Two controversial proposals to discharge treated wastewater from sewage plants into Hill Country streams are moving ahead.  

This month, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the State’s environmental regulator, held public hearings for discharges affecting Honey Creek, outside of Bulverde, and Commissioners Creek, near the Bandera County town of Tarpley. The TCEQ has issued draft permits for both sewage plants. 

The issue of sewage wastewater is affecting small towns and rural areas all across the Texas Hill Country, renowned for its clear, spring-fed streams and rivers. Many residents worry that the nutrients in the wastewater – nitrogen and phosphorus – will leave these waterways covered in unsightly algae. Such algae can also release the kinds of toxins that have killed dogs in places like Lady Bird Lake in Austin.  

“There are applications all over the Hill Country right now,” Tom Goynes, president of the Texas Rivers Protection Association, said at one of the hearings. “Each one might not be the end of the world, but you add them all up and, like Rachel Carson warned us 50 years ago, we’re going to have a silent spring. We’re going to kill the goose that laid the golden egg. We’re going to kill these creeks and rivers.”

Applications for permits to discharge sewage wastewater come from land developers and can sometimes take years to review.

In both the Honey Creek and Commissioners Creek cases, opposition groups have been able to secure some small victories, such as tighter permit restrictions from the TCEQ and some environmental concessions from the applicants. Ultimately, TCEQ commissioners will decide whether to slow down or derail the permit applications through a process known as a contested case hearing. 

Honey Creek

Off of State Highway 46 in the Bulverde area, longtime owners of a former exotic game ranch are proposing to build a more than 2,300-home subdivision.

They plan to use neighboring Honey Creek as the discharge point from a sewage treatment plant that would process the waste from all of these new residents. The flow could reach up to an average of 500,000 gallons per day, according to a draft permit the TCEQ issued June 28. 

Water forms a pool with lily pads behind a natural dam at Honey Creek State Natural Area.

Many naturalists consider Honey Creek one of the most pristine waterways left in the Hill Country. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) owns much of the land on the west side of the creek downstream of where it pours out of the mouth of a cave. The land, known as Honey Creek State Natural Area, is tightly restricted and only open for guided hikes. 

State and county land records tie the proposed Honey Creek Ranch subdivision to Ronald and Terry Urbanczyk and their daughter, Kristin Urbanczyk Aljoe. The Urbanczyks also run Urban Concrete Contractors in San Antonio. They have not responded to multiple Rivard Report requests for comment. 

On Aug. 19, the TCEQ held a hearing on the Honey Creek permit at an elementary school in Bulverde. Fewer than 100 people attended. Consultant Kelly Leach spoke on behalf of the Urbanczyks, who did not attend. 

Speaking to Leach and TCEQ officials, Joyce Gass Moore, a fifth-generation landowner of Honey Creek Spring Ranch, located downstream of the proposed development, said “the failure of an already-broken system intended to regulate the disposal of wastewater” threatens to destroy the creek her family has worked to protect since settling the area in the 1870s. 

Consultants working for developers of Honey Creek Ranch, including Kelly Leach (blue vest), listen to testimony at a hearing on a wastewater permit, along with Brad Patterson of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (right).
Consultants working for developers of Honey Creek Ranch, including Kelly Leach (center), listen to testimony, along with Brad Patterson of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (right).

Moore’s property is the site of Honey Creek Cave, the longest known cave in Texas. On her land,the water that flows into Honey Creek emerges from the cave and a series of springs. 

At least 20 cavers from Bexar Grotto and other caving groups also attended, bringing photos of the intricate limestone formations and underground waterways inside Honey Creek Cave. Their fear is that discharge and runoff will make its way into the cave via cracks and crevices in the limestone. Other groups working to fight the permit and other proposed sewage plants nearby are the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance and Bulverde Neighborhoods For Clean Water. 

“Until this proposed development and wastewater discharge became a possibility, Honey Creek was one of the most protected aquatic systems in the Hill Country,” Moore said. “The number of these pristine riparian systems are shrinking rapidly, most of it due to rampant and unregulated development.” 

In the draft permit, TCEQ officials wrote that, because of limits on pollution that would be allowed in the treated wastewater, “no significant degradation of water quality is expected in Honey Creek” and that “existing uses will be maintained and protected.”

The permit acknowledges that Honey Creek is home to three species on the state endangered list: a type of blind salamander known as Eurycea latitans, Cagle’s map turtle, and a freshwater mussel called the Texas fatmucket. Of these, the salamander and the fatmucket could eventually be put on the federal endangered list.

The draft permit has some more stringent requirements than the developers asked for in the application. Some are stricter even than those recommended by TPWD officials in a letter last year. 

The TPWD’s suggestions were based on a previously-issued sewage permit for the Belterra subdivision in Dripping Springs, the site of a hotly contested battle over similar wastewater issues. For two pollutants, the TCEQ proposes adopting even stricter requirements than TPWD are seeking. 

