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TCEQ denies rule change to protect Onion, Barton creeks

Friday, November 21, 2008 by Jacob Cottingham

A number of people in Central Texas are criticizing this week’s ruling by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to deny a joint petition by the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District and the City of Austin, which proposed new rules prohibiting the discharge of pollutants into the watersheds of Onion and Barton Creeks. The TCEQ commissioners instead asked that a committee of stakeholders be convened to look at the issue and report to the commission in six months.


Council Member Lee Leffingwell told In Fact Daily, “I’m disappointed that they didn’t approve the rule change, and it was recommended by the TCEQ staff and it was recommended by 95 percent of the entities that have jurisdiction over that portion of the aquifer.” Among those supporting the proposed rule change in addition to the petitioning parties were Travis and Hays County Commissioners and the City of Dripping Springs. Leffingwell himself attended the commission meeting and spoke on behalf of the city.


Nancy McClintock, assistant director of the city’s Watershed Protection and Development Review Department also spoke in support of the rules change. She told In Fact Daily the commissioners’ denial, “wasn’t really a no,” and that the commissioners wanted to get “all the concerns out on the table,” by establishing the stakeholder group. She said commissioners wanted to see “continued flexibility, and that we needed to take water quantity into consideration as well as water quality, expressing some concern that these creeks continue to have flow in them.”


Andy Barrett, the attorney representing the Belterra subdivision, was the only person to speak out against the rules change. The irony of his stance was not lost on those supporting the rules change. The efforts for the rule-making petition were filed almost directly as a result of the science that came out of contesting the Belterra wastewater permit. 


John Dupnik with the BSEACD told In Fact Daily it seemed clear that “potentially one wastewater discharge permit with pages of requirements… could be permitted without any substantial harm to the creek, and that’s still debatable. However, it was clear to everyone that multiple discharges and the cumulative effects of multiple discharges would certainly cause degradation to those Hill Country streams.”


McClintock explained, “Our concerns are that effluent discharges will increase nutrient levels, nutrient levels increase nuisance algal production, with algal production you get lower dissolved oxygen levels when that algae starts to die and you can get reduced water clarity,” a process known as eutrophication. She said because the Hill Country creeks have low natural levels of nutrients, “we expect them to react significantly if you do add nutrients to them.” She explained that discharging effluent into intermittent streams would also drastically affect the ecological system in the streams.


Hays County Pct 4 Commissioner Karen Ford touched on the subject in a letter she wrote to the TCEQ, which Leffingwell read aloud during the proceedings. “Hays County Commissioners are intent on having our county continue to grow in a smart, sustainable way,” it read. “Our county continues to grow and thrive without wastewater discharge in the Barton and Onion Creek watersheds and we want to keep it that way. Our support for the district and the cities’ petition for rule making change in no way reflects a no growth perspective from the Hays County Court. Quite the opposite. We believe that our protection of our natural resources will keep our people and our economy healthy.”


The BSEACD board, at its meeting on Thursday said they would respond to TCEQ Commission Chairman Buddy Garcia’s request for legislative direction on the matter. The BSEACD and their lobbyist, Claudia Russell, have a bill they drew up in 2007 which is very similar to the proposed rule change. The board has directed Russell to begin working this angle, which had died in committee during the last session.

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