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City to continue protest of Dripping Springs permit

Friday, December 8, 2017 by Jo Clifton

The city will continue its protest of a proposed permit that would allow Dripping Springs to discharge up to 995,000 gallons of treated wastewater per day to the Onion Creek watershed. City staff put a proposed settlement agreement on Thursday’s agenda, but Council declined to even consider it.

The permit is pending at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which has already approved a draft permit. In addition to Austin, the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District, the Hays Trinity Groundwater District and the citizen group Protect Our Water are opposing the permit.

Richard Beggs, the director of Protect Our Water, told the Austin Monitor Thursday that although POW is still negotiating with Dripping Springs it has not reached an agreement. He said it would file its protest with the TCEQ today, which is the deadline for filing such protests.

Mayor Steve Adler and Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo both made it clear that there would be no vote on the proposed settlement agreement hours before Council listened to citizens who had signed up to speak against it.

Later, after hearing from citizens, Council members Leslie Pool, Alison Alter, Ann Kitchen and Pio Renteria all said that they were opposed to the settlement agreement.

While a number of people expressed dismay that Council would consider the proposal without public engagement, the entire burden of bringing the matter forward seemed to fall on city staff in the Law Department and the Watershed Protection Department.

Chris Herrington, chief engineer for the Watershed Protection Department, told Council he recommended the settlement. “This agreement does allow some amount of discharge but that would not cause a change in the condition of algae” in the creek, he said.

“Given the likelihood of our ability to be successful at a contested case hearing (at TCEQ), given that this is another city, a city that controls a substantial amount of the Barton Springs zone, as a matter of fact has a larger jurisdiction in the Barton Springs zone than we do in it, we are attempting to engage in larger regional issues to address the larger issues that we face – we support the settlement agreement,” he concluded.

Bill Bunch of the Save Our Springs Alliance told the Monitor that the agreement “would put a whole lot of pollution into Onion Creek, the aquifer and Barton Springs. It would not protect water quality and it would set a horrible precedent across Central Texas.”

In a letter to the mayor and Council, Bunch, Angela Richter of the Save Barton Creek Association and Roy Waley of the Austin Sierra Club say that the Dripping Springs wastewater facility would be “the first and only permit ever to authorize unrestricted piping of treated sewage directly into any creeks that provide recharge to Barton Springs.”

In addition, the environmentalists note, “The proposed discharge point is upstream of Dove Springs and other neighborhoods along Onion Creek that have been historically underserved by Austin’s infrastructure decisions. The settlement agreement will put Austin’s blessing on making these neighborhoods the only neighborhoods in the city of Austin downstream from a permitted treated sewage discharge, posing a health risk to communities no other neighborhood in Austin must face.”

Here is what was in the agreement as presented to Council: In return for Austin’s withdrawal from the protest process, Dripping Springs would promise to take certain steps that would minimize the need to discharge effluent into Walnut Springs and Onion Creek and offer more protection to Barton Springs and Hays County wells.

Also, according to the proposed agreement, Dripping Springs would promise that it would maintain control of at least 25 acres of its irrigable land and 174 acres of such land owned by others to beneficially reuse the effluent. In addition, Dripping Springs also proposes to maintain 12 million gallons of effluent storage under its own control.

The agreement also says Dripping Springs “agrees to maximize beneficial reuse such that discharges would only occur if … irrigable land is frozen or saturated due to chronic wet weather conditions or frozen soil (or) planned or unforeseen operational or maintenance issues associated with the beneficial reuse infrastructure for the wastewater system (or) an act of God.”

In return, Austin and a limited liability company called Alfred Albert would have agreed that they would not protest the Dripping Springs discharge permit. Additionally, Austin and the company would have agreed that they would not provide “financial or technical support to any person or entity that obtains standing to contest the application.”

However, the agreement says that any of the parties opposing the agreement can call a city employee or contractor to testify or provide documents in response to a subpoena or public information request. According to assistant city attorney Patricia Link, the decision about whether to set a hearing on the matter is expected to come up at the TCEQ on Jan. 24.

Photo by Jane Hammons made available through a Creative Commons license.

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