Comment

March 28, 2022

Office of the Chief Clerk, MC 105

Texas Commission on Environmental Quality

P.O. Box 13087

Austin, TX 78711-3087

COMMENTS TO TCEQ REGARDING “PRISTINE STREAMS PETITION”

A petition, styled as the “Pristine Streams Petition”, permit no. 2022-014-PET-NR, has been filed with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) requesting that TCEQ adopt a rule that would bar any discharges from TCEQ-permitted “waste” water treatment plants into 23 stream segments that monitoring has found to have very low “native” concentrations of phosphorus. The aim of this proposed rule is to keep these stream segments “pristine”, in regard to their phosphorus concentrations, and thus free of “excess” algae growth that it has been documented “waste” water effluent discharges into such streams will induce.

I agree that such a rule should be promulgated, in an attempt to accomplish its stated aim. This rule is truly the minimal effort that the State of Texas should consider in an effort to blunt degradation of water quality in the waters of the state. It is in fact rather astounding that it would take a petition to get TCEQ to consider such a rule, as protecting “pristine streams” from the sort of degradation due to “waste” water discharges that have been witnessed is really in the “no-brainer” category. But as is reviewed below, establishing such a rule really needs to be just the beginning point of a larger effort to improve the state of “waste” water management in the state of Texas, including – if not especially – in regard to the fate of this water resource that we mistakenly identify as “wastewater”.

You see, a very basic problem that plagues this societal function is that TCEQ insists upon viewing this function through the lens of “disposal of a nuisance”, when really what society needs – in this region in particular, with the looming water supply issues we face – is for us to address this function with a strong emphasis on “utilization of a resource”. As TCEQ appears to “understand” this function, it is required that a full-blown “disposal” system be in place before an applicant can even start to consider the resource value of the water and how best to reuse this water so as to defray demands on the “original” water supply.

The practical outcome of TCEQ’s insistence on the “disposal of a nuisance” focus is that it is difficult to design reuse into the very fabric of development, so as to practically maximize the reuse benefit of this water resource. Which is how we should be addressing this societal function, just as a matter of course.

Under the “disposal of a nuisance” construct, the permitting process is typically a two-part endeavor; first a permit for the “disposal” system, and then another permit to route this water resource to reuse. The “clunkiness” of this process is an open-ended “invitation” to applicants to just throw this water resource away, to just do the “disposal” system and not incur the extra work, and cost, of addressing the reuse part. That is why it has been witnessed that the majority of “land application” systems are in effect “land dumping” systems, with the effluent routed to “disposal fields” – where any irrigation benefit is just coincidental – as the manner in which to make this water “go away”. Indeed, in every reference to the Dripping Springs application to expand its dispersal fields, for example, the proposed fields are called “disposal” fields. Indeed, while Dripping Springs asserts that they intend to reuse their effluent rather than “dispose” of it, it appears that all their efforts to date indeed focus on “disposal”, with no actual reuse system infrastructure being apparent. This is a dynamic that has to be blunted, with the process reoriented to focus on the beneficial reuse of this water resource, if local society is to most effectively address its looming water supply crisis.

Then too it must be recognized that centralization of “waste” water issuing from miles around to one point source treatment plant is the whole predicate for even considering stream discharge as the fate of this water resource. Indeed it is a motivator to just discharge into a stream to “get rid of it”. Once the “waste” water has been gathered to that one point source, stream discharge will always be the “cost efficient” way to “manage” that flow (depending perhaps on whether TCEQ would assign effluent limits that would not degrade the receiving stream’s water quality, which it does not seem inclined to do), especially given the high cost that would already be incurred to gather that flow to the centralized point source. A large majority of the total cost of a conventional centralized “waste” water system is the cost of the collection system, investments that really do nothing but move the stuff around, not really contributing to resolution of the root problem of managing that water resource. So once a community has dedicated a considerable investment to making that water “go away”, they would be less than excited to incur a similar investment to redistribute this water resource from the centralized point source to points were it could be beneficially reused, often being back where the water came from in the first place!

