Garland and Montgomery counties are indeed fortunate to be the home of beautiful Lake Ouachita. This is the story of how Lake Ouachita came to be built in west-central Arkansas in the early 1950s.
First, a little bit about Lake Ouachita. It is the largest lake located entirely in Arkansas. The reservoir is over 34 miles in length and covers over 48,000 acres. At normal flood pool, the lake has 640 miles of shoreline, but in times of flooding the lake can expand to almost 1,000 miles of shoreline.
By comparison, Lake Hamilton has only 170 miles of shoreline and covers just 7,000 acres. Because of the extensive residential development on Lake Hamilton and the less mountainous terrain, it does not have the ability to impound huge volumes of water in times of flooding as this could result in flood damage to thousands of lake homes. At its normal elevation of 400 feet, Lake Hamilton stores approximately 45 billion gallons of water. The water storage of Lake Ouachita is over 20 times larger impounding 1 trillion gallons of water when the lake is at its normal elevation of 570 feet. Lake Ouachita can expand to a capacity of almost 2 trillion gallons of water at its maximum flood stage of 592 feet. How much is a trillion gallons of water? When Hurricane Harvey devastated the Houston area in 2017, the huge amount of rainwater that fell was estimated to be 1 trillion gallons of water, or the equivalent of one Lake Ouachita.
So just why did the federal government decide to spend over $31 million dollars in the early 1950s (the equivalent of $290 million dollars today) to build such a large lake in an isolated part of Arkansas? The answer is flood control. Lake Ouachita is part of the extensive flood control program to minimize flooding in the lower Mississippi River Valley. The catastrophic Mississippi River flood of 1927 that inundated millions of acres in seven states made clear that levies were not sufficient to control major flooding on the Mississippi River and its tributaries. By the 1930s, Congress came to understand that flood control was going to require the costly construction of approximately 300 large reservoirs like Lake Ouachita up and down the Mississippi river valley. Other similar flood control lakes built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Arkansas included Greers Ferry, Bull Shoals, Table Rock, Nimrod, Norfork, Beaver, Greeson and DeGray.
Why was this west-central Arkansas site chosen for such a massive flood control project? The terrain of the Ouachita River between Mountain Pine and Mount Ida is almost perfectly suited as a location for a flood control lake because of its mountainous character. The lake holds back what otherwise would be torrential floods down river until normal conditions are restored. Lake Ouachita provides flood protection for both south Arkansas, and also central Louisiana where the Ouachita River ultimately merges into the Red River.
A second reason the federal government chose the upper Ouachita River as the site for the location of Lake Ouachita was hydroelectric power generation. As the Ouachita River flows east from the Mount Ida area to the Hot Springs area, the elevation of the Ouachita River drops from approximately 650 feet to 400 feet below Blakely Mountain Dam. This dam produces 75 megawatts of power, which is more than enough power to serve a city the size of Hot Springs.
The serendipity of Lake Ouachita for local residents and visitors alike is the scenic beauty and recreational opportunities created by the construction of this magnificent lake. If you would like to see a panoramic view of Lake Ouachita, the Hickory Nut Mountain overlook provides a view of almost the entirety of Lake Ouachita. To drive to the scenic overlook, take Highway 270 west for 23 miles west from Hot Springs and turn north at the directional sign approximately one mile past the Garland County line.
If you want to learn more about the construction of Lake Ouachita you might want to read the article by local author and Ph.D. historian, Wendy Richter. This article can be found in the 2002 Record, the annual publication of the Garland County Historical Society which can be found at the Historical Society Archives building on Quapaw Avenue.
Retired local attorney Clay Farrar writes a monthly column about Hot Springs history. Email [email protected] with questions or comments.
Editorial on 10/30/2019
Print Headline: The reasoning behind building Lake Ouachita