Pathogens pose risk at 90 percent of Texas beaches

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Water pollution persists as Congress considers infrastructure funding

Environment Texas Research and Policy Center

AUSTIN – With Texans returning to local beaches this summer, a new report warns that more work is needed to ensure that all waters are safe for swimming. In 2020, out of 61 Texas beaches tested, 55 were potentially unsafe for swimming on at least one day according to Safe for Swimming? – Environment Texas Research and Policy Center’s annual analysis of bacteria testing.  The report comes as Congress considers investments in water infrastructure.

“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, Executive Director of Environment Texas Research and Policy Center. “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.  Cole Park Beach in Corpus Christi had bacteria levels above this safety threshold on 91 percent of days tested last year.


Other Texas beaches found potentially unsafe for swimming at least once in 2020 were Ropes Park Beach, Surfside Beach, Sylvan Beach Park, Follet’s Island Beach, Corpus Christi, Quintana Beach, Sargent Beach, Jetty Park Beach, and Nueces Bay Causeway Beach #3. While there were other beaches in Texas found to be potentially unsafe for swimming on at least one day, these were the beaches with the most unsafe swimming days in 2020. 

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. Scientists estimate 57 million instances of people getting sick each year in the U.S. from swimming in oceans, lakes, rivers and ponds. This includes cases of acute gastrointestinal illness.

“Bacteria levels in Galveston Bay are safe for swimming most of the time; however, there are typically spikes in bacteria concentrations following major rainfall events,” said Charlotte Cisneros, Community Programs Manager at Galveston Bay Foundation. “This is due to runoff carrying bacteria into the Bay from a variety of land sources, such as failing septic systems, pet waste, and livestock. Luckily, anyone can help to reduce bacteria concentrations in their local watershed in two ways: by reducing sources of pollution at home and by reducing runoff from their property through more efficient lawn irrigation, use of rain barrels, or the installation of green infrastructure. In addition to conducting their own water quality testing, Galveston Bay Foundation also provides advice for local residents on how to improve water quality.”

The report recommends major investments to prevent sewage overflows and runoff pollution.  

Three weeks ago, the U.S. House infrastructure committee approved the Water Quality Protection Act, which authorizes urgently needed funding to stop sewage overflows, with 15 percent of those funds dedicated to green projects – including nature-based solutions that prevent runoff pollution from flowing into our rivers, lakes, and streams.  

“Kudos to Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson who voted for this bipartisan bill,” said Metzger. 

The group also urged the Texas Water Development Board to increase funding for nature-based solutions to water pollution.


Environment Texas is a non-profit advocate for clean air, clean water, and open spaces.