. The lack of vegetation allows wind and water erosion.

Hey, it gets better.  This is real Texas history, real American history — you can’t make this stuff up.  Haurwitz’s article talks about the heritage of Texas education.   Remember that old story about setting aside certain sections of townships to help fund education in lands on the American frontier?  Texas wasn’t a public lands state as farther west, but it still reserved sections of land for the benefit of education.

Rose petals blessed by a priest?  I’ll wager the priest didn’t make the trip to the top of the derrick.  Haurwitz wrote:

BIG LAKE — Investors appealed to the patron saint of impossible causes when oil drilling began on University of Texas System land in 1921. It didn’t hurt.

Santa Rita No. 1 blew in on May 28, 1923, after rose petals blessed by a priest were scattered from the top of the derrick at the behest of some Catholic women in New York who had purchased shares in the Texon Oil and Land Co., which drilled that first well.

Since then, the UT System’s 2.1 million acres in West Texas have produced $4.4 billion in royalty payments and other mineral income for the Permanent University Fund, an endowment that supports the UT and Texas A&M University systems.

But this long-running bonanza for higher education exacted a price from the remote, semiarid landscape where it all began. Millions of barrels of salt water, a byproduct of oil and natural gas production, contaminated 11 square miles, or more than 7,000 acres, killing virtually all vegetation and leaving the land vulnerable to wind and water erosion. Hundreds of mesquite stumps with three feet of exposed roots testify to the dramatic loss of topsoil.

Texas, and Big Lake - from

Where in Texas is Big Lake?

The town of Big Lake is just north of the lake itself, on State Highway 137 running north and south, and U.S. Highway 67 running east and west, approximately 65 miles west of San Angelo.   Big Lake sits about 10 miles north of Interstate 10, and about 75 miles south of Interstate 20.  Big Lake calls itself “the gateway to the Permian Basin.”

Big Lake is the home of Reagan County High School.  Jim Morris was baseball coach for the Reagan High Owls when his team persuaded him to try out for a major league baseball team.  His story was chronicled, with some artistic license, in the Disney movie “Rookie.”

Land managers are working to stop erosion on the often-dry shores of Big Lake using any trick they can find.  One trick:  Plant salt grass.

Salt grass?  Along Texas’s Gulf Coast, there are a few species of grass that, while not halophytes, are at least salt tolerant.  Salt grass.  This grass made it profitable to graze cattle on what would otherwise have been unproductive land in the Texas cattle boom.  This role in Texas history is memorialized in the Salt Grass Steakhouse chain, now found in five states.

And if planting salt grass works to control erosion, it will help clean up a large part of Texas other natural lake, Big Lake.

Big Lake’s being wet or dry is a whim of local climate.  You could say that half of all of Texas’s natural lakes are now dry as a result of continued warming; you could say that two good gully-washers or toad-stranglers could restore water to half of Texas’s natural lakes.

Big Lake Playa, from NightOwl Bakery and Roastery in Big Lake, Texas

Field crew meeting at the outset of the 1992 excavations at the Big Lake Bison Kill site. The dry bed of Big Lake stretches for miles in the background. Big Lake is an intermittent saline lake or playa, an uncommon landform on the Edwards Plateau. Photo by Larry Riemenschneider, Concho Valley Archeological Society.

More details about Big Lake and prehistory, below the fold.

From a commercial site, the NightOwl Bakery and Roastery, in Big Lake, Texas:

The city got its name from the large dry lake bed just south of the city on Hwy 137, but the lake is far more than just a dry land lake feature, impressive though it is.  It is the largest playa on the western Edwards Plateau, and possibly the largest in Texas, a significant geological feature covering over 2100 acres, and differs from other playas in the Southern Great Plains not only in size (the average is 17 ac), but in having three major draws that feed into it, with a total watershed coverage of over 100 sq. miles.  Though historic springs undoubtedly contributed water continually, the lake only remained full during extended periods of wet weather and in extreme rainfall runoff events.   In the photo below, taken from the middle of the highway looking west, barely visible to the left on the horizon is the escarpment of the Edwards/Stockton Plateau near Best, 11 miles away, and closer in to the right one can see the light-colored bluffs, a cliff about 30′ high, showing the boundary of at least two major dunes to the north and northeast of the lake bed, formed over thousands of years by the deposition of windblown material from the lake bottom.

