San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

August 28th, 2014
Mishap spills 15,000 gallons of raw sewage into the river

SLIDESHOW: [1] Flash floods last winter wrecked Cape’s Dam on the San Marcos River, originally built more than 160 years ago by an early settler. The diminished structure was a pitiful sight in January when this photo was taken, months before the property was donated to the city for use as parkland. MERCURY PHOTO by BRAD ROLLINS. [2] Lost in the soothing roar of falling water, a sunbather perches on the northern tip of Thompson’s Islands during a late summer afternoon in 2012. For decades, the dam was the gateway to a secluded hangout for locals willing to risk trespassing citations to escape crowds of tourists on the river’s uppermost stretch. MERCURY PHOTO by JAMIE MALDONADO


An estimated 15,000 gallons of raw sewage poured into the San Marcos River yesterday morning after construction workers broke a 20-inch-diameter wastewater main near Thompson’s Islands.

At about 7:45 a.m. Wednesday, contractors preparing a construction site on River Road for the forthcoming Woodlands of San Marcos development breached one of two wastewater force mains that connect a major lift station at the apartment property’s edge to the city’s nearby wastewater treatment plant.

Public works crews arrived within 10 minutes of the break and labored for 2.5 hours to stop and contain the spill, city spokesperson Trey Hatt said. Despite their efforts, between 20,000 and 25,000 gallons of untreated wastewater escaped the broken main and an estimated 15,000 gallons of the sewage made it into the river, the spokesperson said.

The spill was not significant enough, however, to make river water unsafe for humans or wildlife downstream of the spill, said Tom Taggart, executive director of the city’s Public Services division.

“This amount should not pose additional river quality concerns downstream. Crews worked quickly and diligently to stop as much wastewater as they could from reaching the river,” Taggart said.

Last January, Mayor Daniel Guerrero and a majority of the city council approved Athens, Ga.-based Dovetail Development’s request for rezoning and land use designations to build a 306-unit, 1,000-bedroom apartment complex on property locally known as Cape’s Camp. As part of the deal, Dovetail Development donated nearly 20 riverfront acres to the San Marcos Parks & Recreation department. The gifted acreage includes Thompson’s Islands, a heavily wooded property that lies between the river’s main channel and a mill race built in the 1850s to power a cotton gin.

Following city council’s approval of the project, the Woodlands property sat idle for more than a year as the developer successfully sought the blessing of Federal Emergency Management Administration officials for a plan to elevate the complex’s footprint out of reach of the 100-year floodplain.

On Feb. 11, City Hall issued a construction permit allowing an estimated $713,000 in site preparation work to Doucet & Associates, the Austin-based firm serving as the project’s civil engineer, records state. At the contractor’s request, the alignment of the wastewater main and other underground utilities were marked by city workers before work began, Hatt said.

The city will bill the developer for the cost of repairs to the broken main and for the expense of containing and cleaning up the spill, Hatt said. Under state law, the city must report the incident to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality which has the authority to conduct its own investigation and levy a fine if its enforcement unit determines one is warranted.



Sewage spill notification to TCEQ [pdf]

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32 thoughts on “Mishap spills 15,000 gallons of raw sewage into the river

  1. 20,000 gallons is a relatively small amount and it sounds like remediation efforts were swift and thorough. The developer will foot the bill for this mistake, as they should.

    Heck, I would be willing to bet that drunk tubers collectively “contribute” around that amount of waste into the river each and every day of the summer…..and life goes on…..

  2. This happening right before Float Fest? Makes you wonder if it wasn’t on purpose. I understand how some people feel that tourist are a bother, but they are what drives our economy, along with the students. Instead of getting upset about tubers, volunteer and go out to help clean up the river.
    It is not the first time we have water contamination caused by city workers, who is in charge of the team in the first place, and why if not any disciplinary action taken against them. A job is a job, you mess up this big, you get written up and document it.

  3. I remember when Holland was rebuilt work was slowed because the city discovered utilities were not where old plan maps showed them to be. I heard similar stories about LBJ. I bet this was the case here.

  4. Wow, I can hardly wait to see what other Best Management Practices Dovetail Development comes up with next. Meanwhile, if anyone thinks that 20,000 gallons of untreated sewage is a small amount, drink it!

