"If you had said 10 or 15 years ago that Austin and Dripping Springs had allied on an environmental issue, nobody would have believed you." So says Mayor Steve Adler, who for the last five years (most of his time in office, in fact) has been forging just such an alliance with the little city to our southwest and other stakeholders out in aquifer country. Together, they've convinced the state to change its rules for water management in ways that can keep both Austin and its suburbs green.
As you may know because you read the Chronicle, those suburbs – particularly out over the Edwards Aquifer and in the watersheds that supply Austin's drinking water and recharge Barton Springs – have had some difficulties over the years finding safe ways to dispose of their treated wastewater. Because those surface and groundwater sources are so vulnerable, even the state of Texas, let alone the city of Austin, takes a dim view of using them for wastewater discharge.
Thus, the preferred disposal method has been land application, letting the ecosystem provide its own service of purifying wastewater effluent and returning it to nature. This works great if you have a lot of undeveloped land upon which to apply the effluent, which has been the case to Austin's southwest even as the region has boomed. But now cities like Dripping Springs, master-planned communities like Belterra, and municipal utility districts (MUDs) to Austin's west and southwest are running into constraints where such land is unavailable or too expensive to use this way.
At this point you may be asking, don't they use treated effluent to irrigate golf courses and landscaping and such out there? Yes, they do – that's the kind of "beneficial reuse" that has become part of the overall water management strategy for a semiarid region like ours. Those smaller water systems, as well as Austin's own water utility, view reclaimed water (or "graywater") as a valuable commodity. The state, through the Texas Water Development Board, even makes grants and loans available to develop and expand reclaimed water systems.
But the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which has to approve wastewater discharge plans, had not kept up with the increasing adoption of beneficial reuse strategies. That meant cities like Dripping Springs still had to hold lots of empty acres on their books for land application – or get TCEQ approval to discharge into surface waters, over the strenuous objections of the city of Austin – for wastewater that they were not in fact producing.
As Chris Herrington, an environmental officer at the city's Watershed Protection Department, puts it, Austin was being asked to trust other stakeholders to not discharge wastewater they would be permitted to by TCEQ. "For Barton Springs and the Edwards Aquifer, our tolerance for risk is low, and so 'trust us' is not good enough."
Thus began a stakeholder process leading to the alliance cited by Adler, where Austin, Dripping Springs, and more than a dozen other entities collectively petitioned TCEQ to create a system of credits for beneficial reuse that could better reflect realities on the ground and create an incentive to take those sound environmental practices even further. "I went to our staff and asked, 'Look at this as if you were the staff for Dripping Springs: What would you do?'" says the mayor.
While TCEQ is often seen as providing the least resistance possible to environmental pressures, Herrington says state regulators were more rigorous than was expected in developing the credit program – requiring actual, firm commitments that water be reused, not just promises that it would be. "They wanted to make sure that there was a very large margin of safety, [so] it was slightly less flexible than what we had intended it to be" in terms of ways to earn the credit.
However, the final rules TCEQ adopted in January do the job, Herrington says, in solving the conundrum faced by smaller water systems such as the Lakeway MUDs. "They cannot discharge their effluent" into Lake Travis, he says, "but they're doing such a robust reuse program, which is fantastic for keeping high-quality potable water in the lake. But they've also had to have acres of cedar trees set aside for wastewater irrigation," which is in itself "a ridiculous construct."
Lakeway's been doing this for a while, but as growth continues to Austin's west and southwest, more and more smaller communities with less money and technical expertise will confront similar constraints, and having a pathway to embark on beneficial reuse from the outset will make the region's growing pains that much easier to bear. "We actually were able to build a broad base of support," says Herrington of the effort that ultimately convinced TCEQ. "We had development interests and environmental interests there at the table together saying this is not the perfect solution, but it's a good solution. It's a step in the right direction."
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