How Much of the Colorado Should We Leave Up to Elon Musk’s Discretion?
Tesla uses a massive amount of water while the Boring Co. attempts to dump its wastewater into the river
Three years ago, Travis County cut a deal with Tesla, selling it a 2,000-acre site on the banks of the Colorado River in Southeastern Travis County – and a 70% rebate on its property taxes. The mammoth $1.1 billion Gigafactory that ensued now produces a quarter million Model Ys annually, and Elon Musk has promised to build a publicly accessible "ecological paradise" around the factory. But Musk has, in some ways, already proven untrustworthy. As part of the deal, Tesla was to create at least 5,000 new full-time jobs by 2024 – at least half going to Travis County residents. But immediately, there were concerns from the Workers Defense Project about the lack of third-party monitoring in the deal – and sure enough, accusations of wage theft and unsafe conditions at the factory followed last December.
As to whether Musk is creating "paradise" along the Colorado, the little publicly available information doesn't bode well. Travis County commissioners who struck the deal with Tesla aren't sure exactly how much water the factory is using or will use, despite repeated requests for information. And an international parallel raises concern. In March 2022, Tesla opened another Gigafactory in the coal mining state of Brandenburg, Germany, called Giga Berlin, which would produce half a million vehicles annually. Immediately, there were concerns from environmental advocates that the drought-stricken area's groundwater supply wouldn't be enough for both the cars and the people living there. In a research note upon the factory's opening, Deutsche Bank auto sector analysts wrote that "the company may completely exhaust the water reserve in the region with the first stage of the plant build out, and will need additional extraction permits in order to expand its capacity any further in the future." Musk literally laughed off the notion of Tesla having an effect on the water supply, but experts' estimates that the factory would almost double the amount of water consumed in the area, plus subsequent legal challenges, caused a delay in the plant's opening.
German and Texan politicians alike have supported Musk's operations moving in, as they're big job creators. But at the breakneck speed he builds, will there be any water left for the rest of us? And are his contributions to the electric vehicle industry enough to offset his local ecological footprint?
Sucking Up the River
Coming out of one of the hottest and driest months on record, the Central Texas water supply is severely stressed. In a late July press release, the Lower Colorado River Authority reported that combined storage in two of the Highland Lakes – Buchanan and Travis, which provide water to more than 1.4 million "Texans, businesses, industries, and the environment" as LCRA puts it – is now at 49% capacity, and is projected to fall below 45% capacity by this weekend. When that happens, LCRA will move to Stage 2 of its drought contingency plan and implement mandatory measures to significantly reduce water usage. LCRA has already cut off water to the Gulf Coast and agricultural customers in Colorado, Wharton, and Matagorda counties for the first time since the 2012-15 drought. For the first time in its 36-year history, the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District announced last week that it's on track to enter Stage 4 Exceptional Drought status. Water levels in the nearby Trinity Aquifer are continually dropping – Jacob's Well has reported zero flow since late June, while the Blanco River in Wimberley is on the same dismal track, reporting record low flows.
Meanwhile, Tesla has a contract through September 2024 with LCRA to draw up to 10 acre-feet of river water a year for irrigation purposes, but the rest of its water comes from our city's utility, Austin Water. So how much of Austinites' drinking water is being sucked up by Musk's projects? Hard to know exactly. Tesla did not respond to the Chronicle's request for comment. In FY 2022, Tesla used 127.7 million gallons, per data from Austin Water – but the Gigafactory opened in April 2022 and only operated for five months of the fiscal year, all while production was ramping up, so we can expect significantly higher usage in future years.
County Commissioner Brigid Shea says she's asked Tesla "from the very beginning how much total water they will be using." Last July she got an estimate of 600 million gallons a year, "which is pretty astonishing. And I told them I was concerned about that quantity of water." Still, Shea is impressed by the factory's plan for using reclaimed water, though in its latest 2022 impact report, they seem to have more plans than documented action. The report states that Giga Texas plans to capture at least a quarter of its roof runoff to use for cooling manufacturing equipment. They say that "in an average rainfall year" – this year we're significantly below the historic average – "such systems should save an estimated 7.5 million gallons of potable city water." They say they'll start using reclaimed water this year, which they estimate could serve cooling needs for a production level of 250,000 vehicles per year and save "just under 150 million gallons of potable city water annually." But any data on what their water usage, reclaimed or otherwise, has been so far is nowhere to be found, though the plant started producing cars in 2021.
