After a summer of intense drought, Helotes Creek hardly holds a puddle. But Grey Forest residents Susan Beavin and Jenn Nottingham say just a couple of years ago it was full of clear, rushing water.
“We swam all summer,” Beavin said, while leading a walk down a nature trail along the creek in northwest Bexar County.
If national developer Lennar Homes has its way, the residents say, the creek will someday flow constantly — with treated wastewater from a plant built to serve its proposed 2,900-home subdivision in Helotes Canyon. Swimming could remain a memory.
The Miami-based homebuilder recently applied for a permit from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality that would allow it to discharge 1 million gallons of treated wastewater into Helotes Creek every single day.
Treated wastewater today is cleaner than it was a generation ago, and some rivers, including the San Antonio River, benefit from the addition. SAWS discharges enough treated wastewater into its namesake river to keep it flowing all the way to the coast, even during drought.
But you can’t drink treated wastewater, and you can’t swim in the San Antonio River.
Because Helotes Creek runs over the Edwards Aquifer contributing zone, residents worry about the quality of the water treatment, and whether it, along with increased stormwater runoff from the development itself, could negatively impact the aquifer’s water quality.
Lennar Homes, they say, already has a muddy record when it comes to environmental stewardship in the Hill Country, citing an agreement affecting a Bulverde development the homebuilder violated.
A Lennar Homes representative said via email that the company declined to comment.
Also because of the company’s track record, residents say they worry Lennar will not abide by concessions it negotiated with the San Antonio Water System, designed to reduce the environmental impact of the development.
They also fear that if TCEQ grants this permit, other homebuilders could seek to build wastewater treatment plants that discharge into area creeks, increasing the likelihood of flooding in Helotes Canyon and further risking the purity of the aquifer.
And while residents have little faith in Lennar, they have even less in TCEQ’s willingness to hold this homebuilder or others to account.
“TCEQ doesn’t actually do anything,” Nottingham said. “We’re a property-rights state and the developers own the property. That’s what they care about.”
A year-long battle
It’s been an ongoing battle for residents.
Lennar Homes approached SAWS last year seeking a utility service agreement to supply water for a proposed 2,900 homes on 1,160 acres once part of the historic Guajolote Ranch just outside of Grey Forest.
While the Guajolote tract is within SAWS’ water service area, it is outside the utility’s wastewater service area. That means SAWS cannot tell the developer how to handle its wastewater, although it can offer direction. SAWS offered Lennar four options for how the company might handle it, including two where the homebuilder would use SAWS as its service provider.
Nearby residents and environmental groups urged SAWS to recommend septic systems as a way to further limit density on the property. Ultimately, Lennar Homes chose to go the wastewater treatment route.
In February, SAWS approved an agreement for the development that included nine concessions Lennar Homes must meet, including limiting impervious cover to 30% of the property, setting aside 50% as open space and hiring an “A-level” wastewater operator to manage the wastewater treatment plant.
During the process, SAWS board member Amy Hardberger lamented that the utility must provide water service to any developer that requests it within the utility’s territory, regardless of the environmental implications of those developments. While SAWS can seek concessions from developers, it cannot deny service.
If Lennar breaks any of the concessions it agreed to, SAWS could take legal action against the developer including cutting the developer’s access to water, Tracey Lehmann, SAWS’ director of engineering, told the San Antonio Report.
Increased risk of flooding
Neighbors’ concerns about treated wastewater discharged into Helotes Creek potentially impacting the aquifer’s quality are based on 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 the institute 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, modeled how pumping treated sewage in the Helotes Creek Watershed could affect the Edwards Aquifer.
The study found that any type of wastewater system could “significantly degrade the watershed and the quality of water recharging the Edwards Aquifer.”
Green told the San Antonio Report that building more homes and paving more roads would increase downstream flooding, likely affecting residents of Helotes Canyon, including Grey Forest.
“If you keep developing in the source areas for the [Edwards] … you’re going to continue to load up the [aquifer] with stuff that you don’t want in the water,” Green said. If TCEQ approves the permit, “it will impress and empower others to [build in this area], and then you’re really going to start compounding the impact.”
Lennar’s Hill Country history
Lennar Homes doesn’t have the cleanest track record when it comes to sticking with its environmental agreements in the Hill Country, residents say.
In 2015, Lennar applied to TCEQ for a wastewater permit to serve its 4S Ranch development in Bulverde — 1,880 homes on 780 acres between Stahl Lane and Smithson Valley Road. The permit would allow it to pump up to 480,000 gallons of treated sewage per day into Lewis Creek.
Both the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance and the Bulverde Neighborhood Alliance contested the permit application, worried about how the wastewater would affect the aquifer, because Lewis Creek feeds into Cibolo Creek, which recharges the Edwards Aquifer.
In 2016, TCEQ granted the application, and the parties came to a settlement agreement stipulating, among other things, that Lennar Homes would reuse the treated wastewater for irrigation, to ensure there would be no runoff. The agreement also required Lennar Homes to limit impervious cover to 35% of the development, use a responsible third party to run the wastewater treatment plant and develop a stormwater drainage plan that protected neighboring property owners.
In October 2019, Lennar Homes violated its agreement and the discharge permit when it failed to contain stormwater runoff following a major rain event, sending mud flows into nearby neighborhoods, according to GEAA.
In response, GEAA and the Bulverde Neighborhood Alliance filed a notice of intent to sue Lennar Homes to get the company to comply with the 2016 agreement and its permits. Instead, Lennar and its construction partners paid $175,000 to GEAA and the Bulverde Neighborhood Alliance and recommitted to the 2016 agreement, GEAA Executive Director Annalisa Peace said.
In December 2021, however, a consultant hired by the Bulverde Neighborhood Alliance found that runoff in neighboring areas has only increased since then. Peace said the two organizations may consider further legal action.
Residents remain frustrated that more cannot be done to manage development in the Hill Country. The risks to the environment and the Edwards Aquifer — which provides roughly half of the region’s water supply — are high.
“This whole area so subject to flooding as it is,” Beavin said. “And when we think about a million gallons of effluent a day — it’s just scary.”
Residents are not alone in their concerns. Mayor Ron Nirenberg recently said he believes SAWS has been so focused on obtaining an adequate supply of water that it has neglected to protect the quality of the Edwards Aquifer.
“I’ve heard virtually no conversation on that,” Nirenberg said during SAWS’ September board meeting, “and seeing as much concrete that’s laid out there and what’s coming as a result of the roadways being built out there, the [new] rooftops — what are we doing to make sure that we protect the quality of that water?”
SAWS President and CEO Robert Puente pointed out that right now, SAWS’ hands are largely tied. It would need the city’s help to create tools to protect Edwards Aquifer water quality. “We don’t have the ability to pass ordinances, venues or anything like that,” Puente said. “If the city gives us those tools, yes, we will.”
The city already has one such tool, argues Beavin — it just continually fails to use it. The North Sector Plan, completed in 2010, is a development document meant to help guide the growth of San Antonio’s North Side.
But the San Antonio City Council has made at least 85 changes to the plan since 2010, according to a GEAA research report, almost always to appease developers. The plan has no legal bearing on the Guajolote tract, since it is located outside city limits.
Still Beavin and Nottingham urged elected officials at every level to enact more protections for the Edwards Aquifer contributing and recharge zones.
“We need folks to act with foresight, not just short-term to please the developers,” Beavin said. “This is not just affecting us. This affects all of San Antonio.”