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TCEQ Nearing Decision on Dripping Springs’ Wastewater Discharge Permit

The Law Office of C. William Smalling, P.C. March 15, 2018

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) is slated to render its final decision on the city of Dripping Springs’ proposed wastewater discharge permit. One factor that may weigh in this decision is a recent, unrelated dye-trace study of the effect on the drinking water and inhabitant species in the Onion Creek area. The opposition from environmental advocates and community residents highlights how resolving such controversies requires the advice and guidance of health, safety, and environmental attorneys.

Dripping Springs Dye-Trace Study

The dye-test study,  conducted by a group of Central Texas agencies and ground waterientists, was designed to observe the connection between surface water in Onion Creek and groundwater in a crucial aquifer that supplies much of the region. In early December 2017, a non-toxic fluorescent dye was injected into three areas of Onion Creek, and the presence of dye was detected in two nearby wells and one spring within one day.

Traces of dye were subsequently discovered in five other locations, and scientists believe that it could take months for the dye to travel throughout the entire study area. Pink tap water was also seen flowing through the sinks and faucets of a resident’s home in the vicinity of the proposed discharge point. Environmental advocates consider these preliminary findings to be a victory in their fight against the proposed permit.

Dripping Springs’ Discharge Permit

Dripping Springs Mayor Todd Purcell contends that the permit has been redesigned to ensure that there will be no discharge into Onion Creek, however. Mr. Purcell also said that the city is committed to the complete beneficial reuse of treated effluent for irrigation purposes and potentially potable drinking water.

The proposed permit calls for Dripping Springs to build a new water treatment facility with a capacity of close to one million gallons per day, about 185 percent more than its current treatment capacity. The additional capacity is a response to past and projected population growth of Hays County.

Currently, the city has invested $3 million to accommodate 12 millions gallons of storage to ensure the city can retain the water and avoid the potential of discharge into Onion Creek. Dripping Springs has also already reserved 600,000 gallons per day for irrigation, with pending agreements to reserve another 395,000 gallons. What’s lacking is a formalized no-discharge solution, however, which has opponents up in arms.

How Will the TCEQ  Decide on The Dripping Springs Permit?

Prior to the dye-case study, TCEQ released a response to public comments on the proposed permit. In October 2017, the commission said that effluent limits adequately ensure “the protection of human health, aquatic life, and the environment.”  

However, a recent finding by scientists monitoring the federally endangered Barton Springs salamander raises questions about the TCEQ’s position. The salamander was recently discovered near the proposed discharge point.

Additionally, in Feb. 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service noted the potential impact the permit would have on the salamander and two other federally endangered species. The agency asked the Environmental Protection Agency to consider a no-discharge solution, but the EPA withdrew its objection to the permit in July 2017.

At this juncture, the question remains as to whether the dye-cast study or the alleged threat to the endangered salamander will influence the TCEQ’s decision. Although Dripping Springs expects a decision in the coming months, environmental groups have also announced their intent to file a lawsuit to enforce the Clean Water Act, which could delay the implementation of the permit if it is approved.