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Panel urges city to keep fighting wastewater discharge over aquifer

Tuesday, September 25, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

The City of Austin’s Environmental Board last week unanimously approved a resolution urging the city to keep up its long-running fight opposing a wastewater discharge permit for a proposed 600-acre subdivision with up to 1,500 single-family homes over the Edwards Aquifer in Hays County.


The board wants the city to continue contesting the case against Jeremiah Venture, L.P. before the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ.) A hearing before an administrative law judge is scheduled on Nov. 14.


Austin already is one of several entities that have contested the application for a Texas Land Application Permit filed in 2008 by Jeremiah Venture, L.P., to irrigate about 300,000 gallons of wastewater a day. While the development is outside the city limits, board members and city staffers worry the large amount of irrigated effluent could harm the water quality in the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer, which feds Barton Springs and supports endangered and threatened species.


“Translated into layman’s terms … that’s a lot of wastewater,” said city Environmental Officer Chuck Lesniak. “In our staff’s opinion, the application rate is excessive, given the geologic conditions.”


Save Our Springs Alliance Executive Director Bill Bunch, who spoke to the board, said, “I think this is one of the most important environmental issues our community is facing right now, and it’s been flying somewhat below the radar.” SOS has also challenged the permit, and Bunch stressed that it was “absolutely critical” that the city remain in the permit challenge.


The proposed development will be the first major Texas Land Application Permit (TLAP) in the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer watershed. Developments that plan to dispose of treated effluent by surface irrigation or other means are required to obtain a the permit from TCEQ.


Jeremiah’s 2008 application for the permit had met a lot of resistance from governmental and environmental organizations. In addition to the City of Austin and SOS, the Lower Colorado River Authority, Hays County and the Barton Springs/ Edwards Aquifer Conservation District (BSEACD) contested the proposed permit with TCEQ. But since then all but the city and SOS have reached agreements with Jeremiah Venture.


In 2009, as a result of the protest, the city and BSCEAD were granted access to the site to perform a geologic assessment of the area for the first time. Lesniak explained that this assessment raised a number of concerns about nutrient contamination of the aquifer.


For example, the city found 172 karst features, which could be sites of direct recharge for the aquifer. Jeremiah Venture, in contrast, had only identified 22 features in its TCEQ application. Lesniak said given the sensitive geologic conditions, staff’s opinion is that the amount of effluent in the application was excessive.


John Dupnik, assistant general manager of BSEACD, spoke to the board about the terms of the district’s settlement.


After a joint mediation in May, BSEACD settled its case, withdrawing its protest and establishing a host of best practices and requirements for the application permit. Among the many requirements, Jeremiah Venture will have to submit a monthly report to the regional office and Hays County, prohibit private wells and implement water conservation requirements.


Dupnik said that the thing they fought hardest for was a groundwater monitoring plan, which would monitor for pollutants in the aquifer. There is also a remediation plan, in the case that the monitoring reveals anything in the groundwater. According to the plan, if there is a statistically significant increase in pollutants, it triggers a reduction in the wastewater application rate.


As an illustration of the district’s concern, Dupnik showed a picture of what looked like a small depression in the ground. Once dug out, however, a sinkhole about 20 feet deep and 15 feet across was quickly revealed. Dupnik said the concern was that there were more of these features, which were fairly extensive just beneath the surface, which could make it easy for irrigated wastewater to migrate into the aquifer.


One of the most significant improvements the district won in negotiations was for a 12-acre buffer, Dupnik said. The buffer encompasses a cluster of major caves that were discovered – land that was originally slated for development.


Bunch said that while, in some ways, SOS was glad that the aquifer district settled, as the outcomes would act as a “floor,” he still felt more protections were needed. “We feel very strongly that it is not sufficient to protect the aquifer from irrigating three feet of treated sewage directly on the recharge zone, day in and day out,” Bunch said.


Bunch explained that recent research showed a jump in nitrogen levels at Barton Springs (see In Fact Daily July 28, 2011). “They point directly to these wastewater irrigation facilities as a major cause of that, and that’s just the pollutants they can measure. There’s all kinds of pharmaceuticals and emerging contaminants that don’t get treated,” said Bunch.


“These facilities are supposed to be operating as no discharge. But in fact they are really operating as indirect discharge,” said Bunch. “It’s magical thinking to think that it’s going to go somewhere else. It’s not going to go somewhere else. It’s going to recharge.”


After hearing from staff, Dupnik, and concerned parties, the board voted 5-0 to recommend that the city continue the contested case, and stated their intent to continue to get as much information on the case as they could. Board Members Robin Gary, who works for BSEACD  and Marisa Perales were recused.


“I think it’s really important that the city continue with this contested case hearing. The point of it is for the applicant to prove that the permit will not contaminate our water resources,” said Board Member Jennifer Walker. “I think the city really needs to persevere in this case.”


Jon Beall, speaking for the Save Barton Creek Association, agreed.


“Our position is that this development is dangerous enough that the city should exert the full power of their legal department in an attempt to get the best possible deal,” he said.

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