Two and a half years into a protracted battle between the city of Austin, environmental groups and the city of Dripping Springs over whether the Hays County city should be allowed to dump treated sewage into Onion Creek, a state commission will likely decide Wednesday whether to send the matter to an administrative law judge.
The issue first arose in 2015 when Dripping Springs, the rapidly growing Hays County city, requested the permit to expand its sewage plant and allow it to discharge treated sewage into a tributary of Onion Creek, which eventually feeds Barton Springs.
Ginger Faught, deputy city administrator for Dripping Springs, said the city will primarily use the treated wastewater for irrigating city land and, through agreements, the parks, medians and other open spaces of private partners.
If there is excess, an agreement the city signed with the Lower Colorado River Authority requires Dripping Springs to store up to 12 million gallons before dumping, Faught said. Discharging is a last resort, she said, and, even if it comes to that, the effluent will be required to be of a safe standard.
“The goal is to never discharge,” Council Member Bill Foulds said. “So, while we’re going to have a permit that would say, ‘Yes, you can discharge up to 995 (thousand) gallons,’ we have taken the approach of obtaining contracts with different developments to reuse that wastewater so we don’t have to discharge it.”
But a barrage of environmental groups, the city of Austin and other entities say that any dumping could pose a risk to the area’s drinking water supply and cause algae blooms that would threaten wildlife, including the Barton Springs salamander, an endangered species.
They’re also concerned that the treated water could reach Barton Springs since the creek ultimately feeds the Barton Springs portion of the Edwards Aquifer.
Preliminary results of a December dye study conducted by a coalition of groups showed that dye injected into Onion Creek was detected at seven wells within about a mile after a couple weeks. The first detection surfaced within 24 hours.
The researchers, as well as others who oppose the permit, view that as proof that the creek and the Middle Trinity Aquifer, part of the primary groundwater source for the Hill Country, are connected, and anything put into the creek can therefore reach drinking water supplies.
“You can imagine a million gallons covering every single swallet and fracture, and you could potentially have hundreds, if not thousands, of wells that are getting a direct connection on this stuff,” said Wes Pitts, who has property on Onion Creek and who heads a group of concerned landowners called Protect Our Water. “It’s a health hazard, quite frankly.”
The final study won’t be finished until about June, researchers said.
Faught said it’s too soon to say what the study’s preliminary results mean, but when the final study comes out, city staff and consultants will review it.
Faught added that the draft permit contains “some of the most stringent effluent limits of any discharge permit in the state.” She pointed to the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision in June to withdraw objections it had filed against the permit request in December 2016 after collecting more information from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
But some members of the opposition say there is more Dripping Springs could do, such as commit to only small amounts of discharge under certain conditions.
The cities of Austin and Dripping Springs almost had reached a settlement that would have set out such terms, but at the Dec. 7 meeting, a majority of Austin City Council members decided to discontinue discussions.
Austin city staffers had recommended the council take the settlement as it could provide some assurances, while a contested hearing would be a gamble. Even if a judge were to rule in the Austin’s favor, the decision would still only be a recommendation, and TCEQ commissioners would have the final say.
After more than a dozen people railed against the settlement during the December meeting, however, the City Council decided not to take action.
“We can’t be soiling and despoiling the waters that keep us living here,” Council Member Ann Kitchen said. “(The settlement) is way too weak, and it is embarrassing.”
If TCEQ commissioners send the hearing to the State Office of Administrative Hearings, they will likely also decide Wednesday which of the 66 people, governmental entities and groups that have requested the hearing have sufficient legal standing.
TCEQ Executive Director Richard A. Hyde has made recommendations to the commission and found that Austin does not have standing, saying that its conservation easement on property along Onion Creek is “not a sufficient property interest.” City lawyers have filed a response.
Faught said she expects the hearing will be held some time in mid- to late summer.
The TCEQ meeting Wednesday will be at 9:30 a.m. at 12100 Park 35 Circle in Room 201S of Building E in North Austin.