Interested festival attendees take a closer look at en educational Edwards Aquifer display. Photo by Scott Ball.
Interested festival attendees take a closer look at en educational Edwards Aquifer display. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

State Sen. José Menéndez (D-26) and State Reps. Donna Howard (D-48), and Tracy O. King (D-80) have filed bills that many believe are needed to protect the quality of the water in the Edwards Aquifer.

Senate Bill 1796 (Menéndez)/House Bill 3036 (King) and House Bill 3467 (Howard) would prohibit discharge of sewage effluent into waterways in the Edwards Aquifer Contributing Zone.

“Protecting the pristine streams in the Edwards Aquifer Contributing Zone for all landowners [and users] is of the utmost importance, and I am proud to author House Bill 3036,” King said.

Ranchers, landowners, and civic and conservation groups from all over the Texas Hill Country are joining forces to support legislation that would prohibit the practice of releasing treated sewage effluent into waterways that recharge the Edwards Aquifer.

Similar bills have been filed in past legislative sessions, including HB 595 by State Rep. David Leibowitz in 2009; SB 1099 and SB 853 filed by State Sen. Kirk Watson in 2009 and 2011, respectively; and HB 3039 filed by State Rep. Patrick Rose in 2007. In the years since those bills were filed, applications for direct discharge permits in the Hill Country have proliferated.

There is a precedent in the prohibition of direct discharge of sewage effluent – Texas Pollution Discharge Elimination System (TPDES) permits – specific to a geographic area. Under state law these permits cannot be issued for discharge into the Highland lakes.

Scientists opposed to this practice cite concerns about the inevitable process of eutrophication – an excess of nutrients, such as phosphorus, that ends up in creeks, produces an increase of microorganisms and algae, and depresses oxygen. Such an outcome would be disastrous for the Edwards Aquifer, as several creeks and streams within the Edwards Aquifer Contributing Zone (Nueces, Frio, Sabinal, Medina, Guadalupe, and Blanco rivers, and the Hondo, Cibolo, Barton, Onion, Helotes, Leon, and San Geronimo creeks, etc.) feed the aquifer.

“We shouldn’t dump sewage into our drinking water,” Menéndez said. “It is hard to believe we need legislation for that, but we do, so I filed SB 1796.”

“This bill isn’t for or against growth, it simply prohibits wastewater management practices that could be detrimental to the creeks and aquifers while encouraging re-use for other beneficial uses,” said John Dupnik, general manager of the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District. “This bill represents a sound public policy that promotes reuse where the wastewater is generated and needed and requires [that] the risks be managed by the folks who produce the pollutants rather than pass them on to their downstream neighbors.”

Throughout the past ten years I have had to learn way more about sewage than I ever wanted to know. The Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance (GEAA) has partnered with citizens in Comal, Medina, and Hays counties to protest applications for TPDES permits. In every case, our organization was approached to provide assistance to citizens opposed to the issuance of permits that would have allowed millions of gallons of sewage effluent per day into Edwards waterways.

Over the years, this has amounted to hundreds of citizens who were concerned about the negative impacts these discharges would have on their property values, their wells, and the recreational value of their Hill Country creeks and streams. These citizens have contributed their time and money to fight what they view as an unfair imposition on their property for the benefit of another party.

In 2007, an application that proposed to release treated effluent into the San Geronimo Creek, a prolific Edwards Aquifer recharge creek, was opposed by the San Antonio Water System, the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, the San Geronimo Valley Alliance, and landowners who still draw water from the San Geronimo. Additionally, both the SAWS board of directors and the City of San Antonio cited concerns about the Hills of Castle Rock subdivision’s plan to discharge into the San Geronimo Creek and potential impacts to SAWS Edwards Aquifer supply wells as reasons for denying SAWS water service to the neighborhood.

“What about my property rights?” said Randy Johnson, president of the San Geronimo Valley Alliance, whose ranch was directly downstream of the proposed discharge point. “Discharging sewage into the San Geronimo could pollute this pristine Edwards recharge creek, making it unfit for swimming, drinking, or any use to me.”

In 2008, the Texas Commission on Environmental Equality (TCEQ) approved a permit for wastewater discharge from the Belterra subdivision in Hays County that allowed discharge of treated effluent from the subdivision into Bear Creek, a tributary of Onion Creek that recharges the Barton Spring segment of the Edwards Aquifer. The Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District and local governments opposed the permit and requested that TCEQ rules be changed to prohibit this practice, believing that it would result in degradation of the aquifer. One commissioner suggested the matter would best be addressed by the Legislature.

More recently, citizens of Hays and Travis County have united to oppose a permit by the City of Dripping Springs to discharge 995,000 gallons a day into Onion Creek. Citizens of Comal County, contesting TPDES permits that would have allowed 1.2 million gallons a day of effluent to flow into Cibolo Creek, successfully negotiated settlements with developers to instead employ beneficial reuse of the sewage effluent within subdivisions located on Dry Comal and Lewis creeks.

This past week SB 1796 was heard before the Senate Agriculture, Water & Rural Affairs Committee, and HB 3036 was heard in the House Committee on Environmental Regulations. Testimony supporting the bills came from ranchers from Real County, a vineyard owner from Comal County, landowners and a recreational camp along Onion creek, the Nueces River Authority, and the League of Women Voters of Texas, among others. Testimony and cards signed in support of the bills far surpassed the number of those opposed.

We were startled that the Guadalupe Blanco River Authority (GBRA), which supported HB 595 in 2009, testified against both bills on the grounds that they would like to reserve the right to increase their existing sewage discharge permits to allow for greater volumes. A scary prospect, indeed.

As of today, 1,900 Texans have signed a petition to support this legislation. Citizens in 21 counties have asked the Texas Legislature to prohibit the release of treated sewage effluent into creeks that recharge the Edwards Aquifer. We will be working very hard to get these bills passed during this session.

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Annalisa Peace

Annalisa Peace is the executive director of the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, a nonprofit uniting 52 member organizations to advocate wise management of our water resources within 22 counties in central...