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TROUBLED WATERS: Colorado River cuts through heart of Texas and its history 

Texas' Colorado River basin

A map of the Colorado River basin in the heart of Texas. Siglo Group image

This story is part of a series on water issues in the Highland Lakes. The series kicked off in the August 2022 issue of The Picayune Magazine. For an up-to-date list, visit the Troubled Waters webpage

One of the most flood-prone rivers in the state of Texas, the Colorado River has been tamed with a series of dams that hold back its mostly spring-fed waters for drinking, recreation, and irrigation — in times of plenty and in times of drought. 

Its dams brought electricity to Hill Country farmers and ranchers and a vibrant tourism industry to what became known as the Highland Lakes. 

The Colorado River’s history reaches back to when only Native Americans fed and drank from its waters. Later, in the 1600s, French and Spanish explorers used it to draw boundaries and establish missions and, somewhere along the line, misnamed it.

Fast-flowing river facts

  • Texas’ Colorado River is the largest river wholly within state boundaries. 
  • Its basin covers 15 percent of the Lone Star State. 
  • The drainage area is 39,900 square-miles, starting in the northwestern part of the state in Dawson County and traveling southeast for more than 860 miles to Matagorda Bay on the Gulf Coast. 
  • It includes 7,500 miles of creeks, streams, and rivers.
  • Its waters are regulated by the Lower, Central, and Upper Colorado River authorities, three separate entities established by the Texas Legislature.

Colorado River names through history

  • Native American names include Kanahatino and Pashohono.
  • It was called the San Clemente in 1684 by Spanish explorer Juan Domínguez de Mendoza and Franciscan monk Nicolás López.
  • French explorer René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, gifted it with the moniker La Sablonnière, or Sand Pit, in 1687. 
  • It was first mistakenly labeled the Colorado in 1690 by Spanish explorer Alonso de Leon, who is believed to have interchanged its name with the Brazos River on a map.