Safety risk in Travis County?

This West Travis County Public Utility Agency pond holds treated effluent, or wastewater, at the Austin Falconhead Golf Club. The agency and the club are at odds over the wateru2019s disposal.

This West Travis County Public Utility Agency pond holds treated effluent, or wastewater, at the Austin Falconhead Golf Club. The agency and the club are at odds over the wateru2019s disposal.

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.



MOST RECENT

Travis County has added 3,069 new confirmed cases over the past week from July 6-12. (Community Impact Staff)
Travis County adds 3,069 new coronavirus cases over past week

Travis County has added 3,069 new confirmed cases over the past week from July 6-12.

A sign directs voters inside Ridgetop Elementary School in North Central Austin. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)
11.8% of voters in Travis County have voted early since June 29, exceeding 2018 primary numbers

More than 97,000 Travis County residents have voted in person or by mail. The turnout far surpassed the combined early and Election Day totals in the 2018 primary run-off election.

A photo of the potential Tesla property
Travis County updates Tesla incentive package, pushing for $1 billion-plus investment from the company

Poised for a possible July 13 vote, Travis County has released a refined incentives structure proposal with electric carmaker Tesla.

Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath announced in a June 30 State Board of Education meeting that students will be taking the STAAR in the 2020-21 school year. (Courtesy Pixabay)
Education organizations call for STAAR requirements to be waived another year

Gov. Greg Abbott waived the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, testing requirements in March of earlier this year in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

With a clinical background in internal, pulmonary and critical care medicine, Corry has been with BCM for 20 years. He now focuses primarily on inflammatory lung diseases, such as asthma and smoking-related chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases. (Graphic by Ronald Winters/Community Impact Newspaper)
Q&A: Baylor College of Medicine's Dr. David Corry discusses immunity, vaccine production amid COVID-19 pandemic

Rapid development and distribution of a vaccine worldwide and successful achievement of herd immunity will be key players in determining the lifespan of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Dr. David Corry, a professor of Medicine in the Immunology, Allergy and Rheumatology Section at Baylor College of Medicine.

The new partnership will provide on-site, same-day testing and results for assisted-living facility staff and their residents. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
State announces partnership for increased COVID-19 testing for patients, staff at assisted-living facilities, nursing homes

These test sites will help the state work toward the goal of processing up to 100,000 tests in the first month.

West Lake Hills' annual National Night Out event has been canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Phyllis Campos/Community Impact Newspaper)
COVID-19 concerns force cancellation of National Night Out in West Lake Hills

The annual event focused on building relationships between local law-enforcement agencies and the communities they serve sees about 1,000 attendees a year, according to Scott Gerdes, West Lake Hills police chief.

Lakeway Mayor Sandy Cox updated the community during a July 9 broadcast. (Courtesy City of Lakeway)
Lake Travis region saw largest-yet weekly spike in COVID-19 cases, per Lakeway mayor

Cox said the region saw an increase of 75 confirmed coronavirus cases since the previous broadcast July 2, which brought the cumulative total past 200.

The city of Austin has sent three samples of algae from Lady Bird Lake to The University of Texas to test them for toxins. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)
University of Texas researchers will test Lady Bird Lake algae for harmful toxins

Last summer, five dogs died in Lady Bird Lake after coming into contact with the toxic blue-green algae.

The Texas Comptroller’s Office released sales tax data generally pertaining to the month of May on July 8. (Courtesy Pexels)
Lake Travis-Westlake cities see slight uptick in sales tax revenue in May

Western Travis County cities could be approaching a rebound in sales tax revenue amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

West Lake Hills officials began preliminary budget discussions during a July 8 City Council meeting. (Amy Rae Dadamo/Community Impact Newspaper)
West Lake Hills officials overview 'very lean' 2020-21 budget

Conservatism is the main theme of initial budget discussions in West Lake Hills for the 2020-21 fiscal year.