While certainly not the most charming of subjects, sewage effluent is critical to many of our discussions on water. Its disposal and potential impacts on water quality is an issue for many communities across the globe. In some areas, nonprofit organizations are banning together demanding legislation that restricts the discharge of sewage effluent into our waters. Recently, Texas state Senator Jose Menéndez sponsored Senate Bill 1796 that proposed a restriction on permits of “sewage effluent into any water in the contributing or recharge zone of the San Antonio or Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer.” In fact, of the 9,000 bills filed with the 85th Session of the Texas Legislature, 375 pertained to water, with Senate Bill 1796 being one of the most important.
Photo Courtesy Larry D. Moore.
In the heart of Texas and just two miles west of the Austin State Capitol is Barton Springs. Fed by the Edwards Aquifer, Barton Springs Pool and Barton Springs Creek serve as a recreational area for Austin residents and visitors alike. In addition, “the Springs” as many Austinites simply refer to it as, is a biodiverse habitat and home of the endangered Barton Springs Salamander. With an average year-round water temperature of 68-70 degrees, the area is a popular spot in Austin, attracting upwards of 800,000 visitors annually. Considering the city and central Texas’s status as one of the fastest growing areas in the nation, there is growing pressure on the Edwards Aquifer to supply water to millions of people. This pressure has resulted in advocacy groups such as Save Our Springs Alliance and Save Barton Creek Association demanding the city of Austin and the State of Texas enact legislation that protects the Edwards Aquifer and Barton Springs Watershed from threats such as over-pumping and pollution.
One of the biggest issues currently facing the Barton Springs Watershed is the threat of wastewater disposal into one of Barton Springs’s main tributaries, Onion Creek. A small tributary of the Colorado River, Onion Creek serves as an important recharge area for Barton Spring and the Edwards Aquifer (See Dorsey, et. al). In 2016, the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality (TCEQ) issued a draft permit to the nearby city of Dripping Springs that would allow for the discharge of nearly 995,000 gallons daily of treated wastewater into Onion Creek. Immediately concerned at the impact this could have on Barton Springs and the Edwards Aquifer, six local environmental coalitions sent a letter requesting the City of Austin not settle with Dripping Springs for any amount of wastewater discharge citing that “allowing any discharge into Onion Creek is likely to cause a domino effect whereby the aggregate impacts will significantly degrade water quality in Onion Creek, Barton Springs Pool, and Lady Bird Lake– potentially to hazardous levels for recreation, drinking water, and ecosystems.” In December, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sent an interim objection of draft permit to TCEQ providing “it is not clear how the permit conforms to the guidelines and requirements established by the Clean Water Act and the NPDES regulations.” TCEQ has yet to respond.
Over the last several months negotiations have continued between the City of Austin and Dripping Springs with increased pressure from many environmental organization and members of the community to only settle for an agreement that results in zero discharge. Unfortunately, Senate Bill 1796 that would have banned sewage effluence discharge was left pending in committee, and will not become law this session. Consequently, the threat of effluent discharge and its potential impact on Barton Springs still looms. For more information on the nonprofit organizations working to protect Barton Springs and the Edwards Aquifer, please visit the following websites:
Save Our Springs Alliance: https://www.sosalliance.org
Protect Our Water: http://www.protectourwaternow.org
Save Barton Creek Association: http://www.savebartoncreek.org
-City of Austin. (2017). Barton Springs Pool. Retrieved from AustinTexas.Gov: https://austintexas.gov/department/barton-springs-pool
-Environmental Protection Agency. (December 1, 2016). Interim Objection of Draft Permit. Retrieved from https://www.scribd.com/document/334045141/Dripping-Springs-City-of-TX0136778-Interim-Objection-Letter-Final-2.
-Gibbons, B. (April 2017). Three water bills to watch in the Texas Legislature. Retrieved from San Antonio Express News: http://www.expressnews.com/news/local/article/Three-water-bills-to-watch-in-the-Texas-11089467.php
-Menéndez, J. (2017). Senate Bill 1796. Retrieved from Texas Legislature Online: http://www.legis.state.tx.us/BillLookup/History.aspx?LegSess=85R&Bill=SB1796
-Raymond, S. M., Dorsey, M. E., & Stewart, S. L. (1986). Hydrology and Water Quality of the Edwards Aquifer Associated with Barton Springs in the Austin Area, Texas . United States Geological Survey.
Save Barton Creek Association. (2016). PRESS RELEASE: Coalition of Six Local Environmental Groups Urge City of Austin Not to Allow Treated Sewage Discharge into Onion Creek. Retrieved from Save Barton Creek Association: http://www.savebartoncreek.org/press-release-coalition-six-local-environmental-groups-urge-city-austin-not-allow-treated-sewage-discharge-onion-creek/
-Save Barton Creek Association. (2017). Save Barton Creek Association. Retrieved from Onion Creek Effluent: http://www.savebartoncreek.org/onioncreekeffluent/
-Save Our Springs Alliance. (2017). Over-Pumping of the Aquifer. Retrieved from Save Our Springs Alliance: https://www.sosalliance.org/problems-and-solutions/over-pumping-of-the-aquifer.html