Report: 63% of Texas beaches had unsafe bacteria levels at least once last year

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Brian Zabcik

GALVESTON — As thousands of Texans prepare to head to their favorite beach or swimming hole this Labor Day weekend, a new report finds that many of those waterways may be unsafe for swimming.  

“Texans love to jump into cold water on hot days,” said Brian Zabcik, Clean Water Advocate at Environment Texas Research and Policy Center. “But while we’d like to tell folks, ‘Come on in, the water’s fine,’ the fact is that many of the state’s rivers, lakes, and beaches are not fine. They’re sometimes too polluted to go swimming, tubing, or wading safely.”

The Environment Texas report, “Swim At Your Own Risk,” reveals that Texas beaches, freshwater streams and lakes frequently contain more fecal bacteria from animal and human waste than what’s deemed safe under state law.

The analysis found that among 120 statewide beach locations tested in 2017 for water quality, 63 percent (75 sites) were unsafe for swimming on at least one testing day. Nine beach sites on Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula had unsafe bacteria levels on at least 10 percent of all testing days, include locations at Stewart Beach, Fort Crockett, and Galveston Island State Park.

Out of 1,450 statewide freshwater locations tested in 2017 for water quality, 49 percent (708 sites) had unsafe levels of fecal bacteria on at least one testing day. Of the 100 freshwater testing sites within Houston city limits, 96 locations had at least one day of unsafe bacteria levels for contact recreation in 2017.

From left: Environment Texas’s Brian Zabcik released the report with Sarah Gossett from Galveston Bay Foundation and Jordan Macha from Bayou City Waterkeeper.

The Environment Texas report analyzes 2017 data from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) on testing results for E. coli (freshwater) and enterococcus (saltwater) bacteria, which indicate 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.

Bacteria contamination comes from a range of sources, including urban stormwater runoff and sewage overflows. The group noted that Hurricane Harvey increased stormwater and sewage overflows, but more frequent, small storms are the primary conduits of the pollution to waterways.  

“While bacteria levels in Galveston Bay are safe for swimming most of the time, we do see spikes in bacteria levels after major storms,” said Sarah Gossett, Water Quality Manager at Galveston Bay Foundation. “Bacteria concentrations are highly variable — just because it’s safe to swim at one spot doesn’t mean it’s safe elsewhere, and just because levels are low today doesn’t mean they’ll be low tomorrow.” Galveston Bay Foundation conducts its own water quality testing, and provides online advice for local residents on steps to improve water quality.

Environment Texas called for more water quality testing and public notification, plus policies to prevent pollution at the source. Such policies should include promotion of green infrastructure such as rain gardens and green roofs which can capture and filter stormwater, as well as upgrades to sewage infrastructure.

“Bacterial pollution can mean vacation days ruined by warning advisories, or the threat of illness for those who do go in the water,” concluded Zabcik. “Policymakers need to take the steps to make all Texas waterways clean and safe.”

Other report highlights from around the state:

Corpus Christi: Three local beaches — Ropes Park, Cole Park, and Emerald Beach — had the most unsafe water days of any beach testing locations in Texas. All tested as unsafe on more than 10 days. At Ropes Park, one sample site was unsafe for swimming on 42 percent of all testing days. At Cole Park, one sample site was unsafe for swimming on 20 days, and the Emerald Beach sampling site tested as unsafe for swimming on 14 days

Dallas/Fort Worth: 71 percent of local testing sites had unsafe bacteria levals on at least one day last year. The east fork of the Trinity River at US 80 had unsafe bacteria during both of the two tests in 2017. At eight test sites on Village Creek in Fort Worth, all but one showed levels of bacteria unsafe for contact recreation at least once in 2017.

El Paso: 4 local sites had unsafe bacteria levals on at least one day last year. Testing of water beneath the Courchesne Bridge showed the most days of unsafe bacteria, with 5 out of 11 days of testing exceeding state standards.

Laredo: 4 local sites had unsafe bacteria levals on at least one day last year. Testing sites at Masterson Road and Zacata Creek identified high bacteria levels in 100% of tests.

Lubbock: The Double Mountain Fork tributary of the Brazos River was found to have unsafe bacteria two out of the four times it was tested in 2017.

Rio Grande Valley: 5 local sites had unsafe bacteria levals on at least one day last year: Arroyo Los Olmos and Los Olmos Creek, both in Rio Grande City; and sites along the Arroyo Colorado in McAllen, Llano Grande, and Harlingen.

San Antonio: 64 percent of local testing sites had unsafe bacteria levals on at least one day last year. In downtown San Antonio, where the river is used for boating and fishing and is the centerpiece of the popular River Walk, four neighboring test sites — the river crossings at Houston Street, Presa Street, and Lexington Avenue, and the southeastern corner of the river loop — had levels of bacteria that would have made them unsafe for swimming every time that they were tested.

Waco/Killeen/Belton: 9 sites in the Central Texas region were found to have unsafe levels of bacteria. These sites include Lake Brazos in Waco as well as multiple testing sites in South Nolan Creek, Stillhouse Hollow Lake, Little Nolan Creek, and Long Branch near Belton and Killeen.

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

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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.

Bayou City Waterkeeper (formerly Galveston Baykeeper) is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization working to ensure that every waterway is swimmable, fishable, and drinkable from Lake Livingston through the Bayous of Houston down to Galveston Bay.

The mission of the Galveston Bay Foundation is to preserve and enhance Galveston Bay as a healthy and productive place for generations to come. The Foundation was incorporated in 1987, and is a Section 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.