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Elizabeth Pagano is the editor of the Austin Monitor.
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Council puts Aquifer resolution on hold to sort out legal mumbo-jumbo
Friday, March 25, 2011 by Elizabeth Pagano
Confusion over the true meaning of bill pending in the Texas Legislature led Council members to backtrack Thursday, while staff and environmentalists argued over the merits of the measure that purported to protect the Barton Springs zone of the Edwards Aquifer.
Council eventually tabled discussion of a resolution on the matter in order to quickly revise it, as concerns about unintended consequences grew. Hours later, a new draft that explicitly reiterated the city’s opposition to discharge in the contributing zone passed on a vote of 6-0, with Council Member Laura Morrison abstaining.
Mayor Lee Leffingwell asked Council to approve a resolution supporting Senate Bill 853, which is currently under consideration by the Legislature. The resolution supports restrictions on wastewater discharges in the contributing zone of the aquifer.
Bill Bunch, executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance, argued that the new restrictions would do more harm than good, saying the SOS board unanimously opposed the proposed bill.
“You’re fundamentally changing your policy from opposing direct discharges, to basically embracing them, with conditions,” said Bunch. “You’re much better off fighting over the rules that are in place right now, with direct discharge being an exception that is only granted if, in a hearing, you prove something above the standard, rather than having it be the standard and you are only denied it if you get shut down. It’s materially weakening where we are today.”
Staff disagreed with this reading. “When the bill is passed, it forces TCEQ (Texas Commission on Environmental Quality) to engage with us again in the rule-making process. We’ve tried with them in the past, without the strength of a law forcing them to do so, and they’ve effectively ignored us.” said Chris Harrington, an engineer with the Watershed Protection Department. “We’d be starting from an infinitely better starting place than we would be under current law.”
Harrington pointed to the current language around state discharge standards, which does not mention a material increase of nutrient levels in discharge as a standard. “It’s completely undefined, it just says cannot decrease water quality more than a de minimis (extremely small) amount, and we’ve seen them apply it in horrible, horrible ways. We completely disagree with TCEQ’s method for assessing the impact of these discharges and this does specifically address our biggest complaint with them.”
“We obviously would prefer a complete prohibition on discharges in the contributing zone, we just don’t think in the current political climate that is achievable, and this is definitely more protection than is out there now,” said Harrington
“To me, it’s giving the imprimatur that discharge is acceptable if you meet these standards, when it should be that that’s something prohibited unless you can overcome considerable hurdles,” said Bunch. “It has been the practice for over twenty years that developers didn’t even try to get discharge permits, because they knew that they couldn’t show that there wouldn’t be degradation of these very nutrient-deprived streams that are very high quality.”
Bunch’s reading of the resolution apparently carried some weight with Council, who voted 7-0 to table the discussion in order to modify its language with his input.
After several hours, Council Member Bill Spelman presented a newly revised draft to City Council that, most significantly, added a whereas that stated “The City Council has opposed and will continue to oppose direct discharge of effluent in the contributing zone.”
The Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District has strongly supported the measure.
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