Following months of negotiations, the city of Fort Worth and the Tarrant Regional Water District have come to an agreement that will end a legal battle over the city’s proposed sewage treatment plant.
The dispute, which centered around the location of the facility on Mary’s Creek near Aledo, was scheduled to go before a state court in late August – more than two years after the water district formally complained that the new plant could harm water quality in the Trinity River basin.
Now, following a mediation process overseen by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Fort Worth can move forward with building its first new wastewater treatment plant in nearly 70 years with the goal of keeping up with the west side’s population growth.
If the agreement is approved, Fort Worth should complete the design phase by fall 2024 and begin construction in spring 2025, city water director Chris Harder said during a May 17 council meeting. The facility, located near an existing water treatment plant on Chapin Road, should be complete by summer 2028, he said.
The water district’s board approved the settlement May 17, and Fort Worth City Council members will consider it at its May 24 meeting.
“The settlement is a win-win solution that protects water quality, allows efficient use of water resources, and allows Fort Worth to move forward with the Mary’s Creek facility to support growth in the area,” Rachel Ickert, the water district’s chief water resources officer, said in a statement.
Marty Leonard, a water district board member who owns property on Mary’s Creek, also challenged Fort Worth’s application for a state-required permit to discharge treated wastewater into the creek.
She has agreed to the terms of the water district’s settlement with Fort Worth, clearing the way for the city to obtain a permit from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
“I am very pleased and proud of the city and TRWD for coming to a mutual agreement with a plan that both increases water supply and protects water quality for all its citizens and customers,” Leonard said. “It is encouraging to see meditation successful.”
Leonard previously said she was acting as a private landowner concerned about the impact of the plant on water quality and denied accusations that her opposition was a conflict of interest with her duties as a board member.
She recused herself from private board meetings discussing the water district’s legal opposition. During a Tuesday presentation about the settlement, water district general counsel Stephen Tatum clarified that Leonard was not involved in the negotiations between Fort Worth and water district officials.
“Ms. Leonard, throughout the process, acted on her own behalf,” Tatum said. “Her decisions and actions in relation to the settlement agreement were made completely independent and on her own, and not in consultation with the district at all.”
Within three days of the agreement being signed by all parties, the water district will withdraw its request for a contested case hearing, which is similar to a civil trial in state district court, Tatum said. From there, Fort Worth will await the state’s approval of its permit application so it can enter the design phase of the project this fall.
Before approving the agreement Tuesday, water district board president Leah King praised officials on both sides for coming together to resolve their differences on the permit.
“That back and forth was necessary, and all parties came to the table to find a solution,” King said. “The goal was the same, to ensure that there wasn’t interruption to water supply and water safety and water quality.”
Settlement will divert treated water into other lakes
Lawyers for the water district previously argued that discharging all treated wastewater from the plant into Mary’s Creek could harm water quality in the Clear Fork of the Trinity River.
Computer modeling data conducted by the water district showed potential for higher levels of nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen, which could then lead to blooms of blue-green algae that could harm the entire ecosystem.
Under the terms of the settlement, the water district will prevent that outcome by paying to divert treated wastewater to other parts of its water supply system, where it can be blended with water from other lakes.
Water district officials cheered the “indirect reuse” solution as a low-cost option that keeps more water in reservoirs and reduces environmental risks.
At the May 17 council meeting, Harder said the settlement would not significantly change the facility’s design and allow Fort Worth to provide reused water to fast-growing areas in the west side.
“This agreement allows Fort Worth to move forward with the design of this much-needed advanced treatment facility that will be protective of the environment,” Harder, Fort Worth’s water director, said in a statement. “At the same time, it provides both a direct and indirect reuse water supply that both Fort Worth and TRWD can use to support future growth in a financially prudent manner.”
If the proposed solution isn’t feasible down the line – say, if the water district isn’t able to obtain a required permit – Tatum said Fort Worth and district leaders would come back together for informal discussions first before moving to a formal dispute resolution process if necessary.
“I think all the parties hope that the formal dispute resolution process never comes into play, that we never get there,” Tatum said. “But that’s here in this agreement just to ensure that this issue will come to finality one way or the other.”
Fort Worth also agreed to amend its permit application so that its treated wastewater would meet lower limits on nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen.
While the water district constructs its pipeline to divert the treated wastewater, the city has agreed to temporarily discharge no more than 3 million gallons from the facility per day – a steep decrease from its initial request to discharge no more than 15 million gallons per day.
“It’s an extra protective measure should the indirect reuse project be determined infeasible,” Tatum said.
Full terms of the settlement were not made available online before the district’s Tuesday vote, though a proposed term sheet was included in a November council report. Mary Gugliuzza, a spokesperson for the city’s water department, said the agreement will be available by the May 24 council meeting.
Jackee Cox, who has followed the Mary’s Creek issue closely as a member of the watchdog Water District Accountability Project, questioned why the settlement was not yet available for public review.
“It’s hard to comment without seeing the terms of the agreement,” Cox said. “All I know for sure is that the price of land is going up, and the cost of construction is going up, up, up. So the sooner Fort Worth can build this, the better.”
Reporter Rachel Behrndt contributed reporting.
Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from the Marilyn Brachman Hoffman Foundation. Contact her by email or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.