Commission Agrees with Landowners: Lower Nutrient Limit Necessary to Protect South Fork San Gabriel River

Lauren Ice Wastewater, Water Pollution

Following the recommendation of two Administrative Law Judges at the State Office of Administrative Hearings (known as a “Proposal for Decision” or “PFD”), in late March the TCEQ Commissioners found that a lower limit for Total Phosphorus is necessary to prevent degradation of water quality and excessive algal growth in the South Fork of the San Gabriel River.

For the last several years, the South Fork San Gabriel has been a science experiment about what happens to freshwater streams in Central Texas when they are loaded with nutrients from wastewater effluent, namely Phosphorus and Nitrogen. The City of Liberty Hill has discharged treated wastewater into the River since 2012, and in recent years, the River has become unusable and unsightly due to excessive algal growth.

The City applied to renew its wastewater permit with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in 2018. A number of landowners along the River, including PAI’s client Stephanie Morris, protested the renewal and were granted a contested case hearing on the Application and Draft Permit at SOAH. In July of 2022, a hearing on the merits was held before Administrative Law Judges Meitra Farhadi and Rachelle Robles, during which the City of Liberty Hill failed to show that the 0.15 mg/L effluent limit for Total Phosphorus in the Draft Permit would be protective of water quality in the River. The ALJs formulated a Proposal for Decision for the TCEQ Commissioners which was favorable to the landowners, stating that the Draft Permit would not be protective of the water quality in the River “because it would allow significant increases in nutrient pollutants to be discharged” into the River, resulting in algal blooms and impairment of the uses of the River.

The TCEQ Commissioners at an open meeting in February 2023 remanded the matter back to SOAH for a second hearing on the merits directing parties to present additional evidence as to what Total Phosphorus limit is necessary to comply with the Texas Surface Water Quality Standards. The second hearing on the merits was held in July 2023, and the ALJs issued a Supplemental Proposal for Decision on Remand in November 2023, recommending that the Total Phosphorus limit necessary to comply with the Standards was 0.015 mg/L.

The Commission considered the PFDs and ultimately set the Total Phosphorus limit at 0.02 mg/L, which amounts to a major victory for the landowners who have been working to protect the South Fork San Gabriel for years. A copy of the Commission’s Final Order and Permit are available below. Read more about the landowners’ experience in this Austin American-Statesman article and about the Commission’s decision in this follow up article, both by Claire Osborn and featuring PAI’s Lauren Ice and our client Stephanie Morris.