The on-again, off-again Wimberley wastewater treatment plant is off again while the City Council revisits a plan to outsource to a private utility company.
Emotions are running high in the Hays County town of about 3,000, divided over an issue that’s been the subject of debate for more than 30 years. Some say they’ve even lost long friendships over it.
Most seem to agree that the city — much of which uses septic systems that are old and susceptible to leaks into the nearby Cypress Creek and Blanco River — needs a centralized sewer system. The division is over whether the city should rebuild and maintain its own wastewater plant or hire Aqua Texas, a subsidiary of Bryn Mawr, Pa.-based Aqua America.
City officials repeatedly have put construction of the city plant on hold while they deliberate, but they’ll have to make a final decision by Tuesday under the terms of the construction contract. The City Council is expected to vote on the issue Thursday.
The city has a small wastewater treatment plant that has the capacity to process 15,000 gallons per day for a nursing home and to serve Blue Hole Regional Park, a beloved swimming hole upstream of the town square. The plan under contract now is to relocate and expand the plant to process up to 75,000 gallons per day.
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That would serve Wimberley’s downtown business district and some homes, about 100 properties altogether.
Earlier this year, the city was moving forward with a roughly $8 million plan to build a city-owned and operated system and began construction on collection pipes. But in May, after new council members were sworn in, newly elected Mayor Susan Jaggers brought Aqua Texas back into the picture by suggesting the city connect its pipes to the company’s existing treatment facility and become a wholesale customer.
Aqua Texas is one of the largest U.S.-based, publicly traded water utilities and operates in 53 counties in Texas. Jaggers and other supporters of the outsourcing plan say it would be less expensive, transferring the long-term cost of maintaining a treatment plant to a company well-versed in the technology.
Aqua Texas President Bob Laughman said in an interview that his company is able to offer the benefits of economy of scale through regional rates that spread the cost of service across a larger customer base.
“Neither Aqua nor the city of Wimberley could ever provide economical rates with such a high capital expenditure for the plant and collection system and so few customers,” Laughman said.
Supporters also argue that a partnership would be better for the environment, because the permit for the Aqua Texas system does not allow it to discharge treated wastewater into area waterways. The company instead irrigates local golf courses and has a 19-million-gallon storage pond, Jaggers said.
The city’s plant would treat its wastewater to Type I, a state designation for reclaimed water likely to come into human contact, as well as use ultraviolet disinfection. Aqua Texas’ plant treats to Type II, a level only usable in areas where human contact is unlikely, but the company has offered to upgrade to Type I. Ultraviolet disinfection was not part of the company’s offer.
Under the city plan, treated water would be used on 12 acres at Blue Hole Park and stored in a 500,000-gallon tank. During times when there is no need for irrigation and the storage tank is full, the treated wastewater would be discharged into Deer Creek, which feeds into the Blanco River.
Place 3 Council Member Allison Davis, who is in favor of a city-owned plant, said discharging would be a last resort. A 2013 feasibility study found the city likely would need to discharge two days a year on average.
Davis and other opponents of the Aqua Texas plan say changing course now would be costly and time-consuming.
Steve Klepfer, a former mayor and a member of citizen group No Aqua Texas, which has collected more than 1,800 signatures on a petition, said there are too many unknowns.
“We have a very well-vetted plan in place that took a long time to convince me (of) and to watch them pick it apart in a matter of a month or two is a problem for me as citizen,” Klepfer said. “My fear is we’re going to end up with nothing.”
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The group also has concerns about the company, citing its history of Texas Commission on Environmental Quality violations and lawsuits in other cities, including Kyle, after more than 100,000 gallons of partially treated sewage spilled into Plum Creek. The Kyle lawsuit ended in a settlement, and the city has since parted ways with the company.
The Aqua Texas plan requires building a pipe underneath Cypress Creek to reach the company’s plant on the opposite side, which critics say is a pollution risk.
Laughman said boring under creeks is a common practice in the pipeline industry and regulations guard against leaks.
At a council workshop Tuesday, Jaggers said that a rate study shows the average residential customer using 4,000 gallons a month would pay double if the city builds a new plant to make up for construction costs, making for a water bill of $126 a month versus $63 a month under the Aqua Texas plan.
Aqua Texas has agreed to hold its quoted rate for five years, she said. Jaggers also estimated the project’s cost would be about $6 million with Aqua Texas, lower than the city plan by about $1.8 million, and she said annual operating expenses would be lower by $161,000, even with about $53,000 in Aqua Texas treatment fees.
“It’s the most economical and environmentally sound way, and it’s a fair way for everyone who has to pay for this system,” Jaggers said in an interview after the meeting Tuesday.
The $6 million estimate, however, does not include the cost to terminate the contract for the treatment plant construction. It also assumes that existing sources of funding for the project, such as a $5.5 million loan from the Texas Water Development Board and a $1 million Economic Development Agency grant, will still be available if the city changes plans.
Jaggers has said the city has received assurances from both agencies that as long as officials send updated information, they will still supply the funds.
Davis said Tuesday she wants to see that in writing before Thursday’s vote.
“We’re in a bit of a tricky situation,” Davis said in an interview after Tuesday’s meeting. “We’re being asked to vote on something, and we’re being asked to put a lot of trust in things that we can’t verify.”