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Dripping Springs’ proposed wastewater plan could threaten aquifers

Tuesday, July 19, 2016 by Cate Malek

The Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District is moving quickly to prevent a change in the city of Dripping Springs’ wastewater management that could threaten Dripping Springs’ drinking water.

The city of Dripping Springs has applied for a permit to discharge treated effluent from its wastewater plant into Onion Creek. But a recent study has confirmed a suspected connection between the surface water in Texas Hill Country streams like Onion Creek and the groundwater in the Edwards and Trinity aquifers.

The conservation district’s board of directors unanimously passed a resolution on June 30 opposing the permit, stating that the discharge could contaminate drinking water, lower the property values of downstream landowners and threaten aquatic life.

“The problem with the Hill Country streams is they’re so pristine … they don’t have the capacity to buffer the effect of the discharge,” said John Dupnik, the general manager of the conservation district. “They’re very sensitive.”

The conservation district has been involved in a long-running effort to protect the aquifers from wastewater contaminants, most notably in a case against the Belterra development in 2008. That case went into protracted negotiations that finally ended in a settlement, something the conservation district is trying to avoid this time around.

The conservation district is hoping to prevent the application for the changes to Dripping Springs’ wastewater management before it has the chance to be approved. It plans to meet with representatives from the city of Dripping Springs this week to discuss its concerns. The hope is that the newly confirmed connection between Onion Creek and the groundwater in the aquifers will provide a compelling reason to prevent the permit.

“We hope that if we provide this information to the (city of Dripping Springs) and to the (Texas Commission on Environmental Quality) on the front end, that it could compel a new approach or alternative or at least open up the discussion,” Dupnik said.

Although the wastewater discharge would be treated to remove any organic material or bacteria, it could still contaminate groundwater. One concern is that nutrients in the water, such as nitrogen or phosphorous, could contribute to toxic algae in the streams and aquifers. Another concern is the contaminants from health-care products and pharmaceuticals that wastewater treatment technology isn’t designed to remove.

“You have to have an extraordinarily high quality of effluent to really discharge without having an ecological effect on the surface water,” Dupnik said.

The conservation district has been working on the study connecting Onion Creek with the Edwards and Trinity aquifers for years, but it was just by chance that the initial phase of the research was completed right before Dripping Springs applied to change its permit.

“I don’t know what you call it, serendipity or something else, but all this work on Onion Creek has been planned or in the works for years,” Dupnik said. “It seemed clear that this evidence really needed to be part of the conversation because it really does compel a harder look at what (Dripping Springs) intends to do.”

Photo by Nicholas Henderson made available through a Creative Commons license. A complete list of Austin Monitor donors can be found here

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