Cibolo Creek in Bulverde, Texas, has small pools of water containing algae.
Algae, fed by nitrogen and phosphorus in the water, grows in Cibolo Creek in Bulverde. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

BULVERDE – When Michelle Molina heard about plans for a sewage treatment plant to start discharging wastewater into Indian Creek, she organized her neighbors and started raising money to hire a lawyer to fight the developers behind the plan.

They called their group Bulverde Neighborhoods for Clean Water, and they planned to fight the discharge of up to 300,000 gallons per day that would flow through the often-dry creekbed that winds through ranches and properties on large lots, eventually snaking through Bulverde Community Park.

Molina, an interior designer who moved to Bulverde eight years ago from San Antonio, worries that the discharge into Indian Creek could somehow make its way to the wells that she and her neighbors rely on for drinking water. She sees the proliferation of these sewage plants as a threat to the Hill Country’s clean rivers, the kind she grew up swimming and tubing.

Indian Creek.
The fight against discharging effluent in the often-dry Indian Creek is one of many taking place in the Hill Country. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“I got to float in every river in Texas I could float in, and I don’t think a lot of young people are going to have that opportunity,” Molina said.

Molina’s battle over a new sewage plant is playing out all over the Hill Country, where population density is going up. Developers are seeking permits to build plants to support new, denser subdivisions, with homes on acre to half-acre lots.

All these new residents are generating a whole lot of new sewage. The wastewater left over from that sewage treatment has to go somewhere.

Increasingly, it’s going into creeks and rivers, which many advocates say are often turning from sparkling clean ribbons of water to cesspools of green algae because of nutrients in the wastewater.

“Nutrients” is a blanket term for nitrogen and phosphorus. In streams, especially ultra-clean streams like those in the Hill Country, nutrients become food for algae, which grows rapidly and chokes out native plants and animals.

Aside from its unpleasant appearance, the algae changes the chemistry of the water and the level of oxygen present there, making it harder for fish, frogs, insects, and other species to survive. In high enough levels, it can affect the drinking water that downstream users rely on.

“You can think of Bulverde, you can think of Blanco, you can think of Wimberley – almost every one of these communities is experiencing some variation of that issue, right now,” said Andrew Sansom, director of the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University.

Developers and some water treatment engineers say the wastewater that modern sewage plants produce is no cause for concern. State environmental regulators say their permitting and enforcement systems are effective at protecting streams.

But that’s done little to stop the legal battles that various different groups across the  Hill Country counties seem to be constantly waging with developers and the TCEQ over the last few years. Conflicts can drag out for years.

That might be good for lawyers, but it takes a toll on Hill Country residents who shoulder the burden of environmental protection, said Mary Stone, director of the Texas Real Estate Advocacy and Defense Coalition, at a November panel in Kerrville organized by the Hill Country Alliance. Panelists spent more than an hour talking only about this specific issue of treated sewage in streams.

“While there’s definitely a financial element to it in the impact on the property value itself, I think that there’s also a huge impact to people personally,” Stone said. “You have this beautiful, crystal-clear waterway that you spent top-dollar for or inherited as a huge part of your past, and suddenly there’s algae in it, and it removes those uses that you had intended [for it.]”

Cities like San Antonio also have a long-term stake in the issue. The streams and rivers where this discharge ends up also recharge the Edwards Aquifer, the main drinking water source for the San Antonio region. San Antonio has no water treatment plants to clean this water before it makes its way to the tap.

No standards for nutrients

Understanding the problem requires taking a step back and thinking about the entire system by which the State government is meant to protect Texas rivers and streams.

According to the goals of the federal Clean Water Act, passed by Congress in the 1970s, new wastewater permits aren’t supposed to leave rivers and streams choked with algae.

So why does it keep happening?

In Texas, some of the problem is because of the letter of the law. State law simply requires that there be no “degradation” of a stream or river. Here’s the exact language in Texas’ surface water quality standards:

“No activities subject to regulatory action that would cause degradation of waters that exceed fishable/swimmable quality are allowed unless it can be shown to the commission’s satisfaction that the lowering of water quality is necessary for important economic or social development. Degradation is defined as a lowering of water quality by more than a de minimis extent, but not to the extent that an existing use is impaired.”

That’s a problem right from the start, some environmental lawyers say. What does de minimus mean? It’s as if a person were placed on a diet with no calorie restrictions and simply a requirement to gain a de minimus amount of weight.

“That is where one of the fundamental differences of opinion comes into play,” said Lauren Ice, an attorney with environmental law firm Frederick, Perales, Allmon & Rockwell. Basically, one person’s de minimis is another’s ecological catastrophe. Molina’s group hired Ice to represent it in its fight over the Indian Creek permit.

Michelle Molina, a Bulverde resident leading Bulverde Neighborhoods For Clean Water, stands next to Indian Creek.
Michelle Molina, a Bulverde resident who organized her neighbors to form Bulverde Neighborhoods for Clean Water, stands next to Indian Creek. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Then there’s the whole issue of numbers. How little nitrogen or phosphorus could a stream accept before being degraded? At what concentration do the effects become legally unacceptable?

