Thursday, March 30, 2023 Mar 30, 2023
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The Dams of North Texas Are a Bicyclist’s Dream

As the pandemic changed our world, I decided to explore mine on two wheels. Turns out, there is water everywhere in North Texas. It all starts at the dams.
By Harry Jones |
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Harry Jones biking along White Rock Lake
Joseph Haubert

The Dams of North Texas Are a Bicyclist’s Dream

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On the avenue where I grew up, I liked to dam the water in the gutters. A neighboring photographer had a darkroom in his garage; the trickle from his hose was my riparian source. If I had a crew of other boys helping me, we could dam the entire street. When our fathers came home at sunset, our dams failed anticlimactically under their tires.

I did not become a civil engineer; I’m a lawyer, engineering solutions to disputes I often might have stoked. But I have always found dams interesting. When my law firm went remote and much of Dallas shut down, I vowed to ride my bicycles to, on, over, down, and around our dams.

The early lockdown rides were cold. Then, infernal. And now, a year into this daily habit, this monastic ritual, freezing once more. My attire has ranged from layers and beanies to just some shorts.

Audio and video calls continued, but with more diverse background noise or view, my mute listening skills increased, and, over time, I shrank. As any cyclist will, I fell a time or two, on crushed limestone and hopping a rushing grate. I learned to see things better, smell a little keener, and I stopped falling.

Living and working in Dallas since 1991, I have run or ridden around White Rock Lake hundreds of times, but besides whizzing over Lake Lewisville or Ray Hubbard on interstate highways or seeing Lake Grapevine as I descended into DFW Airport, the rest of our reservoirs were a mystery to me.

All three of my bikes are graded for mountains, which helps when ascending bumpy earth-layered dams and concrete spillways, navigating surprising horse trails, and evading dogs patrolling pastured fields. But I was around water. Vast. Blue. If not deep, at least wide. Here, in North Texas. Wind-swept by noon; weirdly still in the early morning. It was not always easy to find the lakes. Much of our lakeshore is privately owned. I learned to start with the dam, ride up and down and along it, reconnoiter the area, and then branch out, riding through pastures or trailer parks.

Dallas has a water problem. We always have. Perhaps we always will. We keep growing. Our ground and surface water does not. But here we are, thirsty as ever.

The Spanish explorer Alonso de Léon named this inauspicious river La Santísima Trinidad, or the Most Holy Trinity, in 1690. Perhaps it was. Not now. Most muddy and stinky, maybe.

Knotted up in a Cowtown mediation once, the mediator proposed the lawyers hit one golf ball each over their Trinity to break the impasse. It is a very easy half-wedge, if you care to know. But let’s be honest: in the Trinity’s 700-mile traverse from near the Red River to Galveston Bay, there may not be a less attractive stretch than the straight line of its diverted, fabricated run through Dallas. For years, I’ve run on and inside the levees, and the only thing I don’t look at is the lonely, silty river, flanked by weeds and detritus.

Still, we sit in a fertile flood plain. The four forks of the Trinity River—West, Clear, Elm, and East—have been dammed into lovely lakes, refuges of wildlife and fresh air; after each dam lies a stretch of riverine utopia, a relic of what might have been.

My rides took me to impounded waters like Eagle Mountain Lake, Lake Weatherford, Benbrook, the newish Ray Roberts Lake, the difficult Lake Lewisville, and the strange Lake Ray Hubbard, which is surprisingly (to me) owned by Dallas Water Utilities, providing water to millions.

My quest took me to pump stations, too. It turns out DWU has seven in the downtown Dallas area alone, animating the flow of precious water along almost 5,000 miles of water mains, with almost 20 pressure zones, keeping showers pleasantly hard-hitting. But I found it tricky to find or approach many of the pump stations, and my true holy grail: the pipelines tracking from places like Lake Tawakoni. The headwaters of the Sabine River were subsumed into Tawakoni in 1960. Here, the locals were inquisitive about my bike.

“Hey,” said a taciturn man who owned a store I visited one day.


“You got disc brakes on your bicycle?”

“I do.”

“That’s pretty cool,” he said.

The bridge that cuts across Tawakoni is an absolute cyclist’s dream: wide shoulder, minimal roadkill, and low guardrails, affording a full lake view.

