Go See Buffalo Lake While It’s Holding Water Again

By Jim Steiert (Hereford, TX)

If you haven’t done so yet, you probably owe yourself a trip over to Umbarger. Either a drive within the Buffalo Lake refuge or jaunt south down FM 168 to cross Tierra Blanca Creek in front of the dam and get a look at Buffalo Lake while it has water and is, indeed, for the first time in a long time, a lake. Attaining that status doesn’t happen often in the modern era for what was once a Panhandle playground.  

We visited the lake the other evening before sundown. It was a bittersweet sentimental journey that brought back memories of great times, as well as recollections of what some of us around here will always regard as a government boondoggle in the handling of a water resource.

ONCE A PLAYGROUND–Many who grew up locally can remember the heyday of Buffalo Lake at Umbarger when it was a water playground close to home. This photo, taken from the west side of the lake looking east, shows sailboats and motorboats one the once spring-fed lake. (Portal to Texas History Photo)

Buffalo Lake was created with the building of Umbarger Dam by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Back in 1937, Buffalo Lake pooled behind Umbarger Dam, built as part of the Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act of 1937. Water on dry land instantly attracted waterfowl along the Central Flyway. 

The Soil Conservation Service first managed the lake for water conservation, recreation, and as a wildlife sanctuary.

Flowing spring waters along the Tierra Blanca Creek watershed—likely augmented by irrigation runoff in latter days, made for a jewel of fondly recalled recreational opportunity across decades into the late 1960s.

It was in 1958 that the 7,664 acres were transferred to the Department of Interior and in 1959, Buffalo Lake National Wildlife Refuge was established.

During its salad days Buffalo Lake drew fishermen from all over the Panhandle, particularly nearby Hereford, Canyon, and Amarillo, and there was excellent angling for panfish including bass and crappie, and channel catfish. There were bait stores in nearby Umbarger.

On the west side of the lake itself, you could store a boat, rent a boat, or obtain accommodations for a day or several. On weekends or late in the week there would be a line of boats headed for this shortgrass prairie lake.

An abundance of trees were a while in getting established but eventually surrounded the lake and there were numerous choice picnic sites. First come, first served, so best get there early. I remember times when the cousins from Saint Louis were visiting and other cousins from Amarillo would join in and we would all gather for a family outing at Buffalo Lake replete with fishing, picnicking and some in-the-water activities.

My grandad would take his before-its-time camper bus replete with kitchen and line a whole section of the shoreline with fishing rods in conduit holders. Perry Van Vliet from Hart could catch a burlap sack of catfish in a couple of hours, stopping by the lake on a return trip from Amarillo buying carpentry supplies.

There was water skiing on Buffalo Lake. There were fishing boats up and down. When the waterfowl wintering season came, floating barrel barriers on cables marked the limit that boats could traverse, the south end of the refuge was for waterfowl and bald and golden eagles—it all worked out nicely since there weren’t a lot of water contact sports going on in the cold weather months anyway.

I can remember folks who attended church in Nazareth on Sunday morning—they had their boat parked just down the hill and right after church they would hitch up and hook ‘em for Buffalo Lake for a day of family water skiing action. Thinking about that was a distraction from the sermon.

Tierra Blanca Creek and natural springs fed Buffalo Lake until the 1970s. Irrigation and urban water pumping sapped the water table and, simultaneously, the rains decreased. 

Tierra Blanca Creek dried up. With the end of quality spring water, eventually so did Buffalo Lake. 

After a torrential rain known as the Memorial Day Flood filled the lake to what some parties termed “capacity” in May of 1978, folks got all excited over the prospect of their recreation lake being back again.  Texas Parks and Wildlife even stocked some fish. Despite the fact that it stood up to a substantial flood surge and saved Canyon from even worse flooding, Umbarger Dam was suddenly deemed unsafe and declarations from on high in Washington were that the lake must immediately be drained.

Those were fighting words. A volunteer citizen committee including folks from Hereford, Canyon and Amarillo formed and took legal action against the Department of the Interior and the Fish and Wildlife Service. Hearings were held. One in Canyon reached near-riotous proportions as oblivious Interior officials citing rote policy way-under-gauged the intense emotional attachment to Buffalo Lake and what locals deemed the unwarranted drainage of the lake.

Draining of the lake was stalled by the citizen committee legal action for two years—a little longer thanks to the sudden mysterious disappearance of the wheel controlling the gate at the dam amidst dark of the night activity, but inevitably the Feds, who in the opinion of some Buffalo Lake backers, didn’t care about Panhandle water, prevailed.

IN ITS HEYDAY–A close observer can make an accurate guess as to when this photo looking west at Buffalo Lake at Umbarger was taken, based on the year model of autos and pickups parked around the lake. To the west is a recreation hall on a hill and boat rental and storage facilities near the water’s edge. Hard to imagine today with virtually no live spring flow feeding it, but at one time, the highly popular playground was fed by flowing high quality spring water from the Tierra Blanca Creek. (Portal to Texas History Photo)

The Umbarger Dam was summarily condemned and the lake drained. 

In 1992, the Fish and Wildlife Service replaced Umbarger Dam with a lower flood control structure different in appearance and build from the old dam. 

There’s no denying that now, when major storms occasionally flood Tierra Blanca Creek, they are essentially a cattle manure washout of feedlots from Hereford virtually to the New Mexico border.  Accordingly, water quality suffers from upstream cattle feedlots and water is laden with fecal matter and e-coli bacteria, prompting a no water contact directive. 

Per Fed policy from Washington, our close-to-home refuge releases any accumulated water and instead the dry lakebed is managed as arid wildlife habitat. 

All of that is hard to ponder when one looks on water again in the fondly-recalled expanse of Buffalo Lake where we once dunked home-made dough bait and cranked channel catfish from the south end. 

The tainted waters are deceptively blue and unhazardous-appearing at a distance. Don’t they shine amidst the green of surrounding grassland. The water will be there at least for a little while.

Our friends Jude Smith, refuge manager, and Melanie Hartman, who work at the Buffalo Lake, Muleshoe, and Grulla wildlife refuges, do their best to manage what’s there at Buffalo Lake peaceably, according to dictums from agency folks far-removed from Panhandle values.

At least the grassland and the wildflowers, the walking trails and the viewing points haven’t yet been condemned.  

Go see Buffalo Lake the way it used to be—while you can. 

Jim Steiert is an award-winning member of the Texas Outdoor Writers Association and a Certified Texas Master Naturalist.

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