For nutrients in a river or stream, there’s no clear-cut answer, at least not in Texas. The state has no numerical limits on nutrients in any of its more than 20,000 miles of streams, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which enforces the environmental regulations. The TCEQ does have numerical nutrient limits on 75 reservoirs.

Then there’s the issue of how the TCEQ evaluates new proposals.

When the TCEQ receives an application for one of these permits, it runs through a series of protocols to try to ensure that the discharge would degrade the river or stream as little as possible.

When a new discharge permit application comes in, TCEQ staff run the proposal through a screening process that takes into account 11 different criteria. These include the volume of water in a stream, whether it flows all year round or just part of the year, how shaded it is, and whether its bottom is made up of rock or mud.

TCEQ staff score these on a basis of low, medium, or high in the way each category makes the stream more or less vulnerable to nutrients. Then they add them all up and assign a score.

If it scores high enough, they will impose limits on how much nitrogen and phosphorus the plan can discharge, said Gregg Easley, who manages the TCEQ’s water quality assessment section.

“If they’re in the middle range, it’s kind of a judgment call on whether we recommend a certain action or not,” he said. “If it’s above a certain level, it’s pretty certain we’re going to recommend a permit limit.”

Easley said this method works.

“We write our permits and then the permittee is expected to comply with them. And if they don’t, our enforcement division comes into play and handles it from that end,” Easley said. “I would say that our permits are effective at protecting water quality.”

Others disagree. Chris Herrington, an environmental officer with the City of Austin, uses computer models to more closely analyze the effect of nutrients on Hill Country creeks. The TCEQ’s screening process doesn’t adequately consider the stream’s changing flow and existing water quality, he said

“The receiving water conditions make a lot of difference,” Herrington said.

In the Hill Country, streams’ flows change dramatically throughout the year, generally from floods in late spring and early summer to running dry in late summer and early fall. Because of their rocky bottoms and the crystal-clear water that feeds them from underground springs, streams are extremely vulnerable to nutrients, Herrington said.

“When you add nutrients to them, you have the perfect environment to grow algae in,” Herrington said.  “You’ve basically added a lot of fertilizer to these streams that aren’t used to it.”

Herrington, who has worked for the City since 1996, said Austin is “has been uniquely blessed by citizens that really want the City to be active in water quality protection.” Wastewater discharges on Austin’s fringes could end up affecting water quality in the city’s Barton Creek Greenbelt or its popular Barton Springs.

A better way to do it, Herrington said, would be to use a computer model that’s already available – the EPA’s Water Quality Analysis Simulation Program (WASP). It’s a dynamic model that uses real data from the environment to make more precise predictions of what a new sewage plant will do to a stream, Herrington said.

“It is unfortunate that if a better quality model is presented to the State, that they’re not taking advantage of that,” Herrington said.

The TCEQ does use the WASP model, but for other pollutants, not nutrients, said Marc Rudolph, an engineer who works in Easley’s division.

“For [WASP] to provide utility, you do need to have some field data or background information in order to tune it to the water body that you’re looking at,” Rudolph said.

Often, those data don’t exist for a certain section of stream, Rudolph said.

Herrington acknowledged that the WASP model involves much more time and possible expense to deliver a more precise result.

“WASP models take time. You have to calibrate and validate them,” he said, noting that the TCEQ is trying to move expeditiously through the permitting process, trying to be consistent.

Herrington said the TCEQ is limited by the time, data, and tools it’s been given.

“They’re not operating from a position of trying to do something bad,” he said. “They’re doing the best that they can.”

TCEQ spokesperson Andrea Morrow pointed out that treated wastewater isn’t the only source of nutrients in a creek. Fertilizer runoff can also fuel algae growth. That’s also an issue tied to the type of large developments happening in the Hill Country.

Threat to Honey Creek

Twenty years ago, Bulverde was basically a four-way stop with a post office and a couple of shops on a rural highway far outside of San Antonio. Nowadays, it’s become a part of suburbia, with a series of dense developments planned for the area.

Only a few miles from the proposed sewage plant Molina is fighting, landowners along State Highway 46 are hoping to turn their family ranch into a subdivision with 2,300 homes.

A permit under review by the TCEQ would discharge up to an average of 500,000 gallons per day of treated wastewater to Honey Creek, a pristine stream that’s protected by Honey Creek State Natural Area.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) manages the natural area, which is closed to the public most of the time because of the creek’s sensitivity to disturbance.

Meadows Center director Sansom, who worked to create the preserve as director of the Texas chapter of The Nature Conservancy in the early 1980s, called Honey Creek “one of the most pristine water courses in the whole state.”

Water in Honey Creek flows past cypress trees on its way to the Guadalupe River near State Highway 46 in Comal County.
Water in Honey Creek flows past cypress trees on its way to the Guadalupe River near State Highway 46 in Comal County. Credit: Brendan Gibbons / San Antonio Report

“It is so pristine that the park won’t even let you take pets in there for fear of e. Coli in the creek, and yet there’s a permit request to discharge effluent into it,” Sansom said. “It makes my heart sick to think of discharge in Honey Creek.”

