In Wimberley, a fight bubbles up over sewage and a beloved swimming hole
As the city in Hays County decides how to move forward with a wastewater treatment plant, residents worry that outsourcing services to a corporation could put the Blue Hole swimming area at risk.
* Correction appended.
In November 2012, more than 100,000 gallons of sewage spilled into Plum Creek near Kyle. The partially treated sewage was managed by a private company, Aqua Texas.
Now, about 18 miles away in Wimberley, a newly elected city council is considering hiring the same company to manage the city’s sewage system, halting the construction of a city-owned wastewater treatment plant.
The move has sparked uproar from residents who say they don’t trust the company. To some, Aqua Texas would open the possibility of expanded development, corporate greed and — most importantly — environmental harm to the beloved Blue Hole, a popular swimming hole and tourist attraction in the area.
After watching their neighbors in Kyle, Wimberley residents now worry a similar environmental accident could happen to the haven that drives the area’s tourism-based economy.
“If [Aqua Texas gets] a permit, they could put a pipeline of effluent — that means shit — right under Blue Hole,” Erica Fick, a Wimberley resident, said.
That’s because Aqua Texas, which already operates a treatment plant north of Cypress Creek, would need to build a pipeline to reach residents and businesses — and their raw sewage — on the opposite bank.
“You can imagine what would happen to that creek and Blue Hole if there were a leak. And Aqua Texas has leaks, we know that,” said Marilee Wood, a founding member of Friends of Blue Hole.
No one knows when the council will decide between local or corporate control of wastewater treatment. A vote was expected two weeks ago, but the issue was dropped from the meeting agenda at the last minute. The council agenda for a meeting on Thursday includes “possible action” related to the plant.
Boring under Cypress Creek isn't a legitimate concern, Bob Laughman, president of Aqua Texas said. Pipelines are a known technology, and anything built would have to meet construction regulations.
"It’s ironic, but if indeed there was a leak, the leak would go down, not up," Laughman said. "That’s certainly an emotional issue that they’ve brought up. The city’s going to have to go underneath the creek — that is a fact. But it’s not at all unusual for a pipeline to be bored under a creek.”
Aqua Texas has long been considered as an option for the city's wastewater plans. Opponents are now questioning the new city council's motives for pursuing it. They point to an email written one day after city council elections in May. Local rancher Scott Johnson wrote his new representatives — whose campaign war chests he had filled with a total of $1,000 — with a staunch demand.
“Stop sewer project immediately,” he wrote. “Amend collection system to connect to Aqua Texas.”
Johnson was referring to the city-owned treatment plant. The long-awaited project would install a proper municipal sewage system, replacing the aging septic tanks that service downtown businesses. After more than 30 years of on-and-off debate, previous city councils had moved forward with the project, to the relief of many main street business owners. Some businesses have resorted to port-a-potties as the deterioration of the septic system renders their toilets unusable.
The original city-owned plan included building a plant on the outskirts of Blue Hole Regional Park — on the side of the creek opposite Aqua Texas’ existing plant. Effluent would have been treated to a standard high enough to be used to water the park’s soccer fields, saving the city from using water from the already-strained Trinity Aquifer.
But the new council has so far shown more interest in Aqua Texas. And citizens are leading the fight to stop them — the citizen group No Aqua Texas had collected a petition of 1,700 signatures as of last week.
“For most people in town, it is quite an offensive solution to take one of our greatest assets and put a sewer pipe under it,” said Steve Klepfer, a former Wimberley mayor.
Mayor Susan Jaggers could not be reached for comment. In her "Mayor’s Corner" columns published in the Wimberley View, Jaggers wrote that she’s pursuing the more fiscally responsible option for the city. While still in the early stages, the city-owned plant was already over budget, she wrote, and it would be unwise to build a city-owned plant that would only service about 5 percent of citizens.
"It’s simple math,” Laughman said. "There’s no way you can build a facility that costs $3 million and have only 120 connections to pay for it. Aqua couldn’t do it, and the city couldn’t do it. You can’t make those numbers work.”
Aqua Texas is no stranger to the region. The company currently services about 2,000 people north of the creek in the Wimberley Valley and some city residents north of Cypress Creek.
According to Steve Thurber, another former Wimberley mayor, meetings with citizen groups over the years have repeatedly led to the same conclusion: Aqua Texas is not the way to go.
“If it goes to a private company like Aqua Texas, we lose all of our controls,” Thurber said. “The profits generated from the plant would go to Wall Street stockholders and not back to our city for reinvestment.”
Wimberley and Hays County have been the site of environmental battles for years. As one of the fastest growing counties in the country, Hays County is ripe with developers looking to take advantage of the expansion — growth Wimberley residents say they don’t want.
The county has seen its fair share of disputes over water rights. Companies like Electro Purification and Needmore Ranch have both applied for permits to pump water from the Trinity Aquifer, and both have come up against heavy opposition from residents hoping to preserve private wells and swimming holes.
“They’re all threats,” Allison Davis, a council member in favor of a city-owned plant, said. “If we don’t trust [Electro Purification] to act responsibly with our groundwater, why would we trust an even more powerful corporation?”
In an interview, Laughman said servicing Wimberley would not open the door to expanded development by Aqua Texas. Rather, Wimberley would be a wholesale customer of the company. But residents aren't convinced, pointing to an October 2016 letter to former Wimberley mayor Mac McCullough, Laughman wrote of the company’s desire to “aggressively fight for the right to provide service to Wimberley Valley.”
“Here we are, little old tiny Wimberley, that’s being pushed around,” Klepfer said. “We’re trying to stand up to an entity that can easily spend more money and defend its position than the city of Wimberley can. I think that in and of itself is a very dangerous place to go.”
Disclosure: Aqua Texas Inc. has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the elected status of Mac McCullough. The story also misstated the area that Aqua Texas serves.
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