Destination 2017: Austin

As you start your descent on a flight into Austin, Texas, you notice two things. First is the sprawl that resulted when, over the past several decades, a former college town transformed into the tech and business hub it is today. Second, you notice the water.

The meandering Colorado River snakes through downtown Austin, its banks lined with lush green trees and grass—surprising for a city that regularly (and increasingly) sees triple-digit temperatures. Northwest of the city are the Highland Lakes, a series of six lakes formed in the 1930s by damming the Colorado River, giving the city a reputation as an oasis in dry Texas.

That water is key to Austin’s lifestyle. Locals walk and bike along the pathways lining Lady Bird Lake, paddleboard and kayak on its waters and swim in Barton Springs Pool, a spring-fed, three-acre pool that flows into the lake. All of Austin’s water supply comes from the Colorado River via Lake Buchanan and Lake Travis, both part of the Highland Lakes chain. “We see water all the time,” says Jill Mayfield, a public information officer for Austin Water, the city’s water utility. “People are constantly on the lakes fishing or kayaking or waterskiing. It’s such an important part of who we are.” A serious drought that spanned from 2010 to 2015 brought those lakes to alarmingly low levels. During that drought, Mayfield, who has lived in Austin since 1975, says the lakes were “as low as I’d ever seen them.” In 2015, near-record rainfalls ended the drought but also brought flooding and destruction in Central Texas.

If anyone in Austin wasn’t concerned about the imperative of a sustainable water supply, that drought changed their minds—that, and the inescapable awareness of how much Austin itself has changed. Home to the 51,000-student-strong University of Texas at Austin, the city was mainly a laid-back college town that happened to also be the state capital until the 1960s and ’70s, when companies like IBM and Motorola started moving in, eager to hire UT graduates. But it wasn’t until Dell was founded here in 1984 and went public in 1988 that the city established itself as a true tech hub. Dozens of so-called “Dellionaires,” company employees made wealthy by stock options, founded businesses that drew venture capital to the region. At the same time, a music festival called South by Southwest, launched in ’87, grew from around 700 attendees to the massive music, film and technology conference and festival it is today. The 2017 iteration spanned 10 days in March and drew more than 400,000 participants. South by Southwest has branded Austin as a center of innovation culture.

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