Dripping Springs, Austin closer to Onion Creek wastewater discharge agreement

Neighbors push against city to allow treated wastewater in creek (KXAN Photo)
Neighbors push against city to allow treated wastewater in Onion Creek in Dripping Springs, on July 7, 2016 (KXAN Photo)

HAYS COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — Dripping Springs appears to be inching closer to a settlement agreement with the city of Austin over a controversial state permit that would allow treated wastewater to be discharged into Onion Creek.

The draft permit, which is still under Texas Commission on Environmental Quality review, would allow Dripping Springs to release nearly 1 million gallons of treated wastewater into Onion Creek every day, 365 days per year.

Dripping Springs officials say only a fraction of that amount would be released directly into Onion Creek. They are working on a settlement agreement with Austin and other stakeholders that could significantly limit the discharge volume by having the city agree to employ measures such as beneficial reuse and storage, according to a Tuesday news release and Chris Herrington, a supervising engineer in Austin’s Watershed Protection Department.

The TCEQ permit has been a point of controversy for months in Dripping Springs. Local activists have organized against its issuance and panned it as a threat to public health, Onion Creek and drinking water quality.

“The whole thing is a disaster waiting to happen.”

Any treated effluent released into Onion Creek is too much and a danger to public health and the environment, the environmentalists have said. The creek feeds into the Colorado River and recharges the Edwards Aquifer.

The city of Austin, which sits downstream from Dripping Springs, raised concerns of its own about the TCEQ permit and asked for a contested case hearing with the state environmental agency.

Creek modeling

As part of an effort to reach a settlement agreement, Austin’s Watershed Department modeled Dripping Springs’ proposed beneficial reuse plan and how it would impact Onion Creek, if it were in place over past 14 years, Herrington said.

“What we were able to do was take how Dripping Springs is going to operate their facility, put that into a model and look at the results,” Herrington said. “The results were, in this case, acceptable to city of Austin staff with respect to being protective of the current very good quality of water in Onion Creek.”

Using Onion Creek’s historical data, including flow, rainfall and temperature, Herrington said his team found the Dripping Springs discharge plan would have only released into Onion Creek 35 days out of 14 years.

Any discharge of treated wastewater into a creek such as Onion Creek, which is situated over the Edwards Plateau, is a “bad thing,” Herrington said. But a discharge rate as slow as the model estimated would not significantly impacts the creek’s water quality, he said.

Ginger Faught, Dripping Springs deputy administrator, said Watershed’s findings show “the frequency of the discharge would be very minimal because we would be putting [the treated effluent] in other places.”

In beneficial reuse, also called 210 reuse, Faught said the city would release the water onto fields and landscapes rather than directly into the creek.

But even minimal discharges, if that were to be the case, are too much for many environmentalists and local activists opposed to the TCEQ draft permit.

Voices of opposition

In an October 2016 letter addressed to Austin Mayor Steve Adler, environmentalists with the Save Barton Creek Association and Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance expressed deep concern over the settlement agreement negotiations between Austin and Dripping Springs.

“Allowing any discharge into Onion Creek is likely to cause a domino effect, whereby the aggregate impacts will significantly degrade water quality in Onion Creek, Barton Springs Pool and Lady Bird Lake,” according to the letter. “We strongly urge you to only enter into negotiations with Dripping Springs if the result is 0 percent direct discharge. We also urge you to pursue a contested case hearing.”

The letter is posted on the webpage of Protect Our Water, an organization opposed to any direct treated wastewater discharge into Onion Creek. A consortium of six environmental groups including the Sierra Club joined to oppose the TCEQ permit, according to Protect Our Waters.

Wes Pitts, a managing director of Protect Our Water, said Dripping Springs is “spinning” the situation and news.

“This is simply not the creek to do this in because it’s a different model,” Pitts said. “The whole thing is a disaster waiting to happen.”

Pitts outlined four methods he said the city would need to embrace to handle the sewage effluent. Those methods include beneficial reuse, continuing to pursue land application through drip irrigation, spray irrigation using water cannons or sprinklers, as well as lined storage ponds to hold effluent during rainy periods when ground is saturated.

Perhaps the biggest concern, Pitts said, is drinking water quality. Any treated wastewater could contain a slew of chemicals including pharmaceuticals. Onion Creek recharges roughly 33 percent of the Barton Springs region of the Edwards Aquifer.

In addition, the guidelines for beneficial reuse could be to lax. “There are no teeth in these contracts at all,” he said.

What will happen in the next decade or two, when our population balloons? Pitts asked. One disaster, like a raw sewage spill, and it could take years for the creek to recover.

“There is no guarantee with the beneficial 201 reuse contract…What are future councils going to say?” Pitts said. “They’ve always got that fallback position, and that fallback position is the discharge pipe.”

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