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Belterra witnesses argue over phosphorus, algae, salamanders

Thursday, July 17, 2008 by Jacob Cottingham

The contested case hearing before an administrative law judge pitting the Belterra development against Hays County, the City of Austin and assorted landowners is finally taking shape.


As the City of Austin brought out its first witnesses Wednesday, the line of contention between the parties was clearer. At issue are the computer models used by the city to predict the amount of phosphorus that would be left in the water after the effluent is treated and discharged. The phosphorus amounts would then dictate how much algae could potentially grow in the various ponds along Bear Creek, thus causing the creek itself to eventually be overrun.


The parties vigorously debated the dissolved oxygen levels present after the effluent is pumped into the creek, with the future of the endangered Barton Springs Salamander theoretically hanging in the balance.


In the morning session Lial Tischler, a partner at Tischler Kocurek, testified that the proposed discharges in the permit would result in “significant degradation” of the creek. This testimony was intended to meet TCEQ’s definition of degradation being defined as more than “de minimis.” The Latin legal term roughly means “insignificant” according to the contesting team’s lawyers.


The WCID legal team argued that under the rules of the settlement—agreed to by the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District, among others—the  amount of discharge would be lower, and in fact only enter the creek roughly 27 days out of the year – and at a much smaller volume.


Taking the stand for the City of Austin was Dr. Bryan Brooks, a scientist and member of the faculty of Baylor University. He testified that using the city’s modeling and the results of another study concerning the rates of salamander deaths that there was potential to kill off at least 5 percent of the population.


Thursday will see more expert testimony from hydrologists as the two sides continue to debate the relative affect of phosphorus, algae and dissolved oxygen on the tributary creek and aquifer.  


Testimony is scheduled through Friday. The judge will make a recommendation to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which will make a final decision on whether Belterra may amend its discharge permit.

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