Lake Pointe resident Sharyl Burshnick said her children were expecting to join other neighborhood youngsters during the recent Memorial Day holiday to play in the area’s nature spots. However, following two recent nearby releases of treated effluent by the West Travis County Public Utility Agency, she said she did not approve of her children being anywhere near the discharges.
“My concern is that the water is contaminated,” Burshnick said. “I’m worried about my children’s safety [and] other kids’ safety.”
The WTCPUA provides water and wastewater services to Lake Pointe, Bee Cave and surrounding areas.
WTCPUA General Manager Don Rauschuber said the agency performed controlled spills of treated effluent totaling 2 million gallons May 19 and 23 at its Bohls Wastewater Treatment and Spillman Treated Effluent storage facilities.
The discharges were necessary since the volume of the treated effluent maintained in the agency’s holding ponds increased, he said.
“Controlled spills are emergency operations,” WTCPUA board member Bill Goodwin said. Goodwin is also mayor pro tem of Bee Cave City Council.
The Spanish Oaks Golf Club, Austin Falconhead Golf Club and Falconhead Homeowners Association contract with the WTCPUA includes “amounts [of treated effluent] the golf courses are obligated to take on a daily basis,” Goodwin said.
During these May discharges, the golf clubs did not accept the treated effluent, Rauschuber said.
“The primary purpose of that land, [the golf courses], is effluent disposal and not golf when it comes to irrigation,” said Randy Wilburn, an attorney for Municipal Utility District 5, which includes Lake Pointe.
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 to fill.
“We put it in the ground in violation of our permit,” Rauschuber said of the spill. “If we have an overtipping of [our] ponds, we would discharge a lot of [treated] water at a high rate downstream, causing erosion and damage. No utility can allow that.”
Golf club response
Falconhead attorney Kell Mercer said the club and the WTCPUA have “a symbiotic relationship.”
“The [WTC]PUA depends on us for one avenue to apply [treated] effluent, and we depend on them for water to irrigate our course,” Mercer said. “There are times of the year that are dry and we need water and times of the year that are wet and they need to drain [the treated effluent].”
The club is not obligated to take the treated effluent unless the WTCPUA ponds, or tanks, have reached a certain point of fullness, called permit or trigger points, Mercer said. But there are exceptions, he said.
“[On May 19 and 23], we were in the trigger period when we are required to apply the treated effluent [to our course],” Mercer said. “[However], the [WTCPUA] permit prohibits the club from applying effluent when the [golf course] ground is saturated. Period. When the ground can’t accept or absorb the effluent, it goes into the creek beds.”
Mercer said the runoff into the waterways would create a danger of contamination to the environment.
Goodwin disagrees about who is responsible to manage pond levels.
“The contract [between WTCPUA and the golf clubs] requires the clubs to manage pond levels in order not to reach a trigger level, and after trigger levels are reached it is mandatory that they take [treated effluent],” Goodwin said. “Those levels have been reached, and they still refuse to take.”
He said the trigger level is 73% of the pond’s capacity.
“We’ve been above that for months,” Goodwin said. “The [WTC] PUA cannot physically control the golf course effluent takes. The golf course controls the irrigation system which disperses the effluent. The golf courses have refused to take effluent when the PUA has informed them that it is critical to do so, in violation of their contracts.”
Play on the Falconhead course was permitted during the controlled spills.
“You can still have a playable course with the saturated ground,” Mercer said. “We don’t have to shut the course down when the ground becomes too saturated to accept [treated] effluent.”
He said the two entities are embroiled in a lawsuit over the price charged and amount paid for the treated wastewater.
“The issue here is there’s insufficient capacity in the ponds and insufficient acreage to dispose of the effluent,” Mercer said. “This system may have been appropriate five or 10 years ago, but we’ve had a lot of growth in the area. [The WTCPUA] simply does not have the capacity and acreage to keep up with the growth.”
Water quality at risk
As a result of the releases, treated effluent spilled beyond the boundaries of the WTCPUA land May 19 and onto Balcones Canyonlands Preserve property that abuts the WTCPUA wastewater treatment facility and is owned by Austin, Rauschuber said. The BCP property is an environmentally sensitive area managed by the city to protect endangered species.
Austin officials were not notified the releases were planned before they occurred, said Darryl Slusher, assistant director of Austin Water.
“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 May 26 to Rauschuber directing the WTCPUA to “immediately cease discharging treated effluent onto the city’s property.”
He 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 another wastewater facility,” 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 it released treated effluent onto the city’s property. He said Austin is willing to work with the WTCPUA on solutions to its treated effluent, but the agency cannot release the water onto another property.
Permit hearing set
A contested hearing is scheduled June 21 before the State Office of Administrative Hearings regarding WTCPUA’s permit renewal with the TCEQ to dispose of treated wastewater. The TCEQ oversees water and wastewater processes within the state.
This permit includes prohibiting the agency from discharging treated wastewater to surface waters or applying the treated wastewater in a way that results in water runoff, TCEQ spokesperson Andrew Keese said.
Spanish Oaks Golf Club did not return Community Impact Newspaper’s requests for comment.