So it is that we should be considering how we can decentralize the “waste” water system, to shorten the water loops so as to minimize the investment dedicated to just moving the stuff around, and better enable designing reuse of this water resource into the very fabric of development. But this runs afoul of TCEQ’s “regionalization” policy, stated in TAC Chapter 26.081. That this holds sway over the institutional infrastructure that addresses this societal function is attested to in Dripping Springs’ “moratorium” ordinance, which states that the city “understands” the conventional centralized system architecture to be the only form of “waste” water system infrastructure that is “blessed” by TCEQ. As if this is religion, not science and technology, so that no considerations of the form and function of that infrastructure that do not conform to the “Book of TCEQ”, Chapter 26, verse 081, is allowed to be countenanced. A moment’s reflection should be plenty to conclude that there is more than one way to skin this cat. But at present it appears that most of our institutional infrastructure will not countenance any such reflection. Again, as if this is religion.

The need for re-examining the infrastructure model is perhaps most critical in exactly the areas such as those where those 23 “pristine” streams lie. A major reason they remain “pristine” is because there has been little development in areas tributary to these streams. So these are places where we have a “blank slate”, where we are not beholden to sunk costs in the conventional centralized system architecture, so could readily entertain another infrastructure model. That was, for example, the situation in which Dripping Springs found itself, yet again they chose fealty to the “Book of TCEQ” over a rational consideration of the full range of options available to them.

One such option is a “decentralized concept” strategy. Cut to its most basic, the decentralized concept holds that “waste” water is most effectively and efficiently managed by treating, and reusing to the maximum practical extent, the “waste” water as close as practical to where it is generated. As noted, this approach would work with, rather than against, the whole idea of integrating reuse into the very fabric of development, as if management of this water as a resource from its very point of generation was a central point. Rather than considering that whole matter as something you might append on to redistribute the water gathered at the end of the pipe, as if the whole matter of this water being a resource was just an afterthought.

This “decentralized concept” idea has been out there for decades, having been the subject of many works considering the concept, much of it funded and conducted under the auspices of EPA. Indeed, a “finding” was issued by Congress in the 1990s that this general approach is a legitimate manner of addressing “waste” water management needs. It is generally understood among those who have chosen to examine this matter that the decentralized concept strategy has the potential to produce “waste” water systems that are more fiscally reasonable, more societally responsible, and more environmentally benign than those systems which implement the conventional centralized system architecture. But in practice any meaningful consideration of the road not taken has been blunted, so that good examples of such practice remain rather few and far between. In no small part due to such circumstances as “regionalization” being an “article of faith” in TCEQ.

However, in the context of “developing” areas, this matter has been presented to TCEQ, and to society’s various institutional actors – city administrations and utility operators, the engineering community, the development community, and the environmental community. An example of this was presented on the Waterblogue in 2014, entitled “This is how we do it” (https://waterblogue.com/2014/09/24/this-is-how-we-do-it/, considered to be part and parcel of this comment), showing in the context of one development in the Dripping Springs hinterlands how a reuse-focused decentralized concept strategy could work in that environment, in a manner that would not only integrate reuse into the very fabric of the development, thus maximizing ability to defray demands on the “original” water supply, but would also be more globally cost efficient than centralizing that development into a Dripping Springs “regional” system. The fiscal, societal and environmental advantages of this strategy were further reviewed on the Waterblogue in 2016, in the piece entitled “Let’s Compare” (https://waterblogue.com/2016/09/26/lets-compare/, considered to be part and parcel of this comment). This application of the concept was explicitly reviewed with TCEQ, and it was the conclusion of the folks with whom it was reviewed that this strategy could be permitted under current rules. So it could readily deliver those fiscal, societal and environmental advantages in many developments in the hinterlands, such as those that may be installed on or near the “pristine” streams, NOW.

So it is that there is ample reason to reconsider the “dogma” of “regionalization” and to consider the road not taken. In particular in areas where there is little sunk cost in the ground that must be respected going forward, such as the areas where, in the main, those 23 “pristine” streams are located. Reinventing the “waste” water system infrastructure model in those sorts of areas can deliver systems that are more fiscally reasonable, more societally responsible and more environmentally benign than would be attained by pressing down on the cookie cutter and spewing out the conventional centralized system architecture, without regard to the nature of the circumstances. TCEQ must examine this matter and consider how it can best serve the citizens of Texas in regard to how the “waste” water resource is to be managed, especially around those “pristine” streams.

So again, please do protect those 23 “pristine” streams from “waste” water discharges. This is simply a “no-brainer” thing to do. But also open up the whole process of planning for how growth and development will be managed in such areas, to take a long hard look down the road not taken. As that all the difference could make. [apologies to Robert Frost]

Respectfully submitted,

David Venhuizen, P.E.

Austin, Texas

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