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Bill Seeks Restrictions On Dumping Treated Wastewater In Central Texas Creeks

Miguel Gutierrez Jr. for KUT
Onion Creek feeds into the Edwards Aquifer, which, in turn, feeds Barton Springs Pool. A bill at the legislature seeks to limit the effluent dumped into the aquifer.

The population boom in Central Texas has brought a lot of challenges to the region – some expected, some less so. One question you may not have considered is what happens to all the extra sewage water produced by the growing population. Now, a bill at the state Capitol hopes to answer that very question.

To understand Senate Bill 1796 it helps to know the two ways treated sewage water, or effluent, is typically disposed of in Texas. Once the sewage goes through a treatment plant, the wastewater is usually either spread over the ground in a so-called land application, or it’s dumped into a creek or a stream.

It’s the dumping in creeks and streams that the bill aims to make illegal in the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone. Many local communities, property owners and conservationists say it ruins water quality.

“Currently, wastewater discharge permits are not allowed in the water recharge zone of the Edwards Aquifer. But the prohibition does not include streams that actually flow into the recharge zone,” Democratic state Sen. Jose Menendez said at a committee hearing on the bill. “If you can’t do this on the recharge zone, why would you do it into a stream that flows into it?”

One reason why is because it is cheaper. To treat the wastewater though land application, you need land. Now, that land in Central Texas is so expensive, many developers and wastewater utilities don’t want to buy Hill Country acreage just to pour treated sewage on it.

“Municipalities in these areas need to have an option to discharge, given the cost of land, storage pond requirements and the character of land to be irrigated,” Robby Caligari, an engineer working for the city of Dripping Springs, said at the hearing. The city opposes the bill.

Bill supporters say they might have an answer to that cost concern, and it all comes down to making land application cheaper. Currently, when people apply for a permit from the state to spread wastewater on the land, they need to prove they’ve bought enough land to accommodate all the wastewater they may have.  

If Senate Bill 1796 passes, a developer or treatment plant won’t have to set aside as much acreage for treatment if they can demonstrate they will be re-using the water elsewhere for things like irrigating parks or golf courses.

“These rule changes in the bill are designed to stimulate land application systems, make them more affordable and to counter any charges that the bill may be a no growth bill,” says Dan Wheeless, an attorney representing supporters of the bill. 

The bill is pending in the Senate Agriculture, Water and Rural Affairs Committee.

Mose Buchele focuses on energy and environmental reporting at KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @mosebuchele.
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