Friday, August 21, 2020 by Jo Clifton

Tesla urged to use water-saving measures

As Tesla speeds ahead with converting an old sand and gravel mining site in eastern Travis County into a manufacturing facility for its Cybertruck and Model Y SUV, City Council members have begun asking questions about how much water the plant might use and whether Tesla owner Elon Musk would be willing to take steps to reduce the use of city water. The plant at the intersection of State Highway 130 and Harold Green Road could be 4 million to 5 million square feet, according to recent estimates.

Under the previous owner, the 2,100-acre property along the Colorado River in Austin’s extraterritorial jurisdiction was called the Austin Green PUD. The property owners went through most of the arduous process of getting a zoning change in order to make the site eligible for housing developments. Because of the condition of the property – which attorney Richard Suttle has described as looking like a moonscape – there was speculation at the Planning Commission that it might take seven years to clean up the site and make it habitable.

With the intended use changing so radically, that’s no longer an issue; Suttle told City Council’s Water Oversight Committee at Thursday’s meeting that the PUD is on hold after winning Council approval on first reading. Since Tesla purchased the property, it has been in the process of reclaiming it for the last two or three weeks using the mining permits issued to the mine operator, Suttle said.

The previous owner of the property expected it to be annexed into the city, but that seems a lot less likely now. Suttle said under the current regulations the city reviews the site for environmental and water quality regulations and Travis County provides a general permit, looking mostly at drainage and floodplain regulations.

As far as water and wastewater service goes, Suttle said the tract straddles SH 130. Part of the tract is east of SH 130 and part is west of SH 130. The east side is within the service area of the Hornsby Bend Utility, a subsidiary of SouthWest Water Company. Austin Water serves the west side of the property. Suttle told the committee that the company has asked for an expedited release from the Hornsby Bend service area. Tesla would like to use reclaimed water from Austin Water, but the utility would need to upgrade the lines and secure more land and easements in order to serve the Tesla site.

Suttle never disclosed the amount of water Tesla would need in order to operate the plant, and he told the Austin Monitor after the meeting that he did not know how much his client might need. However, he did note that Tesla was building two other manufacturing facilities, one in Germany and one in China. According to a report about the German plant, it will use an estimated 62,873 gallons per hour, which in an eight-hour day works out to 502,984 gallons. (This figure may be either too high or too low, but no one involved wanted to venture a guess as to how many gallons the plant would use.)

How much and what kind of water the plant will use will be a big issue when representatives of Tesla meet with Austin Water executives to work out a plan. One topic that will be on that agenda is dual plumbing, an idea endorsed by the Water Forward plan. Designed to conserve water, a dual plumbing system separates fully treated drinking water from graywater, which can be used for flushing toilets, irrigation and in cooling towers for air conditioning.

Council Member Leslie Pool, a member of the committee, said, “We absolutely need to know” how much water the plant will use and whether it will make a commitment to green infrastructure such as dual plumbing. “The success of this plant will rest on the water systems” Tesla chooses, she said. Although green infrastructure may cost more in the beginning, “it will pay massive dividends later.” Everyone who uses the river, from the farmers to the north to the shrimpers in the Gulf, needs to work together to conserve our water resources, she added.

Suttle responded, “There hasn’t been a commitment to dual plumbing yet, but it’s definitely on the table and it’s being discussed.” However, he added, “I can’t commit to it today.”

David Foster of Clean Water Action, which has recommended a number of steps the city can take to reduce its water use and save money for ratepayers. He was invited to address the committee on that topic at Thursday’s meeting. One important thing Tesla and other large manufacturers can do is “design new buildings in a way that they become water supply sources – sources of water, not just consumers of water.” He noted that a number of water conservation regulations had been written as part of the new Land Development Code, all of which has been on hold because of a lawsuit not related to water regulations.

“Tesla’s decision to come to Austin lets us all know once again that growth in this region is not going to slow down. We’re going to continue to have a growing population and we need to be very mindful of our future water supply because of that.” Just a few weeks ago, Foster said, Texas A&M University released a study warning that Central Texas can expect mega-droughts in the future, “so we need to take every step we can now to make sure we have enough water to meet future demands.”

“What I would urge Tesla to do is to design and build its facility as if the new water regulations had already been incorporated into our ordinances and rules,” Foster concluded.

Council Member Alison Alter said Council needs to move forward with the new water ordinances. “They don’t have anything to do with the protest rights” that the city was sued over. Pool agreed, and Council Member Ann Kitchen said she would like to see those ordinances on the water committee’s next agenda. However, the next regular meeting for the committee is not until Oct. 28. Council Member Paige Ellis, who chairs the committee, said there is an executive item on next week’s Council agenda to discuss what portions of the code might move forward.

This article has been changed since publication. We originally reported that David Foster is a member of the Water Forward Committee. He is not..

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

Austin Water Oversight Committee

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