Northeast Tarrant

Raw sewage spilled into Lake Grapevine. What’s being done about it?

Raw sewage spilled into Lake Grapevine from Trophy Club treatment plant

The Trophy Club municipal utility district has been fined $75,000 for violations going back six years, including previous sewage spills.
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The Trophy Club municipal utility district has been fined $75,000 for violations going back six years, including previous sewage spills.

A utility district that serves a growing area on the Tarrant/Denton County line is at risk of losing its operating permit after being cited for numerous state violations including the release of raw sewage into Lake Grapevine.

The Trophy Club Municipal Utility District No. 1, which provides water and sewer services for Trophy Club and part of Westlake, is being asked to address 32 violations of state wastewater laws dating back six years that led to $75,000 in fines, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality records show.

Now, an administrative hearing is scheduled Sept. 11 in Austin to determine whether the district should get its permit renewed so it can continue handling wastewater for the residential and commercial area along Texas 114, an area that is teeming with growth.

The permit allows the district to discharge about 1.75 million gallons of treated wastewater per day into tributaries of Lake Grapevine — which is a popular recreational area and a source of drinking water for Dallas, Highland Park, University Park and part of Grapevine — as well as for golf course irrigation and ponds.

“It’s just poor management,” said Danny Mayer, a retired Trophy Club resident and former town council member who is among a handful of residents who triggered the administrative hearing by challenging what normally would have been a routine renewal of the district’s permit.

Sewage dumped into Lake Gra
Trophy Club resident Danny Mayer stands next to a wastewater pipe spanning a drainage creek in Trophy Club. In 2016, a tree limb fell on the pipe causing it to spill 7,200 gallons of raw sewage into the creek, which feeds into Lake Grapevine. Brandon Wade Special to the Star-Telegram

“They are in over their heads,” Mayer said.

But district officials say the violations involved problems that have all been addressed and that the district is doing a good job meeting the needs of the Texas 114 corridor. It’s embarking upon a multimillion-dollar expansion of its wastewater treatment plant to accommodate future growth.

New district general manager John Carman, a former Fort Worth Water Department director who started work in Trophy Club just weeks ago, said in an email that it’s “overly dramatic” to say the Trophy Club district is at risk of losing its permit.

He said that TCEQ staff had already prepared a draft permit for Trophy Club before the commission decided there was enough opposition to warrant a hearing.

Carman and the Trophy Club district board members either declined to comment further, or declined to respond to calls and emails. Those who did respond referred questions to Austin lawyer Anthony Corbett, who specializes in representing utility districts. Corbett was not immediately available for comment Wednesday.

Ruptured sewage line

One of the most dramatic violations occurred Jan. 29, 2016, when an estimated 7,200 gallons of raw sewage was spilled from a damaged sewer pipe in an unnamed tributary that feeds Marshall Creek, which, in turn, feeds Lake Grapevine.

Trophy Club officials said the spill occurred just outside their wastewater treatment plant, after a large tree branch fell onto a 16-inch-wide sewage pipe extending over a creek bed and ruptured it.

“It was an act of God breaking the line,” district board president Kevin Carr said earlier this year. He added that the district didn’t acknowledge violating the law, but agreed to pay a $20,251 fine for the incident.

Sewage dumped into Lake Gra (3)
The Trophy Club Municipal Utility District No. 1 provides water and sewer services for Trophy Club and part of Westlake. This is its wastewater treatment plant. Brandon Wade Special to the Star-Telegram

“Our staff did a great job on finding the leak and getting right on it to repair the leak,” he said.

Carr couldn’t be reached this week to elaborate on his March comments.

However, officials from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state agency that enforces wastewater laws, cited a slow response by Trophy Club officials to fix the damage, and a failure by the utility to promptly notify the public of the spilled raw sewage.

The original estimate said 86,000 gallons of sewage were discharged into the Lake Grapevine tributary, and “since the lake was backed up into the tributary, the discharge went directly into a public source of drinking water,” according to a TCEQ report of the incident. But that allegation was later withdrawn, in favor of the 7,200-gallon estimate based upon the amount of time it took to repair the ruptured pipe once it was discovered.

Three weeks after the 2016 spill, state investigators tested five water samples for E. coli and dissolved oxygen near the spill site (one upstream, one at the spill site and three downstream) and found that the water was still being affected.

Needed for growth

Trophy Club Municipal Utility District No. 1 was formed in 1975 to provide water and sewer services to then-remote and mostly undeveloped land on the border of southern Denton County and Northeast Tarrant County. Today, that area is home to about 13,500 people in Trophy Club, Westlake and Marshall Creek, many of whom live in upscale residential neighborhoods and continue to get their water and sewer service from the district.

Such districts, often called MUDs in state government lingo, are commonly used in Texas to bring water, sewer and firefighting services to remote areas. Often, once the area matures into a self-sufficient city, the districts are dissolved or absorbed into more traditional city government.

It’s the purest example of taxation without representation I have come across in my public administration career.

Tom Brymer, Westlake Town Manager

In Trophy Club, the district has roughly $15 million in outstanding debt for projects such as the ongoing expansion of the wastewater treatment plant. Those debts are scheduled to continue through 2035, district records show.

If Trophy Club or Westlake wished to take over the duties of the district, those long-term obligations would have to be paid off and the district would have to agree to turn over its operations.

Westlake operates its own water and sewer services, and provides them to much of that town. In an unusual arrangement, some new developments in Westlake, including the Entrada mixed-use commercial and residential development, as well as the Granada upscale residential area, are being built in the Trophy Club Municipal Utility District, but are getting water and sewer services from Westlake.

As a result, they will pay property taxes to both entities.

A few years ago, Westlake offered to pay the Trophy Club district a “couple million dollars” to let Westlake take over the utility services within its own town limits, Westlake Town Manager Tom Brymer said.

But instead of taking the offer, the Trophy Club district opted not to respond for several months, then sold $12 million in bond debt payable through 2035 — a move that dramatically improved the chances that the Trophy Club district would control part of Westlake’s water and sewer lines and receive tax revenue from Westlake for years to come.

As a result, business and property owners in the new Entrada and Granada developments near Texas 114 and Davis Boulevard pay property taxes to the Trophy Club district, even though they receive no services from the entity.

“It’s the purest example of taxation without representation I have come across in my public administration career,” Brymer said.

The hearing: What to expect

At the Sept. 11 hearing in Austin, one or more administrative law judges will hear arguments from both the Trophy Club Municipal Utility District and its opponents.

The judge or judges will then make a recommendation about whether to renew the Trophy Club MUD’s permit, although the recommendation will then go back to the TCEQ commission for a final decision, TCEQ spokesman Brian McGovern said.

It’s unclear what the range of outcomes could be after the hearing. Those who plan to attend the hearing say one possibility is that the Trophy Club district simply gets its permit renewed.

Another option presumably would be that TCEQ could deny the permit and turn over responsibility to another water and sewer agency in the vicinity.

Trinity River Authority provides water and wastewater service to many cities neighboring Trophy Club, and operates one of its five regional wastewater treatment plants in nearby Roanoke.

Nicholas Sakelaris contributed to this report, which includes information from the Star-Telegram archives.

Gordon Dickson: 817-390-7796, @gdickson