City, Cassadys will go to mediation on wastewater plant expansion permit

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By SHELLY WILKISON

Residents who live along the South San Gabriel River say they won’t be satisfied with the City of Liberty Hill’s Wastewater Treatment Plant until the treated wastewater being dumped into the river is of drinkable quality.

The City is seeking permission from Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to expand the treatment plant allowing it to treat up to 4 million gallons of wastewater a day — a significant increase from the current 1.2 million gallons per day permitted.

Last week, TCEQ approved an application for a contested case hearing on the issue, and granted standing to Terry and Sharon Cassady, who protested the City’s permit application.

The Cassadys’ home is less than one mile downstream from the discharge point. They say the discharge has made it so they can not use the river for recreational purposes.

While the City of Leander along with a group of residents that formed the Save Our San Gabriel Association also protested the permit and asked for a hearing, TCEQ found that only the Cassadys had standing. Their property was the only property that backed up to the river.

Liberty Hill City Manager Greg Boatright said a TCEQ department head suggested the City and the Cassadys go to mediation to determine if an agreement can be reached between the parties, avoiding a contested case hearing.

“This is a year-long process if it goes to a case hearing,” Boatright told the City Council Monday. “In the end, I feel like we will get the permit. But, it’s a good time for them (the Cassadys) to get something out of the process.

“Mediation gives the protester the opportunity to express concerns as well as what they hope to gain from the protest,” he said.

Sharon Cassady said this week that the only thing they want is for the water to be of a quality that would make it drinkable. “While the (test) samples showed better numbers than required (by state permit), it is still polluting the river,” Mrs. Cassady said. “We believe the specs are inadequate.”

The Cassadys, who first spoke to The Independent about the issue in June 2013, say the only time the water is not covered in a thick algae film from the effluent is after a heavy rain event. Even then, the water only appears somewhat clear for about one week.

“The plant is not designed to have a product that won’t damage the river,” she said.

Mrs. Cassady said she and her husband will meet with the City and a mediator, but in their minds there are only two remedies — improve the quality of the effluent to drinkable standards or completely reclaim the wastewater for other purposes and dump nothing into the river.

The City’s contracted engineering firm, Steger Bizzell, say the upgrades to the plant will result in a significantly cleaner product. In January, the City Council approved the firm’s recommendation to expand the plant from a 400,000 per day capacity to 1.2 million gallons using Ovivo’s MBR treatment system at a projected cost of $8.7 million.

“This will have stricter water quality requirements than the plant today, particularly when it comes to limits on phosphorus,” said engineer Perry Steger when he presented the plans to the Council for facility expansion. “An MBR plant is more compact, technologically advanced. We want to make sure the process surpasses effluent quality limits (set by TCEQ). We want a process that protects the environment, is easy to operate, has low maintenance andcomplies with the 150-foot buffer zone.”

Although the treated wastewater would not be drinkable, it could be used for landscaping purposes, Steger said.

Boatright said as the City continues negotiations with MUD 31 and 32 and the City of Leander to bring water to Liberty Hill, those agreements could include a provision for Liberty Hill to supply those entities with reuse water.

Boatright admitted that “conditions are prime for algae to grow in the current environment.

On most days, the water at the discharge point is extremely shallow. The location contains rocks that effectively trap the discharge.

Boatright said another option from the City’s perspective would be to discharge the effluent farther up the embankment so that the outflow runs through a more extensive natural drainage area before reaching the river.

Mrs. Cassady said the location where the effluent is discharged will not make a difference to her family and the residents along the river. It’s simply about the quality of the water being discharged.

“I know it’s expensive, but it can be done and should be done,” she said. “We just want the water to be clean.

“When water is so precious and emotional and a high dollar item, if they don’t treat it right, (the issue will always) be contentious,” Mrs. Cassady said.

“We have two end games — beautiful water or no water,” she said.

City officials along with their engineers have repeatedly stated that increased capacity in the plant is needed to deal with rapid population growth in the area. Already, the City has negotiated a number of contracts to provide wastewater service for several area municipal utility districts.

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