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Dripping Springs plans effluent reuse but wants discharge permit

Thursday, September 15, 2016 by Jo Clifton

The city of Dripping Springs, facing an array of opponents to its plan to discharge nearly 1 million gallons per day of treated effluent into Onion Creek, has come up with a proposal to reuse the treated wastewater and is asking the opponents to help pay for the plan.

If the opponents agree, landowners and governmental entities such as the city of Austin will help Dripping Springs pay for an irrigation system at developments within Dripping Springs and its extraterritorial jurisdiction. That arrangement would mean, perhaps, that Dripping Springs would not dispose of its effluent into Onion Creek, which contributes to the Middle Trinity Aquifer as well as the Edwards Aquifer, which recharges Barton Springs.

Stuart Henry, attorney for some Hays County landowners who are opposed to the discharge permit, told the Austin Monitor on Wednesday, “My clients are not going to pay Dripping Springs not to pollute their creek.” He said several of those protesting the permit likened the proposal to blackmail: “What? We want to pay you because you made a bad deal with the developers?”

A group called Protect Our Water has formed to oppose the permit, citing “strong evidence” of direct recharge of the Trinity Aquifer from Onion Creek and the likelihood of contamination of Dripping Springs Water Supply Company wells.

Protect Our Water wrote to Dripping Springs Mayor Todd Purcell and the president of the water supply company demanding that they provide scientific proof that putting the effluent into Onion Creek “poses no threat to this community’s drinking water supply.”

Ginger Faught, Dripping Springs’ deputy city administrator, told the Monitor on Wednesday that it may cost $1 million for Dripping Springs to go through a contested case hearing for the permit at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. If the opponents will agree to the city’s plan, Dripping Springs would be able to put that $1 million into infrastructure for beneficial reuse of the water, Faught said.

Chris Herrington, supervising engineer for the city of Austin’s Watershed Protection Department, said the city is proceeding per existing policy on direct discharge – which is to oppose it. TCEQ will publish a notice about the date of a hearing on the matter and will take public comments until the end of that hearing, at least 30 days after the notice is published, he said.

At this point, TCEQ has already received at least 848 comments from the public about the proposal, an unusually high number, Herrington noted.

Opponents want more detailed information on how Dripping Springs would dispose of the 995,000 gallons of wastewater per day it foresees eventually generating from its wastewater treatment plant.

The city of Austin, two aquifer districts and Hays County landowners say they fear the impact on the environment as well as on drinking water and on Barton Springs. The Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District and the Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District have both passed resolutions opposing the proposed discharge.

Although it has not indicated that it will formally oppose the permit, the Wimberley Water Supply Corporation wrote a letter last month asking the TCEQ to delay issuing the permit “to allow time to conduct the scientific investigations necessary to more fully understand the degree and multitude of the surface water influence from Onion Creek on the Middle Trinity Aquifer and the public and private water supply wells in the area.”

Faught disputed that characterization, explaining the complicated relationship the city has with various new developments. For example, she said, Dripping Springs’ Caliterra development is paying for its portion of the return line and the effluent.

Dripping Springs has already amended its permit to apply wastewater at Caliterra, Faught said. Those irrigation areas provide enough capacity for the full build-out of Caliterra they also give the city about 500 additional (living unit equivalents) that we can then sell around town.

Once the city gets its discharge permit, she said, although it will be operating under that permit, it will continue to irrigate the same areas at Caliterra as it is now. In addition, Faught said that there is a treated effluent pond at Caliterra for which the developer is paying 100 percent.

She explained that the city is also in negotiations with the Heritage development, in the heart of Dripping Springs, and it is proposing a public improvement district. If everything works out as they hope it will, the Heritage development will pick up the treated effluent line that currently ends at Caliterra.

“They’re going to take that line and bring it all the way to downtown to their development on their dollar. It’s about a $2.3 million project, and the Heritage developer would pay for that,” Faught said.

Assistant City Attorney Patricia Link sent a letter last week to the attorney for Dripping Springs outlining the city’s concerns, chief of which is that Dripping Springs will not have enough users of reclaimed water to prevent discharge into Onion Creek.

At this point, Dripping Springs has outlined how 621,000 gallons per day of treated effluent will be used for irrigation. That leaves 374,000 gallons not accounted for.

However, Faught believes the city will have no problem finding users for the rest of the water. She explained that the city itself has a number of parks that could benefit from it. In addition, she said the city plans eventually to use some of the reclaimed water for drinking purposes.

Herrington said, “It looks like Dripping Springs is doing a good thing. … Unfortunately, once they get the permit from TCEQ, they have a choice.”

In addition, although Dripping Springs is promising to put in $1 million and looking for another million dollars, the project it proposes will probably be considerably more expensive, perhaps two to three times as much. One engineering firm did a study for an affected landowner and estimated the cost to apply all the effluent at $6.2 million, Herrington said.

Mayor Steve Adler, who started discussions with Dripping Springs’ mayor last year about how to prevent the discharge into Onion Creek, is keeping up with the process. When asked on Wednesday whether the city might invest in Dripping Springs’ project, Adler said, “I don’t know the answer to that. I do know the city has a vested interest in water quality in our streams and rivers in Central Texas. Given that vested interest, I wouldn’t take anything off the table.”

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