In 1994, Solveig A. Turpin, of the Texas Archeological Laboratory at UT, Austin conducted a brief study of the lake and Big Lake Draw in response to artifact and bone fragments found in the bottom of the lake during pipeline construction.   In her 1994 detailed report, “A Reconnaissance of Big Lake Draw: Implications for  Prehistoric Playa Utilization in Reagan County, TX”, part of the TARL Technical Series 40, she observed that the draw course has remained essentially unaltered for the past 5000 years, and that a bison kill, probably of the Archaic Period, had taken place in the bottom of the lake, itself.   Artifact evidence, midden concentrations, and grinding mortars from the draw and lake date basically from the Late Archaic and subsequent periods, although PaleoIndian occupation is indicated by one Folsom point found by a local collector.  Sandstone grinding material suggested that early occupants in this area interacted with neighboring areas, and that the Big Lake country was a “targeted resource.”

In a more exhaustive report in the Plains Anthropologist , Journal of the Plains Anthropological Society in February, 1997, entitled “Stuck in the Muck: The Big Lake Bison Kill Site (41RG13), West Texas”, she goes even further in her conclusions.   From the introduction of that article, she concludes, “The Big Lake bison kill bears upon two problems of regional importance.  Perhaps most importantly, the site provides a start date for the period of extreme aridity that undoubtedly markedly affected the distribution and economy of human populations some time after 8000 years ago.  Secondly, the site bridges the spatial and temporal gap between two equally well known bison kill sites- Bonfire Shelter in the Lower Pecos region, 160 km to the south, and Lubbock Lake on the Llano Estacado, 250 km to the north.”

If you find yourself on the way to or from Big Lake from the south, the next time you cross the expanse of seemingly featureless dry lake bed, pause for a moment in your thoughts, and reflect upon the importance of this lake to the past area occupants over a long span time.   It is sad to me, today, to consider that the current occupants of this region, of which I am one, form the most concentrated, continuous occupation of this area over several thousand years of time, and, of all the populations that have existed on this land,  we have the least dependence upon it, and know the least about it;  and we do not appreciate it at all for what it is – a feature whose presence meant life and survival for those of the past.

Nota bene:  Surely you’ll want to read in Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub about the efforts to save Caddo Lake, under a headline we now know to be in error.

Big Lake Texas as shown on USGS Topographic maps, image via the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection, University of Texas.

Big Lake Texas as shown on USGS Topographic maps, image via the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection, University of Texas.

Encourage others to take a jump in the lake of geographical lore:

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26 Responses to News flash: Texas has a second natural lake!

  1. Conan Witzel says:

    Driving South of Lubbock today from a College visit, I noticed several natural lakes, although they may be intermittent.
    When I arrived at home I went to Google Earth and doubled checked. I would suggest that the area south of Tahoka should be renamed Land of 10,000 lakes. There are many natural lakes in this area, even if they are only lakes after a rain. In the current Google Earth Imagery, many have water and they also did today.

    These are not “Tanks”, but rather natural depressions filled with water, which I think is the definition of a “lake”

    I think this mythology of a single natural lake in Texas needs to be dispelled!

    (Not unlike when I had to inform my child Elementary Teacher that Texas was NOT the largest State in the Union)


  2. Ed Darrell says:

    For the sake of history, Ester, can you share the photos?


  3. Ester Blankenship says:

    I have pictures of the big lake in Big Lake Texas. I was 5 years old when pictures were taken & I am 64 now. -Ester Blankenship


  4. Bryan Steves says:

    Before and after 1900 these lakes were used for irrigation on surrounding property. I will get you some reading material that describes this activity. USF&WL has control of Eagle Nest Lake at the present time. Halliburton owns Maner Lake at this time. Both Lakes were joined in the past but land bridged to cross them.


