As many as 300 people packed into a ballroom of a DoubleTree hotel on the city’s Northwest Side for a public hearing to voice their opposition to the construction of a wastewater plant that would dump millions of gallons of treated effluent into Helotes Creek.

Undeterred by a steady downpour Tuesday evening, the hotel’s lack of parking and a room that didn’t hold them all, residents waited for the opportunity to ask questions about the project and lodge their opposition to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which is weighing whether to approve the permit.

Also in attendance were contractors hired by Miami-based homebuilder Lennar Homes to design and run the plant, which would serve a 2,900-home development Lennar is planning to build on 1,160 acres just north of Grey Forest.

About a dozen residents wore t-shirts that read “Save Our Aquifer” while others held up posterized photographs of trees and water.

For the first hour and a half, residents were able to ask questions to a panel of seven TCEQ staff members and the four contractors.

Questions ranged from the development’s potential effects on property values to whether any studies have been done to estimate how the development could affect local flooding.

The answer?

“No ma’am, because flooding is outside of the scope of this review of the permit,” said TCEQ aquatic scientist Brittany Lee to loud scoffs from the audience. “I know it sounds crazy, but the TCEQ doesn’t have the regulatory authority to determine that.”

Another resident asked John Montgomery, a representative of the plant’s potential operator, Municipal LLC., if it operates other wastewater treatment plants in Texas, and if so, how many of those have had “incidents.”

“Yes, sir, we operate 75 sewer plants across the state of Texas,” Montgomery said. “We have had just one have issue,” he added. Municipal LLC. is a Class-A wastewater plant operator, considered the “gold-standard” license of Texas wastewater operators. The San Antonio Water System stipulated in Lennar’s water contract it must use a Class-A wastewater plant operator.

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.

TCEQ officials later acknowledged that in Texas, wastewater treatment plants are only required to self-report plant failures, but for large plants that pump 1 million gallons per day or more, such as this plant, TCEQ performs a complete comprehensive compliance investigation every other year, said Joy Thurston-Cook, the TCEQ’s Region 13 Water Section Manager.

“Now, if there’s complaints or concerns about what’s happening at the plant, such as odors or the stream looks different or something like that, we don’t have to wait for that every other year — you’ll call us and tell us and we’ll go check it out,” she said.

Brittany Lee (left), aquatic scientist at TCEQ, sits at the front ready to answer questions from the public at a public hearing.
Brittany Lee (second from right), aquatic scientist at TCEQ, sits at the front ready to answer questions from the public at a public hearing. Credit: Brenda Bazán / San Antonio Report

A call for additional studies

Following the Q&A, roughly 40 residents who signed up to speak had three minutes each to state their comments for the record.

Their primary concern is that the treated wastewater will degrade the quality of water recharging the Edwards Aquifer, which supplies water to over 2 million people in Central Texas, including San Antonio.

Helotes Creek is located in the aquifer’s contributing zone, meaning water from it drains into the aquifer. The wastewater plant would dump an average of 1 million gallons of treated effluent into Helotes Creek per day, but could dump up to 4 million gallons per day by 2027 during peak times for a two-hour time limit, according to the permit application.

“What I would like to stress is the fact that we don’t know what’s going on at the ground,” said Dixie Watkins, a landscape architect whose firm has worked with the City of San Antonio in the past on planning and zoning issues. “There’s a lot more connectivity and a lot more sensitivity than anybody thinks — it’s just not been studied,” he said, referring to the relationship between surface water and groundwater in the area.

His and others’ concerns come in part from a study performed by Southwest Research Institute. Technical advisor and project manager Ron Green led a two-year-long computer model research effort 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,” according to a press release about the study.

Opposition moving forward

Among those present to protest the treatment plant Tuesday was Kyle Cunningham, representing the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District. She also submitted a formal statement to the TCEQ Monday requesting the commission deny the permit.

“The location and the creek system where the discharge will occur has been an area of concern for contamination for many years,” she wrote. “At least three known incidents have occurred that have led to human illness.”

The letter lists the three incidents where well contamination in that area made residents sick, including in Helotes during a massive mulch fire that started in 2006 and burned for months. Water dropped on the fire contaminated several residential wells, and led to several lawsuits.

“This was the most expensive emergency response conducted by TCEQ until the West explosion,” the Metro Health letter stated. “These incidents were due to the lack of understanding for karst terrain. Since there is no filtration in karst, contamination occurs quickly and moves in surprising ways.”

The TCEQ has reviewed Lennar’s application and is preparing to draft a permit, said Bobby Salehi, an attorney with the agency. If the permit is issued, it will establish “the conditions under which this facility must operate,” he said. He added that if it’s issued, this means TCEQ staff has preliminarily determined that the permit meets all statutory and regulatory requirements.

TCEQ will then take all comments from the formal comment period, which ended Tuesday, and will use these to decide if any changes to the draft permit need to be made, he said.

“We will respond to all comments made during the formal portion of tonight’s meeting, as well as any comments previously submitted to the chief clerk, in a document called ‘The Response to Comments,’ which will be filed within 60 days from the end of the comment period here tonight,” Salehi said. “In that document, we will state whether we have made any changes to the draft permit based on public comments which we receive.”

Everyone who made a formal comment will receive a copy of the response, as well as a letter explaining how to request the contested case hearing or reconsideration.

TCEQ contested case hearings are handled by the State Office of Administrative Hearings.

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