Bee Cave, Watered Down

“I am the Lorax.  I speak for the trees.”


So spoke the hero of the famous Dr. Seuss tale about the wanton destruction of his land’s forest resources by the Once-lers, intent on their profit and convenience of the moment.  Around here, we have the “Once-through-lers”, who seem intent on the wanton destruction of our land’s water resources, for their profit and convenience of the moment.  And just like the trees in the Dr. Seuss tale, no one speaks for the water.


A most excellent example of this is being played out around Bee Cave right now.  A recent article in the Statesman reviewed how the West Travis County Public Utility Agency (WTCPUA) – the new entity that recently took over the wastewater system there from LCRA – has come to the realization that, with development activity in the area picking up steam, they do not have enough capacity to accommodate all the developments that have requested service or are expected to request service in the near future.  The situation was posed as a “crisis”, that development will go begging for service until capacity can be increased.


As the article relates it, the WTCPUA has considered only a conventional centralized sewer system to provide wastewater management for these developments.  Without having evaluated any other options, they are making plans to extend and expand the capacity of the existing conventional centralized sewer system.  As a result, the fate of the wastewater, once treated at the centralized plant, would be spreading upon land set aside for that purpose, to make it go “away”.  A water resource, addressed solely and exclusively as if it were a nuisance, used “once-through” and then thrown away, truly wasting this water.  Wanton destruction of water resources!


It just so happens that I have a perhaps unique perspective on this matter.  A couple months ago I was contacted by a real estate broker, who is marketing some properties around Bee Cave, to talk about creating stand-alone wastewater systems on those properties.  He contacted me because he knew that I advocate a “decentralized concept” wastewater management strategy.  The basic idea of that concept is to address this water as a resource right from its point of generation, and to maximize the beneficial reuse of this water to defray non-potable water demands on or near the project generating the wastewater.  Which is to say, centering “waste” water management on water management, not on making the resource misperceived as a nuisance to go “away”.


This broker knew of the difficulties being faced by proposed developments in the Bee Cave area which are queuing up for service.  Since delaying development would cost development interests (including him) money, he wanted to know if decentralized concept systems might be used to allow development to proceed without having to await the sewer system expansion.  This broker also asserted that Bee Cave is facing a water supply crisis, that it did not have sure access to supplies that would support continuing the rapid pace of development in this area.  All the more reason to manage all water as a resource there, rather than to so gratuitously throw it away.


The broker identified 4 projects he perceived as wanting to begin building in the near term, but asked me to focus on only one of them, a 19-acre tract a bit west of the Hwy. 71-Hamilton Pool Road intersection.  The landowner has been led to believe that the “right” price for this property is $2 million, or about $105,000 per acre.  For raw land with no services.  The “basis” for this was an “expectation” – because “Bee Cave needs more apartments” – that at least 300 apartments could be built on this property, simply because, the broker asserted, a yield of 15-16 units per acre was what the apartment project “needs” to yield to justify the land cost.  He asked me to evaluate if a wastewater system serving that many apartments could be installed on the property.  Essentially the question was, would there be enough land that could be used as landscaping on which the effluent could be dispersed, to irrigate it with a subsurface drip irrigation system?


Walking the property, it was observed that Limekiln Branch, a tributary of Little Barton Creek, runs all along its frontage on Hwy. 71.  The land adjacent to the creek was flat, and would most likely need to be protected as floodplain.  Upon checking the Bee Cave stormwater/water quality ordinance, it was found that this creek would require a buffer zone to be preserved along it, regardless of the extent of the floodplain.  So right off the bat, at least some of this lowland along the creek could not be built upon.


The rest of the property rose from this lowland, as a fairly sharp bluff toward the easterly end, and much more gently toward the westerly end.  Approaching the back fence of the property, the land flattened out into a “shelf”, the only part of the property having a character that seemed to my eye “appropriate” for the sort of intensity it was asserted “should” cover the whole property.


