Beach Alert: Swimming in Texas’ polluted waters can make you sick

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Jen Schmerling

New report finds contaminated water at beaches, calls for action to prevent pollution

Environment Texas Research and Policy Center

LA PORTE, TEXAS – With summer in full swing, Texas beachgoers should beware: It might not be safe to go in the water. Last year, 141 beaches across the state, including Sylvan Beach in La Porte and the Texas City Dike, Retilon Road and Galveston Island State Park #6 – Bayside beaches in Galveston County, had water pollution levels that put swimmers at risk of getting sick on at least one occasion last year, according to a new report by Environment Texas Research and Policy Center. The study, Safe for Swimming?, looked at fecal bacteria levels at a total of 167 beaches across the state.

“Swimming at the beach is a prime summertime joy for so many Texans, but clearly we have more work to do to make sure water at all our beaches is safe,” said Jen Schmerling, Deputy Director of Environment Texas Research and Policy Center. “We must invest in water infrastructure that prevents pollution to ensure that America’s waterways are safe for swimming.”

141 of 167 beach sites sampled were potentially unsafe for at least one day in 2018. Texas’ worst offender was Cole Park-Site 3 in Nueces County, which had bacteria levels high enough to put swimmers at risk for 52 of 64 days (81%) tested. 

10 sites were potentially unsafe on at least a quarter of the days tested, including eight in Nueces County, 1 in Chambers County and 1 in Galveston County. Those beaches were Cole Park-Site 2, Cole Park-Site 3, Cole Park-Site 4, Cole Park- Site 6, Ropes Park-Site 2, Poenisch Park, Corpus Christi Marina South, Sylvan Beach-South, Texas City Dike, and Ropes Park-Site 3. 

Fecal bacteria can make people ill, particularly with gastrointestinal ailments. Common sources of this pollution include stormwater runoff and sewage overflows. An estimated 57 million people nationwide get sick from contact with polluted waters annually, according to a study published in 2018 in Environmental Health.

The report includes several recommendations to prevent bacterial pollution and keep our beaches safe for swimming, including a dramatic increase in public investment to fix aging, leaking sewage systems and using green infrastructure to prevent bacteria-laden stormwater pollution. The city of Houston will consider approval today of a legal settlement (“consent decree”) with the Environmental Protection Agency to invest $2 billion in upgrades to the city’s sewer system to prevent frequent sewage spills. 

“Unfortunately, the problems that begin in Houston don’t stay in Houston. As the City commits to the Consent Decree, it will finally to address years of Clean Water Act violations that have polluted our waterways down to Galveston Bay,” noted Jordan Macha, Executive Director and Waterkeeper for Bayou City Waterkeeper. “This is the opportunity to get it right. While the Consent Decree will address past violations, the City must also look forward to generational improvements and systematic change that will benefit all those who recreate and rely on our public waters for years to come.”

The city of Houston is also currently considering creating incentives to promote the use of green infrastructure such as rain barrels, rooftop gardens, permeable pavement, which capture rain before it picks up waste and enters our waterways.

Environment Texas Research and Policy Center called on the Texas Water Development Board to set aside at least 20% of its funds, including the new Flood Infrastructure Fund, to help cities invest in green infrastructure.