Residents object to City’s plan to increase wastewater discharge

Sharon Cassady stands on the bank of the South San Gabriel River just below her home. The once pristine waters where her grandchildren use to swim are now thick with algae. On a day following recent rainfall, she was able to point to dark, murky areas near the bank that were bubbling. (Photo by Shelly Wilkison)

Sharon Cassady stands on the bank of the South San Gabriel River just below her home. The once pristine waters where her grandchildren use to swim are now thick with algae. On a day following recent rainfall, she was able to point to dark, murky areas near the bank that were bubbling. (Photo by Shelly Wilkison)

By SHELLY WILKISON

Helpless, trapped, cheated, angry and sad.

Those are the words Sharon Cassady used to describe how she and her family feel about the City of Liberty Hill’s plans to increase the amount of treated sewage they pump into the South San Gabriel River behind their house.

Mrs. Cassady and her husband, Terry Cassady, recently urged the Liberty Hill City Council to reconsider plans to increase the discharge from 1 million gallons per day to 4 million gallons per day.

The Cassadys were responding to a public notice they received from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality regarding the proposed change in discharge.

The treated sewage is discharged into the river about a half-mile away from their home. In recent years, they have noticed a change in the clarity of the water, an offensive odor and an impact on plant life and fish.

Terry Cassady, an environmental engineer who now teaches algebra at Burnet High School in Burnet, said the drought has exacerbated the conditions replacing the once pristine shallow waters with a thick algae that exudes a rotten egg odor.

The Cassadys bought their home on nine acres with river frontage 13 years ago. Mrs. Cassady said she had always dreamed of living on a river. And until three years ago, her children and grandchildren enjoyed swimming and fishing in the clear, shallow waters.

The Cassadys live downstream from the point of discharge. They say there is a clear difference in the quality of the water just above the discharge point.

Jackson Cassady, their son who now resides in Oregon, put together a video comparing the river above the discharge point to the river below it, closer to his parents’ home. (See the video)

“I have noticed significant changes in the river since the plant went online,” he said. “It is easy to see the lack of algae growth above the discharge. What is not evident in the video and pictures of the river below the discharge is the smell of rotten eggs produced by bacteria commonly used in the treatment of wastewater.

“The water below the discharge point appears murky and clogged and sustains bubbles on its surface. Most of the bubbles come from hydrogen sulfide gas, a seriously toxic substance, released by bacteria in the sludge,” he added.

Jackson Cassady, who has spent many years fishing the river near his family’s home, said he has not noticed any fish kill.

“One concern I’ve had is that the algae chokes the flow and increases sedimentation and buildup of scum on the river bottom,” he said. “Many species need clean gravel bottom to make nests. If you wander the river, you’ll see the bare circles they (the fish) clear and guard. My guess is that the polluted water isn’t helping their plight.”

Aaron J. Laughlin, an engineer with the City’s contracted engineering firm Steger Bizzell, said the plant has strict effluent limits.

“The existing permit for the Liberty Hill Regional Water Treatment Plant has effluent permit limits of 5.0 mg/L for BOD5 (biochemical oxygen demand), 5.0 mg/L for TSS (total suspended solids), 2.0 mg/L for NH3-N (ammonia-nitrogen), and 0.5 mg/L for phosphorus,” he said.  “The proposed amendment to the permit will not change these effluent permit limits. To my knowledge, this plant has the most strict effluent permit limits of any wastewater plant in the entire State of Texas.”

The City of Liberty Hill purchased the wastewater treatment plant in 2012 from the Lower Colorado River Authority. The plant, which came online in 2008, continues to be managed by the Brazos River Authority.

Laughlin said the City needs to upsize the permitted discharge to meet contractual obligations to six other entities including city wastewater customers. He said the amended permit will also allow for future growth in the area.

“The requested permit flow limit of 4.0 MGD is based upon current and projected wastewater demands for the City of Liberty Hill, as well as contractual obligations the City has to provide wastewater service to six other entities: Stonewall Ranch, MUD 12, MUD 13, Rosenbusch Tract, MUD 19 and MUD 19A,” he said.

“In total, the plant capacity required to serve the City and these six other entities is 3.6 MGD.  The City is applying for a total discharge permitted flow of 4.0 MGD to accommodate this required plant capacity and to allow for future growth in the City,” Laughlin said. “Upsizing the permitted flow from 1.2 MGD to 4.0 MGD is crucial to meeting the goal of regionalization for wastewater treatment in this area.”

Mrs. Cassady said when the plant was first proposed by LCRA in 2008, her neighborhood in Leander was opposed.

“When the plant was first proposed in 2008, the neighborhood organized against it,” Mrs. Cassady said. “After futile efforts to communicate with TCEQ, we realized there was nothing we could do without hiring an attorney, and we couldn’t do that.”

At that time, she said plant facilitators “showed us a glass of water and we were told that’s what we would get out of the plant. Now, it (the water) is so thick you can hold it in your hand.”

Mrs. Cassady said they spoke to the Liberty Hill City Council during the public comments portion of the regular meeting May 27 because they didn’t know where else to turn.

“We only have you (the Council) to turn to because this is your plant,” she said. “I realize this is a huge thing and you are under pressure from developers, but the fact is this is your plant and there is something you can do.

“It’s your duty to make the water look like what was shown to us in that glass of water,” she said.

The Council may not communicate with speakers during the public comments period.

“I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect them (the City) to correct the problem as it exists today, but I asked them not to compound it with increased discharge,” said Terry Cassiday.

Mrs. Cassady said a Georgetown science class tested the water and found ecoli bacteria near the discharge site.

“I don’t know if it’s safe or not,” she said. “But this is not the same river. Algae never existed here before this.”