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City Council rejects Jeremiah Venture settlement

Friday, October 12, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

In a win for environmentalists, members of the Austin City Council rejected a settlement that would have withdrawn city opposition to a proposed residential development’s application for a state wastewater discharge permit on land over the Edwards Aquifer. With an impending administrative hearing, concerns that the city would pull out of the fight had grown in recent weeks.


After hearing from a number of speakers against the settlement, Council members rejected the settlement in a terse 7-0 vote. Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole was the lone voice from the dais, making the motion and urging the city to continue opposition of the permit.


“The risk at stake of establishing bad precedent, if we do not continue, is too great,” she said.


In 2008, Jerimiah Venture, applied for a wastewater permit as part of a plan to build about 1,500 single-family homes on 600 acres in Hays County. At the time it drew opposition from the City of Austin, Save Our Springs Alliance (SOS), Hays County, the Lower Colorado River Authority, and the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District (BSEACD).


Since then, all but the city and SOS have reached agreements with Jeremiah Venture. The most recent was with BSEACD. After a mediation in May, the conservation district settled its case and withdrew its protest by establishing a host of best practices and requirements for the application permit, including requiring Jeremiah Venture to submit a monthly report, prohibit private wells and implement conservation requirements.


Austin environmentalists feared that a settlement with the city was on the horizon.


Indeed, last month, anticipating a settlement, the city’s Environmental Board unanimously passed a resolution urging the city to continue their opposition to the permit. In a rare appearance at City Council on Thursday, Board Chair Mary Gay Maxwell provided that resolution and called the city’s continued fight against the permit “extremely important.”


“It’s really a distressing thing that we would get effluent on that kind of land,” said Maxwell. “The city has made a substantial investment, $30 million, in the water-quality protection plans in this part of the county, with the purpose of preserving and protecting water quality in the Barton Springs/ Edwards Aquifer.”


The settlement would have required homeowners and property owners to abide by an integrated pest-management plan to control pesticide applications on the property, allow the city to perform dye-tracing studies on five features on the site, exclude the use of residential lawns towards the area permitted for land application (which would mean less concentration).


It also would have provided for a remediation plan, in the event that the dye-tracings reveals nutrient contamination that would lower application rates until monitoring wells show that the nutrients are no longer making their way through the soils.


SOS Executive Director Bill Bunch warned that there was more to the settlement than those terms. For one, he said that the city would be required to support the project, not just withdraw opposition. He also said that the terms of the proposed settlement would violate an existing agreement between the city and SOS that says that even if the city withdrew its opposition, they would still provide SOS with witnesses to appear in the case before the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).


“It specifically says that the city shall not provide expert testimony, consulting, or resources to, essentially, SOS,” said Bunch. “That’s a direct conflict with the agreement we have with the city.”


In 2008, Jeremiah Venture filed with the TCEQ for a permit to irrigate about 300,000 gallons of wastewater a day. While the development is outside the city limits, staffers and members of the Environmental Board have worried that 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.


With Council’s vote, any settlement is on hold for at least the time being. A hearing before an administrative law judge is scheduled for Nov. 14.


“It’s a good day for Barton Springs,” Bunch told In Fact Daily.

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