Commissioners Creek flows through property owned by the Monier and Finner families.
Commissioners Creek flows downstream from a property in Bandera County slated to become a summer camp. Credit: Brendan Gibbons / San Antonio Report

A landowner and a grassroots group fighting over a wastewater discharge permit in Bandera County will likely reach a deal. Meanwhile, a separate wastewater dispute in Comal County heads to an administrative judge in February.

The two wastewater fights have been among the most heated environmental disputes in recent years in the western half of the Texas Hill Country, where an influx of new residents and businesses is stressing scarce water supplies. New development also brings sewage plants that can choke the region’s clear, spring-fed creeks with green gobs of algae that feed on nutrients in the wastewater.

Such concerns led to the formation of the Friends of Hondo Canyon, a nonprofit made up of 130 mostly Bandera County families who organized to oppose a wastewater permit filed by the Torn family, owners of Camp Ozark, a Christian summer camp in Arkansas. The Torns plan to build a new Texas location, called Camp OTX, on their roughly 700-acre property near Hill Country State Natural Area.

In a phone call last week, Margo Denke Griffin, a Tarpley area resident who began organizing the opposition in 2018, said her group and the Torns are negotiating a settlement that would require no wastewater discharge to Commissioners Creek, which begins on the Torns’ property and flows downhill more than five miles to its confluence with Hondo Creek.

In October, the Torns and their opponents agreed to pause proceedings in the Texas State Office of Administrative Hearings, where the case had been assigned in April by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Chris Torn, who’s developing the camp with his father, Sam Torn, said this week he’s “optimistic” about reaching a deal, though he could not discuss specifics.

“As we said from the beginning, we wanted to be good neighbors, good contributors to Bandera County and surrounding areas,” Torn told the San Antonio Report. “We’ve had really good discussions with our neighbors, so we look forward to continuing to be a big part of the community.”

Griffin also declined to discuss the exact details, though she said that “100 percent” of the wastewater will be reused on the Torn property for irrigation through a type of TCEQ permit called Chapter 210 reuse authorization. She added that “no wastewater will be discharged into the creek.”

“I’m really pleased that in the end, we made a difference,” Griffin said. “It was everyone pulling together. I could never have done this by myself.”

The settlement will also resolve a related fight over another permit the Torns are seeking. It would allow them to maintain two existing dams on Commissioners Creek and fill the reservoirs with groundwater from the Trinity Aquifer. Griffin said the Torns “agreed to implement a comprehensive water accounting plan, which will help ensure that creek flow will be maintained at its natural level.”

On Nov. 12, Friends of Hondo Canyon donated $15,000 to the Bandera County River Authority and Groundwater District to drill a monitoring well that records the level of the Cow Creek section of the Trinity Aquifer. The district will install the well on a ranch adjacent to the summer camp property, where groundwater experts can use it to measure the effects of pumping in the area.

“There’s not a lot of data out there, so this is a win-win for everybody,” said David Mauk, the district’s general manager. “It’s going to allow us to monitor the aquifer more effectively.”

Mauk added that the “eventual goal” is to install telemetry equipment so residents can see the aquifer levels online, similar to the feed of information from the J-17 well that measures the Edwards Aquifer below San Antonio.

Honey Creek

Another controversial permit request in a sensitive Hill Country watershed will also go through the contested case hearing process.

Near Bulverde, upstream of a pristine stream that begins at the mouth of Honey Creek Cave, the longest-known in Texas, landowners have requested a sewage plant permit for a subdivision of 1,700 homes on ranch land on State Highway 40 that’s currently undeveloped.

An earlier version of the permit application, filed by Ronnie and Terry Urbanczyk in 2018, drew an outcry from cavers, environmentalists, and some nearby landowners because of plans to discharge treated wastewater to Honey Creek.

Last year, the Urbanczyks withdrew that application and applied for another permit that would allow the discharge of an average of 365,000 gallons per day via an underground drip system on 84 acres of common landscape area in the proposed housing development. The wastewater won’t be allowed to flow into Honey Creek. The TCEQ has issued a draft permit whose conditions sufficiently protect the creek, the agency’s staff said.

That hasn’t deterred those fighting the permit, many of whom say such a dense development in the upper reaches of Honey Creek will inevitably lead to pollution from trash and other runoff from the site.

At their Nov. 4 meeting, TCEQ commissioners found that two nearby landowners and three nonprofits, Bulverde Neighborhoods for Clean Water, the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance (GEAA), and Texas Cave Management Association, all qualified as affected parties for a contested case proceeding before the State Office of Administrative Hearings. A hearing is scheduled for Feb. 4.

In an email to supporters following the decision, GEAA director Annalisa Peace said that plans for the development are not “adequately protective of the pure waters of Honey Creek and of Honey Creek Cave, which communicates directly with the Edwards Aquifer.”

In a phone call this week, David Holmes, a former Santikos Entertainment CEO and USAA executive who is a friend of Ronnie Urbanczyk’s and working with him on the project, noted that the TCEQ’s staff has said that the draft permit, if issued, would indeed protect Honey Creek.

“We have our scientific team, and our engineers have devised a plan that we think goes way above and beyond the call in terms of protecting Honey Creek and the cave system,” Holmes said. “We think the science and the calculations that support that science are rock-solid, so we’re just going to move forward on that basis.”

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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.