AUSTIN (KXAN) — Several conservationist groups are banding together to stop treated effluent from getting into certain waterways in Texas, including Barton and Onion creeks.

That means human waste where pollutants have been removed.

Currently, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) grants permits for those discharges.

Algae bloom in South San Gabriel River downstream of the Liberty Hill wastewater plant (Courtesy Save Barton Creek Association)
Algae bloom in South San Gabriel River downstream of the Liberty Hill wastewater plant (Courtesy Save Barton Creek Association)

The Hill Country Alliance and Save Barton Creek Association (SBCA) are among the groups that submitted a petition to the state agency to enact new rules banning those permits into more than 20 waterways that are considered “pristine,” or have naturally low levels of phosphorous.

“The addition of treated domestic wastewater effluent containing phosphorous in any amount or concentration will degrade the water quality,” according to the petition.

Petitioners point to Liberty Hill as a “worst-case scenario,” where the TCEQ has granted a treated wastewater discharge permit for the city’s wastewater treatment facility.

“Almost immediately, algae started growing in the river where it had never been before. Not only that, it goes down for up to three and a half miles past the plant. And most importantly, it never goes away,” said SBCA advocacy director Brian Zabcik. “I call it the poster child for sewage pollution in Texas.”

According to the petition, the treated effluent discharge could set off “a chain of undesirable biologic events including accelerated plant growth, algae blooms, a low dissolved oxygen, and the death of certain fish, invertebrates, and other aquatic animals.”

They don’t want that to happen in Barton Creek, or anywhere else.

Neither does Brooklyn Henley, a frequent visitor to Barton Creek.

“I would hate to see it go away,” she said. “I love that everybody can come together and the dogs can be here.”

She said its a safe space for Austinites, and somewhere she brings visitors.

“People love to see this, this is a very unique place. I lived in Indiana, I lived in Las Vegas, and there’s nothing like this,” she said.

The groups say the TCEQ almost granted a permit recently for a tributary to Barton Creek, until the developer withdrew his application last year.

“TCEQ was going to let the applicant dump 15 times as much phosphorus into Barton Creek, as is naturally there,” Zabcik said. “That would have caused the out-of-control algae that we’ve seen in Liberty Hill happen on Barton Creek, too.”

He said so far, SBCA and partner organizations have been fighting these permit applications on a case-by-case basis.

“That is why we realized that the only true solution is a policy that covers and protects all pristine streams in the Hill Country,” he said.

Especially as more developments pop up in Central Texas and apply for those permits, he said.

During a meeting Wednesday, TCEQ commissioners denied the petition for a new rule.

Commission chairman Jon Niermann said while he believed the agency had the authority to do so, the change would be so far-reaching that he believed the legislature should be involved.

“The outright banning of discharges on hundreds of miles of Texas rivers and streams is the kind of large-bore policy that we should leave to the legislature,” Niermann he said.

Commissioners did request a stakeholder meeting with those who would be affected by a new policy to discuss what action can be taken, if any, under the agency’s existing authority.

“Ya’ll are going to need to keep, keep fighting this,” Niermann said. “I can’t vote to solve your problem today.”

Zabcik said conservationist groups are also working on a ‘pristine streams’ bill for the 2023 Texas legislative session.

Liberty Hill: A record of wastewater violations

TCEQ cited the City of Liberty Hill in 2019 for releasing 3,000 gallons of only partially treated wastewater.

The waste went into the San Gabriel River in Georgetown, where a TCEQ investigator found sewage 18 inches deep sitting at the bottom of the river, along with blood worms, at the outflow spot where the plant released its wastewater.

Last month, TCEQ fined the city more than $26,000 for water quality violations.

According to documents, the agency said the city “failed to comply with permitted effluent limitations for ammonia nitrogen, Escherichia coli, and total phosphorous.”

Zabcik said his group and other neighbors plan to oppose Liberty Hill’s application to renew their discharge permit in a hearing later this year.