Those are for total phosphorus, of which the TCEQ proposed a limit of 0.05 milligrams per liter – three times lower than the amount TPWD requested. The TCEQ also proposed a limit of 4 milligrams per liter of dissolved oxygen, when the TPWD requested 6 milligrams per liter. A higher dissolved oxygen number is better for fish and other aquatic life. 

The draft permit was also updated to require the developers to reuse “at least 60 percent” of treated wastewater as irrigation water, something Leach has previously said they would do. Another change requires the sewage plant to use ultraviolet light for disinfection instead of chlorine, as originally proposed. Chlorine can lead to fish kills and other problems if not handled properly. 

Despite these assurances, many at the hearing questioned whether the plant could actually meet those limits or whether they could be reliably enforced. 

Jamie Miller, director of engineering for Colorado-based Integrated Water Services, questioned Leach on how she thought they could achieve that low a phosphorus limit. She said the type of plant Leach has proposed “cannot reliably do it.” Leach said he had been assured by consultants that they could.

Questions also arose at the hearing about why the applicants are focused on discharging into Honey Creek, rather than in the nearby Cibolo Creek, a more degraded water body. 

“Did you entertain any other routes for effluent?” Mike Romans, a member of the City of Bulverde’s Planning Commission, asked Leach. Leach said they had, but didn’t explain why they chose Honey Creek. 

“I don’t know why the State of Texas doesn’t have our backs on this,” Romans told the TCEQ officials. 

The permit does not address contaminated stormwater runoff that could wash motor oil, lawn chemicals, pet waste, and other substances into Honey Creek. 

Commissioners Creek

More than 200 people packed the meeting hall at Mansfield Park in Bandera on Monday for another TCEQ hearing on the same issue as Honey Creek, this time regarding a Christian youth camp planned for the tiny town of Tarpley. 

The camp’s owners, Sam Torn and his son Chris, run a youth camp in Arkansas called Camp Ozark. They’re seeking a permit from the TCEQ that would allow them to discharge up to an average of 49,000 gallons a day into Commissioners Creek, a spring-fed stream that often runs dry during droughts. 

Commissioners Creek flows through property owned by the Monier and Finner families.
Commissioners Creek flows through property owned by the Monier and Finner families.

Downstream neighbors and others have organized against the Torns, worried about algae growth and other problems. They call themselves Friends of Hondo Canyon

In Bandera, opponents clad in matching T-shirts appeared well-organized. Unlike the Urbanczyks, the Torn family attended the hearing in person to face the sometimes-angry crowd. 

At the meeting, Sam Torn promised attendees that he will never discharge the wastewater to Commissioners Creek. Instead, he said, they’ll reuse all of their water for irrigation.

“It makes absolutely zero sense for me to stand up here tonight and tell you I’m never going to discharge and then go turn right around and discharge,” Torn told the crowd. “There’s going to come a time where on a Saturday night and the power goes out, I’m going to need one of my neighbors to loan me a generator, I’m going to need an electrician to come out and help me, or a plumber, I’m going to need to use access to somebody’s property.”

Torn’s speech drew some scattered applause, even from opponents, but many remained skeptical. The TCEQ’s draft permit would only require the Torns to recycle an average of 75 percent of their discharge. 

A crowd watches as Sam Torn gives a presentation on a sewage plant currently under review by state regulators.
A crowd watches as Sam Torn gives a presentation on a sewage plant currently under review by state regulators.

Beyrl Armstrong, co-founder of Bandera Canyonlands Alliance, asked Torn whether he would be willing to allow a group of donors to cover the costs to pump water from the discharge uphill to the north end of Torn’s property. 

“If you ever discharge, which you say you don’t want to do, but if you ever have to discharge, it would go across your property before it went off, and we would help pay for that,”  Armstrong said.

“Thank you – no,” Torn replied, saying that they “master planned” the property and that “this is the best location for our intended use.” 

Several attendees wanted to know why the Torns aren’t willing to cancel the permit request and try for another type of zero-discharge permit known as land application. That would involve spraying 100 percent of the treated wastewater on the land for irrigation instead of sending it down a creek. 

Torn told the crowd he doesn’t want to use that kind of permit not because the camp intends to discharge, but because it would require storage of this irrigation water in a 4- to 8-acre lake, which would have to be put directly upstream of the neighboring property. 

Torn said the current permit also would have stricter treatment requirements than a zero-discharge permit. A review of the draft permit shows it has much less strict pollution limits than those proposed for Honey Creek. 

Many of those who attended said they were worried about the precedent it would set for the area. Unlike in Bulverde, where multiple large subdivisions are under construction, the Torns are among the first to propose this type of wastewater discharge in the area. Among the attendees was Becky Westbrook, who owns a ranch near Pigeon Roost Creek in another part of Bandera County.

“If you set this precedent, there is no guarantee that the camp won’t be next to my ranch or their ranch or their ranch, and there will be nothing [we] can do about it,” Westbrook said. 

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