Riding the border forests around 1943 vintage Lake Texoma can be spectacular, dwarfing 926,000-acre-foot Tawakoni; triple the capacity. While the Red River does not carry a large volume of water at normal flow, it is clearly a real border.

On a bike, you can find quicksands near trails; you can see the changing channels and quick shifts from bank to bank: a great dividing line of history.

Strictly distant from humans, I formed friendships with animals: mules, stallions, bulls, lambs, and cows. I cannot be certain, but it seemed as if some remembered me and even ran to give greetings. The dogs upstream are real dogs; territorial and ready to race a man on a bike. There is a fine line between a playful chase and that moment when you are up on your pedals, finding that extra gear, and feeling a Rottweiler at your calves.

Crossing county lines and train tracks and deep creeks in between the northern lakes revealed the arbitrary nature of district lines and regulation. I even found spaces in between counties and states. The Trinity River forms the boundary lines of 13 counties, but they’re not clear boundaries.

I made a diversion to lakes Granbury and Possum Kingdom. Out west, it is easier to imagine what the early pioneers in their cumbersome wagons saw: water for oxen and horses and themselves. The settler simply could not deviate far from water in this tough, new country. Traveling at a rate of 3 or 4 mph all day, and camping at night near grass and water, these avatars had to cross fords or ferry the rivers. If you could find a safe place to cross, you had located gold, or chalkstone (Dallas) and limestone (Fort Worth) fords across a fickle prairie river.

Thus, we see the paradox. It was because the crossing was easier, in the dry summer or winter, in shallow water, with a compacted riverbed and less severe banks, that Dallas was chosen by the early settlers and the Native peoples before them.

The first settlement in Dallas was located by a spring. Then, from 1837 to 1914, water was pumped out of basins and boiled for purification. In 1914, a Turtle Creek filtration plant was built. We will continue to pump, and impound, and elevate, and draw, and pipe in our water. We are a great city on the plains, sited at the crossroads of land routes rather than waterways. The Caddo, Wichita, and Bidai tribes trod this watershed.

A trading post in a riparian corridor so wildly unpredictable that all the Army Corps’ horses and engineers are still puzzling over the pieces, trying to put us together again. The old Commerce Street ferry and the long viaduct foretold airports and distribution centers. Early Dallas was led by wild promoters, not pessimistic farmers, change artists who dreamed of a watery future. But by the late 19th century, mayors called the Trinity “our dead river.” And the flood of 1908 ended all dreams.

After the deluge, the river crested at more than 50 feet deep and almost 2 miles wide. Sheds, barns, outhouses, pigs, and cows floated by for days; Oak Cliff was reachable only by boat. Embarrassment is too mild a word for how Dallas felt.

After all debate was settled, the Houston Street Viaduct opened in 1912 to 58,000 spectators. Dallas went further, as we know, changing the course of the river, and putting up levees in 1932, which mostly did their job (with tests in 1935, 1941, 1990, and recently). The old riverbed became known as the Trinity Industrial District (later renamed the Design District, rebuilt by aptly named developers PegasusAblon).

Fortunes were made from the Trinity bottoms. John Stemmons developed the land made usable by the levees, and Trammell Crow built the largest real estate company in the country on the bluffs. But all of it depended on dams stopping the floods and gathering drinking water. This was the more modest dream we settled for. The turn-of-the-century plan to link Dallas to the Gulf of Mexico with locks and hundreds of miles of canals was reincarnated in 1963 by the Army Corps of Engineers and in 1965 by a Texan in the White House (LBJ’s billion-dollar Trinity River Project, which is less famous than the loop freeway bearing his name). But no barges ever made the Trinity trip.

In 1973, the citizens of Dallas finally put a nail in the canal coffin: 56 percent voted against a Trinity shipping corridor. Dallas would go forward without a beloved or usable or important river, joining an odd list of major cities: Tehran, Milan, Jerusalem, Indianapolis, Orlando, and Bangalore.

The Trinity is pretty before it arrives in Dallas, but it is easily distracted, diverted, and even drained. Part of the problem is how fecund the Trinity is. Ride alongside it and you will see thick hardwood forests of burl walnuts and live oaks, elms, sycamores, willows, junipers, and mesquites. They drop trunks and brush into tributaries and the clogged wetlands along swales and rivulets. It is a subtle, uneasy landscape, this swath of Texas.

Every mile north of LBJ, the water grows a bit clearer.

