Study finds lightly regulated wastewater plants polluting Edwards Aquifer
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Updated: 11:49 p.m. Monday, Nov. 21, 2011
Published: 9:23 p.m. Monday, Nov. 21, 2011
Dozens of lightly monitored wastewater plants west of Austin are degrading the waterways that feed Barton Springs, according to a report commissioned by the Save Our Springs Alliance and San Antonio-based Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance.
The report — which builds on City of Austin data and a 2008 report by the U.S. Geological Survey — concludes that the state has been too lax in monitoring and issuing permits to small utility districts that serve communities such as West Cypress Hills in western Travis County. As a result, the amount of treated wastewater pollutants seeping into the Barton Springs portion of the Edwards Aquifer has increased fourfold since 2003, according to the report.
"The (state) is all over the map in terms of the permitting standards for these facilities," said Lauren Ross, the engineer who compiled the report, which was released Monday. With pollutants leading to algae blooms that clog portions of what were once clear Hill Country streams, "a unique part of the Hill Country character is just not the same as it was," Ross said.
Terry Clawson, a spokesman for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said the organization would have no comment until officials review the report.
City of Austin officials said the report's methodology is sound. Edward Peacock, a supervising engineer in the Watershed Protection Department, said that the report's core conclusion — that the environmental commission needs to more tightly regulate the wastewater plants — is shared by the city.
"There are definitely some improvements that need to be made" to outdated state rules, Peacock said.
The report examined 67 small to midsize wastewater plants, most of them operated by utility districts for semirural subdivisions not served by the Austin or San Antonio water utilities. Those plants sit over the contributing or recharge zones of the San Antonio and Barton Springs portions of the Edwards Aquifer, which runs from Southwest Austin to San Antonio. The plants dispose of wastewater by using it for irrigation.
By law, wastewater plants are required to separate the solids and treat sewage for pathogens. But the plants are not required to treat wastewater for metals, pharmaceutical chemicals, soaps, detergents or pesticides.
Ross found that only two plants appear to be submitting required soil monitoring data to the environmental commission, and only three are required to monitor downstream pollution levels.
When Ross took the limited downstream monitoring and extrapolated it across all of the plants in question, the results matched the increased pollution levels observed by the city and the U.S. Geological Survey.
In 2003, about 1.7 million gallons of wastewater were discharged into the Barton Springs portion of the Edwards Aquifer through this type of irrigation. In 2010, 7.2 million gallons were discharged.
Ross said the situation would be aided by more strict permitting standards and consistent monitoring — for instance, by requiring the plants to spread irrigation water over larger areas to avoid saturation in one area.
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