As we grow, streams and rivers need TLC

Forum shows waterways can’t absorb runoff from all development

There were four of five things going on in town last Thursday that I wanted to attend. Typical night in the busy ’Burg, huh? One of them I had to let pass was a forum at Schreiner University dealing with water pollution sponsored by the Hill Country Alliance.

Fortunately, Texas Public Radio recorded and archived the talk, which can be found at www.tpr.org/post/balancing-population-growth-and-healthy-rivers-texas.

Ann Rogers Harrison, water quality program leader with Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, served as moderator. Panelists included: Skye Lewey, Nueces River Authority, who has worked on our river cane problem; Chris Herrington, City of Austin Watershed Protection Department; Mary Stone, landowner and vice-chair of Texas Real Estate and Advocacy Coalition, and Nathan Pence, science lead with the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority.

With all of the development going on in the Hill Country — particularly nearer to San Antonio, but also here in the higher hills — we should keep an eye our waterways. The growth obviously is not going to stop and, as they pointed out in the forum, many smaller governmental entities are not prepared to deal with the number of wastewater permits. That being the case, many are allowed to drain directly into streams and rivers.

Sewage (wastewater) treatment plants are great, but then they send that water — at various levels of treatment — into the streams. Natural filtration through limestone, land and plants does well, but it can’t do everything. And sometimes, the treatment plants aren’t enough either.

These are the streams we rely on for water supplies, recreation and economic activity. So, we want to keep them clean while we welcome new residents and businesses.

A permit from the TCEQ to discharge into a water body is judged on its effects on aquatic species and humans. Treated effluent can be treated to a stringent level with newer technology. And Fredericksburg has a clean discharge, we learned at a wastewater treatment plant tour.

E-coli isn’t as bad a problem with newer UV treatments, the panelists said, but phosphorus levels can be a killer. It can cause algal blooms which can be accelerated with runoff of everyday fertilizers. Raw sewage spills and floods can also negatively affect streams and rivers, as was seen during the recent rains. That can turn someone’s dream home by a stream into a nightmare.

As more people move to come to the Hill Country, land is more expensive and wastewater demands grow. That affects the way the land can filter or house a treatment plant.

Herrington said science should guide decisions, whether with TCEQ or other policies. Permits should take the science into account as not every permit looks the same because of flow or topography.

Stone added that getting money to fund this science is another matter altogether. There is a “culture of poverty” in groundwater conservation districts, and dollars for science are few and far between. Stone said additional money would have to come from the legislature.

Stone also said landowners should have a stronger voice in these decisions. We agree with that, as traditional landowners are the best stewards of the land in most all cases.

“We’re growing too fast and this area is too special,” Herrington said. “We have to start managing the best way we can to keep that Hill Country character that we love.”

Lewey spoke to the pristine conditions near the source of springs that can be found in these parts: “These rivers are too small and too clean to discharge into them. If you put effluent in them, something’s going to change.”

That’s pretty much a recipe for negative change, at best, or ruination, at worst. These waterways cannot absorb and filter all the pollutants left by rapid development, she said.

Conservation also will play a big role in keeping waterways healthy, and alternative uses for new developments are being brainstormed.

Plenty of people remember Austin suburbs Pflugerville, Round Rock and Georgetown when they were small towns surrounded by hay and cotton fields. Similarly, older folks remember Orange County, California, in the 1950s when it was a sea of orange groves as opposed to its present-day sea of rooftops. We hope Hill Country development will be slower and smarter.

Thanks to the Hill Country Alliance and the Texas Water Symposium for putting together these talks.

Folks who were raised here and those of us who are move-ins should advocate for keeping our streams and rivers as pristine as possible. And, yes, we are all busy, but we need to continue to pay attention. Our waterways are just a few of the things that make this Hill Country area so special.

 

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