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Travis County weighs in on proposed water quality standards

Thursday, March 18, 2010 by Jacob Cottingham

Travis County Commissioners voted unanimously, absent a vacationing Pct. 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt, to approve a letter drafted by staff in response to new standards of water quality proposed by the state. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality periodically revises their rules to reflect updated science.


In a memo, the Transportation and Natural Resources Department told Commissioners surface water standards and procedures were important because “they govern requirements for wastewater discharges, storm water discharges, assessment of whether the standards are being achieved, as well as when and how TCEQ develops plans to address impairments of water quality.”


The changes TNR staff focused on are the ones that could have the most effect on Travis County and involve nutrients and e coli. Numeric standards for nutrients in three local reservoirs – Austin, Travis and Lady Bird lakes were proposed as was an increase in e coli levels.


After the state adopts the rule, the EPA has to approve what the state adopted, sometimes dragging out the process even longer. Additionally, the EPA is currently under court order to devise its own new standards. When Pct. 1 Commissioner Ron Davis asked if TCEQ was aware of this, Tom Webber of the county’s Natural Resources Department said he suspected the state agency is “facing a lot of pressure from the regulated community over the existing standards and I think that’s influencing their move.”


For the nutrients, Webber explained the state is proposing to measure chlorophyll A and phosphorus, both indicators of high algae content in the water. However, he said that staff was worried about the required laboratory methods, which would allow the level TCEQ is proposing to be 5 micrograms per liter, which is nearly double what is currently in Lake Austin. Webber said the LCRA uses nutrient measurement methods that allow them to detect the much lower levels around Austin.


Travis County has already been in contact with the LCRA, he said, and it’s expected that they will issues similar comments. “If the de facto number for chlorophyll and the similar one for phosphorus is promulgated, then the loading of nutrients could approximately double before these lakes are flagged as either not meeting their standards or that they’re impaired,” Webber warned.


Webber also spoke about the county’s concerns for a more lenient level of e coli, an indicator bacteria which signals the presence of harmful bacterium levels. The newly proposed rules change the standard from a mean of 126 colonies per 100 ml up to 206 colonies per 100 ml. Essentially, Webber said, TCEQ doing this because the “change is … within the risk level that’s allowable by EPA.”


Asked by Judge Sam Biscoe to summarize the county’s position, Webber said, “We’re basically saying that there is not a need at this time to change our standard. The EPA is under court order to come up with a new, up to date standard that replaces what’s been in place, and therefore we should just wait until that comes about. And then when it comes to nutrients I think you would say that we need to have the best laboratory methods utilized in order to ensure that we’re measuring the nutrients at the very low level that they exist in our lakes.”

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