Hays County Commissioners Debbie Ingalsbe and Jeff Barton, left, listen as Texas State River Systems Institute Program Manager Eric Mendelman discusses watershed protection at last week’s Hays County Commissioners Court meeting. Photo by Sean Batura.
By SEAN BATURA
After being informed that the San Marcos River now appears on a draft state list of “impaired waters,” Hays County commissioners unanimously approved an interlocal agreement and pledged $3,000 for the development of a plan to protect the Upper San Marcos River Watershed from being polluted and otherwise damaged.
The interlocal agreement calls for contributions of $3,000 from the county, the City of San Marcos, and Texas State. The agreement has yet to be signed by the university or reviewed by the City of San Marcos. If all three parties agree, the language of the document obligates them to:
* Convene regular meetings between representatives of the three parties and representatives of other watershed related programs in order to enhance communications and coordination;
* Develop a watershed protection plan framework following United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guidelines; and
* Pursue grants and other resources to support a formal watershed protection planning effort that will include a public stakeholder process.
The $9,000 will go to Texas State’s River Systems Institute (RSI) for staff time and “to begin to assemble this plan as a framework,” said RSI Program Manager Eric Mendelman. The development of the watershed protection plan could take from 18-36 months.
Commissioners approved the interlocal agreement at their July 27 meeting, where Mendelman told them that the San Marcos River now appears on the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s (TCEQ’s) 303(d) draft list of priority impaired waters. However, the news likely did not affect the outcome of the commissioners’ vote, as no court member expressed disapproval of the plan.
Seven months ago, the city, county, and university amended a 2006 memorandum of understanding (MOU) to state their intention to create an Upper San Marcos River Watershed protection plan.
Mendelman said sampling at the San Marcos River yielded a reading of 406 micromhos for total dissolved solids (TDS), which resulted in the river being placed on the draft 303(d) list. Mendelman said elevated TDS in the river would have little or no affect on human health.
“Especially since the reading is at 406 and the standard’s at 400, so it’s just slightly above what the standard is,” Mendelman said.
However, Mendelman said elevated TDS may adversely affect aquatic wildlife in the river, including endangered species, of which there are eight in the San Marcos region of the Edwards Aquifer, Spring Lake and the upper four miles of the San Marcos River.
Dissolved solids in a water body are different than suspended solids, the latter of which may result from causes such as silt from construction runoff. Mendelman said elevated TDS is not typically caused by human beings.
“So it’s very likely naturally occurring, although that’s only speculation — all that needs to be verified,” Mendelman said.
According to the draft 2010 Texas 303(d) List, Sections 303(d) and 303(a) of The federal Clean Water Act requires states to identify water bodies “for which effluent limitations are not stringent enough to implement water quality standards, and for which the associated pollutants are suitable for measurement by maximum daily load.”
Mendelman said the Guadalupe Blanco River Authority (GBRA) will probably do the final round of testing to determine whether the river should be included in the final 303(d) list. Mendelman said direct measurement of TDS involves lab work and is expensive, whereas indirect measurement of TDS can be done on-site using a relatively inexpensive probe. The indirect probe method yielded the preliminary TDS reading. Mendelman said there is no indication that the city or university will have to pay for the final reading.
“If a 303(d) … goes forward and the river is put on the final list, then we’ll need to do a watershed protection plan or a total maximum daily load, which will basically set up a plan for solving that problem,” Mendelman said.
Mendelman said a final 303(d) listing for the river would not likely result in restrictions on recreational uses of the river, and would probably not involve the city, county, or university expending more funds to reach compliance with the Clean Water Act.
“So what that 303(d) listing does, though, it puts us on a priority list to receive (federal) funds,” Mendelman told county commissioners. “So, the interlocal (agreement) and the 303(d) listing put us in a really good position. Something that — we really weren’t in this position even four months ago.”
Mendelman said funds for the development of the watershed protection plan may be available via the federal Clean Water Act 319 nonpoint source pollution program. The funds would be passed through TCEQ.
Asked how much federal funding the three parties could receive for development of the watershed protection, said Mendelman: “That varies depending on the scale of project we want to take on. A gross generalization would be $50,000 to $500,000.”
If approved, federal funds would be available in September 2011, though RSI plans to look for money this year so it can engage a public stakeholder group in the watershed protection planning process. Mendelman said the city, county, and university may need to extend the interlocal agreement and possibly renew it at the same funding level to create the watershed protection plan, because federal funds may not be consistently available.
Watershed protection plans are often used to restore impaired watersheds. In this case, the city, county, and university intend the plan as mostly a preventive measure, though ongoing problems in the river include the presence of invasive species and silt buildup.
Though it is too early to predict what measures the plan may recommend, some possibilities include establishing more green space within the city and the county, encouraging better water stewardship practices in neighborhoods, more strict construction runoff controls, stronger storm water rules, more coordinated education programs for students about their affect on the river, and education programs for landowners regarding proper disposal of pesticides, lawn care chemicals, and other substances that can leach into the aquifer and end up in the river.
Mendelman said the public stakeholder process will involve as many members of the public as possible, such as representatives from the real estate industry, developers, the San Marcos Greenbelt Alliance, recreational users of the river, and the San Marcos River Foundation.