Tunnelin’ and Dumpin’
Further down the Colorado River in Bastrop, another of Musk's companies is positioning itself to dump close to 150,000 gallons of wastewater into the river. The Boring Co. came under fire in March for petitioning the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to dump that much as a temporary measure, the company says, until a new Bastrop wastewater treatment plant is built in 2025. TCEQ has already cited the Boring Co. over several violations, including poor erosion controls, while Bastrop County has issued them a violation for an unpermitted wastewater holding tank/septic system.
"Essentially, they just build what they want without checking regulations and local requirements first," says Chap Ambrose, a software developer who lives right across FM 1209 from the Boring Co. site. He's become the local mouthpiece for all things Boring-related, and details his frustrating experiences communicating with the company on his website (keepbastropboring.com) and on YouTube, writing, "They also seem to be actively hiding the truth … I was asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement when I requested site drawings, but I later learned those drawings were public record!" Ambrose says the company doesn't seem to prioritize their surrounding environment unless pressed: "Only when they're getting violations and legal threats do they seem to follow the state [rules]." A Washington Post article from May of this year quotes a Bastrop county employee complaining in an email that they have been "regularly hounded by [the Boring Co.'s] staff and consultants to expedite and approve permit applications that are incomplete and not in compliance."
Aside from pollution concerns about surface water, environmental advocates here – as in Brandenburg – are also concerned about groundwater: "Every family home in the area is on well water, all the neighbors drink this water, and several rely on it as part of their small businesses," says Ambrose. Steve Box, director of nonprofit Environmental Stewardship, has been tracking Boring Co. plans that show them tunneling 1,500 feet from the lower Colorado River, where the shallow Colorado alluvial aquifer sits. The company will be boring through sand and gravel that drains into the river. Box is also concerned about Boring Co.'s request of TCEQ to allow them to spray treated wastewater on the property – the aquifer is "at most" 10-15 feet below the spray field, he says. "So, in this case, everything that would go into the spray field and leaches into their alluvial aquifer ultimately has a route into the river."
In public comments on the permits to TCEQ, Box contends that parts of the Colorado River near the Boring Co. site with the highest aquatic and recreational use standards in the state are already not meeting standards, "yet [TCEQ] is permitting wastewater and stormwater as if the river is meeting the standards." He writes that "evidence shows … impairment of fish and macrobenthic communities … yet these concerns have not been adequately investigated." Box says TCEQ should designate the segment "impaired" and that if the Boring Co. wants to spray wastewater in the area, it should work with the local groundwater conservation district to monitor the river's water quality.
"I'm not anti-growth, I'm not anti-Elon," insists Ambrose. "But I am concerned about the water and about the people working here and living around it. There's the assumption that a high-tech business is going to do everything right. And I think that assumption goes away the closer you get and the more experience you have living next to it. You start to see that their marketing is really good."
Trouble in Ecological Paradise
Around the current Gigafactory and still-under-construction Boring Co., Musk's properties are always expanding. There are plans for 110 homes for workers on FM 1209 – nicknamed Project Awesome – with a liquor license for a bistro already obtained. This growth has sparked environmental advocates' concerns that Tesla will set precedent for further development to encroach upon the fragile ecosystems on the river's edge. One organization has been successful in opening lines of communication with Tesla – TOCA, or Tesla Outreach Community Alliance, a coalition of community groups including the NAACP, Hornsby Bend Alliance, Del Valle Community Coalition, and PODER. They've had regular meetings with Tesla since June of last year, when they sent a letter to Musk requesting dialogue with the local community. In it, they set a few environmental expectations: for Tesla to improve protection of water quality, ensure air quality is not degraded; develop an ecological conservation and restoration plan for Tesla's riverfront property, including plans for a community park; and enhance measures to mitigate flood risk for downstream communities. So far, they haven't seen much tangible progress on any of these goals – despite Musk's "paradise" goals.
