Sewage from homes and businesses in urban areas is typically piped to wastewater treatment plants, where some pollutants and harmful microorganisms are removed before the treated wastewater effluent is disposed of or reused.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) regulates wastewater disposal in Texas.
There are two general types of TCEQ wastewater permits for large facilities.
- A discharge permit enables treated effluent to be discharged directly to a creek or lake.
- A land application permit enables treated effluent to be irrigated on the ground in specific dedicated disposal areas and does not allow a direct discharge to a waterbody.
With either type of permit, a separate authorization can be obtained from TCEQ that enables the treated effluent, or reclaimed water, to be reused for beneficial purposes like toilet flushing, dust suppression or landscape irrigation. Reuse of effluent is an important water conservation tool in Central Texas, because the effluent is used in place of potable water withdrawn from the Highland Lakes that are susceptible to drought.
Treated wastewater has very high concentrations of nutrients relative to natural levels in Hill Country streams. Scientific studies have demonstrated that direct discharge of wastewater to Hill Country streams can have dramatic negative impacts on water quality, including large algae blooms that can impair the recreational use of water bodies and can harm aquatic life. Land application of wastewater effluent in the Hill Country is environmentally-preferred, but is becoming prohibitively restrictive now that more land application facilities are reusing their effluent for beneficial purposes off-site such that their dedicated disposal fields are not fully utilized.
In some places, like within 10 miles of Lake Travis or over the recharge zone of the Barton Springs Segment of the Edwards Aquifer, discharges are prohibited by TCEQ and land application is the only option for wastewater disposal. In the past, there have been attempts by entities other than the City of Austin to modify or remove these important environmental limitations on discharge, or to convert land application facilities to discharge facilities, to provide a more cost-effective means for the permit holder to dispose of wastewater.
Now the City of Austin is proposing a new rule to TCEQ that, if adopted, would add another option for managing wastewater in Texas. The new rule would enable land application permittees to take credit for their beneficial reuse authorizations against the area of land that would otherwise be required for dedicated disposal of wastewater effluent, while adding some important environmental protections for beneficial reuse of effluent utilized for this credit.
The City of Austin is working with other governmental entities and wastewater permit holders in the region to develop the proposed rule, which is planned to be submitted to TCEQ on March 14, 2016. More information, including draft documents and meeting announcements, will be posted here as it becomes available.