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Environmentalists, city say sewage will harm Barton Creek

Wednesday, March 31, 2021 by Jo Clifton

Houston developer Stephen Cleveland has requested a permit from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to dump partially treated sewage into Long Branch, a tributary of Barton Creek. Although TCEQ has issued a draft permit, environmental organizations and the city of Austin have objected, saying the discharge will diminish the quality of the creek, which is just west of Austin and upstream from Barton Springs and the Barton Creek Greenbelt.

Austin Environmental Officer Chris Herrington explained that in 2017, Cleveland, under the name Sawyer-Cleveland Partnership, filed an application to dump 92,000 gallons of treated wastewater a day into the Long Branch tributary. Since then, Cleveland has modified his request to discharge 45,000 gallons a day.

The partially treated sewage would flow first into holding ponds in the Polo Club development and then into the Long Branch tributary of Barton Creek. Herrington said the city has been watching the application since it was submitted. “We’ve gone out and collected algae (from the stream) and developed a water quality impact” model, which the Watershed Protection Department has shared with TCEQ.

“It does show that the draft permit as currently drafted would cause unacceptable water quality degradation of the Long Branch tributary,” Herrington explained. “Consistent with Council direction we will share those comments with TCEQ in the next few weeks.” Herrington said he expects the city to request a contested case hearing.

“This is an extreme threat to Barton Creek and SOS will be using all of our resources to fight it,” said Bobby Levinski, an attorney for Save Our Springs Alliance.

A letter from the Barton Hills Neighborhood Association to TCEQ opposing the permit says, “Algae blooms capable of killing aquatic species and harming their surrounding habitats are becoming more prevalent in Texas waterways and in Austin have caused great public anxiety and concern. Accordingly, the proposed discharge is a threat to the water quality of Barton Creek and the aquifer that feeds Barton Springs and is opposed by the Association.”

TCEQ has scheduled an online public meeting on the permit for April 20 at 7 p.m. Community members may submit comments to TCEQ on Permit No. WQ0015594001.

Brian Zabcik, who is leading the charge against the permit for the Save Barton Creek Association, has organized a coalition called No Dumping Sewage that includes the Save Our Springs Alliance, Wimberley Valley Water Association, Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, Clean Water Action, the Barton Hills Neighborhood Association, the Zilker Neighborhood Association and others.

The coalition will host an online communitywide meeting to discuss the situation on April 5 at 7 p.m.

The two pollutants released by wastewater are nitrogen and phosphorous, common ingredients in fertilizer and the main cause of algae growth in streams. “We’ve recently seen huge algae blooms right below wastewater treatment plants in the Hill Country,” Zabcik told the Austin Monitor.

A discharge from the Liberty Hill sewage treatment plant has caused an algae bloom more than three miles long in the San Gabriel River. Zabcik explained that scientists believe the wastewater discharge is the cause of the algae blooms as there was very little algae before the discharge began. During the year when the effluent was applied to land instead, the algae disappeared. “That’s pretty good evidence of cause and effect,” he said. But once the plant got a permit to discharge into the river again, the algae returned, Zabcik said. Unfortunately, TCEQ gave Liberty Hill “the wrong permit, and it can’t change that now,” he said.

If the Sawyer-Cleveland permit wins final approval, it will be the third sewage permit along that part of the U.S. Highway 290 corridor. The first was for Belterra in 2008; the second was for the city of Dripping Springs in 2019. Both were “hybrid” permits; the permit holders agreed to apply their sewage to land until it exceeded a certain volume, at which point the sewage goes into the creek.

Zabcik clarified that the environmental organizations are not against development and fully support land dispersal of treated effluent. “We feel that our creeks shouldn’t be used as drainage ditches,” he said.

“Land application has essentially been required along the Highland Lakes since 1986. That’s when the state created a 10-mile buffer around the lakes. No new discharge permits can be issued in this buffer. … Development has not stopped around the lakes. It has continued because cities have successfully used land disposal for their treated sewage … Lakeway is a model for this. If this can be done around the lakes we think it can be done along 290 too,” Zabcik said.

Cleveland called the Monitor on Wednesday to talk about his plans for the property. When asked why he sought the permit to discharge into the creek rather than dispersing the wastewater on land, Cleveland said it was “not economically feasible for us to do that.” He said he hoped to sell the property and has one potential buyer who wants to expand their pizza restaurant business into the Austin area.

In response to the statement that a lot of people were upset about his plans, Cleveland said, “They need to talk to the state legislature. We’re just doing what is legally acceptable in the state of Texas.”

Photo by Vicki Mitchell from Austin, US, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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