Opponents of a proposed 1,300-home development west of Buda worry that treated effluent from the project would drain into the Edwards Aquifer, which runs under most of Hays County.
By SEAN BATURA
Administrative Law Judge Rebecca Smith is expected to decide this month if a group of engineers and scientists may conduct a geologic assessment of about 600 acres near Buda against the wishes of landowners Duston, Delton and Cindi Hudson.
Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District (BS/EACD) environmental permit specialist John Dupnik said the Hudsons’ sale of the land to developer Jeremiah Venture, L.P., is contingent on the latter’s acquisition of a Texas Land Application Permit (TLAP), which would allow the company to spray up to 330,000 gallons per day of treated wastewater on 122.37 acres.
The effluent would come from the approximately 1,300 homes Jeremiah Venture plans to build on the land, which is located near 6327 FM 967, about three miles west of FM 1626.
The City of Austin, the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA), Hays County and Save our Springs Alliance (SOS) joined forces to oppose the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s (TCEQ) granting of a draft TLAP to Jeremiah Venture, which conducted its own geologic assessment of the site.
The protestants say that if the site contains numerous karst features — channels dissolved through the limestone by water — and soil depth is sufficiently shallow, the effluent could drain directly into the Edwards Aquifer, possibly harming human health and the endangered Barton Springs Salamander. Water entering the aquifer through karst features near the proposed water treatment site can reach the salamander’s Barton Springs habitat in three days.
“On tracts on both sides (of the Jeremiah Venture project), we’ve identified a number of features and a far greater number of more sensitive features than the geologic assessment shows on the tract,” Dupnik said. “We want to make sure there’s sufficient (soil) depth, and that the actual soil type is suitable for this kind of thing. And the information in the application is a bit lacking as far as that goes … It’s a 600-acre tract and there was a handful of soil samples. We don’t feel like they really captured everything. We feel like there is a way to be able to adequately manage their effluent on site, but it really is contingent on having accurate and thorough characterization of the entire tract.”
Though representatives from both sides had expressed optimism concerning the likelihood of reaching a compromise for a new inspection of the site, Jeremiah Venture made no headway in convincing the protestants to limit the scope of their proposed investigation. The protestants’ motion filed at the State Office of Administrative Hearings seeks unlimited access for 27 specialists equipped with backhoes, bobcats and other equipment for up to seven days.
“Such a request, on its face, is unreasonable per se,” said representatives for Jeremiah Venture in the Applicant’s Response to Protestants’ Joint Motion for Entry Upon Property filed with SOAH. “Moreover, Protestants have failed to establish ‘good cause’ for the extremely broad and intrusive inspection they have proposed. Accordingly, Applicant requests that Protestants’ Motion be denied, or in the alternative, that the size and scope of Protestants’ inspection be limited.”
A hearing on the protestants’ motion has yet to be scheduled.
SOS Attorney Sarah Baker said some of the specialists the protestants have recommended for the inspection may be able to identify endangered species living in karst features.
“That’ll be something we’ll be looking at as part of whether or not the permit and the facility meet the state law requirements,” Baker said.
Most federally-listed karst species are invertebrates like the Tooth Cave spider, which has only been found in Travis and Williamson counties. TCEQ spokesperson Andrea Morrow said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service filed comments regarding the possibility of endangered species near or on Jeremiah Venture’s proposed subdivision site and requested direct consultation with the applicant. Jeremiah Venture may consult directly with Fish and Wildlife, or it can utilize “optional enhanced measures” used by TCEQ over the Edwards Aquifer.
Professional geologist and cave biologist Andy Grubbs said there are no endangered karst species in Hays County, and it would be very difficult to prove that treated wastewater from the proposed facility would harm the Barton Springs Salamander. Grubbs, who also designs septic systems, warned that building many roads and houses over karst features alters the way water in the region usually moves through the ground, causing large amounts of it to concentrate in smaller areas.
“Suddenly, now you’ve got a drip off of a roof that’s falling in a concentrated manner on one place,” Grubbs said. “You have the street runoff concentrated, in concentrated flows, so these openings in the rock that were formerly filled with dirt that was not moving because the water was moving slowly, now suddenly you put concentrated water flow on them. What do you think’s going to happen? They’re going to wash open. So if you build your house where it’s sitting on one of these and the drip line of your your roof is dripping onto that, down the road you’re going to have a problem.”
Though he had nothing good to say about SOS, Grubbs said he supports the current SOS attempt, along with the other protestants, to examine the area of the proposed subdivision.
“In order to do a development of that size safely, you would need to do very detailed geophysical studies of the whole entire site, and what we know about karst is that it is not uniformly distributed over the landscape,” Grubbs said. “The reason that they want a wastewater treatment plant is because they want to do a city-style subdivision of high density on the recharge zone. And we have to ask ourselves if those are appropriate or not.”
Delton Hudson declined comment. Jeremiah Venture could not be reached for comment.
“There’s other issues about…ownership and control of the property that will come later in the hearing that I don’t want to talk about right now,” Baker said. “To me, (Jeremiah Venture is) kind of hiding behind the land owners.”
The contested TLAP case between Jeremiah Venture and the various protestants comes on the heels of the TCEQ commissioners’ decision to allow Hays County Water Control and Improvement District #1 to discharge treated wastewater from the Belterra development into Bear Creek. Protestants in that case also included Hays County, City of Austin and BS/EACD, all of whom would have preferred land application rather than direct discharge, the first of its kind in the contributing zone on the Edwards Plateau. City of Austin Attorney Trish Link said she is in consultation with city officials to decide whether to appeal the Belterra decision to the district court.
In January, Hays County Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle) motioned to seek party status in the contested case, along with the other protestants against Jeremiah Venture.
“We’re already talking about requiring (Jeremiah Venture) to do the highest level of treatment plant,” Barton said. “It’s a very, very high level of treatment — much higher than most city plants throughout the region, for example. So we’re talking about treating effluent to a very high standard. They’re talking about having safeguards in place. We want to make sure that there’s enough soil there and that there are protected zones around recharge features, and then be open to this idea of using wastewater in a creative way, because if you look at the kind of drought conditions we’ve got, we all have to begin preparing ourselves for more creative, more far-sighted uses of water. We can’t afford to flush wastewater down the toilet and never think of it again, we’ve got to find other ways to use it.”
After Smith decides whether to grant protestants access to the Hudsons’ property, there will be a number of hearings in Austin before Administrative Law Judge Roy Scudday. After Scudday submits a proposal for decision to the TCEQ commissioners, they will take his recommendation into consideration before deciding what revisions to the draft TLAP should be made, or the commissioners may withhold the final TLAP. A pre-hearing conference is scheduled for July 30 in Austin at the William P. Clements Building at 10 a.m., and a hearing on the merits is scheduled for August 3-6 at 10 a.m. Both hearings are open to the public.
Among the species thought to be endangered by a possible residential development west of Buda is the Barton Springs Blind Salamander.Email | Print