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TCEQ rejects new effluent discharges into Highland Lakes

Thursday, November 19, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

Mayor Lee Leffingwell praised the decision of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality yesterday to decline to lift the two-decade-old ban on pumping additional treated wastewater into the Highland Lakes.

“I’m extraordinarily pleased with today’s action by both the LCRA and the TCEQ. Both bodies took clear, decisive action to protect the quality and supply of Austin‘s water,” said Leffingwell, who served as the one-time chair of the Environmental Board. “After testifying before the LCRA Board and meeting with each of the TCEQ Commissioners, I’m personally very satisfied that both groups carefully and thoroughly reviewed the facts, and ultimately took the appropriate steps. The City of Austin is looking forward to continuing to work closely with the LCRA and TCEQ in the years ahead to collaboratively manage our most precious natural resource, our water.”

Working “collaboratively” is not usually the term applied to TCEQ, but commissioners did not take long to reject a petition by the city councils of Leander and Granite Shoals to allow pumping treated wastewater into the lake chain. The lakes serve as a primary drinking source for more than 1 million people in Central Texas.

The main concern about the Granite Shoals/Leander proposal was the impact the treated water would have on the nutrient levels in the lake. Nutrient levels out of balance are almost guaranteed to encourage the growth of algae in the lakes, a real problem.

Granite Shoals Mayor Frank Reilly expressed regret at the choice. He noted that four existing wastewater plants already discharge treated effluent back into the Highland Lakes because they existed before the ban was created.

“It is an absolute waste of a valuable natural resource, to have to use our treated water to spray it on cedar trees, which is what we and other communities along the Highland Lakes are forced to do,” Reilly said. “What the cities both wanted to do was to discharge into the tributaries any treated water that we didn’t use, which was not going to be a significant amount of water.”

The ultimate cost to Granite Shoals, Reilly said, is that the city will be forced to pay for a wastewater treatment plant. For a city of only 5,000, that $4 million price tag on a plant is a big one, and an expense Reilly labeled as wasteful.

As Reilly noted, Granite Shoals is neither the first nor the last to ask for exceptions to the wastewater discharge rules. The TCEQ has offered exceptions for smaller users up and down the watershed, along with the wastewater plants already grandfathered.

Even though the three-member commission rejected the Leander/Granite Shoals petition after opposition from the agency’s executive director and local community leaders, commissioners Buddy Garcia, Carlos Rubinstein and Bryan Shaw, in turn, each left the door open for future reconsideration of the issue.

Garcia prompted talk about technological improvements that could result in more advanced surface water quality standards. That technology in the future could easily result in new consideration of a ban put in place two decades ago, Garcia said. Better testing also could lead to better methods to determine how safe retreated water was.

Shaw agreed that all sorts of advances were being made in treating water, removing nutrients and contaminants both at the discharge point and the point of use. And it’s probably tough to use the water on cedar when other jurisdictions have been able to put treated effluent to good use, such as watering golf courses, Shaw said.

“Further filtration is available for other needs so that we shouldn’t completely shut the door,” Shaw said. “It’s hard to get excited about reused water if you’re not going to have a golf course ready. There are some real challenges there.”

The executive director’s recommendation was to create a stakeholders group to consider the issue of releasing treated water back into the lake. The commissioners declined to back that recommendation but indicated that a discussion of nutrient levels on lakes across the state could lead to additional discussion at the end of next year.

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