  5. Just a little frame of reference:
    Fifteen-thousand gallons is not much in terms of river flow, even in these drought conditions. (Depending on whose engineers you believe, it is not even much in terms of longterm parking lot runoff, etc. that could make its way into the river post-construction if the Woodlands’ drainage and retention systems are not adequately maintained for the life of the development).
    In 2010, I covered the spill of 1 million gallons of partially treated wastewater into Plum Creek after a lift station malfunctioned at an Aqua Texas-operated treatment plant in eastern Kyle. Ten miles or more downstream — on the other side of Texas 21 — I went wading in the mucky creek water with the TCEQ inspector. There were dozens of dead fish floating everywhere. Two years later, the same plant spilled 100,000 gallons of partially treated wastewater into the same creek.
    As sewage spills go, the one yesterday in San Marcos was not a catastrophe. I see it more as a warning about the need to treat development near the river with the delicacy it deserves.
    I am tubing today with my sister and brother-in-law who are visiting from out of town. Don’t know if we’ll make it that far — they are not semi-pro river rats like me — but I wouldn’t think twice about floating downstream of the spill today.
    All this for what it’s worth — just wanted to add to the conversation.

  6. Brad,

    Thanks for the input.

    Can you speak to the speculation that the broken pipe may have been related to inaccurate City maps of the underground utilities’ location?

  7. Re read the article before you blame the city workers (it was a developer construction crew) or the maps (the city has an excellent GIS department).
    “The alignment of the wastewater main and other underground utilities were marked by city workers before work began at the contractor’s request, Hatt said. (Meaning that the excavator called 811 to request locates as per state law)

    The city will bill the developer for the cost of repairs to the broken main and for the expense of containing and cleaning up the spill.” (as they should since the excavator did not exercise safe excavation practices near a marked underground facility.)

    The City of San Marcos has one of the best underground utility damage prevention programs in the state of Texas. “Know What’s Below, Call 811 Before You Dig”

  8. Sounds like Doug knows exactly what happened. So a worker exercised unsafe evacuation practices near a marked facility. How does this happen? What was unsafe about it? He used to big of a shovel? Just curious?

  9. Just one more benefit of development. If it wasn’t this they probably would have cut an electrical main or petroleum pipeline. Maybe they don’t some other developer will.

  10. I’m going to backtrack and say that I don’t have all the facts in this case. By law, the utility marks the approximate location of the underground facility and designating with paint markings on the ground (green marks in this case). The excavator is then required to verify the markings on the ground and determine the precise location of the underground facility using safe and acceptable means (ie: shovel or vacuum excavation) and without damage. If the markings were not verified as accurate/inaccurate by the excavator and the line was ruptured by mechanized equipment (backhoe, etc.) in the course of construction, that Could indicate an unsafe excavation practice. The article mentions that the line was marked ahead of construction as requested by the excavator. Just sayin’ 🙂

  11. I suggest a class action lawsuit large enough to bankrupt the project. Good riddance, this community does not want, or need any more developments on the river.

  12. The facts that this spill is less than potential parking lot runoff and is less than hundred thousand-to-million gallon spills don’t make me feel a whole lot better. The idea is to keep as much of that stuff out of the river as we can and as often as we can. That needs to be top priority regardless of policy or execution or the people involved.

  13. @Dano: I do not know anything one way or the other on whether the city was accurate about where the underground utilities lie. I’ll put in a request for report filed with the TCEQ which might have more detail about what went wrong than what I’ve been able to get so far.
    @Daniel P: I agree that the San Marcos River does not need Shit Creek as a tributary, whether it’s a million-gallon shit creek or a 15,000-gallon shit creek. My information is obviously anecdotal and far from the last word on the subject. However, it seems to me that this sewage spill, considered in a vacuum, sounds worse than it was. Having said that, it is certainly troubling if the spill could have been easily prevented and more troubling still if this potential near-miss is not seriously and soberly heeded as a learning opportunity.
    @Jon Stokes: No damages, no lawsuit. At least not a successful one.
    There are plenty of things going on in this city worthy of your indignation. I do not file this sewage spill in that category. Now, if you want to talk about the bigger picture and how this fits into it … that conversation is worth having but, for me, not worth having this particular evening.

  14. The fact that the city is billing the developer for the cleanup indicates that the utilities were properly marked. If you follow the “call before you dig” rules and they fail to mark the correct locations, the liability for the damage is on the entity that failed to mark. If they mark them correctly and you hit them anyway, the liability is on you.

  15. For reference, 15,000 gallons is about the amount of water that a 25 foot round by 4 foot deep above-ground swimming pool holds….a proverbial “drop in the bucket” (no pun intended) compared to the river itself, even in drought stages.

    And as a side note….why it it always referred to as “raw” sewage? Is there a “cooked” variety?

