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Behind the beauty of placid Lady Bird Lake is a history of tragedy and controversy

Not actually a lake but a large reservoir created by dam construction in 1960, the body of water in the heart of Austin has a fascinating and sometimes dark history.

AUSTIN, Texas — There is no question about the aesthetic beauty of Lady Bird Lake, as seen on thousands of pictures of Austin’s dynamic skyline. Some have called it the city’s “front door,” a sort dramatic dividing line between North and South Austin.

But from the beginning, the lake has been at the center of controversy and tragedy.

It’s really not a lake at all but a reservoir created by the opening of Longhorn Dam in 1960 to help tame the wild Colorado River, which created epic downtown flooding during spring storms before the dam was built.

Within a year of the creation of what was then called Town Lake, a massive pesticide spill linked to a former East Austin’s chemical company killed thousands of fish in Austin and 200 miles downstream.

It was an environmental disaster that was reported in the pages of Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking 1962 book on the dangers of DDT, “The Silent Spring.”

Then in 1964, a tragedy that shocked the city when two young girls celebrating Mother’s Day with their family drowned while swimming in the lake.

Ollie Rendon was 8 years old when he witnessed his 8- and 11-year-old sisters slip beneath the water.

“It was heartbreaking. It’s still difficult for me to come to the lake,” Rendon said in a 2018 KVUE interview.

Their deaths led to a ban on swimming in Lady Bird Lake, a law still in effect today due to the hazardous rocks and stones left over from a history of dam collapses from the days when the Colorado River raged.

In the 1970s, the lake would be the center of a controversy during high-speed power boat races that were held during the annual Aqua Fest celebrations.

Crowds attending the races disrupted daily life in the East Austin neighborhoods along the lake. That led to fights among supporters and opponents of the races. Eventually, the boat races were moved away from the city.

This week, the lake is the center of speculation and rumors after another drowning near Rainey Street.

As police continue their investigation into the most recent drowning, Lady Bird Lake is back in the news again.

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