Last summer, Tesla held a summit of sorts with local elected leaders and the community, where they unveiled exciting plans for riparian restoration along the banks of the Colorado – but the consensus is there hasn't been much movement since. Christopher Brown, a lawyer, science fiction author, and part of the Colorado River Conservancy (a subsidiary of PODER), says the initial presentations were "promising." Tesla reps told TOCA they were working with Siglo Group, ecological consultants that Brown calls "reputable and trustworthy, and in tune with how you properly restore areas around here. But [Tesla staff] rebuffed any efforts to get them to put any of that in writing." Brown says that since then, Tesla has communicated that the stretch of land between the factory and the river that they're restoring isn't publicly accessible. "Whatever public pronouncements their CEO might have made of their intentions, those are not contractual obligations." Siglo Group did not respond to the Chronicle.
Brown was originally excited about the prospect, even penning an op-ed in the local publication Urbanitus explaining "how Tesla's Gigafactory can save Austin's urban river." He advocated for Musk to set a "powerful precedent for other new developments along the urban and exurban Colorado" in terms of water quality protections, as the current water quality protections for the river diminish as it flows east of 183 at Longhorn Dam. There are still some guardrails – city watershed protection standards apply because the factory falls in Austin's extraterritorial jurisdiction, or ETJ (an area outside city limits that the city and the county share regulatory control over), and the 100-year floodplain (the land predicted to flood during a once-in-100-years storm). Those regulations require a buffer zone of at least 200 feet between the riverbank and any development.
Last year, Council passed a resolution requesting increased river protections downstream of Longhorn Dam, in light of increasing development in the area. Watershed Protection staff recommended doubling the buffer zone to 400 feet, but Council called for more staff analysis and stakeholder input – the new deadline for staff to bring forward updated regulations to Council is May 30, 2024.
As these protections are left pending, Brown says what's at stake is special: "In a world where all these great cities of the world are spending tens of millions of dollars to take their urban rivers and try to bring them back to something like their natural condition … Here, we already have it. We just have to not screw it up."
As Box puts it, "We don't want him to mess up our ecological paradise, and then have to fix it in order to have his ecological paradise."
Though Musk's effect on Central Texas water and ecology is not yet clear, he's certainly made massive contributions to the success of an increasingly urgent energy transition worldwide. "Anytime you have new industry, or new demands on water coming to Texas, it's certainly concerning," concedes Luke Metzger with Environment Texas. "But agriculture is still the main use of water in Texas, followed by municipal and residential uses, and then industrial is a smaller portion of that. It's important to remember that broader context." And while Musk's aspirations may lead him to suck up our water, he's also leading the charge on solar power in various ways.
After a summer during which solar carried the grid, producing more than a third of our state's power during some record demand days, Austin Energy is trying to increase its local solar capacity. Batteries – both commercial and residential – will play an integral role in making that power last when the sun doesn't shine. Tesla has been a leader in terms of home battery storage, Metzger points out, and "really innovative" in terms of helping their solar customers sell power stored in Tesla batteries to ERCOT during peak demand, so their customers can provide a public service and make some money doing it. A new pilot program at the Public Utility Commission lets companies aggregate individual customers' power to meet an energy savings goal set by the PUC. "Tesla, by virtue of having the most supply out there, is well-positioned to meet a lot of that," says Metzger.
Perhaps the most impactful contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions lies in the Gigafactory itself and the Model Ys it produces. "Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, and he's done more than anyone to popularize electric vehicles, get them on the road, and make them more affordable to consumers," says Metzger. According to the impact report, by 2030, Tesla aims to produce 20 million electric vehicles per year, compared to a half million in 2020. They're also manufacturing 1,500 gigawatt-hours' worth of energy storage in batteries per year, compared to 3 GWh in 2020. However, as the company ramps up production, it'll need more water and produce more carbon – its total emissions, including from its supply chain, grew 4% last year alone. And Tesla ranks worse than most other automakers at self-reporting those emissions.
Still, local advocates haven't given up on Musk yet and are calling on him to do the right thing when it comes to water management and transparency. "We recognize that there are going to be some impacts, and those are a trade-off we have to make, because electrifying transportation is just so critical," says Metzger. "Whatever you think of what he says on Twitter – which you might rightly hate – his contributions to clean energy should and do stand on their own."
* Editor's note Thursday, Aug. 10, 3:05pm: This story has been updated to clarify that Tesla’s deal with Travis County facilitated the sale, not gift, of land to Tesla. The Chronicle regrets imprecise wording.