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Report Finds Unsafe Levels Of Fecal Contamination At Some Texas Beaches

Galveston, Texas
Dana Smith/Flickr
Beach umbrellas in Galveston, Texas.

As Texans seek outdoor activities that allow for social distancing, many are flocking to local beaches. But a new report has found 90% of Texas beaches tested in 2019 had unsafe levels of fecal bacteria on at least one day.

The study, by the Environment Texas Research and Policy Center, looked at data from the National Water Quality Monitoring Council and found that of the 61 beaches tested in Texas, 55 exceeded federal safety levels for bacterial contamination on at least one testing day.

"It isn’t just extremely gross, this type of pollution can actually make us sick," Anna Farrell-Sherman, of Environment Texas, said at a press conference.

Credit Courtesy of Environment Texas
Courtesy of Environment Texas

Swimming in contaminated waters can cause health problems like gastrointestinal illness, ear and eye infections and skin rashes.

The beaches with the most potentially unsafe days for swimming were located in Matagorda, Harris, Brazoria and Nueces counties. On average, beaches in Galveston had unsafe levels of contamination 23% of the time they were tested.

In Harris County, Sylvan Beach Park had unsafe bacteria levels on 88 of the 89 days it was tested.

Jordan Macha, executive director at Bayou City Waterkeeper, said pollution in Houston flows into waterways and ends up at our beaches.

"I think first and foremost it certainly has to do with our wastewater treatment facility failures, and many of our overflows that we have in the city," she said. "There’s a lot of issues and infrastructure improvements that need to be made to really address the fecal bacteria problem that we have in our waterways."

Houston's sewage system has far more spills than the national average. In five years, the city had more than 9,000 discharges of untreated wastewater, according to a 2018 lawsuit filed against the city by Bayou City Waterkeeper.

Last July, the city reached an agreement with the EPA to spend roughly $2 billion over 15 years to fix its aging sewage system.

Macha said stormwater runoff also contributes to pollution.

"We are a city of bayous, over 2,500 miles of bayous run through the city of Houston,” she said. “And so there’s a lot of opportunity for pollution that’s on our streets, in our yards, to flow into our waterways and add to the bacterial pollution problem."

Macha said replacing old wastewater infrastructure, preserving wetlands and investing in greenspaces can help reduce the amount of contamination that ends up in our beach water.