The Austin Chronicle

Then There's This: Waste Over the Aquifer

With settlement, city must now support treatment plant in recharge zone

By Amy Smith, September 13, 2013, News

Almost a year ago, City Council voted unanimously to reject a settlement offer that would have ended its six-year fight against a proposed wastewater treatment system in a recharge zone of the Edwards Aquifer.

For this Council, the 7-0 vote to continue its opposition was pretty remarkable: It signaled the Council and city staff's unified stance against a proposal to dispose of treated effluent on a site that sits immediately adjacent to city-owned water quality protection land. Nobody likes their investments getting crapped on, so it appeared the city would do everything in its power to keep a treatment plant out of the recharge zone.

But on Aug. 29, the Council again considered a modified settlement proposal and this time voted 4-3 to accept the offer from the legal team representing Jeremiah Ven­ture LP, the development group that seeks a state permit to dispose of treated waste from a planned 600-acre subdivision of about 1,000 homes on what was once the Hudson Ranch in Hays County. Should JV obtain the permit, the developers would have the dubious distinction of running the only (for now) wastewater treatment operation in the aquifer recharge zone. Bully for them.

As part of the settlement terms, the city agreed not only to lay down arms, but to support JV's permit application when an administrative law judge considers the case at a weeklong hearing set to begin Sept. 30 at the Tex­as Commission on Environmental Quality.

With the city now on board with the folks who want to irrigate treated poop on a segment of the aquifer that feeds Barton Springs Pool, the Save Our Springs Alli­ance is left to contest the case on its own, without the city experts and the political credibility that went along with the partnership.

Fortunately, the SOSA team, which includes environmental engineer Lauren Ross and UT professors Philip Bennett and Norma Fowl­er, were able to obtain a report filed last week by city hydrogeologist Nico Hauwert, who with other staff members was conducting field research on the tract on the same day that Council voted to settle.

With Hauwert at the site, SOSA Executive Director Bill Bunch urged Council to postpone the vote until Hauwert could write up his findings. No deal, JV's attorneys said. The settlement offer would come off the table if Council didn't vote that very day. More­over, if the deal fell through, the alternative development plan would site several hundred homes on septic systems only – leaving Council with two bad choices.

Later that same evening, Hauwert met with Council members in an executive session to go over his findings and recommendations. When they returned to the dais, Council Member Kathie Tovo immediately made a motion to reject the proposed settlement. "I'm very sorry the public wasn't able to hear Dr. Hauwert in closed session," Tovo said. "Our expert has done some very compelling work in terms of this land and the recharge features on it."

Too bad, indeed, for it also appears that Hauwert wasn't ready to stop his field work at the site even after Council voted to back off. As he wrote in his report, dated Sept. 5, "On August 29, 2013, [staff] partially excavated [a recharge feature] to reveal a portion of the steeply sloping bedrock rim and trash fill. The trash consisted of fuel cans, wrappers for paper plates and Sparkle ice, one of which was dated 1988. We intended to expose more of the rock rim and sinkhole drain, and remove more of the trash fill, but were denied access on August 30."

Hauwert's report includes photos of various sinkholes and caves, which would give most people pause when considering the prospect of some of them getting misted by treated waste.

As for the settlement itself, it's an improvement over the 2012 draft, with the greatest difference represented by a limit on total nitrogen in the effluent: six milligrams per liter, which UT professor Bennett, in SOSA testimony filed with the state last week, called "a significant and welcome change" and a "positive step." Nevertheless, he said, there's still much work to be done in identifying all the environmental features on the tract.

While a cap on total nitrogen is a good thing, Bunch said, the irrigation operation itself remains unchanged. "There will be less pollution, but there will still be way too much if the permit is approved and the development goes forward. You can't spread poop water on the recharge zone and expect that it will not recharge."

The final decision was obviously not easy for Council after six years in the fight. The ones who voted yes (Mayor Lee Leffingwell, Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, Mike Martinez, Bill Spelman) said the settlement was in the best interest of the aquifer. That left Tovo, Laura Morrison, and Chris Riley voting no, with Riley noting that he might have voted yes were it not for the fact that the city must now champion the permit plan when the case is heard later this month.

"The bottom line for me," he said, "is that it would put the city in a position of supporting the issuance of this permit, and I just can't bring myself to do that."

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