Utility agency releases treated wastewater, overflow runs into preserve land

Lake Pointe resident Sharyl Burshnick said she is concerned about the natural areas near her home being contaminated from controlled releases of treated effluent by her utility agency.

Lake Pointe resident Sharyl Burshnick said she is concerned about the natural areas near her home being contaminated from controlled releases of treated effluent by her utility agency.

Updated May 27 at 1:00 p.m. to include current status of treated effluent spill 


Following the heavy rains that began during the late evening hours of May 26, Don Rauschuber, general manager of the West Travis County Public Utility Agency, said May 27 he did not plan to perform a controlled spill of treated effluent today given the current weather report. The agency—which provides water and wastewater to Lake Pointe as well as other western Travis County and Hays County areas—performed two controlled, treated effluent spills on May 19 and May 23.

Rauschuber said the spills were in violation of Texas Commission on Environmental Quality regulations, but the WTCPUA had no other choice since the rains caused its storage ponds—used to house the treated effluent—to fill.

"We put it in the ground in violation of our permit," Rauschuber said of the treated effluent spill. "If we have an overtipping of [our] ponds, we would discharge a lot of water at a high rate downstream, causing erosion and damage. No utility can allow that."

He said the Spanish Oaks and Falconhead golf clubs, which are contractually obligated to accept excess treated effluent, refused to take the water. That is a policy they have held to for quite some time, he said.

As a result of the releases, treated effluent spilled beyond the boundaries of the WTCPUA property and onto Balcones Canyonlands Preserve property that abuts the WTCPUA wastewater treatment facility and is owned by the city of Austin, Rauschuber said. The BCP property is an environmentally-sensitive area which the city manages to protect endangered species.

Austin officials were not notified that the releases were planned before they occurred, said Darryl Slusher, assistant director of Austin Water Utility.

"We would never discharge our treated wastewater onto someone [else's] property," he said.

Slusher said the city caught the releases on video and sent a certified letter dated May 26 to Rauschuber stating "[the] WTCPUA is not authorized to discharge treated effluent either directly onto the City's property or in a manner that causes treated effluent to flow onto City property." The letter also directed the WTCPUA to "immediately cease discharging treated effluent onto the City's property."

Slusher said the WTCPUA has other ways to dispose of the excess water without spilling it onto the ground

"One option would be to pump the excess treated effluent out of the tank and haul it to a wastewater facility to be treated," he said. "We asked [the WTCPUA] to consider that."

Although the cost to "pump and haul" can be expensive, Slusher said Austin taxpayers paid $22 million for the BCP, a "significant investment on the city's part."

"We are in the process of assessing the impact [of the spill on the preserve] but have seen algae where those flows were coming from," he said. "Our concern is this could make it into Lake Austin, our drinking water."

Slusher said a state law bans any release of wastewater—treated or not—into the Highland Lakes and the WTCPUA was in violation of this regulation when they released treated effluent onto the city's property. He said the city is willing to work with the WTCPUA on possible solutions to their issue of extensive treated effluent, but the agency cannot disburse the water onto someone else's property.

May 26 at 7:18 p.m.


With a three-day holiday weekend coming, Lake Pointe resident Sharyl Burshnick said her children would join other neighborhood youngsters to play in the area’s nature spots. However, following two releases of treated effluent by the West Travis County Public Utility Agency that services Lake Pointe, she said she is not sure anyone should enjoy the natural grounds that lie within her Bee Cave subdivision.

“My concern is that the water is contaminated,” Burshnick said. “I’m worried about my children's safety [and] other kids’ safety.”

WTCPUA General Manager Don Rauschuber confirmed the agency performed two controlled, treated effluent spills within the last week. On May 19, the WTCPUA discharged 800,000 gallons of treated wastewater onto the Bohls Wastewater Treatment Facility property, he said. On May 23, the agency discharged 1 million gallons of treated effluent onto the Bohls property and 200,000 gallons of treated effluent onto the Spillman Treated Effluent Storage Facility property.

However, the May 19 discharge resulted in a portion of the effluent leaving the WTCPUA property.

“Some [treated effluent] left the property and [traveled] onto property owned by the city of Austin—Balcones Canyonlands Preserve,” Rauschuber said.

The discharges were necessary since the recent heavy rains increased the volume of the treated effluent that is maintained in the agency’s holding tanks, or ponds, and the ponds could no longer maintain the treated wastewater, WTCPUA Board Member Bill Goodwin said. Goodwin is also Mayor Pro Tem of the Bee Cave City Council.

If the ponds are full and treated effluent is still forthcoming, the Spanish Oaks and Falconhead Golf Club courses as well as the Falconhead Homeowners Association—through its open spaces—are contractually obligated to accept a portion of the treated effluent from the agency’s wastewater facilities, he said. During the times of these discharges—May 19 and May 23—the golf clubs did not accept the treated effluent, he said.

“The primary purpose of that land, [the golf courses], is effluent disposal and not golf when it comes to irrigation,” said Randy Wilburn, attorney for Municipal Utility District 5 which includes Lake Pointe.

Spanish Oaks Golf Club staff said it is conducting a member/guest golf tournament May 26-28.

With this weekend's rainy forecast, Goodwin said another release is likely.

"Controlled spills are emergency operations," he said. "It is my opinion that, without a doubt, there will be another controlled spill."

A contested hearing is scheduled June 21 before the State Office of Administrative Hearings regarding an application filed by the WTCPUA to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to renew its permit to dispose of treated wastewater. The TCEQ oversees the water and wastewater processes within the state.

This permit includes conditions that prohibit the agency from discharging treated wastewater to surface waters as well as applying the treated wastewater in a way that results in water runoff from the permitted application areas, TCEQ Media Relations Specialist Andrew Keese said.

The management staff at the Falconhead Golf Club and Spanish Oaks Golf Club did not return Community Impact Newspaper’s telephone calls for comment.


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