Motherless in Bee Cave

“I am the Lorax.  I speak for the trees.”

 So spoke the hero of the famous Dr. Seuss tale about the wanton destruction of his land’s forest resources by the Once-lers, intent on their profit and convenience of the moment.  Around here, we have the “Once-through-lers”, who seem intent on the wanton destruction of our land’s water resources, for their profit and convenience of the moment.  And just like the trees in the Dr. Seuss tale, no one speaks for the water.

 A most excellent example of this is being played out around Bee Cave, a fast-developing community in the Texas Hill County, just west of Austin.  An article in the Austin American-Statesman reviewed how the West Travis County Public Utility Agency (WTCPUA) – the entity that recently took over the wastewater system there from the Lower Colorado River Authority – has come to the realization that, with development activity in the area picking up steam, they do not have enough capacity to accommodate all the developments that have requested service or are expected to request service in the near future.  The situation was posed as a “crisis”, that development will go begging for service until capacity can be increased.

 If, as the adage goes, necessity is the mother of invention, then it would appear they are motherless in Bee Cave. That is because, as the article relates it, the WTCPUA’s mental model can only accommodate a conventional centralized sewer system to provide wastewater management for these developments.  Without feeling any necessity to evaluate any other options, they are making plans to extend and expand the capacity of the existing conventional centralized sewer system.  As a result, the fate of the wastewater, once treated at the centralized plant, would be spreading upon land set aside for that purpose, to make it go “away”.  A water resource, addressed solely and exclusively as if it were a nuisance, used “once-through” and then thrown away, truly wasting this water.  Wanton destruction of water resources!

 It just so happens that I have a perhaps unique perspective on this matter.  I was contacted by a real estate broker, who is marketing some properties around Bee Cave, to talk about creating stand-alone wastewater systems on those properties.  He contacted me because he knew that I advocate a “decentralized concept” wastewater management strategy.  The basic idea of that concept is to address this water as a resource right from its point of generation, and to maximize the beneficial reuse of this water to defray non-potable water demands on or near the project generating the wastewater.  Which is to say, centering “waste” water management on water management, not on making a resource misperceived as a nuisance to go “away”.

 This broker knew of the difficulties being faced by proposed developments in the Bee Cave area which were queuing up for service.  Since delaying development would cost development interests (including him) money, he wanted to know if decentralized concept systems might be used to allow development to proceed without having to await the sewer system expansion.  This broker also asserted that Bee Cave is facing a water supply crisis, that it did not have sure access to supplies that would support continuing the rapid pace of development in this area.  All the more necessity to manage all water as a resource there, rather than to so gratuitously throw it away.

 One of the broker’s agents, who is friends with the Bee Cave mayor, arranged an audience with the mayor, also attended by the city administrator and the city planner.  The concept of managing wastewater as a water resource rather than as a nuisance was presented, showing how to practically do this with point-of-use treatment and reuse.  They were shown how this would focus a majority of the fiscal resources on utilization of this water resource to defray non-potable demands, rather than on running pipes all over the countryside to make a perceived nuisance to go “away”, and how this sort of strategy would be less costly, both to the developer and to society at large.  It was a cordial audience, they listened, asked relevant questions.  They suggested that some of the other developers with wastewater needs be contacted, but indicated no interest on the city’s part to even discuss the matter with WTCPUA.

 A few inquiries were made.  No response, so I let it lie.  It was a long shot as I saw it, lacking any “enthusiasm” on the city’s part, to get a developer to “bite”, so dogged persistence did not seem merited.  Then that article came out in the Statesman.  It was suggested to some of our local environmental activists who are concerned about water in the Hill Country, and to a few “water friendly” politicians that their “crisis” could be our opportunity to press for Bee Cave to at least consider water management strategies that focus on the resource value of the water.  The “carrot” being that a decentralized concept wastewater system could grow “organically” with the development, rather than having to all be installed – and paid for – up front of putting the first house on the ground.  This would relieve their “crisis” – since capacity could be installed on an as needed, or “just in time”, basis – while saving money for both the developer and the general public.

 That communication was then copied to the mayor, city administrator and city planner.  The mayor responded, saying she thought the idea had merit.  But rather than asking the WTCPUA to consider it, she suggested again that I, unilaterally, go to the developers and try to get them to – on their own, without “sponsorship” by WTCPUA – consider a wastewater system concept not recognized as an option by the controlling institutions, despite its fiscal and water resources benefits.  Because of that, again such a unilateral outreach to a developer was considered to be a long shot.  But I attempted to contact the developers the mayor identified anyway.  Again, no response.  The activists and politicians were advised that this may be an opening, and were asked for assistance in making the contacts.  No response. It appeared no one wanted to speak for the water.

 But I did dig up some details on the developments.  These indicate that every development being planned out around Bee Cave has its plan rooted in the presumption that its wastewater would indeed go “away”.  It’s like they see that as an entitlement!  That the WTCPUA simply had to extend a line to their property.  (And, one expects, the raw land prices these developers incurred were predicated on a unit yield that presumed this sewer service.)  It appears this is a deeply rooted mental model, the water must go “away” – to be wasted – or it will hurt “the deal”.

 However, a crude evaluation – not knowing the explicit character of each property – indicates that a decentralized concept strategy could be used on at least some of those developments without reducing the planned number of units.  For example, in the largest development investigated, only 23% of land area would be required to house drip irrigation fields, out of the 60% minimum total pervious area required by the Bee Cave ordinance.  With appropriate design, utilizing front yards, parkways, medians, greenbelts and common areas, it can be reasonably expected that a workable system could be installed.

