A dispute over a summer camp’s proposal to discharge its wastewater into a Hill Country stream is headed for a judicial review after a decision by state regulators late last month.

Since July 2018, the owners of property in the Bandera County town of Tarpley have been seeking a permit that would allow them to discharge up to an average of 49,000 gallons a day into Commissioners Creek, a clear-flowing but intermittent Hill Country stream.

The Torn family, which owns the property, intends to build a Christian youth camp similar to their Arkansas retreat called Camp Ozark. Their proposal has put them at odds with their downstream neighbors and others in the region who don’t want to see the discharge of treated wastewater into a creek many use for drinking water and cattle raising.

After receiving more than 300 comments on the issue, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) on April 22 referred the permit to a contested case proceeding in the State Office of Administrative Hearings. During that process, an administrative law judge will hear arguments and rule on whether the TCEQ’s permit would effectively protect the creek, among other issues. No dates have been scheduled yet in the proceeding.

As part of their ruling, TCEQ commissioners gave affected party status to six downstream neighbors who own property within a mile of the discharge point, along with Friends of Hondo Canyon, a local grassroots group organized to fight the permit. The decision gives them legal clearance to challenge the permit during the contested case process.

“We care, we’re here, and we’re not going away,” Margo Denke Griffin, secretary and treasurer of Friends of Hondo Canyon who lives downstream from the site, said in a Monday phone call.

The dispute over the permit has rippled far beyond the tiny crossroads of Tarpley’s 200-person population, with hundreds of attendees coming to an August hearing at a meeting hall in Bandera.

At that meeting, camp owner Sam Torn told attendees about his plan to reuse all of the wastewater their camp generates rather than discharging it down the creek. They’ll instead use that treated wastewater for irrigation, he said.

“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.

A draft permit issued by the TCEQ would require the camp to reuse 75 percent of its treated wastewater for irrigation. However, the remaining 25 percent leaves some residents skeptical of the promise of no effect on the creek.

The Torns’ company submitted an application for a reuse permit in April 2019. However, the TCEQ always takes up the discharge permit issue before making a decision on reuse.

Chris Torn, Sam Torn’s son and co-owner, did not return a Monday afternoon phone message seeking comment.

In a response to commenters, TCEQ staff wrote that the pollution limits the agency imposes will effectively protect the creek, the wildlife that depend on it, and the health of the residents and livestock who use it for drinking water.

Before going to a contested case hearing, the parties have four-to-six weeks to find an agreement through mediation. After that time, the no-more-than-180-day hearing can begin.

Aside from the discharge, the two sides also are sparring over a permit application that would allow the Torns to use up to 13 million gallons of groundwater from the Trinity Aquifer to fill two reservoirs on the site. The TCEQ on April 3 closed its comment period on a draft permit allowing the groundwater use.

Griffin said that their fight has brought together “tree huggers” and “gun rights advocates,” who are all united around the idea of protecting water, a communal resource.

“If they want to join our community, and we welcome them, they have to not give us their wastewater and they can’t take all of our well water for their lakes,” she said.

Avatar photo

Brendan Gibbons

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