  16. Brad, glad we agree about this issue and the fact that there are plenty of things going on here that are worthy of our indignation; however, I *do* file this sewage spill as one of them. In fact, it *looks and smells* way too much like a lot of things about which I am indignant. As for a cooked variety of sewage: Today’s special is Dovetail Stew served in a 25×4’bowl. Bon Appetite, Dano.

  17. All the above comments I’ve read say…No big deal, it was just ” a little bit”. A little bit of waste? In our river? Our river can only withstand so much. A “little bit” here and a “little bit” there… With trashy students, waste dumping, street runoff, La Cima, Camp’s Camp, Sessom Creek, The Retreat…. our river is slowly…no scratch that…rapidly being destroyed and we sit here and say, “Oh, it’s ok…it was just a little bit.” I want to thank Daniel Guerrero and his fellow cronies on the city council for adding just “a little bit” more to the destruction of our river….AND our town. I, for one, am more than “a little bit” sick of it.

  18. 15k gallons may be a drop in the bucket… but how about you get your kids out in that mess?

    Raw sewage isn’t just pee and poo. It’s also amounts of solid waste (condoms, toilet paper, feminine products, etc.)

    So, yeah, head on out downriver and get you some of that ‘drop in the bucket.’

  19. I find it amazing that the developer construction crew, or whomever, is only “expected to be billed for the cost of repairs to the broken main and for the expense of containing and cleaning up the spill” and not heavily fined as well… I mean I am glad they are “cleaning” it up, but there isn’t much deterrent to really try REALLLLLLY HARD not to have this keep happening…

  20. Kate: Except for the first word in your post, what you said is perfect.
    Citizen: Absolutely right on.

    Brandy: You raise a great point regarding deterrence. Under my rule, spilling stuff (e.g raw or cooked sewage) in the San Marcos River would be a capital offense… that and lobbying by former public officials or professional lobbyists. Beyond that, I’m negotiable.

    Brad: The report is interesting. Pity that TCEQ isn’t potent enough in this case. See my comment to Brandy for details. It also estimates the spill to be larger, so it looks like Dano gets a bigger bowl of stew.

  21. Per report 20,000 to 25,000 gallons spilled and 10,000 to 15,000 recovered so the story is accurate.

  22. I pity those who are so eager to try to make a point that they would ignore the obvious difference between “ecologically significant” and “I would want to go wade in it”…….but then again, we’re also talking about people who consider spilling something in the river to be a “capital offense”.

    Overreact much?

  23. Dano, your question regarding raw and cooked sewage made me think you might have a sense of humor, and now you have to go and post *this*. I hear they have it at the Outlet Mall….

  24. Dano, I realize I haven’t been very nice to you, so to show I’m a reasonable guy, let’s make a deal. I’ll stop reacting when: 1) spills like this stop happening, 2) developers stop building in flood plains and other inappropriate areas, 3) the city council, p&z, commissioners court, et al, start making smarter decisions, and 4) you stop being an apologist for just about every development that comes down the pike. If you can just do number 4, I’ll be a whole lot nicer! Besides, Dovetail * already has* lobbyists and PR people, so please stop taking food out of their mouths.

  25. It would be interesting to quantify the affects of dog poop near the river and compare that to this spill.

  26. The Float Fest on Sun. probably had a much greater negative impact on the future water quality of the river than the approx. 15 K gal spill of untreated wastewater.

  27. And the other ones that sully the banks: like rabbits, possums, Texas State, raccoons, grackles, diapers, vultures, tourists, herons, mockingbirds, squirrels, cardinals… Now you guys are talkin’

  28. Yep, when it all comes down to it, man is part of nature and the “damage” that he causes isn’t really all that much more than any other animal….it’s just that certain members of the human race have the odd compulsion to fret about it more than other animals do…..

  29. Yeah, those wacky animals and their agricultural and industrial pollution, shame on them! If I didn’t know better, I’d figure that you don’t think human excrement stinks, especially you own.

  30. I lived in San Marcos from 78 to 86 and the students in the geography dept. used that area to party with our professors ,those were the day’s! But to see that land used for development just makes me ill. I agree with Jon Stokes opinion.I now live in Atlanta & let me tell ya you better check out how many 2nd growth oaks ,cypress, pecan and other tree’s will be cut down,because here in GEORGIA, they clear cut everything !!!;to make it easier to develop when there’s no trees!!!! BE careful San Marcos !! your beauty is in danger because of these peoples greed and money. Think about 2000 +people in that area right on the river this is bullshit!!

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