Austin looking to join Dripping Springs wastewater permit fight

A decision on giving the city of Austin affected party status in the fight over Dripping Springs’ wastewater permit was deferred Monday by the State Office of Administrative Hearings (SOAH) to a later date.

Dripping Springs’ wastewater permit calls for the authorization of discharge of treated domestic wastewater at a daily flow not to exceed 995,000 gallons per day into Walnut Springs, a tributary of Onion Creek.

The permit has been at the center of community concern after research showed a direct link between Onion Creek and recharge of the Edwards Aquifer. 

For the city of Austin, a conservation easement giving officials authority to monitor the environmental impact of Onion Creek was the key document in its hopes to receive party status.

“The purpose of the easement is to maintain the health that exists on the property, including without limitation, protecting native plant life and wildlife communities,” said Chris Herrington, water resource evaluation section manager at city of Austin watershed protection department. “The discharge point is at Walnut Creek and downstream to our easement.”

Herrington said the city had conducted studies that analyze a direct connection between the discharge point to the aquifers, which they believe gives Austin merit to be involved with the case hearing.

However, the city of Dripping Springs’ legal team maintained the discharge point is not located within the Austin city limits or its extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ).

Alfred Albert, who received affected party status, has land located near the discharge point, which also connects to the city of Austin’s conservation easement.

David Groom, a real estate attorney and expert in Texas real estate law, said Austin does not have the right to reach affected party status, citing that an easement is just a contract and does not give the city authority over Alfred Albert’s land.

Despite the disagreement between both parties, the city of Austin’s legal team cited that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s (TCEQ) rules and guidelines for affected party status simply call for a party that is directly affected to be considered.

“The discharge affects the city of Austin because Onion Creek is a recharge zone for the aquifers,” Herrington said. “We have conducted numerous studies with the surrounding water districts that show this direct correlation.”

The meeting marked the first hearing through SOAH in Dripping Springs’ attempt to receive the wastewater permit. After nearly four hours of deliberation, SOAH did not take any action on naming Austin an affected party. 

The decision by State Administrative Judges Bill Newchurch and Laura Valdez marks a stalemate for the City of Austin.

“We will just assume that the city of Austin has status for the sake of planning, but we will conduct a review of the information to decide in the near future,” Newchurch said.

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