Report: 60 percent of testing sites at Austin waterways had unsafe bacteria at least once in 2017

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Fecal bacteria also contaminates Gulf beaches

Environment Texas Research and Policy Center

AUSTIN — Austins’ creeks and streams flow through city parks and along walking trails, create green space, and provide fishing spots for residents. However, a new report by Environment Texas Research and Policy Center reveals that many of these waterways tested for high levels of bacteria in 2017, and would benefit from strong measures to reduce pollution.

According to the report, Swim at Your Own Risk, 46 freshwater sites around Austin had levels of bacteria indicating levels of fecal contamination unsafe for swimming or wading at least once in 2017. Both Colorado River test sites east of Lady Bird Lake had unsafe levels of bacteria two out of four times they were tested in 2017. Waller Creek, Shoal Creek, Walnut Creek, West Bouldin Creek, East Bouldin Creek, and Blunn Creek also frequently had unsafe bacteria levels. Along the Texas coast, 63% of beaches were unsafe for swimming on at least one testing day.

“We should be able to expect that all of our waterways, including those that run through our cities and communities, are clean and free from dangerous pollution,” said Luke Metzger, Executive Director at Environment Texas Research and Policy Center. “But the fact is that many of the state’s rivers, lakes, and beaches are sometimes too polluted to go swimming, tubing, or wading safely.” 

The Environment Texas report reviewed data from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) on testing results for E. coli bacteria, which indicates the presence of other fecal bacteria. Swimming in water contaminated with fecal bacteria can lead to gastrointestinal illness, as well as respiratory disease, ear and eye infections, and skin rashes.

In a single 2011 incident, 56 people got sick and one person was hospitalized after coming into contact with E. coli and other fecal bacteria in a Texas lake. Bacteria contamination comes from a range of sources, including urban stormwater runoff and sewage overflows.

Environment Texas called for more water quality testing and public notification, including an online tool for freshwater safety advisories, similar to the existing Texas Beach Watch. The group also called for moving forward with recommendations by Austin’s Watershed Protection Department to require new developments to capture and filter stormwater through use of green infrastructure and urged the city to adopt the policies as part of the upcoming update to the Land Development Code. The group joined with Save Barton Creek Association in warning about threats of sewage pollution, pointing to a recent TCEQ report citing the town of Liberty Hill for e-coli in the South San Gabriel River.

“Sewage plants that pipe treated effluent directly into our creeks and rivers pose a significant risk to our waterways,” said Angela Richter, Executive Director of Save Barton Creek Association. “When operation of the plant fails, and Texas has a bad record of plant failures, bacteria like e-coli can enter local creeks. Direct discharge of wastewater is not an appropriate strategy over sensitive watersheds like Hill Country creeks and the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer. Septic tanks and land application, while preferable to direct discharge of treated effluent, can also pose risks if not properly operated and maintained.”

“In 2017, tests revealed unsafe water at beaches along much of Texas’ coastline,” said Gideon Weissman of Frontier Group, report co-author. “Unsafe bacteria levels were more frequent in certain areas. Of the 12 beach sites that were unsafe for swimming for five or more days in 2017, 10 were in and around Corpus Christi Bay or Galveston Bay.”

Highlights of the 2017 testing data can be viewed online at this interactive map and the full data are available here.



Environment Texas Research and Policy Center is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting our air, water and open spaces. We investigate problems, craft solutions, educate the public and decision- makers, and help the public make their voices heard.