We all know that bonds have evaporated like the mists of Texoma, the Trinity River Corridor Plan was reborn as the Balanced Vision Plan, and horse parks and toll roads and wildlife refuges and whitewater kayak parks have been tossed around like a political football by philanthropists and the best urban planners in the world, to no avail. The river is still too straight to be a river, but rebending it would be very expensive, because the scale is massive. The Trinity watershed is gargantuan. Only a ride or hike up and down the earthen dams reveals it.

Have we grabbed the tail of a tiger? Do we know when to stop? In 1961, the Texas Board of Water Engineers delivered a wonky report named “A Plan for Meeting the 1980 Water Requirements of Texas.” It concluded Texas had adequate water to meet 1980’s needs but would require far more than the 14 reservoirs under construction at that time. The board called for 45 new reservoirs. Reading the old report, I realized we could change the dates, multiply by three, and it would all still be true.

We can keep building ridges, eddies, wetlands, and ponds; a toy kingdom of topography. For us to believe in the latest, greatest plan for our silty, sultry river, we are required to engage in what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called the suspension of disbelief. The Trinity Park Conservancy has my donations, because I have taken their “semblance of truth” about the 200-acre Harold Simmons Park, and I have dived into Michael Van Valkenburgh’s fantastic tale, just as I dammed the wet roads of Cape Town where I grew up. I have suspended judgment on the implausibility of the narrative of a playful and egalitarian gathering place in our vast flood plain.

For a year or more, I have explored this trickling, flooding, ambivalent watershed, and if we decide we want to add cafes and performance spaces, I will enjoy the spectacle, but I will carry in my mind the dammed reservoirs upstream and wonder about the scale of what we can do, and ought to do.

First and foremost, we need to get outside and move along our waterways and understand where we live and what was done for us to be here.

A Riparian To-Do List

We will never have our blue Danube or tranquil Thames, but if the Trinity is aptly named, we can have three rivers in one: a cleaner stretch in the shadow of downtown, a better-visited series of dams upstream, and a wilder southern stream in a byzantine wood wonderland. Intricate investment schemas are needed, but so are connections to the actual physical place we live.

  1. We need a cleaner Trinity with less bacteria. When I was in Copenhagen and Stockholm, I learned you could drink the water as you swam in the harbor. Before scoffing, why not?

  2. We’ve got to keep pumping. The water that we see does not predominantly flow within the banks of the Trinity. Our creeks and channels and groundwater arrive all at the same time, and we would be underwater without our massive pumping systems. Three new pump stations, at a cost of about $400 million, are being added to a system lagging since the ’60s.

    flooded Trinity after
    The flooded Trinity after heavy rains.

  3. We need to shore up our dams. As I rode down a dozen embankments, I was mindful that clay and sand shrink and swell with our volatile weather. Living a daily bike life, I was struck by the extremes of our climate. Even as a boy, damming our avenue, I realized when the top gets heavier than the bottom, gravity wins. And these mounds of earth hold back over 2 billion tons of water. Seepage and uplift are the risks; a rapid rise in the reservoir can exploit the risk of erosion and structural distress. A cavity will form. A sand boil, or whirlpool in boggy weeds, is the first clue. If it forms a “pipe,” we are in high-danger situation. Just as I did as a boy, we would have to build a cofferdam, a dam to save the dam.

  4. We need to expand the state parks in the watershed: Piney forest hikes, shoreline trails, beaches and paddleboard stands, and, yes, bicycle paths. Commerce has never had a problem thriving in our crossroads city. But we need green spaces to connect us. On a non-lake day, I rode down Lamar, turned left on Al Lipscomb Way, across Cesar Chavez, left again on Malcolm X Boulevard, and north to Deep Ellum. On a bicycle, the distance from the casual abundance of Uptown to the south side is huge: a million miles in one.

  5. We should preserve the ribbons of trees along the river and rivulets, shore up the tributaries, and add access for cyclists. We pedalers tend to stop at some point and buy tacos and a cold drink, easily distanced from each other and tied to fresh air. A bicycle fosters connection a car or mere feet cannot; traveling 20 miles is feasible without being in marathon shape, but you don’t miss details when cruising at 20 mph.

This story originally ran in the April issue of D Magazine with the title “Finding Another Gear.” Harry Jones is a senior shareholder in the Dallas office of the international labor law firm of Littler Mendelson. Write to [email protected]