 So indeed it appears the opportunity may be sitting right there to save water while also saving money.  Again, the monetary savings would be attained by: (1) eliminating all those pipes, and lift stations too, that would do nothing but move the stuff around, (2) allowing the wastewater system to be built only as required to serve imminent development, and (3) saving the money not spent to produce and deliver water to make up for what would otherwise be wasted.

 However, with the WTCPUA appearing ready and willing to take the wastewater “away”, the developers would not likely be too keen on “encumbering” their projects with reclaimed water irrigation systems, even if the green space was there, even it if will be irrigated in any case.  Without WTCPUA taking over long-term operations, the developers would be very loath to consider a decentralized concept strategy, regardless of whatever savings in up front costs might be realized.

 We can all fully understand how the developers, and their agents like that broker I dealt with, would take the view that it is their deal which is of paramount importance.  If that entails the wanton destruction of water resources, that’s not their immediate concern.  They generally want the least hassle service plan that they deem affordable.

 The catch, of course, is that the conventional centralized plan may only be “affordable” if these developers are allowed to externalize some of their costs to society.  Society will pay in the long run for the value of the water wasted, day after day, year after year, by the conventional centralized, make-it-go-“away” wastewater service plan.  Anyone who doubts that, consider that this region is predicted to be importing water in the not too distant future, which will be very expensive – and paid for by the public.  Also, WTCPUA would quite likely raise rates on all its customers to cover the bonded indebtedness it would incur to install the system expansion it needs to serve these new developments, and for the increased on-going operational costs, so local society would also pay directly in the short term.

 What is harder to understand is why agents of the public interest would take the view that wasting water is just fine.  Shouldn’t the public expect that those agents would be open to even extraordinary efforts to avoid that, given the water realities of this region?  But they show no indication of interest. Again, it appears that no one will speak for the water.

 First there is WTCPUA, and all its participating entities.  One suspects that they perceive they can only get the revenues from these developments if they provide conventional centralized sewer service.  That’s their “deal of the moment”.  They also understand they’d have to deal with regulatory issues if they were to “sponsor” a decentralized concept management strategy.  It can be reasonably argued that those issues can be favorably resolved, but this effort is no doubt seen as “inconvenient”.

 The regulatory issues exist because another one of our institutions, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) – which should be an agent of the public interest – also focuses on its “deal of the moment”, defending rather than rationalizing its rules.  It runs a rule system that sees wastewater management as being ALL about “disposal” of a perceived nuisance.  These rules do not allow reuse to be contemplated until a fully developed “disposal” system is in place.  TCEQ would most definitely have a great deal of heartache about the very idea of a distributed, rather than a centralized, wastewater system, as it goes against its “regionalization” policy.  It appears it would be “inconvenient” to wrap their heads around the fact that water is fundamentally a resource, and so to regulate on that basis.

 Then there are the engineers that work for WTCPUA, who – if that entity were to ever consider its full range of options for the form and function of a wastewater system – would be called upon to inform it of its options and advise it on the merit of each.  No doubt they have on the line sizable contracts to plan, design and permit the sewer system expansion.  This “deal of the moment” would seem to make moving to a decentralized concept strategy rather “inconvenient” for them.

 Just like the developers, then, all these people too appear to be focused on their deals of the moment.  So it is that an opportunity to change the paradigm, to begin managing water resources as if water and the environment matter is quite certain to slide on by, because all these “Once-through-lers” are focused on their short-term profit and/or convenience.

 And no one speaks for the water.


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8 Comments on “Motherless in Bee Cave”

  1. Curt Dyer Says:

    David I think you are a brilliant man, don’t give up the fight. it is a shame that the organizations and people in control are afraid to see the writing on wall. I find your articles informative and well written.

  2. Melissa Puntenney Says:

    I think he’s correct that unless ALL of us realize that this water is a resource that our very lives depend on, and stop wasting it, learn to recycle it, re-use it, conserve it, we are one day going to be up a creek with no paddle OR water.

    • waterbloguer Says:

      Thanks, Melissa. Anyone who looks at the matter holistically can see the “correctness” of running our “waste” water systems as reuse systems rather than “disposal” systems. Problem is, that pretty much excludes all of our controlling institutions, who remain prisoners to mental models rooted in the conditions considered paramount in the 19th century.

  3. Barbi Says:

    I’m married to this genius engineer. David has never given up ‘speaking for the water’ in spite of dead ends and deaf ears.
    We know this is a water-challenged area. The old ways are failing to protect the water we have left. It’s time to find new ways which serve us and our environment.

    I’m so proud to be married to this man. He’ll never give up the good fight. His systems are sustainable ways to protect what should be thought of as a precious resource, more valuable than gold.

    What he proposes is the ‘highest and best use’ of a precious resource – one which can NOT speak for itself; WATER.

    As Dr. Seuss (Theodor “Ted” Seuss Geisel) said shortly before his death in 1991,when someone asked if there was anything left unsaid, Ted replied, “The best slogan I can think of to leave with the USA would be, ‘We can……and we’ve got to…do better than this.”

  4. Brandi Says:

    I know it is frustrating to keep having so many dead-end conversations but I certainly appreciate you making the efforts to educate others about smarter alternative

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