As a public hearing about a proposed wastewater treatment plant draws near, opponents of the Hill Country development it will serve are ramping up their efforts to halt the project.

As a part of a 2,900-home development on 1,160 acres that was once part of the historic Guajolote Ranch, Lennar Homes would like to build a wastewater treatment plant that could discharge up to 1 million gallons of treated effluent into Helotes Creek per day.

Some worry that the treated wastewater could negatively affect the quality of the Edwards Aquifer, which supplies water to over 2 million people in Central Texas, including in San Antonio. Water from Helotes Creek drains into the aquifer.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality will hold a public hearing for Lennar Homes’ wastewater permit request on May 9. Plant opponents have taken to social media and held a press conference to urge concerned citizens to attend or submit public comments to the TCEQ against the proposed permit.

Anyone who uses Edwards Aquifer water should be concerned, said Nathan Glavy, technical director for the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, a San Antonio-based nonprofit dedicated to the protection and preservation of the Edwards Aquifer.

“This is so crucial because this area is directly linked to the Edwards Aquifer contributing zone which eventually feeds into the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone,” he said. “The big issue is water quality, and that’s what we’re fighting for.”

His and others’ concerns come from a study performed by former Southwest Research Institute technical advisor and project manager Ron Green. Green led a two-year-long computer model research effort at SwRI to evaluate the impact different types of wastewater disposal facilities built in the Hill Country could have on the Edwards Aquifer.

His findings, published in 2020, showed that any type of wastewater system pumping treated effluent into Helotes Creek could “significantly degrade the watershed and the quality of water recharging the Edwards Aquifer.”

Green and others worry that the wastewater treatment plant, a first for the area, could set a precedent, allowing other developers to build wastewater treatment plants and release potentially millions of gallons of treated effluent into creeks located within the recharge and contributing zones of the Edwards Aquifer plateau.

Lennar Homes is seeking a permit from the TCEQ to discharge up to a million gallons a day into Helotes Creek, which runs over the Edwards Aquifer contributing zone.
Lennar Homes is seeking a permit from the TCEQ to discharge up to a million gallons a day into Helotes Creek, which runs over the Edwards Aquifer contributing zone. Credit: Courtesy / Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance

Green speculates that such activity could degrade the aquifer’s quality to the point that it would need to be treated before it could be used.

“We do not have a centralized water system,” Green told the San Antonio Report. “We have all these well fields providing water to the areas around them. [The San Antonio Water System] would have to have a wastewater treatment facility constructed at each one of these well fields — it would be incredibly expensive.”

The Guajolote tract is located outside of the SAWS wastewater service area, meaning the utility has no regulatory authority over the development when it comes to disposing of wastewater.

However, the municipal water utility, which is set to provide water for the development, required several stipulations including that its wastewater treatment plant must meet all TCEQ standards for facilities discharging within 5 miles of the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone and would treat the wastewater to a higher level of cleanliness than what TCEQ already requires.

Negotiations with SAWS also led to a significant decrease in the number of homes Lennar had planned for the tract, from roughly 6,000 homes to 2,900.

SAWS also stipulated in its water contract that the developer must dedicate 50% of the property as open space, and must hire a wastewater operator who holds a master’s degree and has at least four years of experience.

Some groups and residents are being quite vocal about their opposition, and they’re calling on SAWS to be as well.

Michael Schick, a Grey Forest resident whose backyard overlooks where the proposed wastewater treatment center would be built, said the project is “the camel’s nose under the tent.”

“Water is extremely precious in San Antonio, which is why SAWS rations how much water we can put on our yards each week,” said Schick, who hosted the recent press conference at his home overlooking the future development site. “If SAWS cares about the quantity of water we put on our lawns, shouldn’t they and the TCEQ care more about the quality of water we put in our bodies?”

A sign signals a warning of what is possibly to come in the Guajolote development.
A sign signals a warning of what is possibly to come in the Guajolote development. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

SAWS does not plan to submit a formal comment to the TCEQ regarding Lennar’s wastewater permit request, said Gavino Ramos, SAWS’ vice president of communications.

Schick said his opposition isn’t about the loss of his view, or the months of construction that will take place just beyond his property.

“This isn’t about ‘not my backyard,’ this is about ‘not in my water faucet,'” he said.

Stuart Birnbaum, an emeritus associate professor of geology at The University of Texas at San Antonio, said the cost to SAWS to clean the water before it goes into taps, if that becomes necessary due to contamination from a wastewater treatment plant, would be “astronomical.”

“Whatever gets dumped here at a million gallons per day is going to end up in our drinking water whether you live here, or whether you live in downtown San Antonio,” Birnbaum said.

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report.