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Belterra settlement sets floor for effluent discharge to Bear Creek

Wednesday, July 9, 2008 by Jacob Cottingham

The negotiated settlement between the developer of the Belterra subdivision and a group of cities, counties, conservation agencies and landowners remains on the table, despite its recent rejection by Hays County, the City of Austin and a group of landowners. At a preliminary hearing Monday for a contested case hearing set for July 14, the parties agreed that the original terms of the proposed settlement would remain as a baseline for any future changes to Belterra’s discharge permit.


“I think we (Hays County, Austin, etc.) view the settlement agreement as a ‘floor,’” said  David Fredrick, an attorney for the rejecting parties. “So the worst thing that can happen to us is that we are ‘stuck’ with the settlement agreement.”


For the past two years, through its creation of the Hays Water Control and Improvement District No. 1, Belterra has sought permission from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to increase the amount of treated effluent it dumps into Bear Creek from 150,000 to 800,000 gallons per day.


However, entities ranging from Hays County and the City of Austin to the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District and area landowners, objected to the increase. They pointed out that the effluent was highly likely to flow from Bear Creek into the Barton Springs zone of the Edwards Aquifer, polluting the water supply for hundreds of thousands of Central Texas residents.


After several months of negotiations, most of the contesting parties to the permit reached a settlement with Belterra last month, which would require the development to spread its effluent over several hundred acres using drip irrigation and maintain the balance in a 5 million gallon effluent storage facility. The agreement would allow Belterra to dump effluent if the irrigation field was fully saturated, the storage facility full, and if Bear Creek was flowing at a minimum of 14 cubic feet per second.


Fredrick, an attorney who represents Hays County in the case, said the settlement – regardless of who has or has not approved it – would be the “floor”  or baseline for any future negotiations.


“The WCID, who is the permit applicant, has agreed to honor the content of the settlement agreement, though not specifically as it was organized, for the wastewater treatment plant that they want to build,” he said. “So now you have an agreement that the applicant, the WCID, has agreed to, as well as a certain number of the protestants have.”


Fredrick said that agreement is going to stay in place, though certain terms that were proposed to be part of a TCEQ permit will now become contractual terms between the WCID and the parties that have agreed to the settlement. Those who have approved the agreement include the City of Dripping Springs, the Lower Colorado River Authority, the Trinity Hays Groundwater Conservation District, and the BSEACD.


The parties that have rejected the agreement – Hays County, the City of Austin, and the land owners – will continue on to the hearing next Monday.


Andrew Backus, president of the Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District reported to the Hays County Commissioners Court Tuesday on the preliminary hearing. He said it was important that the settlement was kept alive.


“There was some concern that by Hays County deciding to fight this and bring the City of Austin into the battle, that that would blow up the settlement agreement for everybody else,” he said. “But the decision was made to let the settlement stand for those parties that signed it, and the developer will go ahead and battle with those who did not approve the settlement.”


The contested case hearing is set before Judge Roy Scudday with the State Office of Administrative Hearings at 9am. The SOAH is located at 300 W. 15th Street, Room 500. The hearing is scheduled for five days. The administrative judge will make a recommendation to the full TCEQ.

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