Brendan Gibbons / Rivard Report
Developers planning a subdivision of more than 2,300 homes in Comal County want to build a sewage treatment plant to discharge into one of the most pristine, spring-fed streams left in the Hill Country.
According to a permit application filed with state environmental regulators, up to an average of 500,000 gallons of treated sewage effluent per day could be headed for Honey Creek, which flows through Honey Creek State Natural Area on its way to the Guadalupe River.
“It’s so pure and clean right now and it’s so low in nutrients that it supports a really cool aquatic habitat,” said Andy Gluesenkamp, conservation director for the San Antonio Zoo and former state herpetologist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Though the wastewater would be treated before it reaches the creek, Gluesenkamp and others worry about how so much treated sewage – three-quarters of an Olympic-sized pool per day – would affect habitat for fish, salamanders, reptiles, birds, and other species that thrive in Honey Creek. Even small changes in water temperature and quality could drastically change the creek, they say.
“It’s just going to turn it into a cesspool,” Gluesenkamp said. “I’m not exaggerating here.”
Officials with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), the agency reviewing the developers' application, said any permit they receive would include pollutant limits that protect Honey Creek’s quality.
“The TCEQ considers the baseline conditions in the receiving stream, the physical and hydrological characteristics of the stream, water body uses, and the associated water quality standards that protect those uses,” TCEQ spokeswoman Marty Otero said in an email.
The treatment plant would treat all sewage that would come from the Honey Creek Ranch subdivision, which is set to be built on a private ranch on State Highway 46, the epicenter of growth in that part of the Hill Country. Silesia Properties is the partnership planning the subdivision.
State records show the managers of Silesia Properties are Terry G. Urbanczyk, Ronald D. Urbanczyk, and Kristin Urbanczyk Aljoe. Terry and Ronald Urbanczyk also run Urban Concrete Contractors in San Antonio, according to the TCEQ application.
None of the three returned phone messages left at their homes and Urban Concrete on Tuesday. David Graham, an engineer with South Texas Wastewater Treatment who compiled the permit application, also did not return a phone message.
According to the application, the treated wastewater from the plant would first flow into a dry streambed on what’s now the Honey Creek Ranch property before making its way downstream to Honey Creek.
Gluesenkamp said the discharge likely would not affect Honey Creek Cave, where the creek flows up from underground. The cave and springs that feed the creek help keep it at a relatively constant temperature – cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
That natural temperature control is part of what makes Honey Creek prime habitat for sensitive species, including the Cascade Caverns salamander, Eurycea latitans, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is reviewing for endangered species protections.
“Those things can’t handle wastewater at all,” Gluesenkamp said. “It’s going to be extirpated almost certainly.”
Because of the sensitivity to disturbance, Honey Creek State Natural Area is only open for guided tours that start at the adjacent Guadalupe River State Park. In the 1980s, the State acquired the 2,293-acre natural area, once a homestead for German immigrants.
Authorities at the park allowed the Rivard Report to visit Honey Creek on Tuesday to see why naturalists consider it an important sanctuary.
Despite drought conditions that have turned the nearby Guadalupe River into a series of lukewarm ponds, a steady stream of clear water flowed through the small canyon that forms Honey Creek.
The water flowed past rocks, stumps, and the roots of cypress trees. In some places, it gathered behind natural dams and formed pools filled with lily pads. In one pool, a water snake cut through the shallows, hunting minnows.
“It’s one of those little parts of Texas that are really beautiful that you can get to see what Texas looked like before anything was developed,” said Chief Petty Officer Joedy Yglesias, a Texas Master Naturalist and longtime volunteer with Texas Parks and Wildlife, who serves in the Navy in San Antonio.
The issue of how an influx of sewage lines and plants would affect beloved Hill Country oases is not unique to Honey Creek.
In Wimberly, a plan to build a sewage pipeline near Blue Hole Regional Park has drawn fierce opposition. In its last session, a Texas Senate committee considered a bill that would have limited treated sewage discharge into streams that flow into the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone.
“Every time this issue comes up, people who want to do the discharge say it’s going to be 100 percent foolproof,” Yglesias said. “We know that that never happens. Nothing’s foolproof.”