Rough calculations were done to estimate the impervious cover that would be required per apartment unit – the apartment building, parking spaces, drives and access/circulation roadways.  This was compared with the 40% impervious cover limit imposed by the City of Bee Cave.  On that basis, not due to limitations imposed by the wastewater system, it was estimated that perhaps 130-175 units might “fit” on this property, depending on various factors, such as how many stories the apartment buildings would have.  And only then was it observed that there may indeed be sufficient area for drip irrigation dispersal fields for that many units, but probably not for many more than that, given the nature of this particular tract.  It was suggested that perhaps the character of this property was not well suited to being plastered fence line to fence line with apartments, that perhaps higher value development, maybe condo townhomes, maybe with a commercial center out by the highway, would be a more “appropriate” land use plan there.


That evaluation was not well received.  No way, the broker asserted, could the property command $2 million if the desired yield of apartments could not be realized.  The broker had a deal, a big commission, on the line.  He said that “people like you don’t understand the market”.  His point seemed to be that the one and only determinant of what “should” be developed on this particular piece of property was the very circumstance that a market is perceived for apartments in and around Bee Cave.  The common “understanding” in his office was that it was only the wastewater management concept that would not allow the unit yield “needed” on that property.  That, it seemed, led them to conclude that wastewater generated on this property simply HAD to go “away” – to be wasted.  It was all about the deal of the moment.  No one was speaking for the water.


But before it came to that with this broker’s office, one of his agents, who is friends with the Bee Cave mayor, arranged an audience with the mayor, also attended by the city administrator and the city planner.  The concept of managing wastewater as a water resource rather than as a nuisance was presented, showing how to practically do this with point-of-use treatment and reuse.  They were shown how this would focus a majority of the fiscal resources on utilization of this water resource to defray non-potable demands, rather than on running pipes all over the countryside to make a perceived nuisance to go “away”, and how this sort of strategy would be less costly, both to the developer and to society at large.  It was a cordial audience, they listened, asked relevant questions.  They suggested that some of the other developers with wastewater needs be contacted.


A few inquiries were made.  No response, so I let it lie.  It was a long shot as I saw it, lacking any “enthusiasm” on the city’s part, to get a developer to “bite”, so dogged persistence did not seem merited.  Then that article came out in the Statesman.  It was suggested to some of our local environmental activists who are concerned about water in the Hill Country, and to a few “water friendly” politicians that their “crisis” could be our opportunity to press for Bee Cave to at least consider water management strategies that focus on the resource value of the water.  The “carrot” being that a decentralized concept wastewater system could grow “organically” with the development, rather than having to all be installed – and paid for – up front of putting the first house on the ground.  This would relieve their “crisis” – since capacity could be installed on an as needed, or “just in time”, basis – while saving money for both the developer and the general public.


That communication was then copied to the mayor, city administrator and city planner.  The mayor responded, saying she thought the idea had merit.  But rather than asking the WTCPUA to consider it, she suggested again that I, unilaterally, go to the developers and try to get them to – on their own, without “sponsorship” by WTCPUA – consider a wastewater system concept not recognized as an option by the controlling institutions, despite its fiscal and water resources benefits.  Because of that, again such a unilateral outreach to a developer was considered to be a long shot.  But I attempted to contact the developers the mayor identified.  Again, no response.  The activists and politicians were advised that this may be an opening, and were asked for assistance in making the contacts.  No response.


But I did dig up some details on the developments.  These indicate that every development being planned out around Bee Cave has its plan rooted in the presumption that its wastewater would indeed go “away”.  It’s like they see that as an entitlement!  That the WTCPUA simply had to extend a line to their property.  (And, one expects, the raw land prices these developers incurred were predicated on a unit yield that presumed this sewer service.)  It appears this is a deeply rooted mindset, the water must go “away” – to be wasted – or it will hurt “the deal”.


