The city of Dripping Springs and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality listened to dozens of north Hays County residents and community members speak against a proposed permit that could allow the city to discharge up to 955,000 gallons of wastewater into Onion Creek every day.
City officials said Dripping Springs does not plan to discharge anywhere near that amount of water in the near future, and the city’s intent from the beginning of the application process—which began in 2014—has been to reuse the water.
City Attorney Andy Barrett said the city hoped last night’s meeting could put residents at ease.
“We feel bad that people are feeling concerned about this, and we’re hoping we can address some of those issues and explain a little more about what we’re actually doing,” he said.
The city is applying for a Texas Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit, which would be implemented in three phases and allow expansion of the city’s wastewater treatment services. The first phase would allow the city to discharge 399,000 gallons of wastewater per day. The second phase would allow 497,500 gallons to be discharged per day, and the final phase would allow 995,000 gallons to be discharged per day.
But Barrett said the city remains committed to not discharging. Instead, due to the TCEQ application process, Barrett said the city must first apply for a discharge permit before it can apply for reuse permits.
“Our guys, City Council, have looked at wastewater as being a commodity, not a liability,” Barrett said. “They think they can combine this [pollution discharge plan]and use wastewater eventually to help relieve the water system here.”
Initial plans call for the wastewater to be reused in the irrigation of city athletic fields and parks.
Barrett said Belterra, a master-planned community in Dripping Springs, received a similar permit in 2009 and has yet to discharge any water. He said if the city received the permit it would not expect to use it in the foreseeable future.
Richard Beggs, who serves on the board of Protect Our Water, a grassroots organization opposed to the potential discharge, said the group is looking for a commitment from the city to not discharge the water into Onion Creek.
Recent studies by the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer and Hays Trinity conservation districts—which oversee groundwater in parts of Hays and Travis counties—have shown a connection between Onion Creek and the nearby aquifers which supply drinking water for residents in the area, he said.
“I think the city has done a lot of good things about reuse, but the problem remains that there’s never been a commitment [not to discharge wastewater],” Beggs said. “It’s always been about intentions. Without the standards that can ensure public health … please do not issue a permit that puts our health at risk.”
Eva Steinle-Darling, a water quality expert specializing in treatment for reuse, said recent studies have shown that treated effluent water does not contain a meaningful amount of harmful compounds.
“These compounds will be at concentrations lower than … what is relevant to human health,” Steinle-Darling said.
Residents remained unconvinced that if the treated wastewater were to be discharged, it would not harm the area’s drinking water. One resident pointed out that the TCEQ representatives at the meeting did not have a specific plan to address the potential presence of medications related to epilepsy, angina, blood pressure, spasms, esophagus cancer and bladder infections in the discharged water.
“If too much nitrogen is in the drinking water … not only can people get sick, [but]fatalities can occur,” Beggs said. “I want growth in the community, but never at the risk of public health.”
Kathy Humphreys, said the TCEQ will focus on preparing responses to each of the residents’ comments gathered during the public input period—which began in 2014. She said the commission hopes to have all responses completed within 60 days, although she said providing responses to each comment will likely take longer due to the large number of responses.
After the responses to comments have been offered, community members who submitted comments have the option to request a contested case hearing before a judge. The evidence gathered in those hearings will be considered and a recommendation will be made to the TCEQ.
After the contested case hearings the permit request could go to the State Office of Administrative Hearings, a public agency that manages hearings and mediations related to more than 50 state agencies.
Humphreys estimated the process could take six to seven months before the permit is up for consideration on a commission agenda.
“Dripping Springs has had a lot of growth and we’ve had a lot of hard decisions … hard decisions that need to be made,” Barrett said.