Hill Country streams are low-nutrient environments, and wastewater discharges alter those environments drastically. We are pleased that the TCEQ approved a rare contested case hearing for Liberty Hill’s wastewater plant’s permit renewal. From Hondo Canyon and the Nueces River to the Blanco River, Barton Creek, and the San Gabriel, impacts from wastewater threaten sensitive habitat. Recent applications and contested cases have touched many of the prized, clear water creeks across Texas.
Full details and discussion in the press release from No Dumping Sewage Coalition, Friday, October 8, 2021:
AUSTIN — Texas’s environmental agency has decided that a hearing must be held on the renewal of Liberty Hill’s sewage discharge permit. While hearings on existing permits are rare, agency officials note that the city has a history of noncompliance with its permit. Massive growths of algae have blanketed the South San Gabriel River downstream from the city’s sewage treatment plant ever since TCEQ permitted the facility in 2015. Liberty Hill is located 15 miles west of Georgetown in Williamson County.
Commissioners of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) voted on Wednesday to approve requests from several local landowners for a contested case hearing on Liberty Hill’s permit renewal. The hearing will be conducted by a judge in the State Office of Administrative Hearings (SOAH). A preliminary hearing is generally held within two months after authorization.
This will be the first contested case hearing on a sewage permit application in Central Texas since a 2018 hearing on a proposed permit for Dripping Springs. TCEQ chair Jon Niermann said during Wednesday’s meeting that five residents who live within one mile of Liberty Hill’s discharge outlet had been approved as affected parties who can participate in the hearing. Niermann also identified another seven residents who live within three miles who could be added to the case at the discretion of the SOAH judge.
“Clearly the honor system isn’t working with Liberty Hill,” said Stephanie Morris, one of the affected landowners. “As long as paying fines for violations costs less than running its sewage plant responsibly, the city will continue to choose the cheaper option and consider it the cost of doing business. Why invest in responsible sewage treatment when it’s much cheaper for the city to use downstream neighbors’ property for the final phase of treatment, for free?”
Niermann explained that a contested case hearing can be held if the permit holder hasn’t complied with its permit. He added that Liberty Hill has received two formal enforcement actions from TCEQ since the agency issued the city’s current permit, as well as multiple informal enforcement actions. Most of these actions have been for operational failures.
Despite TCEQ’s focus on noncompliance, the most visible problem with Liberty Hill’s sewage has been caused by the minimal pollutant limits that the agency set when it issued the city’s existing permit. Massive blankets of Cladophora algae have clogged the South San Gabriel River almost continually since the plant’s current permit went into effect six years ago.
As many studies have shown, algae blooms occur in streams with higher than normal levels of phosphorus and nitrogen. These substances, also known as nutrients, are used in many lawn and garden fertilizers. In streams, they fertilize the growth of algae, which is also a plant.
Phosphorus and nitrogen are created as byproducts of the sewage treatment process itself. High levels of nutrients in treated sewage generally don’t produce algae growths in streams with a high and steady volume of water. But when nutrient-rich sewage is discharged into streams with low or intermittent flow — such as the South San Gabriel — algae can grow out of control.
According to a sampling study conducted by Baylor University professor Ryan King in August 2020, the naturally occurring level of phosphorus in the South San Gabriel is less than 0.01 milligrams per liter. The permit that TCEQ issued in 2015 has allowed Liberty Hill to discharge treated sewage that contains up to 0.5 milligrams of phosphorus per liter — more than 50 times what’s already in the river. The draft renewal permit that the agency issued earlier this year would lower the phosphorus limit to 0.15 milligrams per liter — still 15 times more than the amount of naturally occurring phosphorus in the South San Gabriel.
“Liberty Hill is the worst offender for sewage pollution in the entire Hill Country,” said Brian Zabcik, spokesperson for the No Dumping Sewage coalition. “The region’s population is continuing to soar, meaning that even more sewage will be discharged into the pristine streams that make this area such a beautiful place to live. And that means we’ll also see more huge algae blooms that will prevent people from swimming and fishing in these streams.”
Zabcik added, “Liberty Hill is the worst sewage polluter now, but it won’t be the last, unless TCEQ adopts better standards for wastewater treatment throughout the Hill Country.”
The No Dumping Sewage coalition is composed of groups and individuals organized to stop sewage pollution in Hill Country streams and aquifers by promoting the use of better wastewater management. The Wimberley Valley Watershed Association is one of the member groups.