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Austin has proposal for Dripping Springs permit

Tuesday, February 14, 2017 by Jo Clifton

The city of Austin has released a draft proposal for Dripping Springs’ controversial permit to discharge 995,000 gallons of treated wastewater into Onion Creek. The Austin and Dripping Springs city councils must both agree to the terms of the proposal.

But there are several other landowners and agencies that may request that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality set a contested case hearing.

If those parties, including Protect Our Water, do not agree with the proposed permit, the matter will not reach the hearing stage at the State Office of Administrative Hearings until December or January 2018, according to Stuart Henry, attorney for POW.

In 2016, TCEQ issued a draft permit that would authorize Dripping Springs to discharge up to 995,000 gallons per day of treated effluent into the tributary of Onion Creek known as Walnut Springs. This is what Dripping Springs had requested, but Dripping Springs officials always said that they would initiate a beneficial reuse program for the wastewater and would only rarely discharge into the creek.

Ginger Faught, deputy city administrator for Dripping Springs, told the Austin Monitor that her City Council has not yet been briefed on the proposal, which she said should occur at an executive session on Wednesday.

It is not clear when the Austin City Council might hear about the proposal, but Mayor Steve Adler has worked hard to get Austin and Dripping Springs to agree and avoid a public battle.

Chris Herrington, chief engineer for Austin’s Watershed Protection Department, told the Monitor on Monday that Onion Creek is currently doing well as far as algae growth. The reason Austin and others have objected to wastewater discharge into the creek is the high level of nutrients in the discharge. Those nutrients lead to growth of algae and lower the water quality.

In the past, Austin has opposed release of wastewater into Onion Creek, among others, because of the danger of lowering water quality. However, Herrington said Austin has analyzed information from Dripping Springs and Austin’s own previous studies of the creeks involved. Based on those studies, he said, “There would be periods of discharge, but it would be very rare, only 35 days in 14 years.”

Henry, a longtime environmental attorney, said Monday, “It looks like the city of Austin is on the brink of agreeing with Dripping Springs’ desired discharge. And what the city has put out for everybody to consider, while it’s a starting point, I guess, it’s not very comprehensive and not very protective. I think the higher-ups in the city are going to agree to anything to get the Texas Legislature off their backs, particularly where it applies to discharge.”

Henry went on to point out that state Rep. Jason Isaac (R-Dripping Springs) introduced legislation in 2015 to prevent the city of Austin from weighing in on Dripping Springs’ wastewater discharge applications.

He said that Isaac is threatening to file similar legislation again. “And I’m sure the city, in particular the mayor (of Austin), feels a lot of pressure to get that done before that bill is introduced,” Henry concluded.

Two weeks ago, Dripping Springs announced that it had signed reuse contracts with the Caliterra and Howard Ranch developments to accept close to 500,000 gallons per day of reclaimed water. According to their press release, Dripping Springs also plans to use the reclaimed water to irrigate city-owned land, bringing the total used for irrigation to 600,000 gallons per day.

In addition, Dripping Springs announced that the city had signed a letter of intent with local landowner Scott Roberts as it relates to a proposed development in Driftwood. “A feasibility study will now be conducted to evaluate that development accepting up to one million gallons of treated effluent for reuse,” the announcement read.

Herrington said that Austin, Dripping Springs and three landowner groups, including POW, the Lower Colorado River Authority, the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District and the Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District, would all be invited to a negotiating session about the proposed permit on Feb. 27. He said he will be making a presentation to the city’s Environmental Commission on Wednesday.

Henry said, “So there’s a big hurry for the city of Austin to settle fast, and frankly, it’s not going to occur, because (the Environmental Protection Agency) has not even reviewed the draft permit. EPA, upon POW’s request, interjected an interim objection to the permit because it was going to degrade the existing water quality of Onion Creek, and EPA asked the TCEQ how they analyzed that it wouldn’t degrade Onion Creek.” So far, he said, TCEQ has not given the EPA an answer.

In addition, TCEQ has yet to respond to 80 written objections the agency received about the permit last fall. According to Henry, TCEQ must respond to those comments prior to setting a hearing before the commissioners. At that hearing, which he expects will be in May, if there is no agreement, the commissioners will decide which of the parties have standing to challenge the permit. From there, the matter will go to the State Office of Administrative Hearings.

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Photo by Nicholas Henderson made available through a Creative Commons license.

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