But a crude evaluation – not knowing the explicit character of each property – indicates that a decentralized concept strategy could be used on at least some of those developments without reducing the planned number of units.  For example, in the largest development investigated, only 23% of land area would be required to house drip irrigation fields, out of the 60% minimum total pervious area required by the Bee Cave ordinance.  With appropriate design, utilizing front yards, parkways, medians, greenbelts and common areas, it can be reasonably expected that a workable system could be installed.


So indeed it appears the opportunity may be sitting right there to save water while also saving money.  Again, the monetary savings would be attained by: (1) eliminating all those pipes, and lift stations too, that would do nothing but move the stuff around, (2) allowing the wastewater system to be built only as required to serve imminent development, and (3) saving the money not spent to produce and deliver water to make up for what would otherwise be wasted.


However, with the WTCPUA appearing ready and willing to take the wastewater “away”, the developers would not likely be too keen on “encumbering” their projects with reclaimed water irrigation systems, even if the green space was there, even it if will be irrigated in any case.  Without WTCPUA taking over long-term operations, the developers would be very loath to consider a decentralized concept strategy, regardless of whatever savings in up front costs might be realized.


But we can all fully understand how the developers, and their agents like that broker I dealt with, would take the view that it is their deal which is of paramount importance.  If that entails the wanton destruction of water resources, that’s not their immediate concern.  They generally want the least hassle service plan that they deem affordable.


The catch, of course, is that the conventional centralized plan may only be “affordable” if these developers are allowed to externalize some of their costs to society.  Society will pay in the long run for the value of the water wasted, day after day, year after year, by the conventional centralized, make-it-go-“away” wastewater service plan.  Anyone who doubts that, consider that this region is predicted to be importing water in the not too distant future, which will be very expensive – and paid for by the public.  Also, WTCPUA would quite likely raise rates on all its customers to cover the bonded indebtedness it would incur to install the system expansion it needs to serve these new developments, and for the increased on-going operational costs, so local society would also pay directly in the short term.


What is harder to understand is why agents of the public interest would take the view that wasting water is just fine.  Shouldn’t the public expect that those agents would be open to even extraordinary efforts to avoid that, given the water realities of this region?  But they show no indication of interest.


First there is WTCPUA, and all its participating entities.  One suspects that they perceive they can only get the revenues from these developments if they provide conventional centralized sewer service.  That’s their “deal of the moment”.  They also understand they’d have to deal with regulatory issues if they were to “sponsor” a decentralized concept management strategy.  It can be reasonably argued that those issues can be favorably resolved, but this effort is no doubt seen as “inconvenient”.


The regulatory issues exist because another one of our institutions, TCEQ – which should be an agent of the public interest – also focuses on its “deal of the moment”, defending rather than rationalizing its rules.  It runs a rule system that sees wastewater management as being ALL about “disposal” of a perceived nuisance.  These rules do not allow reuse to be contemplated until a fully developed “disposal” system is in place.  TCEQ would most definitely have a great deal of heartache about the very idea of a distributed, rather than a centralized, wastewater system, as it goes against its “regionalization” policy.  It appears it would be “inconvenient” to wrap their heads around the fact that water is fundamentally a resource, and so to regulate on that basis.


Then there are the engineers that work for WTCPUA, who – if that entity were to ever consider its full range of options for the form and function of a wastewater system – would be called upon to inform it of its options and advise it on the merit of each.  No doubt they have on the line sizable contracts to plan, design and permit the sewer system expansion.  This “deal of the moment” would seem to make moving to a decentralized concept strategy rather “inconvenient” for them.


Just like the developers, then, all these people too appear to be focused on their deals of the moment.  So it is that an opportunity to change the paradigm, to begin managing water resources as if water and the environment matter is quite certain to slide on by, because all these “Once-through-lers” are focused on their short-term profit and/or convenience.


And no one speaks for the water.

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