An osprey flaps its way upstream, a freshly caught fish in its talons, as we paddle down a calm stretch of the Lower Colorado River on a bright April evening. The sound of rippling water blends with the steady hum of traffic. Motorists speeding over the river on Texas Highway 130, just east of us, may not even notice the Colorado. We’re surrounded by a fast-growing patch of urban sprawl near the Austin airport, about eight miles east of downtown. New housing developments, shops, and office parks are popping up at a rapid clip, but you wouldn’t know it from the perspective of a canoe. This shallow portion of the river is brimming with waterfowl and countless other riparian creatures. It’s an urban wild, of course, so behind egrets pecking at fish, discarded tires emerge from the overgrown riverfront. Nearby, a fisherman casts from shore, while kids splash in the olive-tinted water. With the river reflecting the early evening sun, we round a slight bend. There, in the distance, set back along the Colorado’s banks, rises Tesla’s Gigafactory Texas, its 4.3 million square feet covering an area the size of 75 football fields, all enclosed in austere concrete walls.
It feels a bit like we’re paddling into a scene from a dystopian novel, not least because the man behind me, steering our canoe, is Christopher Brown, an Austin attorney and science fiction author. Brown, who is also a founding member of the Colorado River Conservancy (CRC), offered to take me down the stream to get a view of the factory from the water. When Elon Musk announced the facility in eastern Travis County during a July 2020 earnings call, he emphasized the site’s proximity to the Colorado. “It’s going to basically be an ecological paradise, birds in the trees, butterflies, fish in the stream,” Musk gushed. He also said the development would include a publicly accessible boardwalk and hike-and-bike trail.
Almost two years later, it’s unclear whether Tesla will deliver on those promises. The Texas Gigafactory, which sits on more than two thousand acres, started producing vehicles in late 2021. County documents show that Tesla is expected to employ five thousand full-time workers by mid-2024, while Musk has said that the company will need ten thousand employees by the end of 2022. In addition to the existing Tesla site, Musk has reportedly acquired property on the opposite side of the river, where he’s planning more construction. Environmental advocates believe that other industrial facilities may soon follow Tesla to the area—and they want a say in how all this development might affect the river. “There’s no vehicle for community engagement or input on this plan, and that’s what we think is concerning,” says Paul DiFiore, the CRC’s program manager. “[Tesla isn’t] required to do that, but we think in the interest of being a good neighbor, they should.”
The CRC says increased development could pose a threat to the river’s diverse urban ecosystem. Coyotes, bobcats, and foxes roam through this stretch of the river corridor. In addition to the hundreds of bird species that pass by, the Colorado is home to a wide array of aquatic life, including river otters, Guadalupe bass, and the Texas fatmucket, a native freshwater mussel that’s been proposed for endangered status by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The CRC worries that by covering once-permeable ground with roofed structures and parking lots, the factory (and other facilities to come) could cause erosion, exacerbate flooding risks, and worsen downstream water quality. DiFiore would like to see Tesla convene an advisory panel of local environmental experts and seek community input on any plans related to development along the river. “Start running your ideas for the ‘ecological paradise’ through them and work together with them,” he suggests. “There’s just no reason not to have a partnership.”
There’s a precedent for these concerns in Travis County. A leak discovered this January at a Samsung semiconductor factory in northeast Austin was found to have discharged thousands of gallons of highly acidic waste into a small unnamed tributary of Harris Branch Creek, leaving “virtually no surviving aquatic life,” according to a city memo. While Tesla’s operation is different from Samsung’s, the development underscores the ecological risks that big manufacturing companies can pose.
PODER (People Organized in Defense of Earth and Her Resources), the CRC’s parent group, has a decades-long history of organizing majority Latino and Black communities in East Austin against projects that pose a threat to the environment, including campaigns that succeeded in thwarting further development of semiconductor facilities and removing bulk fuel storage tanks from the community. Susana Almanza is a founding member and director of PODER and a recent appointee to the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council. She says that when she heard Tesla would build its newest facility in eastern Travis County, she had a lot of questions. Almanza wanted to know if the company’s presence would further accelerate an already gentrifying East Austin. She wanted to know where Tesla’s materials would come from and what the company would do with its byproducts. Finally, she says, “When we heard that they’re going to do the Colorado River ‘ecological paradise,’ that’s when we go, like, ‘Okay, we really need to be talking with them.’”
DiFiore, whose background is in corporate social responsibility, took on that role, and he recognizes that Tesla is here to stay. “The deal is done, they’ve built the factory, and will be operating here for the foreseeable future,” he says. “So if we are concerned about some of the environmental impacts and social impacts of the factory, we’re just gonna have to work to mitigate those going forward.”
