After years of fighting a proposal to expand a sewage treatment plant that would dump treated wastewater into a creek that feeds Barton Springs, the city of Austin, groundwater conservation districts, Onion Creek property owners and the Save Barton Creek Association appear to be nearing an agreement with the city of Dripping Springs to limit discharges.
But one stumbling block stands in the way, according to several parties involved in settlement negotiations.
Representatives from the environmental group Save Our Springs Alliance, also a party to the dispute, stepped away from settlement conversations, raising the prospect of an expensive, protracted legal fight over the plant expansion.
The city of Dripping Springs has already spent $792,564 over the past half-dozen years on lawyers and consultants to promote and defend the project, according to information obtained by the American-Statesman through a public information request.
And already Gary Keller, co-founder of real estate company Keller Williams and an owner of property along the creek, has spent north of $500,000 on the dispute.
Looking to attract businesses and manage growth, the small city 23 miles west of downtown Austin that bills itself as “the Gateway to the Hill Country” is asking the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for permission to discharge as much as 995,000 gallons of treated effluent per day into a tributary of Onion Creek.
Opponents of the plant proposal say nutrients from the treated sewage water could lead to algae blooms in the creek, making it unsightly and choking off oxygen for other plants and animals.
In a December study conducted by a coalition of groups, dye injected into Onion Creek was detected at seven wells within about a mile after a couple of weeks — suggesting anything put into the creek could reach drinking water supplies. The first detection surfaced within 24 hours. The creek is also the largest single source of recharge for Barton Springs.
Last month, on the verge of what could be the first of a series of trials on the matter, the parties engaged in two all-day sessions with a mediator at the TCEQ.
Parties involved in the confidential settlement proceedings said they were near agreement. Under the proposed deal, Dripping Springs would cut its treatment plant capacity to 700,000 gallons; to avoid discharges into the creek, the city would first use the effluent to irrigate about 350 acres of parks, medians and other grassy areas and would add ponds capable of storing 20 million gallons of the treated wastewater.
“It’s a very fine settlement,” said Dan Wheelus, an attorney for Keller.
City of Austin environmental scientist Chris Herrington said that “really good settlement offers under discussion failed to materialize.”
The agreement apparently fell apart after the SOS Alliance stepped away from settlement talks, according to several people involved.
Some sticking points with other parties were still outstanding, said Dripping Springs Deputy City Administrator Ginger Faught, but “Save Our Springs has been an impediment to a full-on settlement.”
“When I looked at this carefully some days ago, we were not there, in our judgment,” Bill Bunch, executive director of the environmental group, told the American-Statesman in a recent interview. “We continue to evaluate the situation. Nobody wants to go through a difficult, expensive hearing battle if we don’t have to.”
“How much pollution we allow in Onion Creek,” Bunch said, “sets the stage across the Hill Country and other Hill Country streams.”
Now, even as settlement talks continue, the parties will appear before a pair of administrative law judges to argue over whether a permit should be issued.
The agency commissioners, appointed by the governor, tend to be sympathetic to developer interests, leaving open the possibility that Dripping Springs will be awarded a permit for the full 995,000 gallons.
“Going without a settlement agreement and hoping for a successful outcome is a very big gamble,” Herrington said.
Built to replace antiquated septic systems, Dripping Springs’ current plant has the capacity to treat 313,500 gallons per day and currently treats about 90,000.
But the city is growing fast. Its population has increased from about 1,500 residents in 2000 to 2,400 in 2016, according to Census Bureau figures. About 35,000 people live in the wider community around the city, but most are not served by the city’s wastewater plant.
If a treatment plant expansion, which could cost roughly $30 million, is approved by the TCEQ, the plant would be the second permitted to discharge treated wastewater into a Hill Country creek that feeds the Barton Springs portion of the Edwards Aquifer. Belterra, a Dripping Springs-area subdivision, has another such permit.
Other Hays County communities, including Buda and Wimberley, have considered similar moves as they grapple with growth. The population of the county could increase nearly threefold by 2060, according to estimates in the state water plan.
Dripping Springs officials began considering a plant expansion after the city’s economic development committee declared in a letter to the mayor that the lack of capacity undermines the city’s ability to meet the needs of current residents, manage new growth and “recruit additional, quality primary employers to our community.”
Under state standards, the effluent should be clean enough to fish or swim in. Still, U.S. Geological Survey monitoring stations suggest the creek is dry about 10 percent of the time, opening up the prospect that the creek could be chiefly composed of effluent during drought.
And Dripping Springs has had problems at its current treatment plant, with treated effluent running off its property and, in at least one case, a contractor operating the plant failing to notify state authorities about a sewage sludge problem.
“I’m not aware of any system that operates perfectly all the time,” Faught said.
But Bunch seized on the violations.
“If they can’t manage 90,000 gallons of sewage, then we don’t see how they can be trusted to manage almost a million gallons of sewage a day when they would be allowed to dump directly into the creek,” he said.
In some ways, the settlement question — whether to arrive at terms or continue to fight — is entirely conventional. But it also recalls the fissures of the Austin environmental movement over the past 25 years.
George Cofer, chief executive of Hill Country Conservancy, a more conciliatory environmental group, one that partners with real estate developers, said he thought SOS opposition to the settlement could lead to a worse outcome in terms of water quality protections.
“I don’t question the organization’s position,” said Cofer, whose own group is not party to the dispute, “but I do wonder if their strategic thinking is sound on this particular issue.”
Clark Hancock, president of the Save Barton Creek Association, another party to the matter and one that has allied with SOS before, declined to speak to the details of the settlement.
“What we’re striving for is to have these conversations be entered into much earlier so that we can find common ground,” he said.
Complicating matters, Austin was officially ruled out last month as a party to the dispute by the administrative law judges — though the city may appeal that decision.
For now, that decision robs the protesting parties of Austin’s legal expertise — and, potentially, Bunch of an ally in settlement negotiations: The Austin City Council declined to approve a settlement agreement with Dripping Springs in December.
Late last year, Austin staffers had brought the City Council an earlier settlement agreement.
After more than a dozen people spoke against that proposal during the December meeting, however, the 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 at the time. The settlement “is way too weak, and it is embarrassing.”
A settlement notwithstanding, the judges are expected to deliver a recommendation to the TCEQ by mid-November.