Pathogens pose risk at 90% of Texas beaches

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AUSTIN, TX – As Texans head to local beaches this summer, a new report warns that more work is needed to ensure that all waters are safe for swimming. In 2022, 55 Texas beaches were potentially unsafe for swimming on at least one testing day, according to Safe for Swimming? – Environment Texas’ latest analysis of bacteria testing. 

“Even as Texans are back to enjoying the fresh sea breeze and splash of waves at the beach, pollution is still plaguing too many of the places where we swim,” said Luke Metzger, Environment Texas. “Now is the time to fix our water infrastructure and stop the flow of pathogens to our beaches.”

To assess beach safety, the group examined whether fecal indicator bacteria levels exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) most protective “Beach Action Value,” which is associated with an estimated illness rate of 32 out of every 1,000 swimmers. 8 Texas beaches exceeded this safety threshold on one-quarter of days tested last year, with Cole Park Beach in Corpus Christi having higher bacteria levels on 54% percent of days tested.

Other Texas beaches found potentially unsafe for swimming at least once in 2022 were Ropes Park, Poenisch Park, and Corpus Christi Marina in Corpus Christi and Texas City Dike and Seawall Blvd in Galveston. 

Polluted runoff and sewage overflows are common sources of contamination that can put swimmers’ health at risk and lead authorities to close beaches or issue health advisories. The Cities of Houston, Corpus Christi and Tyler are under federal consent decrees to upgrade their aging sewer systems after thousands of clean water violations. Livestock are also a significant source of runoff pollution. Rainfall washes excess livestock manure into nearby waterways, increasing fecal contamination. 

Scientists estimate 57 million cases of people getting sick yearly in the U.S. from swimming in oceans, lakes, rivers, and ponds. Those illnesses can include nausea, diarrhea, ear infections, and rashes.

Nicole Powers, a researcher of bacterial contamination at Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi, recognizes the severity of health hazards caused by fecal contamination in waterways. She advises that “it is important to do what you can to protect yourself against potential fecal contamination in recreational waters; for instance, check for recent water quality trends, and avoid getting in the water with open wounds on your skin or near storm drain outfalls.”

In Texas, sanitary sewer overflows increased from 2,500 to 6,000 from 2016 to 2019. At the same time, beach advisory days — days where contamination levels are above the acceptable standards determined by the EPA — increased from 1,130 to 2,860 from 2016 to 2019. Our inadequate infrastructure pollutes waterways, harms Texans’ health, and restricts beach access. 

The report recommends major investments to stop sewage overflows and runoff pollution. Smart investments in nature-based solutions and repair of aging systems yield cleaner water. The bipartisan infrastructure law directly provided $11.7 billion for sewage and stormwater projects and authorized an additional $14.65 billion for that purpose. Yet the EPA estimates the actual need is $271 billion. Fortunately, states can also allocate American Recovery and Reinvestment Act dollars and create state and local funding programs for the effort.

“More than 50 years ago, our nation resolved that we would make all our waterways safe for swimming,” said Luke Metzger. “It is time for Texas officials to commit themselves to that goal and build on the progress of the bipartisan infrastructure law to get there.”