Bacteria pollution threatens swimming holes, beaches statewide

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Texans love to take a dip in the water on these triple-digit days of summer, but a new report shows doing so might come with some unforeseen risk: high bacteria levels.

Environment Texas, a statewide environmental advocacy nonprofit, released a report showing that more than 60 percent of the state’s beaches and watering holes tested high for bacterial contamination on at least one day during 2017.

High levels of bacteria can indicate unsafe levels of fecal contamination, and swimming in that water “can lead to gastrointestinal illness, as well as respiratory disease, ear and eye infections and skin rashes,” according to the report.

Click here for the full list of Austin testing sites and results

This report reviewed data from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality on testing results for E. coli bacteria.

Statewide, the report found that 63 percent of beaches along the Texas coast were unsafe to swim in on at least one testing day. 

The three beaches with the most unsafe water days last year are all located in Corpus Christi. They are Ropse Park, Cole Park and Emerald Beach. The report found that at Cole Park, one sample site found unsafe bacteria levels for 20 days. Sites were not tested every day. Each beach was tested fewer than 60 times.

“We all should be able to expect that creeks like this one and our beaches are clean and safe to swim in,” said Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas. “But unfortunately the data show that too often our creeks and swimming holes and beaches have so much pollution that they’re not safe to either swim or tube or wade in, and that is unacceptable.”

Austin has its own problems, although Environment Texas did single out Austin and Houston for praise when it came to more extensive testing. It says the testing done in those two cities should be emulated statewide.

Sixty percent of testing sites in Austin had unsafe levels of bacteria, higher than the 49 percent average of freshwater testing cites statewide.

Despite the higher testing, of 76 test sites within Austin’s city limits, 46 had bacteria levels found to be too high for recreational contact on at least one testing day in 2017.

  • Two Colorado River test sites (one near where the river meets US 183 and another where the river meets FM 973) had high bacteria levels on two out of the four testings.
  • Waller Creek had unsafe levels at seven of its eight test sites at least once, including sites near 23rd and 24th streets that were found to be unsafe during every test.
  • Walnut Creek had four of its nine test sites found to be unsafe at least once during its four tests.
  • The bacteria was also found at Shoal Creek. At the Shoal Creek testing location near the Austin Library, Environment Texas said that all four samples taken there in 2017 came back testing positive for the bacteria. 
  • The bacteria was also found at West Bouldin Creek, East Bouldin Creek and Blunn Creek.

However, Barton Creek, Barton Springs, Lady Bird Lake and Lake Austin were all found to be safe in this report. 

What can the average person do to help protect their local waterways? Metzger recommends installing things like rain gardens and taking time to pick up pet waste.

“That would definitely be a major help, but I think we can’t depend on individual action alone to guarantee the health of our creeks, and that’s why we need citywide action,” he said. 

Metzger said his team believes the high volumes of bacteria in places like Shoal Creek come from waste drainage coming from the many older buildings upstream.

Environment Texas, along with representatives from Save Barton Creek and the South River City Citizens Neighborhood Association, said they are calling on the city of Austin to tighten standards for existing buildings and new developments to curb this bacteria contamination. 

But making changes to curb wastewater discharge can be a significant challenge for many builders, explained Scott Turner, a residential home builder in central Austin. 

“While that is an admirable goal, it would really be a labor of love to get to where your house releases no waste water,” Turner said, explaining that while he works on many green building projects, curbing wastewater is a big undertaking that requires commitment from homeowners. 

Additionally, Turner said that many homes in Austin that are more than 50 years old have problems with leaks and piping. However, digging under a property to fix plumbing lines or sewer lines can cost homeowners into the tens of thousands of dollars. 

But Turner noted that current Austin rules hold developments to a higher standard for curbing waste than they did when many of these older developments were built. 

The city of Austin’s Watershed Protection Department explained that most of the creeks in this report where high bacteria was found are in areas where development is the densest and infrastructure is the oldest.

Additionally, the city has found that stormwater runoff that enters Austin creeks does also carry large amounts of E. coli bacteria and consequently the public should avoid getting in the water in the days immediately after a storm. 

They believe that the ongoing problems they are seeing with E. Coli come primarily from leaking private wastewater infrastructure connections — both residential and commercial. 

The city noted these leaks are difficult to find and can be tough to curtail when they are on private property. 

The city of Austin reports significant progress in the water quality of the city’s creeks over the past 20 years, despite the increases in development and population.

“Most of Austin’s creeks meet contact recreation standards, including the Colorado River,” a city watershed spokesperson said in an email. “There is E. coli bacteria in many of our creeks and that can be a problem, but none of our creeks are open sewers.

You can check on the water quality at your local Austin waterways here. 

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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