In Unlikely Places
Austin’s Hornsby Bend does double duty as a sewage plant and wildlife mecca.
By Camille Wheeler
A dense thicket of oaks, brush and briars shades the narrow gravel road that leads to the Hornsby Cemetery east of downtown Austin. Even on a sunny day, there’s a feeling of darkness on the half-mile drive from FM 969 to the cemetery gate. Here, in the spooky gloom of spindly tree shadows, it’s easy to imagine once-present bears, wolves and Comanches hiding in the woods.
Near the back of the cemetery, on the upper alluvial terrace of the Colorado River, stands the headstone of the cemetery’s namesake: Reuben Hornsby, a Stephen F. Austin colonist and surveyor who in 1832 claimed the horseshoe-shaped bend of the river three miles to the southeast as the backbone for the first permanent Anglo settlement in soon-to-be-established Travis County.
Hornsby’s settlement was a “beautiful tract of land,” author J.W. Wilbarger wrote in his 1889 book Indian Depredations in Texas. “Washed on the west by the Colorado, it stretches over a level valley about three miles wide to the east … covered with wild rye, and looking like one vast green wheat field.”
In the decades since Hornsby’s arrival, this place has changed, time and again. As Anglo settlements took hold, much of the riverside bottomland forest was felled to build cabins and forts and eventually to help build the City of Austin, established in 1839. The bottomland became farm fields and cattle pastures. The modern era brought gravel-pit operations.
Today, what once was Hornsby’s roughly 4,600-acre Mexican land grant is carved into plots for family descendants, industrial businesses and residential subdivisions serving urban population growth in rural eastern Travis County just northeast of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.
The most incongruent piece of this land-division puzzle is owned and operated by the City of Austin: the Hornsby Bend Biosolids Management Plant.
Hornsby Bend's blend of nature doesn't fit traditional categories. It's a regenerating bottomland forest that's "both weedy and wild," according to Kevin Anderson, coordinator of the Austin Water Center for Environmental Research at Hornsby Bend.
Defying conventional narratives of nature, Hornsby Bend is acclaimed as an award-winning sewage sludge recycling plant and as a mecca for bird-watchers, anglers, river paddlers and nature lovers in general as a Central Texas ecotourism destination on the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Heart of Texas East Wildlife Trail.
The Colorado River’s bend forms the western and southern boundaries of the 1,200-acre Hornsby Bend facility. The plant recycles all of the sewage sludge produced by Austin. Every day, 1.5 million gallons of sludge — the solid material removed from treated wastewater — is piped to Hornsby Bend from the city’s two major wastewater treatment plants.
Hornsby Bend is most famous for its two man-made features: the popular Dillo Dirt compost produced on-site — sewage sludge, or treated human waste, is combined with yard trimmings into an EPA-certified soil conditioner — and the facility’s pond system that the City of Austin constructed from 1956 through 1958 to receive excess sewage sludge from the now-defunct Govalle Sewage Treatment Plant.
As birders have been learning since 1959, when large numbers of waterfowl were first discovered on Hornsby Bend’s ponds, the nutrient-rich ponds attract a wide diversity of migrating birds. Historically, more than 350 avian species have been documented on the property.
Victor Emanuel, whose Austin-based Victor Emanuel Nature Tours offers worldwide excursions, has been coming to Hornsby Bend since 1961. Emanuel created one of his favorite Hornsby Bend memories in summer 2015 when he packed a picnic for a sunset meal beside the ponds.
“The light on over a dozen species of shorebirds was marvelous,” the 76-year-old Emanuel recalls, describing one globetrotting bird, a buff-breasted sandpiper that breeds near the Arctic Ocean and winters in southern South America.
The idea of a picnic next to the sewage ponds sounds bizarre to most people, Emanuel says. But for him, it was heavenly: nature at its finest.
This duality of nature — of “good” nature vs. “bad” nature — defines Hornsby Bend, a place that doesn’t fit the traditional category for nature appreciation, explains Kevin Anderson, coordinator of the Austin Water Center for Environmental Research at Hornsby Bend.
Hornsby Bend is not a park or preserve. As clearly stated on an entrance sign on FM 973, Hornsby Bend is a wastewater sludge treatment facility. Yet almost every week, confused first-time birding visitors to Hornsby Bend come to Anderson’s office, asking where the bird sanctuary is.
Anderson, who as a Peace Corps volunteer in the early 1990s helped map the riparian forest of Hungary’s upper Tisza River, cheerily directs the birders to Hornsby Bend’s ponds and the woods and river beyond, encouraging them to wander the trails that bear his yellow directional signs.
