From left, John Blackwell, Margo Denke Griffin, and Charles Blackwell look across their property line at a dam built by their neighbors as part of a planned Christian youth camp.
(from left): John Blackwell, Margo Denke Griffin, and Charles Blackwell look across their property line at a dam built by their neighbors as part of a planned Christian youth camp. Credit: Brendan Gibbons / Rivard Report

TARPLEY – Charles and John Blackwell stood at the edge of their property with their neighbor Margo Denke Griffin and pointed out the clear water pouring across their land in Commissioners Creek.

“You can always see the bottom,” Charles Blackwell said of the creek, which in several spots teemed with minnows darting among aquatic plants.

Commissioners Creek is vital to the Blackwells, two brothers who raise around 18 cattle on property that’s been in their family for more than 100 years. Rising from springs on the side of a steep slope, the creek flows 5 ½ miles through sparsely populated ranches before joining with the larger Hondo Creek downstream.

Now the creek is at risk, they say, from a Christian youth camp next door that’s under development. Its owners, Sam Torn and his son Chris, are seeking a permit from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to discharge a maximum of 49,000 gallons per day, on average, of treated wastewater into Commissioners Creek.

Margo Denke, left, and John Blackwell greet one of Blackwell's cattle at their ranch near Tarpley.
Margo Denke and John Blackwell greet one of Blackwell’s cattle at their ranch near Tarpley. Credit: Brendan Gibbons / Rivard Report

Treated wastewater effluent is the water that remains from the sewage treatment process. This effluent can often be much cleaner than water in a polluted creek or river. But many in the Hill Country say the region’s creeks are so crystal-clear that the nitrogen and phosphorus – also known as nutrients – will inevitably lead to algae growth that choke off fish and other aquatic life.

“Hill Country streams are too clean and their flows are too small to put wastewater in them without degrading their character,” Sky Lewey, resource protection and education director of the Nueces River Authority, said at a Nov. 8 panel on wastewater effluent at Schreiner University in Kerrville.

Commissioners Creek flows through property owned by the Monier and Finner families.
Commissioners Creek flows through property owned by the Monier and Finner families. Credit: Brendan Gibbons / Rivard Report

In a phone interview, Chris Torn said he met multiple times with his neighbors to hear their concerns. He said while the permit application is for a maximum of 49,000 gallons per day, their actual discharge will be more like 15,000 gallons per day at most.

If approved by the TCEQ, the Torns would build a treatment plant on their property that could process the waste from campers and staff. The family already runs a Christian youth camp in Arkansas called Camp Ozark that Torn said draws more than 6,000 campers during the summer season.

They haven’t yet chosen a name for their Texas camp. They applied to the TCEQ for the discharge permit under the name RR 417 LLC. Torn said they plan to offer about 100 different activities ranging from “creative skills” to sports and adventures like ropes courses, mountain biking, and horseback riding.

“What we want to do is be good neighbors, and we intend on doing that,” Torn said. “We’ve always been that way. We’re happy to look at other alternatives, but … we’d like for everybody to extend us the same courtesy and listen to our experts on what they say.”

Torn would not answer questions about what effect their discharge would have on Commissioners Creek. He deferred such questions to an engineer with Integrated Water Services hired to work on the project.

The Rivard Report attempted to reach that engineer via phone call, text, and email but did not receive a response.

In the interview, Torn claimed the creek has often been dry in the roughly two years he and his father have owned the property. Their permit application with the TCEQ also claims the creek is often dry.

The Blackwells said the flow in the creek has only been reduced because of a dam the Torns built upstream from them. Before the dam, or impoundment, the creek would often flow through their property except during extreme droughts, John Blackwell said.

“That creek bed was dry when we built that impoundment,” Torn said, when asked about the dam. “I think we have a different opinion on what the facts are there.”

While Commissioners Creek is the latest arena for a fight over wastewater discharge, similar conflicts are playing out all across the Hill Country, from Bulverde to Blanco. New businesses and housing developments moving into the region need a way to deal with their sewage, while many longtime residents worry that treated wastewater will forever ruin the often pristine creeks and rivers that draw people to the Hill Country in the first place.

These conflicts often raise themes bigger than a single creek, such as the tug-of-war between property rights and neighborliness and between economic necessities and environmental stewardship.

“It’s a free country; they can develop the land,” Griffin said. “The issue is with these shared resources. … Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.”

Griffin and her husband, James, both endocrinologists, moved to the quiet valley from the Dallas area in 2001 after an eight-year search for the right property in the Hill Country. They named their place Kingfisher Ranch. They love it for the spring-fed Commissioners Creek that runs through the property, the solitude, and the abundant wildlife, all within about an hour of San Antonio.

A spring flows into Commissioners Creek on property owned by Margo Denke and her husband James.
A spring flows into Commissioners Creek on property owned by Margo Denke and her husband James. Credit: Brendan Gibbons / Rivard Report

Fearing the Torns’ discharge will forever alter the creek, Griffin is organizing her neighbors to fight the permit application. After she learned about the Torns’ plans, she drove around attaching notes to her neighbors’ ranch gates. She held an initial meeting in the tiny town of Tarpley that drew about 70 people.

Griffin is calling her new organization Friends of Hondo Canyon Headwaters. She thinks they’ll need to raise about $100,000 to pay the legal fees to challenge the permit.

On Sunday, Griffin organized a tour of the properties downstream from the Torns. It included a ranch downstream of the Blackwells owned by the Monier and Finner families, where John Monier has been raising around a dozen “mama cows” and their calves and improving the land by cutting down water-hogging Ashe juniper trees.

“To me, that little bit of water going down this creek bed is more precious than anything,” Monier said. “You can’t put a price tag on this.”

Monier said he had met with the Torns multiple times and “pleaded” with them to use a different method of disposing of the effluent instead of sending it down the creek.

One of the most popular methods in the Hill Country is known as land application, where the effluent is sprayed onto a property as irrigation water instead of being sent down a creek. Advocates of that method say it’s a win-win because it protects the creek and allows landowners to avoid pumping fresh groundwater to grow crops or irrigate pasture, among other benefits.

“I don’t think [the Torns are] even interested in entertaining an alternative,” Monier said.

Construction equipment sits at the site of a youth camp under development near Tarpley.
Construction equipment sits at the site of a youth camp under development near Tarpley. Credit: Brendan Gibbons / Rivard Report

Torn said they’re “always willing to listen to alternatives, with the understanding that there are” significant costs to some of these alternatives. Asked to put a dollar amount on the difference between discharging to the creek and applying to their own land, Torn would only reiterate that the difference is “significant.”

John Blackwell, a general contractor who said he has worked on multiple land application systems, said “it wouldn’t cost them that much more.”

“It would just be dumping on [their] property instead of someone else’s,” Blackwell said.

During the visit to their ranch, Edgar Finner, John Monier’s cousin, said he hopes to move onto the property with his wife, Laura, when they retire in about two years from their jobs in the Houston area. Like the Blackwells, the family has owned the ranch for more than a century.

“I know what’s going to happen,” Finner said of the Torns’ plans for the creek. “All that green slime and stuff is eventually going to show up.”

Monier, who manages multiple ranches, talked about friends who have left the Hill Country after newcomers moved in and altered the area’s springs and streams. He spoke emotionally about the kind of changes he’s seeing all around him.

“There ain’t going to be anybody left to ranch in this country,” Monier said. “It’s hardly scratching out a living doing it. If you can’t make a living off the land and on top of that you got people moving in next to you ruining the land when you’re trying to do something about taking care of it, it just defeats the purpose of even being here anymore.”

Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is the Rivard Report's environment and energy reporter.