From Austin to San Antonio, population in the Hill Country is growing like never before. More development means a lot more wastewater (aka sewage) that needs to go somewhere. Unfortunately, much of this development sits on top of the Edwards Aquifer, which provides drinking water to rural residents and recharges our springs.
At Save Barton Creek Association, we’re fighting to prevent the direct discharge of sewage into our creeks. Help us advocate for environmentally-friendly wastewater alternatives that benefit our land rather than contaminating our water.
Unfortunately, bills that would have banned the practice of Direct Discharge in the contributing zone to the Edwards Aquifer died in the 2017 Texas legislative session. We continue to build grassroots support to stop this practice.
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Wastewater Q and A
What’s the problem with direct discharge into Hill Country creeks?
Creeks in the Hill Country are often pristine and clear. They are some of the purest water bodies in the state. They also recharge aquifers (underground water bodies) that we depend on for drinking water and agriculture. The Edwards Aquifer is extremely sensitive to pollution. It recharges quickly which means there is little filtration of water as it moves into the aquifer from land and creeks. This same water ultimately comes up in natural springs and people’s wells.
Wastewater effluent (the product from a wastewater treatment plant) has undergone some treatment, but is not treated to drinking water standards and is not nearly clean enough to be dumped safely into our creeks. This effluent water contains high levels of nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorous) which cause algae blooms. These algae blooms are not only unsightly but through decomposition take up oxygen in the waterbody. The waterway may become hypoxic, causing fish and other aquatic life to perish. Algae also restricts light moving into the lower portions of the creek, altering habitat. These effects can reduce biodiversity even when a creek is not completely devoid of oxygen. At high levels, nitrogen is unsafe in drinking water, restricting transport of oxygen in the blood. This is especially dangerous for babies and young livestock.  Additionally, effluent water contains metals, pharmaceuticals, and many other chemicals from cleaning and body care products. The full effects of these products are not yet known.
Are there alternatives to directly piping sewage into our creeks?
Of course! Two alternatives available with the state permitting agency (TCEQ) are land application and beneficial reuse. In addition, there are other small scale alternatives including septic systems and newer decentralized technologies. Land application simply means spraying wastewater effluent over a dedicated irrigation field and allowing soil and plants to treat the effluent. Beneficial Reuse occurs when effluent is used on landscaping such as medians.
What is the precedent for wastewater management in the Hill Country?
Currently, it is illegal by state law to directly discharge sewage into creeks in the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer recharge zone. However, it is not illegal at the headwaters of these creeks that flow into the recharge zone (contributing zone.) Even so, to date, there have been no direct discharges in the contributing zone. Only one development holds a permit for discharge, but due to a negotiated settlement has not directly discharged since it began operation 10 years ago. This is why a proposed Dripping Springs direct discharge permit is such a big deal. It would change the precedent in the contributing zone of the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer.
 USGS Service, https://water.usgs.gov/edu/nitrogen.html