  5. Ed Darrell says:

    I looked for photographs or other information that would reveal whether there’s a dam there . . . I couldn’t find anything.

    Who would have that history? Anyone online? (Doing other things today and don’t have much time to call around.)


  6. Bryan Steves says:

    Look at it and the adjacent lake Maner Lake on google maps and tell me it was man made. Indians did not have lake building equipment.


  7. Ed Darrell says:

    Maybe more interesting, the online Texas Almanac lists several natural lakes:

    There are many natural lakes in Texas, though none is of great size. The largest designated natural lake touching the border of Texas is Sabine Lake, into which the Sabine and Neches rivers discharge. It is more properly a bay of the Gulf of Mexico. Also near the coast, in Calhoun County, is Green Lake, which at about 10,000 acres is one of the state’s largest natural freshwater lakes.

    Caddo Lake, on the Texas-Louisiana border, was a natural lake originally, but its present capacity and surface area are largely due to dams built to raise the surface of the original body of water. Natural Dam Lake, in Howard County, has a similar history.

    In East Texas, there are many small natural lakes formed by “horse-shoe” bends that have been eliminated from the main channel of a river. There are also a number of these “horse-shoe” lakes along the Rio Grande in the lower valley, where they are called resacas.

    On the South Plains and west of San Angelo are lakes or “playas,” such as Big Lake in Reagan County, that are usually dry.


  8. Ed Darrell says:

    But the Texas State Handbook from the Texas Historical Association says Eagle Nest Lake is a “man made” lake. No details. You got better data?


  9. Ed Darrell says:

    Another chunk of geographical history to track down!


  10. Bryan Steves says:

    Local lore says Eagle Nest Lake in Brazoria County Texas is a natural lake. All evidence points to this being the truth. It is over 1000 acres.


  11. Dennis Dahl says:

    There are actually lots of natural lakes in Texas, but most are not of any signicant size. The largest natural fresh water lake entirely within the state’s borders in Green Lake. Caddo Lake was originally a natural lake but its current size is because of dams. Caddo Lake is also not entirely within Texas. The largest natural lake touching Texas borders is actually Sabine Lake, which is a salt water lake. Most people do think of Caddo Lake as the only natural lake in Texas, but it is not true. In fact, it ain’t even “all natural”.


  12. […] to popular rural and redneck legend, Caddo Lake is not Texas’s only natural* lake.  There’s also Big Lake, near the town of Big […]


  13. Ed Darrell says:

    Thanks, WHY. Good data are always welcome.


  14. Nick Kelsier says:

    Ed, if there is a lake down there I don’t suppose we can stick Bachmann on an island in the middle of it along with Governor hair piece and those secessionist whackos that had that rally at your state’s capital please?


  15. John says:

    My friend Earl says Eagle Lake,Texas is natural! I agree!


  16. We actually have a mountain in MN? Awesome!


  17. Nick Kelsier says:

    Eagle Mountain in Cook county at just over 2300 feet.

    Of course for every Governor Hairpiece Texas has we have Congresswoman Whacko.


  18. Ed Darrell says:

    Yeah, but does Minnesota have any deserts? How high is the highest mountain in Minnesota?


  19. Two whole lakes? That’s very nice.

    (Written from Minnesota)


  20. mpb says:

    “like”– how about using Stumbleupon? I think that can be added to WP or you can add the buttons in each post to link to peoples’ stumble accounts.


  21. Ed Darrell says:

    Great idea, Mary — but it’s not an option on WordPress. Yet.


  22. Mary A. says:

    How about adding a “Like” option to your comments? I try to read your blog daily, but don’t usually have anything intellectual to add. So I just enjoyed reading about the second natural lake, I remembered where it was located in the state, but not the name at this time.


  23. Jeremy says:

    If you’re interested in water related issues, I suggest you check out Corporate Accountability International. They have a great water campaign . Cheers to your insights!



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