The Latest on Potential Threats to Barton Springs

Barton Springs Pool
Photo by Lars Plougmann, Creative Commons

Remember when we told you that the City of Dripping Springs had applied for a permit from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to discharge up to 995,000 gallons of treated sewage into Onion Creek each day? Well, we’ve got another update for you.

Wait, I don’t remember… what’s going on?

As a reminder, the permit application has raised a lot of concern here in Austin because Onion Creek flows into the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone and provides much of the water that feeds into Barton Springs. The worry is that the treated wastewater would contain nitrates and phosphates that could cause unsightly algae blooms and choke off oxygen that fish need to survive.

In December, the Environmental Protection Agency issued an interim objection to the permit. The TCEQ cannot continue processing the permit until it responds to the concerns raised by the EPA in its objection letter.


So what’s the latest info?

While all of this debate and discussion has been going on, the City of Austin and the City of Dripping Springs have been trying to negotiate a settlement that they can both live with. A recently released proposal includes a plan to divert most of the wastewater to land applications and beneficial reuse, as opposed to directly discharging it into Onion Creek. (Land application and beneficial reuse are two environmentally-preferred methods of dealing with wastewater, because they allow for the natural filtration and reuse of wastewater). If all goes according to plan, Dripping Springs should very rarely have to directly discharge into the creek.

However, the new proposal doesn’t include any explicit limits on discharge, which has raised concern amongst several local environmental organizations. They have explained that the new land application and beneficial reuse components of the proposal are essentially just promises and predictions (and ultimately unenforceable), as opposed to legally binding agreements.

Together the Save Barton Creek Association, Clean Water Action, Sierra Club (Austin Regional Group), Save Our Springs Alliance, Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, and Protect Our Water sent a letter to Austin City Council earlier this month asking them to direct staff to change course and negotiate for an enforceable proposal that “protects water quality in the creek, aquifer, and springs.”

In the letter, they explained that the settlement still technically allows Dripping Springs to discharge up to 995,000 gallons of wastewater into Onion Creek and sets a bad precedent for future wastewater discharge agreements.

Collectively, the coalition of six environmental organizations has called on City Council not to rush to an agreement and instead to refuse to settle for anything less than zero direct discharge. “Allowing wastewater discharge into Onion Creek lowers the current standards for protection and will set a catastrophic precedent as additional parties seek to directly discharge in the contributing zone,” wrote the organizations in their letter to City Council.


Why the rush for an agreement?

While Austin and Dripping Springs continue to discuss an agreement, the Texas Legislature has decided to bring on the pressure. Texas State Representative Jason Isaac (Republican from Dripping Springs) filed a bill earlier this month that would prevent any city from protesting a discharge permit more stringent than what that city is currently operating under.

Texas Capitol Building

It sounds confusing, but as the Austin Monitor reports, Austin does not have a discharge permit as stringent as the one it is proposing for Dripping Springs. But, that is because Austin has a permit to discharge into the Colorado River, a larger and much less pristine body of water than Onion Creek.

If passed, this new bill wouldn’t affect this current Dripping Springs case (it’s already too late for that), but it could limit Austin’s ability to protest different wastewater discharge cases in the future. Many have speculated that the bill is designed to put pressure on the City of Austin to reach an agreement with Dripping Springs sooner, rather than later.

Update – In response, State Representative Donna Howard has also filed a bill in the Texas Legislature, aimed at taking the opposite effect of Isaac’s bill.

If passed, Howard’s bill would prevent the TCEQ from issuing new permits allowing wastewater to be discharged into any body of water in the contributing or recharge zone of the Barton Springs (or the San Antonio) segment of the Edwards Aquifer.


How can I participate?

Since this issue is being impacted by several levels of government, there are plenty of opportunities to get involved. One option is to contact your City Council member to share your opinions about the Dripping Springs discharge permit. You can figure out who your City Council member is here and learn how to get involved with the efforts of local environmental organizations here.

You can also contact your state legislator to voice your opinion on
Representative Isaac’s bill (which has been officially filed as House Bill 3004) and Representative Howard’s bill (which has been officially filed as House Bill 3467). You can figure out who represents you in the Texas Legislature here>>

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