Anderson swats away the presumption that there’s a certain type of nature here. There is no bird sanctuary, he stresses. Not in the usual sense, anyway.
But sanctuary there is, for glossy ibises, black-bellied whistling-ducks, barred owls, coyotes, spiny softshell turtles, bumblebees, rattlesnakes, white-tailed deer, bobcats and a host of other wildlife.
Hornsby Bend is sanctuary as well for the 54-year-old Anderson, a nature-loving philosopher who first visited, and birded, here in 1995 while pursuing a doctoral degree in geography at the University of Texas in Austin.
Anderson’s 2009 dissertation, “Marginal Nature: Urban Wastelands and the Geography of Nature,” examines Hornsby Bend and similar places. The dissertation explores what Anderson, who holds a master’s degree in philosophy, calls "marginal nature": a hybrid type of nature, he writes, that is “both weedy and wild … the unintended product of human activity and nature’s unflagging opportunism.”
As Anderson explains, the marginal nature found at Hornsby Bend, where flies buzz around sewage ponds and native and introduced plant species are part of a bottomland forest regeneration, does not match the aesthetic of romanticized nature.
“Getting our bearings in the urban wastelands is even more difficult within the American context of nature appreciation, because our foundational myth of nature is wilderness, nature untouched by humans,” Anderson wrote in his dissertation. Marginal nature, he continued, “is not the kind of nature that we are supposed to cherish.”
And yet wildlife and wildlife watchers co-exist at Hornsby Bend, a cultural landscape shaped by humans, and a landscape that in turn shapes the lives of those who come here.
Renowned nature photographer Greg Lasley of Dripping Springs first visited Hornsby Bend in 1975 with binoculars, but no camera. On an April afternoon last year, photographing the Hornsby Bend dragonflies that he delights in chasing, Lasley recounted the day in October 1977 when he was sure he had spotted a rare Sabine’s gull on Hornsby Bend’s remote Pond 3
But fellow birders doubted Lasley, telling him there was no record of the bird in Central Texas.
“I decided to get a camera,” Lasley says, “because that way, if I got a picture of something, somebody would believe me.”
In October 1978 at Hornsby Bend, Lasley again saw what he believed to be a Sabine’s gull on Pond 3. This time, armed with a camera, he captured the bird on the water and in flight. The Texas Bird Records Committee used Lasley’s photographs as documentation of the first recorded Sabine’s gull in the Austin area.
Hornsby Bend also holds special meaning for Austinite Eric Carpenter, secretary of the Texas Bird Records Committee, who in 2003 documented a record 505 bird species in Texas in one calendar year. But it wasn’t until 2005, when Carpenter’s Big Year at Hornsby Bend yielded a record 249 bird species, that he fully explored the property.
During migration, Carpenter has counted as many as 130 bird species in one day at Hornsby Bend. He expresses surprise that more birders don’t venture beyond the facility’s ponds, where treasures are waiting to be found.
One day in spring 2016 at Hornsby Bend, Carpenter raised and lowered his binoculars, pointing to a small bush and the body shape and yellow beak of a pyrrhuloxia: a bird found in the Southwest and Mexico making an unusual appearance at Hornsby Bend.
Hornsby Bend’s true essence is found on a journey through its bottomland forest remnants. Inhabited by native peoples thousands of years before Spanish explorers or Anglo settlers arrived, this ancient forest has long felt the impact of humans and the environmental influences of flooding, fire and drought.
Now, courtesy of hands-off habitat restoration in which only trails are mowed and trees are allowed to grow, Anderson sees Hornsby Bend’s bottomland forest putting itself back together. But Anderson pushes back against what he calls a false narrative: that somehow, per some pastoral notion, the forest is going back to what it once was.
The ecology of nature, Anderson stresses, constantly moves, but never just backward.
“Some of it’s forward, some of it’s backward, some of it’s up, some of it’s down, some of it’s catastrophic, and then it moves on,” he says, observing such motion in play at Hornsby Bend, where retama and mesquite brush have been allowed to return.
Over time, the ecological system will adjust itself, Anderson explains, with the regrowth of hackberry trees shading out the brush and the gradual development of a tree canopy spurring more forest regeneration.
In light of the Colorado River Corridor Plan being prepared by Travis County, City of Austin and Lower Colorado River Authority officials, Anderson encourages those tasked with managing land to ask: What does the land want? What does it seek to be?
“Hornsby Bend,” he says, “wants to be a bottomland forest.”
As Hornsby Bend exits a period of disturbance, “the land begins to heal itself, back into that basic ecological unit,” Anderson says. “The system has relatively young members and relatively ancient members, and they’re all working out new relationships and finding it to be a great moment.”