That’s why the CRC has partnered with other local community and conservation organizations like Travis Audubon, an independent chapter of the national bird conservation group. Travis Audubon’s executive director, Nicole Netherton, notes that some 360 species of birds have been identified at the Hornsby Bend Bird Observatory, an Austin Water facility that’s open to the public, just across the highway from the Tesla site. This stretch of river provides an important layover for flocks of migrating birds such as the American golden plover and Sprague’s pitpit. “It is the number one place that I tell people if they’re interested in birding in town, that’s where they should go, because you get to see the most variety,” Netherton says.
While Netherton is disappointed that Tesla hasn’t done more to engage the community, she also thinks that Musk’s concept of an environmentally friendly factory could be a real benefit. “We are very interested to know what that means,” she says. “It seems like a real opportunity not only for Tesla to support bird and wildlife conservation in that part of the river, but also [to provide] access to nature and green space,” she says.
DiFiore says that he and other conservation advocates are heartened that Tesla has enlisted a local ecological planning firm, Siglo Group, to begin to shepherd Musk’s environmental vision into reality, but so far details have been scarce. Tesla staff presented a slideshow to DiFiore, Brown, and a handful of others during a virtual meeting in January, but they’ve received no updates since then, and there’s no official timeline on the project. The presentation included broad goals for the property, such as facilitating a human-nature connection, improving ecological health, and being climate- resilient. According to DiFiore, Tesla staff discussed the possibility of restoring native soils and plant life, as well as building a road along the river that would be set back four hundred feet from the water. Presenters also mentioned the option of building a boardwalk and facilities for birdwatching.
“From what I have seen, the conceptual plan looks very promising, but nothing has yet been formally presented or shared with us,” says Jon White, Travis County’s director of natural resources and environmental quality, who attended the meeting. “The plan is an important talking point for Tesla, but seems to be an afterthought as they move to bring the Gigafactory and associated facilities into full production.” (Tesla did not respond to multiple inquiries from Texas Monthly, and Siglo Group declined to comment.)
Even as many Americans welcome development of clean-energy technologies, and the jobs that they create, some activists have raised concerns about the local environment effects in communities where companies are building electric vehicles and deploying solar panels. In north-central Georgia, the electric-truck manufacturer Rivian has faced a backlash over its development of a new factory. In North Texas, environmentalists have raised concerns about a solar energy facility set to be built atop the largest remaining tall-grass prairie in the state.
DiFiore thinks local concerns need to be considered alongside clean energy benefits. “I just think people often want to give Tesla and electric vehicle manufacturers a pass as green companies,” he says. “But I always just come back to the question of, like, what is the trade-off between global carbon emission reductions in the long run versus immediate tangible local environmental impacts? And I don’t think we have a good way of measuring that.”
Some environmentalists, while validating many of the concerns the CRC and others have raised, emphasize the bigger picture: Tesla’s new facility is serving a global need. “For me, the overriding concern has to be rapid transformation of our energy system away from fossil fuels,” says Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas. In navigating the energy transition, Metzger says, advocates should consider factors like historical environmental injustice and impacts to wildlife, but ultimately, “[We have to] work to find the best solution we can, recognizing that there are trade-offs on some of these things.”
Austin isn’t completely unprepared for Tesla’s colossal footprint on the banks of the Colorado. Kevin Anderson, coordinator of Austin Water’s Center for Environmental Research at Hornsby Bend, just upriver from Tesla, has been working on conservation projects along this section of the Colorado since the late nineties. He says the city and county saw this development coming and planned accordingly. The City of Austin has the authority to impose certain regulations on the Tesla facility, which is just outside of city limits, because it falls under the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction. This means that there, as in almost all of Travis County, a 200-foot to 300-foot buffer protects the river from development on its banks, and landowners are subject to the city’s development codes.
Anticipating the population growth and development pressures affecting the river, in 2003 Anderson and others began meeting as a group that would ultimately become known as the Austin-Bastrop River Corridor Partnership, which in 2007 produced a report outlining broad goals and specific interests along this section of river. In the subsequent years, the city and county have bought up property along the river corridor. “There’ve been structures put in place to try to deal with it as best we can,” Anderson notes. He also acknowledges that Tesla’s facility signifies a new phase of development along the Colorado. “It’s entering warp drive,” he says.
That’s why the CRC and others want to establish a presence along the river, and advocate for conservation and community-engaged development. Netherton notes that it “would be very easy for a company with the resources that Tesla has to take some steps to engage more people, to be a good neighbor.” It’s something that the CRC and its allies will continue to ask of companies moving into the region. “It starts with Tesla,” DiFiore says, “but it doesn’t end there.”