AUSTIN – As we turn to the great outdoors in the midst of social-distancing, a 2020 report finds that water pollution at Texas beaches is putting people’s health at risk. In 2019, bacteria levels at 55 Texas beaches indicated that water was potentially unsafe for swimming on at least one day, according to the Environment Texas Research and Policy Center’s report Safe for Swimming?
“No one should be nervous that cooling off in the water on a hot summer day could make them sick,” said Anna Farrell-Sherman, Clean Water Associate with Environment Texas Research and Policy Center. "Fecal bacterial pollution does not belong on our beaches: we can and must do a better job of keeping waste out of our water.”
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. Last year, Sylvan Beach Park along Galveston Bay in Harris County had bacteria levels above this safety threshold on 99% percent of days tested.
“Throughout the Greater Houston area, many of our waterways are considered impaired - meaning that they are no longer safe to the public,” notes Jordan Macha, Executive Director for Bayou City Waterkeeper. “With one of the largest separate sewer systems in the country, long-running failures within the City of Houston’s wastewater system have dramatically affected our bayous and rivers down to the bay. Notably, low-income and communities of color are more likely to experience the consequences of these sewage overflows. While the City’s wastewater consent decree has yet to be finalized, we encourage our local leaders to address these historic inequities and future-proof our system to protect our families and communities from preventable pollution.”
Polluted runoff from roads and parking lots, overflowing or failing sewer systems, and farms are common sources of contamination that can put swimmers’ health at risk and lead authorities to close beaches or issue health advisories. Scientists estimate that 57 million instances of people getting sick each year from contact with polluted waters in the U.S.
Other Texas beaches found potentially unsafe for swimming on more than two thirds of testing days in 2019 were Sargent Beach, Palacios Pavilion, Jetty Park, Surfside, Follets Island, Quintana, Cole Park, Bryan Beach, and Ropes Park.
“Recreational users enjoying beaches that are part of urban watersheds need to be attentive to rain events,” said Professor Philippe Tissot PhD with Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi. “While water quality can be generally good it is recommended to wait 48 up to 72 hours prior to enjoying the nearshore waters after a rain event.”
Locally and statewide, Environment Texas recommends major investments to prevent sewage overflows and runoff pollution, in addition to policies that promote nature-based infrastructure like rain gardens and green roofs that can help capture and filter stormwater before it enters our waterways. In the coming weeks, the U.S. House of Representatives is expected to vote on $11 billion in emergency water infrastructure funding that could help prevent this pollution.
“Let’s make our beaches safe for swimming by building nature-based infrastructure to keep our waters healthy,” said Farrell-Sherman. “And wherever it is safe to go to the beach, let’s make sure our beaches are safe for swimming too.”
Environment Texas Research & Policy Center is 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 in local, state and national debates over the quality of our environment and our lives.