In late January environmental advocates announced a victory in the fight against the proposed permit when preliminary results of an ongoing, unrelated dye-trace study showed pink tap water flowing through the sinks and faucets of a home in Dripping Springs located in the vicinity of the proposed discharge point.
“There is a big difference between injecting a small amount of dye at three test sites and flooding the whole creek [with treated effluent],” homeowner Sharon Darley said. “It’s not just going to be me and a few landowners affected. It’s obvious if my land is affected, a lot more peoples’ land will be affected, too.”
The study, conducted by a consortium of Central Texas agencies and groundwater scientists, is meant to observe the connection between surface water in Onion Creek and groundwater in the Trinity Aquifer—the drinking supply for much of Central Texas, including Hays County.
In early December nontoxic fluorescent dye was injected into three areas of Onion Creek, including one upstream site approximately 1 mile from the confluence with Walnut Springs where the discharge is proposed, according to Jeff Watson, a hydrogeologist and staff member of the Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District.
Within one day, the presence of dye was detected in two nearby wells and one spring. Since then, traces of dye have been discovered in five other locations. Watson said scientists will continue to monitor these locations as well as other active sites because “depending on how quickly groundwater is moving in the aquifer it could take months for the dye to travel across the study area.”
The infiltration of dye in area wells has been perceived as a “smoking gun” for environmental groups rallying against the permit—proof that treated wastewater released into Onion Creek will infiltrate drinking water.
“I told the groundwater district, from our perspective, they are our heroes,” said Richard Beggs, board member with Protect Our Water. “We have repeatedly asked the city to provide scientific due diligence that this is a safe project for our community, and they have refused to respond.”
DRIPPING SPRINGS REACTS
Since the permit was submitted to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in October 2015, Dripping Springs Mayor Todd Purcell says the city has maintained its commitment to 100 percent beneficial reuse of treated effluent for purposes of irrigation and, eventually, potable drinking water.
“We have designed this [permit] so that not one drop ever goes into the creek,” he said. “We want to reuse this water because it is a commodity, and we see it as a value for the city and the developments.”
The terms of the permit under review by the TCEQ would allow the city to build a new wastewater treatment facility with a capacity of 995,000 gallons per day—a 184 percent increase over its current treatment capabilities.
Purcell said the need for more capacity was determined through a preliminary engineering study that calculated the needs of its current and future populations. Over the past decade, the population of Hays County has grown by 60 percent, Purcell said, and numerous developments coming online indicate a continuation of that trend.
“The plant we are operating under right now, we have learned, is not a suitable system for a growing municipality,” Purcell said. “[The city] currently has 12 million gallons of storage—a
$3 million investment—to make sure we can hold onto the water and it doesn’t go down into the creek.”
In addition to its storage capacity, the city said 600,000 gallons per day have already been reserved for irrigation—including 118,000 gallons set aside for the Caliterra development—and agreements with several developments are in the works to reserve the remaining 395,000 gallons.
Still, in absence of a formalized no-discharge solution, many opponents interpret the city’s promises of beneficial reuse as bureaucratic hot air.
“If they are saying they don’t want to discharge then we should have a permit that does not authorize discharge,” said Bill Bunch, executive director of Save Our Springs Alliance.
CURRYING AUSTIN’S FAVOR
Last December the city of Dripping Springs once again proposed a settlement agreement with the city of Austin. In exchange for support of the permit, Dripping Springs said it would minimize wastewater discharge into Onion Creek, which supplies 40 percent of Barton Springs’ flow, according to Save Barton Creek Association.
After hearing concerns of citizens during public comment, council members Ann Kitchen, Leslie Pool, Alison Alter and Pio Renteria rejected consideration of the settlement.
“I certainly appreciate the position [Dripping Springs is] in and I appreciate them coming to speak with us to explain their concerns, but at this point I remain in the same position I was before,” Kitchen said. “I would have to understand whether there were changes that could be made to the settlement agreement that would meet the concerns of the Hays and Travis County environmental community.”
Chris Herrington, supervising engineer in Austin’s Watershed Protection Department, sees it differently. While he does not believe the permit is sufficient in protecting water quality, at least the settlement would ensure some discharge limitations.
Also, sullying the relationship with a neighboring municipality over a permit which is already deemed legally acceptable by both the TCEQ and the Environmental Protection Agency could jeopardize future water-quality conservation efforts, he said.
“It is important to consider what Austin has the power to regulate,” Herrington said. “There is one potential outcome that we would go through the time and expense that would be involved in a contested case hearing, damage our relationship with the city of Dripping Springs, and then TCEQ could still issue the permit as drafted with no protections for Onion Creek.”
RESPONDING TO THE DYE STUDY
Once evidence of dye infiltration in area wells reached the public, Purcell issued a statement on the city’s blog that “even if the study ends up definitively showing connectivity [between the creek and groundwater or wells], we have no information to suggest that any discharge of wastewater effluent would negatively affect wells or water suitable for drinking.”
Instead, the public should be more worried about “pesticides, petroleum products, fertilizers and animal waste” introduced into the creek by runoff, Purcell said, and less concerned with effluent that will be treated “far beyond the state’s minimum requirements.”
Claiming connectivity does not imply impact is a narrative the public is not likely to accept, Bunch said.
“Tell that to the people who are wanting to drink their water and bathe in it on a daily basis,” he said. “I don’t think that will go over very well.”
Beggs said Protect Our Water intends to file a legal brief with the TCEQ to ensure the results of the dye study are considered in its final decision.
On Oct. 31st TCEQ released its response to 160 comments made on the proposed permit.
Regarding concerns over the safety of the discharge, the commission said effluent limits were adequate in ensuring “the protection of human health, aquatic life and the environment.”
A recent finding by scientists monitoring the federally endangered Barton Springs salamander has environmental groups questioning the TCEQ’s stance.
Previously known only to exist within Zilker Park, Herrington said, recently the salamander was discovered near the proposed discharge point.
“If those salamanders are there then they are thriving, and they will continue to thrive even if we are dumping 995,000 gallons of effluent into the creek because of the levels we are treating it to,” Purcell said in response.
Beggs said Protect Our Water has filed a notice with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of intent to sue for enforcement of the Clean Water Act. In February 2017 the agency confirmed the impact the permit would have on three federally endangered species, including the Barton Springs salamander, and asked the Environmental Protection Agency to consider a no-discharge solution.
The EPA withdrew its objection to the permit in July, stating the partial allocation of wastewater toward subsurface irrigation was adequate in reducing the allowable amount of discharge into Onion Creek.
Dripping Springs expects a decision on the permit in the coming months.