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TCEQ waters down proposed rule to protect aquifer from effluent

Friday, October 16, 2009 by Laurel Chesky

The state’s environmental agency is offering a proposal to protect the Barton Springs end of the Edwards Aquifer from damage caused by wastewater effluent, but those who proposed the rule in the first place say the draft regulation proposed by the Texas Commission for Environment Quality (TCEQ) is so diluted that it barely resembles the original proposal.

 

On Sept. 30, the TCEQ released a draft of a proposed rule so different from the one proposed by the Barton Springs-Edwards Aquifer District and the city of Austin that proponents are shaking their heads in disbelief.

 

Last year, the city and the aquifer district petitioned the TCEQ to create a rule banning new permits for the release of treated wastewater effluent into the Barton Creek and Onion Creek watersheds – the creeks and streams that recharge the Barton Springs section of the Edwards Aquifer. The aquifer supplies drinking water to about 50,000 people and feeds the Barton Spring Pool.

 

The petition was the result of a settlement between the aquifer district and several other plaintiffs and the Belterra development in Hays County, which had petitioned the TCEQ to dump treated wastewater in a creek that flowed into the aquifer.  Nutrients – particularly nitrogen and phosphorus – in wastewater can cause algae blooms that can choke out other flora and fauna and disrupt the delicate balance of life in surface waterways and the underground aquifer.

 

The petitioners – armed with local political heavyweights (including then future Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell), scientific experts and a mountain of data indicating that discharging wastewater effluent damages watersheds and flies in the face of the federal Clean Water Act – testified before the commission last November.

 

“Many experts all came to the same conclusion: that even with the best (water treatment) technology, nutrients in wastewater still cause degradation of the Hill Country streams and that prohibition was appropriate,” said John Dupnik, senior regulatory compliance specialist for the aquifer district.

 

Nevertheless, the TCEQ denied the petition. However, the commission did direct its staff to hold stakeholder meetings to better vet the issues. Those meetings were held in January and March. Then, silence, until stakeholders were informed late last month that a draft rule had been released. The draft rule sets pollutant limits for “continuous discharges” of wastewater effluent, but it doesn’t ban new permits for discharge as the petitioners had hoped.

 

“The rule is not a discharge prohibition but does in fact allow discharge,” Dupnik said. “I think it’s fair to say that we were all fairly shocked. The rule doesn’t reflect the abundance of science that we presented.”

 

Charles Maguire, director of the TCEQ’s Water Quality Division, said the draft rule proposes a baseline and does not prevent the TCEQ from requiring further restrictions on individual permits.

 

“We still reserve the right to add more stringent requirements on a site-by-site, case-by-case basis,” Maguire said.

 

He points out that in terms of pollutants, the draft is much more stringent than state law. For instance, he said, state law does not mandate limits for phosphorus in wastewater effluent and most state permits set a limit of 1 milligram per liter, whereas the draft rule sets the limit at 0.1 milligrams.

 

Maguire also stresses that a rule has not yet been formally proposed and that TCEQ staff continues to seek input from stakeholders. In fact, he said, the TCEQ usually does not release a draft rule to stakeholders prior to being published in the Texas Register, which opens it up to the general public for comment. Stakeholders were allowed to comment on the draft that was released Sept. 30.

 

“We are still very much engaged in our consensus-building process,” he said. “The process is far from over.”


Petitioning the TCEQ was the proponents’ third attempt to codify a prohibition on dumping wastewater into the aquifer watershed, an issue spawned several years ago by the Belterra subdivision, located off of 290 seven miles west of the Oak Hill “Y.”

 

In 2005, the water district serving Belterra applied to the TCEQ for a permit to dump an unprecedented 800,000 gallons of treated wastewater effluent per day into Bear Creek, which flows into the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone. A consortium of downstream landowners and governmental bodies, including the aquifer district, the city of Austin, the city of Dripping Springs, Travis County, Hays County and the Lower Colorado River Authority, contested the permit application. Belterra and its foes finally settled on cutting the amount of discharge to 350,000 gallons per day plus a laundry list of restrictions and monitoring requirements. The TCEQ issued the permit according to the agreement.

 

“We’ve made all kinds of effort to make sure that a Belterra permit doesn’t happen again,” Dupnik said.

 

The first attempts to ban the discharge of wastewater effluent died in the last two state legislative sessions. But, as hope springs eternal, the aquifer district and the city then tried their luck with the TCEQ. The aquifer district and the city may not get everything they want, but Maguire said the TCEQ is committed to protecting the aquifer.

 

“The Edwards is special and it has quite a few special permitting considerations at our agency,” he said. “We fully understand the importance of the Edwards and the need to protect it.”

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