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City works to incentivize treated wastewater reuse

Friday, November 6, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

Although many believe that it is better to reuse treated wastewater than to discharge it into bodies of water, not all agree on how state law could incentivize reuse. City and regional stakeholders are drafting a proposal that might achieve that goal, and despite having hit some snags, it received encouragement from the Environmental Commission on Wednesday.

The commission voted 9-0 to recommend that staff move forward, on the condition that it work with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and other stakeholders regarding questions raised by environmental engineer Lauren Ross and the Save Our Springs Alliance, provided that the stakeholders are willing to do so.

Commissioners Andrew Creel and Michael Moya were absent.

Stakeholders involved in the process include the Travis County Commissioners Court, the Lower Colorado River Authority, the cities of Dripping Springs and Horseshoe Bay, and the Lakeway Municipal Utility District. Led by Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Dripping Springs Mayor Todd Purcell, these and other parties have been discussing the issue since August.

Chris Herrington, an engineer with the Watershed Protection Department, explained that the rule-making petition would ask the TCEQ to revise requirements that he believes encourage producers of treated wastewater to apply for wastewater discharge permits rather than for Texas land application permits.

The latter permit allows disposal of treated wastewater through land irrigation, which Herrington said is far better for the environment than what the former permit allows, which is pumping that water into approved bodies of water.

Holders of either permit can apply for a special state reuse authorization to sell treated wastewater to other entities for nonpotable uses such as toilet flushing. However, Herrington said that land application permit holders must nonetheless own or lease enough land to handle the total amount of treated wastewater they produce, even if they are providing some or all of that water to others for reuse.

In Central Texas, where land is becoming more scarce and expensive due to rapid population growth, Herrington said, municipalities and municipal utility districts are applying more often for discharge permits in order to free themselves of the costs related to land application permits and ownership of land that must be used for irrigation-friendly purposes such as soccer fields.

In an interview with the Austin Monitor on Thursday, Herrington said that the current policy does not take into account the benefits of reuse. The city, he said, hopes to change that.

“All we want to do is build a bridge between them that basically enables permittees to take credit for the amount of treated effluent that they’re going to beneficially reuse somewhere else … so the size of your dedicated disposal field can be smaller,” Herrington said.

Ross, however, has raised some concerns about the current draft. She told the commission that she was afraid the rule-making would not decrease the number of applicants seeking discharge permits and that those who would otherwise seek land application permits would instead seek only reuse authorization. That outcome would be undesirable because the land application permit regulations “have a lot of protections in place,” she said, “and virtually all of those protections go out the window with beneficial reuse.”

Ross requested that land application permittees with reuse authorization be required to prove, with hydrological data, that their treated wastewater will be reused. “You can’t just say somebody’s going to use the water for outdoor irrigation,” she said. “You would actually have to demonstrate that – that that entity has a plan and enough area and storage to use it.”

Herrington said that he does not believe it is likely that a permittee could get away with presenting a contract to the TCEQ falsely stating that all of its treated wastewater will be reused and get away with bypassing all land application permit regulations.

“The city believes that that’s an extremely unlikely scenario, and that’s not something that the TCEQ would accept,” Herrington said. “But that’s something that we need to talk about with TCEQ in more detail.”

Ross also requested a 20 percent buffer for land application permittees with reuse authorization. For example, under the current proposal, a permittee that produces enough treated wastewater to require a 100-acre irrigation field could potentially offset that requirement to zero acres with reuse. Under Ross’ proposal, that permittee would still need to have a 20-acre field.

Herrington called such a requirement a “significant departure from the premise of the proposed rule that would likely be rejected by many stakeholders.”

Kelly Davis, a staff attorney at the Save Our Springs Alliance, agreed with Ross’ recommendations and asked the commission not to recommend that Council approve the rule-making draft as written, because it would be “premature.” Staff, she said, should talk with the TCEQ and stakeholders about both recommendations before submitting the draft.

Herrington said that staff hopes to meet with TCEQ next week to discuss more details about the proposal and the issues at hand, that Council will be voting on the “policy issue” of submitting a rule-making petition to the TCEQ to remove obstacles to beneficial reuse and that, if the stakeholder group were to have another meeting, it would take place in December.

“This may end up adding another month to our original timetable – which was to submit the petition in November – but we want to get it right, so that’s OK,” said Herrington.

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