Breaking: Developer nixes sewage plant on Barton Creek! Pending legislation would prohibit similar sewage permits.
AUSTIN – A Houston-based developer who planned to build a sewage treatment facility on Barton Creek withdrew his permit application on Wednesday, one day after intense opposition to his proposal was expressed at a public meeting held by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).
TCEQ issued a draft permit to developer Stephen Cleveland in March that would have allowed him to discharge 45,000 gallons of treated sewage into the Long Branch tributary of Barton Creek every day. Cleveland’s decision to withdraw his proposal represents one of the very few times that TCEQ hasn’t approved an application for a sewage discharge permit after receiving it.
“This was a rare win in our fight against sewage pollution,” said Brian Zabcik, wastewater campaign organizer at Save Barton Creek Association. SBCA has been organizing community opposition to the proposed sewage facility since 2017, when Cleveland filed his permit application.
SBCA held a press conference on Monday with local residents who live along Long Branch. Many landowners spoke against the permit at TCEQ’s public meeting on Tuesday night.
“We want to thank everyone who’s been involved in this fight,” said Clark Hancock, SBCA’s board president. “We especially want to thank Mr. Cleveland and his family for recognizing the importance of protecting water quality in the Barton Creek basin.”
In a Wednesday email to TCEQ, Cleveland wrote: “After hearing all the impassioned people in the meeting last night, our family has decided to ask that our application be withdrawn.”
Cleveland’s property is located at the intersection of US 290 and Sawyer Ranch Road, between Oak Hill and Dripping Springs. Sewage from his treatment facility would have flowed past many homes on Long Branch, starting with the Polo Club subdivision.
“The ponds along Long Branch in our neighborhood are home to an incredible array of aquatic life and wildlife,” said Beth McConnell, member of the board of the Polo Club & Rooster Springs Homeowner’s Association. “The ponds are also a treasured resource for our kids who fish, boat and swim in them. We’re grateful that Mr. Cleveland pulled his application. It was the right thing to do.”
“We are extremely pleased that the Cleveland family listened to the community’s concerns and opted for a no-discharge alternative,” said Kelly Davis, staff attorney with Save Our Springs Alliance (SOS). “However, there’s still much to be done in the bigger fight to keep our fragile Hill Country streams clean and clear for all to enjoy.”
Even after treatment, sewage discharge still contains high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, two of the key ingredients in lawn and garden fertilizers. When sewage is dumped into creeks and rivers, the extra nitrogen and phosphorus that it contains can produce huge algae growths that inhibit stream use by people and wildlife.
While TCEQ included a phosphorus limit of 0.15 milligrams per liter of treated sewage in Cleveland’s draft permit, this limit was still 15 times higher than the amount of naturally occurring phosphorus in Long Branch and Barton Creek.
“Mr. Cleveland shouldn’t have been able to file his application in the first place, and TCEQ certainly shouldn’t have been able to issue him a draft permit,” said Zabcik of SBCA. “But TCEQ’s standards for sewage discharge permits are so low that there’s nothing to stop someone from applying for another permit just like this one — and nothing to stop TCEQ from issuing it.”
The Texas Legislature is currently considering HB 4146, the Pristine Streams Sewage Discharge Ban, which would bar TCEQ from issuing new discharge permits to private developers on streams with extremely low levels of phosphorus. HB 4146 and its companion bill, SB 1747, would protect more than 40 stream segments across Texas, including Barton and Onion Creeks. (See attached factsheets.)
HB 4146 was approved by the House Environmental Regulation Commission in a unanimous vote on Wednesday. The bill must be approved next by the House Calendars Committee before it can move to a floor vote. SB 1747 has yet to be scheduled for a hearing by the Senate Water, Agriculture, and Rural Affairs Committee.
“Legislation that would protect the most pristine water bodies across Texas from future wastewater discharges is being stalled by a few powerful actors, but there’s still time,” said Davis with SOS. “We urge all Texans to contact their legislators and tell them you support HB 4146 and SB 1747.”
TCEQ announced Cleveland’s withdrawal of his application on Earth Day – a coincidence that many advocates noted. “On Earth Day, we rededicated ourselves to protecting the wonders of the natural world,” said SBCA president Hancock.