TCEQ denies petition to create rule against issuing wastewater discharge permits on pristine streams

While some Texans spent Wednesday’s warm temperatures outdoors enjoying Barton Creek, others spent the day indoors fighting on its behalf. 

At a public meeting Wednesday morning, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) heard comments on a petition filed by environmental advocacy groups across the state.

"TCEQ has the responsibility and the authority to preserve and protect Texas natural resources," said one speaker.

The Pristine Streams Petition asked TCEQ to stop issuing new wastewater discharge permits on the state's remaining pristine streams, including Barton Creek.

"This has been historically an area that is off limits for that, and that's one reason why Barton Creek is so pristine and why people can come in here and swim in the water without any worry," said Brian Zabcik, advocacy manager for the Save Barton Creek Association." 

But Zabcik said a permit was almost issued last year for a wastewater facility along a branch of Barton Creek. And as Austin grows, so does their fear of the future. 

"We’re always concerned about development and the effects it has on our very urban and very pristine creek," said Sydney Garcia, executive director of the Save Barton Creek Association. "We’re always trying to be the watchdog." 

Treated wastewater contains phosphorus. Phosphorus is an essential element for plant life which is why it is used in fertilizers. However, too much can lead to unwanted plants, like algae.

"That’s why we've been seeing out of control algae grows on the South San Gabriel River west of Georgetown, where the city of Liberty Hill has been dumping its treated sewage into the river," said Zabcik.

According to the language in the petition, any rule would only apply to streams with very low levels of phosphorus.

"The 22 stream segments that would be impacted by this rule change represent less than one percent of the state's waters," said Katherine Romans, executive director of the Hill Country Alliance. "They really are the last remaining truly crystal clear pristine waters in the state of Texas." 

Land application — dumping wastewater into soil — is their preferred alternative. 

"TCEQ prohibited new discharge permits around the Highland Lakes in 1986," said Zabcik. "We have 36 years of knowing that you can do development without discharge because anyone who's been in those lakes knows that development hasn't stopped there." 

On Wednesday, TCEQ commissioners ultimately decided to deny the petition, unsure if it was their job to take action, or legislators.

"I don’t believe that initiating this rulemaking would be a proper exercise of our authority," Jon Niermann, chairman of the TCEQ. "I am very receptive to efforts, including efforts in our existing framework, to quantify and address the issue."

TCEQ did direct the executive director’s staff to facilitate an upcoming stakeholder meeting to continue the conversation going forward.

Multiple past bills addressing the issue of wastewater discharge permits have failed to move forward in the state legislature, with one bill gaining House approval, but stopping there last May. 

But with the failed petition, Zabcik said they plan to start working on a new bill for the 2023 legislative session.

"We think that will have momentum this time."

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