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City defends stance on Dripping Springs discharge permit

Wednesday, December 14, 2016 by Joseph Caterine

Chris Herrington, an engineer with the city’s Watershed Protection Department, hopes to dispel the notion that the city of Austin is an “800-pound gorilla” that intimidates surrounding municipalities into submitting to its environmental policy.

At the Dec. 7 meeting of the Environmental Commission, Herrington and other Watershed Protection staff presented a brief on the city of Dripping Springs’ plan to be permitted to discharge 995,000 gallons of treated wastewater into a tributary of Onion Creek.

“There absolutely is a perception, even by the state legislature, that the city of Austin is attempting to control development in the region,” Herrington told the commission. “I want to attempt to the best of my ability to counter that perception. It looks like we’re the bad guys and that we’re on the opposite of the table from Dripping Springs. We really want to be on the same side.”

Dripping Springs has submitted an application to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for a permit that would allow it to release treated effluent into Onion Creek, which is upstream of Austin. The city of Austin has voiced opposition to the plan. If it is approved as drafted, Herrington warned, Dripping Springs could release wastewater into the creek, which could degrade the recharge to Barton Springs and impact the city of Austin’s conservation easement.

After Dripping Springs submitted its application to the TCEQ, the city of Austin initiated a rule-making petition with the agency relating to wastewater disposal via land application. The TCEQ has since put that rule proposal on its website for an informal public review.

Despite the timing of the city’s petition, Michael Personett, assistant director at the Watershed Department, emphasized that it was not necessarily intended as a response to Dripping Springs’ application. “The situation of wastewater management in the Hill Country and sensitive environmental areas is pretty generalized across the whole Highland Lakes region and the Barton Springs Zone,” he said.

Herrington indicated that the city’s goal is not to target Dripping Springs, but to facilitate regional cooperation. “We know how fast we’re growing,” Herrington said. “If we cannot grow in a collaborative and sustainable way, this will just be the first of many fights. This will be all we spend our time doing.”

Nonetheless, Commissioner Andrew Creel voiced concern about the manner in which the city of Austin has been negotiating with Dripping Springs. “Do you understand that some of the science and studies done thus far could be seen as accumulating evidence from an objectionist point of view, and not really aiding the city of Dripping Springs?” he asked.

“The degree to which we are willing to put staff resources into doing a lot of this analysis I feel is a collaboration,” Personett said. “We really don’t relish getting into contested cases more than anyone else does.”

Within the past decade, Austin’s City Council has passed resolutions in three separate cases against the direct discharge of treated effluent within the Barton Springs Zone. Only the first of these cases, in which the Belterra subdivision applied for a discharge permit in 2005, went to a contested case hearing. The final version of the permit was issued in 2009, but it was so heavily restricted that Belterra has to date yet to take advantage of it.

The TCEQ held a public meeting in November soliciting feedback on Dripping Springs’ plan. TCEQ staff will most likely respond to the commentary in January. Then, no sooner than March 2017, the TCEQ may or may not move the application along to the State Office of Administrative Hearings for a contested case hearing.

“The real difficulty with the contested case hearings process,” Herrington said, “is that (TCEQ) commissioners may accept the proposal for decision from the (administrative law) judge, or they can reject it. They have the decision-making authority.”

Photo by Sickter6 – In Vermont, CC BY-SA 3.0.

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