December 8, 2022

The health of the Texas Colorado River downstream from Austin — an ecological system which functions as a massive water filter — has improved from what it was in the 1980’s when it was used as Austin’s dumping grounds.   As a result of actions taken by the Clear, Clean Colorado River Association, the TCEQ set, and enforced, wastewater treatment standards that require best-available technology in order to meet the exceptional aquatic life use, recreational use, and drinking water standards.  However, with the rapid growth — both municipal and industrial — in the counties between Austin and Bastrop, the water quality in the river is once again threatened. 

Exceptional Use Water Quality Standards

The water quality standards on the two segments of the river between Austin and La Grange — classified segments 1428 and 1434 on the map –are designated as “Exceptional” for aquatic life use, “Primary Contact 1” for recreational use, and are designated to provide water for use as a public water system for drinking water supply. (TCEQ, Chapter 307- Texas Surface Water Quality Standards Rule Project No. 2016-002-307-OW, Colorado River Basin Designated Uses and Numeric Criteria).

  • Exceptional aquatic life use –  This standard characterizes an condition of the river that includes outstanding natural habitat characteristics, exceptional or unusual assemblage of species, abundant sensitive species, exceptionally high diversity , exceptional high species richness, and a balanced trophic structure.
  • Recreational use – This standard characterizes a condition of the river that is designated for recreational activities that are presumed to involve a significant risk of ingestion of water (e.g., wading by children, swimming, water skiing, diving, tubing, surfing, hand fishing (as defined by Texas Parks and Wildlife Code) and whitewater activities that include kayaking, canoeing, and rafting).

Click here for larger and clearer map

Water Quality Assessment Report

Here is how the TCEQ’s assessment indicates the water quality in the river is changing!  The page below for SEGID: 1428, AUID: 1428-01 is for the segment of the Colorado River from the river bridge at FM-969 at Utley to the confluence of Gilleland Creek.  The Boring Company and SpaceX are located just upstream from the river bridge at Utley on FM-1209, and the Tesla gigafactory is further up river.

  • Aquatic Life Use – The data for this standard is carried over from the 2010 report, meaning that an evaluation for this standard has not been made since around 2000-2010.  In 2010, and now carried over to the 2020 report, the fish community and macrobenthic community in this segment of the river is listed as “impaired” by TCEQ, yet no action seems to have been taken to correct the impairment, or better characterize with additional studies.  The data quality is listed as “inadequate”, yet nothing has been done to get better data.
  • General Use – The data for this standard indicates that nutrient levels of nitrate and total phosphorus in this segment of the river are at a level that is of “concern”.   This is a common concern in all of the segments down to La Grange, TX.

Here is a link to the 2020 Texas Integrated Water Quality Assessment Report  for the three segments of the Colorado River that hold an “exceptional” aquatic use standard;  Lake Travis, and segments 1428 and 1434 between Austin and La Grange, TX.

Conclusion and Recommended Actions

It is time for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to update their assessments of how well the Aquatic Life Use and General Use standards are being met in Segments 1428 and 1434 of the Colorado River.  

  • It is imperative that best-available-technology be updated and applied to new and existing wastewater treatment permits in these segments.  
  • The wastewater treatment technology being employed needs to be reviewed and upgraded to ensure that  best available technology (BAT) or best available technology economically achievable (BATEA) are required to be used.  
  • Updated standards should require the water quality of effluents to be such that they do not degrade the water quality in the segments, but rather contribute to the objective of maintaining a sound ecological environment that is fishable and swimmable.


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