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Wednesday, March 8, 2017 by Jo Clifton

Bill would stop Austin from protesting pollution

State Rep. Jason Isaac (R-Dripping Springs) has filed a bill that appears to threaten to punish the city of Austin for opposing Dripping Springs’ controversial wastewater discharge permit before the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

The city of Austin has been working with Dripping Springs to reach a settlement on issues related to Dripping Springs’ application to discharge 995,000 gallons a day of treated wastewater into Onion Creek. Dripping Springs has agreed to beneficial reuse of the wastewater, with the goal of eliminating the discharge on most days.

However, Austin and several other property owners have requested a contested case hearing at the TCEQ.

On Tuesday, six environmental organizations sent a letter to the Austin City Council urging it to continue to push Dripping Springs for no discharge. The letter was signed by representatives of the Save Barton Creek Association, Clean Water Action, the Austin Regional Group of the Sierra Club, the Save Our Springs Alliance, the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance and a Hays County group known as Protect Our Water, or POW.

According to the letter, “There is time and opportunity to continue working towards a no-discharge option that encourages decentralized beneficial reuse. The draft permit is currently on hold at TCEQ because the Environmental Protection Agency issued an interim objection to the draft permit on December 1, 2016. The TCEQ cannot continue processing the draft permit until it responds to (the Environmental Protection Agency’s) letter and EPA approves the draft permit.”

There may be plenty of time since TCEQ has not responded to the EPA and no hearing date can be set until after that happens. But Isaac’s legislation, filed Monday as House Bill 3004, may add a sense of urgency for some Austin Council members.

The bill would not take effect until September, and Austin filed its request for contested case hearing at TCEQ last November. So, although it would not prevent Austin from contesting this particular discharge, it would prevent future protests by prohibiting any city from protesting a discharge permit more stringent than any that the city has.

For example, Austin has a permit to discharge into the Colorado River, a large and not pristine body of water compared to Onion Creek.

Chris Herrington of the city’s Watershed Protection Department explained, “Effectively the TCEQ and EPA, when they’re making a determination of what level of wastewater treatment is necessary, they consider the characteristics of the receiving water body. … So Rep. Isaac’s bill would basically say that any one permit can be compared to another permit. That’s not the way they do it now. It treats municipal property owners differently than other property owners.”

Council Member Leslie Pool expressed outrage over Isaac’s legislation when she talked to the Austin Monitor on Tuesday.

“First, I’m just curious if the Onion Creek watershed were to be polluted by discharge from this plan, wouldn’t Mr. Isaac’s constituents be angry with him? I see my role as an elected official to try to protect people from unwarranted polluting events that they individually don’t have any control over. That’s my job, to look at a situation and say, ‘That’s a bad idea.’ If you pollute that stretch of the creek and it flows northward, it comes directly into the Austin city limits. So we definitely have a role to play, and Mr. Isaac’s bill – if I can take direct aim at it – is very shortsighted and an insult to his constituents.”

The Austin and Dripping Springs city councils must both agree to the terms of the proposal.

Stuart Henry, attorney for POW, said Tuesday that Isaac’s bill is the same as one he filed in 2015. He described the bill as one that “keeps municipalities from objecting to sh*t being dropped in the creek. … He’s basically pushing the agenda of Dripping Springs to allow them to discharge into the creek.

“I think what he’s trying to do is put political pressure on Mayor (Steve) Adler and the City Council to settle the dispute between the city and Dripping Springs over the discharge permit, and basically he’s told the city of Austin they better settle pretty quick or he’s going to try to push that bill. He’s held that bill over the heads of the city of Austin for some time,” he continued.

Henry noted that the same legislation won House approval in 2015, but died in the Texas Senate.

Photo by Nigel Wylie (Author) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Dripping Springs: The municipality centered on US290-West in Hays County.

Texas Legislature: The state’s legislative governing body composed of the House and Senate.

Watershed Protection Department: The city's Watershed Protection Department works to reduce the impact of floods, erosion and water pollution in the city. The department is mostly funded by the city's drainage fee.

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