For about a year, ranchers and property owners in the Hill Country northwest of San Antonio have been in a standoff with a man planning to open a Christian summer camp.
At issue is a permit the state of Texas may grant to the camp allowing treated wastewater to be dumped into a creek in Bandera County, according to opponents.
As you walk along Commissioners Creek you can see minnows and perch darting around in the clear water.
The spring-fed creek meanders for 3.5 miles through ranches and other properties before it feeds Hondo Creek.
Margo Denke Griffin, a retired endocrinologist, and her husband, Jim, settled on the creek and named their property Kingfisher Ranch for the bird which can be found in the area.
Recent independent testing of the creek water shows it to be among the most pristine in Texas.
“Right now our creek is one of the few remaining river segments in Texas where there is undetectable levels of phosphorus and very low nitrates in the creek,” she said.
The test was done after the couple received a notice from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) last summer that stated a Christian summer camp upstream was seeking a permit to discharge 49,000 gallons of treated wastewater each day into the creek.
She said treated wastewater has harmful chemicals in it.
“You can see the bottom of our creek at any place because of its clarity and that would change dramatically,” she said. “When you add nitrogen and phosphorous into creek water your adding fertilizer and you’re gonna get algae blooms.”
The Nueces River Authority works to protect water resources in the area and said algae blooms can turn water green and drive down the oxygen levels that aquatic life needs to thrive.
The Griffins organized neighbors against the permit and invited the community to a meeting to discuss it. Notices, inside plastic sandwich bags, were placed on country gates to summon everyone to a one-room schoolhouse used as a community center.
70 people showed up.
Rancher turned wildlife conservationist David Littlepage is among those opposed to the permit.
“I’ve got fond memories of walking and fishing in that creek, which I would like for my children and grandchildren to have the opportunity to do the same,” he said.
They formed the Friends of Hondo Canyon to protect the creek. They launched a website and tried to push a bill through the statehouse against those kind of permits.
State Representative Tracy King of Uvalde authored the bill to protect certain areas of the Edward’s Aquifer from the discharge of waste or other pollutants, but it was left pending in committee.
Rancher Charles Blackwell runs a few Hereford cows on his ranch right below the summer camp, which you can see through his fence.
“In a normal of time of the year, the creek runs about 200 yards and then goes dry in our property,” he said. “So if they dumped wastewater in the creek, it would run onto our property and stagnate and go dry. And then when it rained, then it would wash down to everyone else’s property.”
Another downstream rancher, John Monier, said the Christian camp is not being neighborly.
“I wouldn’t even think twice about doing this to my neighbors. I know everybody’s got their own conscience,” he said.
The camp owner is Sam Torn who said he has no intention of dumping treated wastewater into the creek.
“We understand the concern. We want to be a good neighbor. That’s always been our intention,” he said
Torn currently operates Camp Ozark in Arkansas, which attracts 6,500 campers every summer. Torn said his camp discharges treated wastewater into a creek that feeds the Quachita River with no record of state violations.
The camp Torn is trying to open in Tarpley is intended for 200 to 400 campers and will only be open in the summer.
“We simply want to bring in a very clean, wholesome business to that part of the country,” he said. “We want to provide jobs. We want to be a good neighbor. We would never do anything to harm the environment. Never. That is counterproductive to who we are.”
Alternatives to discharging the waste water in existing water sources include building a retention pond or reusing the water. The latter is what Torn said he asked the TCEQ to add to the proposed permit in order signal his good intentions.
“Just to make sure that everyone knew we were acting on good faith, I worked with TCEQ to have them write into the permit, which in my understanding they don’t normally do, but we did. That we would be required to reuse at least 75% of the water,” he said.
Torn added he is confident they can reuse all 49,000 gallons of treated wastewater each day on things like landscaping and undeveloped areas of the 700 acre property.
The downstream property owners said good intentions are not enough, and they remain opposed to any permit that allows any treated wastewater to enter the creek. They fear this is a scenario that could be repeated across the Hill Country as more developments spring up.
The TCEQ has yet to schedule a formal hearing on the permit.