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Background on the Colorado River

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Background on the Colorado River

The Lower Colorado River is the principal geographic and environmental feature of Austin, around which the city was founded.  Above Longhorn Dam, the river has been domesticated by civil engineering to maximize its compatibility with urban development—Lady Bird Lake, Lake Austin, and the Highland Lakes.  Below Longhorn Dam, the river is more wild.


East of the Longhorn Dam, constructed at what was one of the principal low water crossings for the Chisholm Trail, the river channel remains typically shallow, the floodplain undeveloped and thickly wooded, providing habitat for abundant wildlife—waterfowl, raptors and songbirds, fish, and a variety of mammals large and small—and a naturally occurring urban refuge for residents and visitors. The legacy of historic industrial and agricultural land uses along the river east of Highway 183 has mostly protected the river corridor from more intense development. But as Austin’s growth drives development interests further east, this remarkable natural resource is under threat, as evidenced both by projects currently underway and the development history upriver. 


Few Austin residents know how much planning and community activism it took to achieve the currently tranquil character of Lady Bird Lake, where motorboats were once allowed and the annual Aqua Fest brought something like F1 on the water—and right up into the backyards of residents of East Austin. Development along Town Lake was relatively unrestricted, until the construction of the Hyatt Hotel next to Auditorium Shores in 1984 provoked an uproar that culminated in the 1989 adoption of the Waterfront Overlay—a thoughtful approach to planning that divided the riverfront into quadrants in which development parameters were tailored based on the very different conditions downtown, west of Lamar to Mansfield Dam, east of Interstate-35 to the Longhorn Dam, and from the Longhorn Dam to 183.


The Waterfront Overlay drew from a detailed 1985 Town Lake Corridor Study that inventoried existing uses and ecological resources. The section on the river below Longhorn Dam captured something rare in any city:


The Colorado River and its environs…are very different in character from the upstream dammed segment and its highly urbanized environment. The aesthetic quality of the river corridor is best described as pastoral, tranquil.  The scene is that of the Colorado River in early days: gravel and sand bars, shallower waters easily fished by many species of water fowl and other birds, e.g., osprey, bald eagles and peregrine falcons and beds of submerged aquatic plants, and ashes, willows and anacuas. Although Highway 183 noises dominate the soundscape of the far eastern boundary, even there the river is quite lovely and peaceful.


Through the efforts of the city and community activists, this bucolic natural character has mostly been maintained to the present day. The generosity of Roberta Crenshaw and the leadership of neighbors and city planners led to the conservation of almost 400 acres on the south bank and the creation of Roy Guerrero Park, an urban green bigger than Zilker Park that is among the city’s most popular birding destinations and home to the no-longer-so-secret “Secret Beach.” Across the river, another gift endowed the 47-acre Colorado River Wildlife Preserve tucked in under the Montopolis Bridge, and the Waterfront Overlay has guided compatible redevelopment in an area slowly transitioning from industrial uses to office space and hospitality along East Cesar Chavez.


But east of 183, those rules end. The natural character mostly persists. The dominant land use on both sides of the river below the Montopolis Bridge is mineral extraction, primarily for aggregates, concrete and cement. New suburban subdivisions are beginning to pop up, some of them with builder homes built right up to the riverbank. And the Tesla Corporation automobile and battery factory now under construction on the river in eastern Travis County threatens the river corridor with a new phase of industrial land use and the other development interests it will attract. While Tesla’s CEO proclaimed his intent to preserve the riverfront portion of the company’s site as an “ecological paradise” to which the public would have access, nothing has been done to deliver on that promise. 


More than a decade ago, the Trust for Public Land in coordination with municipal and county governments from around the region published the 2006 Travis County Greenprint and 2009 Central Texas Greenprint, which identified high priority lands for future public acquisition or conservation, heavily concentrated along the river. Their timing at the peak of the 2007-09 financial crisis was not optimal. But the City of Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department has done an impressive job of executing on its part of the plan, acquiring a network of new riverfront parklands including the John Treviño Metropolitan Park now in development, the more recently acquired Bolm Road District Park site between the river and 183 on the site of a former gravel pit, and the Walnut Creek hike and bike trail that follows old railroad right of way along the path of that historic Colorado River tributary from Govalle Park to Decker Lake. The Colorado River Conservancy aims to provide private support for these public efforts, and to partner with corporate and development interests to maintain the natural character of the river as new projects are undertaken.

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