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Austin asks TCEQ to change wastewater rules

Wednesday, March 16, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano

On Tuesday, the city of Austin formally asked the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for help in correcting an uptick in permits that allow direct discharge of effluent into the region’s lakes, creeks and streams.

In Texas, treated wastewater can be discarded either through direct discharge into creeks or lakes, or through land application, as permitted by the state.

Chris Herrington, who is with the city’s Watershed Protection Department, told the Austin Monitor that the city has seen a growing trend of land application facilities converting to discharge facilities in recent years, due primarily to the rapidly rising cost of land in the area and the fact that a growing population means that more land – more expensive land – is required for Texas land application permits.

“That’s very much a concern to us,” said Herrington, “because we perceive significantly greater adverse environmental impacts from discharge facilities than from land application facilities.”

Not only does the reuse of water aid in water conservation, but it also limits the amount of effluent released into creeks and lakes. Effluent, or treated water, has higher concentrations of nutrients than typically found in regional streams. Direct discharge of this effluent can have a negative impact on water quality, leading to such things as algae blooms, which consume oxygen and can hurt aquatic life.

To make matters worse, said Herrington, the Legislature has made it more difficult to contest discharge permits by raising the bar for those hoping to protest permits.

“We want to find a new paradigm for how we can cooperate with wastewater providers and with our regional partners to more sustainably manage wastewater,” said Herrington, who explained that allowing permit holders to guarantee that treated water has another place to go will allow them to reduce the area of the fields they currently need to get land application permits.

The city has been looking for a way to reverse the trend and encourage more land application permits. On Tuesday, the city formally submitted a rule petition asking TCEQ to modify its land application wastewater disposal regulation. Specifically, the petition asks the agency to create a new option that would allow applicants to get credit for some effluent that is reused for things other than the actual land application, such as irrigating land other than the designated disposal land or even through reclaimed water uses like washing clothes or flushing toilets.

“If that can be done with reclaimed water instead of having to create potable water from the Colorado River, we think that’s a really great thing for water conservation,” said Herrington.

The petition is the end result of a stakeholder process that began in August. Herrington explained that about 20 different wastewater permit holders, 10 nearby cities, Hays County and Travis County officials, Lower Colorado River Authority representatives and groundwater conservation districts joined Austin and Dripping Springs to try to find a new paradigm.

In a statement to the press, Mayor Steve Adler remarked, “The goal is to look at wastewater regionally with cities like Dripping Springs and others. … We want to be excellent stewards of the environment while also accommodating the rapidly growing population in our area, especially in the Texas Hill Country. We are proud of the efforts of the City of Austin and its coalition of regional stakeholders to bring this to fruition. We ask that TCEQ look favorably on this collaborative effort to improve our state’s wastewater regulations and meet our future water needs. I also want to thank all of our partners who helped us develop these proposed rules.”

Right now, TCEQ has 60 days to respond to the petition. It must make a decision on whether to deny it, accept it and begin a potentially yearslong rulemaking process, or launch its own stakeholder process to continue conversation about the idea.

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