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Hays vote to reject settlement throws agreement on Belterra into limbo

Monday, July 7, 2008 by Mark Richardson

The Hays County Commissioners Court’s rejection last week of a settlement plan over Hays Water Control and Improvement District No. 1’s application to amend a discharge permit has muddied the waters over just what the agreement would allow as opposed to what a Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) decision might allow.


Hays County is one of eight parties to a settlement agreement with the developer of the Belterra subdivision that would add conditions to the developer’s discharge permit that would force the disposal of most of the WCID’s treated effluent in a drip irrigation field, and allow it to discharge the treated waste into Bear Creek only in extremely rare cases.


Jack Goodman, a long-time Central Texas environmental activist and board member of the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District, said Hays County Commissioners seemed to be acting out of principle.


“I would speculate that they felt it was just not good enough,” he said. “I suspect they were acting more on principle, which is basically my gut reaction too, but I kind of got persuaded.”  Goodman said it was a tough decision to back the settlement, but “even though I don’t think the structured mitigations are far enough along, we’d get so much better a deal if we settled.”


At a called meeting on June 27, Hays Commissioners voted 4-0 to reject the settlement agreement. The vote came a day after stories appeared in local news outlets saying the agreement would allow the effluent discharge. However, the stories did not emphasize the additional conditions that the settlement would impose. That portion of the settlement would make such discharges possible only after Belterra’s septic fields were saturated, its 5-million gallon storage tank was full and Bear Creek was running at a rate of at least 14 cubic feet per second. 


Prior to the Hays County vote, Austin, Dripping Springs, the Lower Colorado River Authority, the BSEACD and the Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District had approved the settlement.


A group of downstream landowners was also a party to the negotiations but they have not settled.  And, Austin’s approval was contingent on all other parties signing the agreement.

The Hays WCID No. 1 permit amendment will now go before an administrative law judge on July 14. The judge will make a recommendation to the commission, which will make a final ruling on the matter.

In the event the TCEQ grants the Belterra permit amendment, the group of downstream landowners, and possibly other parties, has said it plans to bring a lawsuit

“A few of the downstream users are planning a lawsuit,” Goodman said.” I think the intent is to take the permit to court if there’s not a settlement that’s acceptable to everyone.” Goodman said the BSEACD, like most of the other parties to the settlement, would be discussing at its next meeting just what the Hays vote means and how to proceed.

The Belterra development had applied to the TCEQ more than two years ago to expand its wastewater treatment plant, seeking to discharge up to 800,000 gallons per day of treated wastewater into Bear Creek, which feeds Barton Springs. Belterra, located off U.S. 290 in Hays County, currently has 350 houses on 1,600 acres with plans for up to 2,000 homes in the future.

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