A consultant working for the Urbanczyk family, owners of Honey Creek Ranch, has said they plan to seek a permit to use the treated wastewater to irrigate landscaping in the development. Only during worst-case scenarios would wastewater be discharged into Honey Creek.

For TPWD officials, that assurance isn’t strong enough, according to a letter sent to the TCEQ. To ensure “no effluent ever reaches the creek,” TPWD officials recommended that the Urbanczyks change the type of permit they’re seeking to one that doesn’t allow any discharge at all.

That’s because nutrients in the discharge could “impact aquatic life and the broader ecosystem of the watershed” and adversely affect threatened and endangered species that live there, including two species of salamander and two species of freshwater mussel, the letter states.

They also took issue with plans to use chlorine to treat sewage, because it can poison fish and other aquatic life. They recommended stronger permit limits for nitrogen, phosphorus, and dissolved oxygen than the Urbanczyks requested in their permit.

Sansom said Honey Creek “desperately” needs its neighbor to use treated wastewater for irrigation. Spreading it onto plants and soil instead of dumping it in a creek allows soil bacteria to gobble up any nutrients, as well as other pollutants like pharmaceuticals and personal care products that water treatment plants have a tough time removing.

However, Sansom acknowledged that this method, often called “land application,” has plenty of opponents.

“There’s sort of two poles on this issue,” Sansom said. “One is that there should be no discharges, that we should find ways of reusing water or putting it on the landscape, or other ways of keeping it out of the streams completely. Then there’s the opposite point of view, which is return flows from wastewater treatment plants are important sources of water downstream. I tend to fall somewhere in between.”

Other ways of handling wastewater

Alternatives to discharging wastewater down a waterway fall into two broad categories: septic systems, and water reuse for irrigation. There’s also some overlap between the two, especially with modern septic systems.

Both have their drawbacks. For example, septic systems serving individual homes can leak or back up, polluting property and nearby waterways.

Such systems have “huge problems that far outweigh treatment plants’ [problems],” said Nathan Pence, the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority’s manager of environmental science and community affairs. Pence argued in favor of sewage treatment plants versus other options at the Hill Country Alliance panel.

However, modern septic systems can be effective, especially if they have secondary treatment systems like ultraviolet disinfection or certain types of filters, according to a Meadows Center report by engineer Susan Parten.

Larger-scale systems involve building a centralized or clustered treatment plant that can serve multiple properties. But instead of being sent down a creek, the wastewater is used to irrigate crops or landscaping. It does require land to be set aside for this irrigation – land that could be used to build more homes.

“When effluent is dispersed into and percolates down through the soil, countless bacteria naturally residing in these soils and the surface vegetation are able to uptake and/or break down nutrients, pharmaceuticals, personal care products, and household chemicals that would otherwise be directly released into waterways without attenuation,” Parten wrote.

Because of the limited water resources in the Hill Country, Parten also called it  “a no-brainer to reuse wastewater effluent” to offset clean water being used for irrigation.

Such land application systems aren’t new and are the way wastewater has “traditionally been handled in the Hill Country because of these environmental concerns,” said Ice, the lawyer representing Molina’s group in the Indian Creek battle.

“It’s only with the push for denser development – so less land available and set aside for irrigation –  that discharge [to streams] seems to be emerging as a preferred alternative,” she said.

But Pence pointed out that land application means that wastewater isn’t going back into streams and rivers to be used by someone else downstream. In dry times, all the water in Texas rivers is legally spoken for, even the water that comes from someone else’s sewage treatment plant.

“When you spray that on the land, you take the water out of that cycle,” Pence said at the Hill Country Alliance forum. “It’s no longer available for the environment or fish that live in those streams. It’s no longer available for another water supplier or individual human to use it further down the river.”

Attempts in the Legislature to tighten restrictions on wastewater discharge in the Hill Country have failed.

For more than 10 years, bills that would ban these discharges into streams that recharge the Edwards Aquifer have reappeared in the Texas Legislature. In the 2017 session, such a bill by State Sen. José Menéndez (D-San Antonio) did not make it out of the Senate’s Agriculture, Water and Rural Affairs Committee.

This session, a bill by State Rep. Tracy O. King (D-Uvalde) would ban this kind of discharge into streams or rivers, but only in a small part of the Hill Country. The bill was tailored to apply only to the portions of the Edwards Aquifer recharge and contributing zones within the Nueces River basin.

That’s for political reasons. People at the Nueces River Authority are concerned about how these sewage plants are affecting streams and rivers in their area. Conversely, the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority wants the wastewater discharge because it helps ensure there’s enough water in the Guadalupe and Blanco rivers to supply all those who hold water rights in those rivers from the Hill Country to the coast.

King’s bill has not made it out of the House Natural Resources Committee.

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Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.