It’s a routine Texans all over the state know well: Load the family in the car on a hot summer day, head down to the water, slather on some sunscreen and jump in for some cool relief.
But in recent years, many Texans have arrived at the beach or their favorite swimming hole only to find a bright red advisory sign warning the water is unsafe for swimming. A recent analysis by the Environment Texas Research and Policy Center on bacteria testing data shows that unsafe levels of fecal bacteria are a common occurrence across the state both at our beaches and in freshwater.
Out of 1,450 statewide freshwater locations tested in 2017 for water quality, 49 percent had unsafe levels of fecal bacteria on at least one testing day. Here in Austin, our analysis found that out of 76 test sites within Austin’s city limits, 46 had unsafe levels of fecal bacteria on at least one testing day. Waller Creek, which flows through the UT campus, frequently had unsafe bacteria levels, as did West and East Bouldin Creeks, Blunn Creek, Waller Creek, Shoal Creek, Walnut Creek and both Colorado River test sites east of Lady Bird Lake. Along the Texas coast, 63 percent of beaches were unsafe for swimming on at least one testing day.
Toxic algal outbreaks, such as those Florida is currently dealing with, also pose a risk to public health and to wildlife. After an algal bloom in the South San Gabriel River in Georgetown this spring, residents worried that they couldn’t safely get in to the water. After one in Lake Arlington, residents complained about “stinky and funny- tasting” drinking water.
This pollution can make people sick and harm wildlife, and it makes it harder for many Texans to simply spend an enjoyable and worry-free day in the water.
Swimming in water contaminated with fecal pollution or cyanotoxins, the toxins produced in algal outbreaks, can lead to gastrointestinal illness, respiratory disease, ear and eye infections and skin rashes. In one 2011 incident, 56 people got sick and one person was hospitalized after coming into contact with E. coli and other fecal bacteria in Unk’s Lake, a swimming hole in North Texas.
At waterways that are generally avoided for recreation — often precisely because they are known to be unsafe – bacterial pollution can also threaten public health. Sometimes people swim where they are not supposed to, and sometimes they can’t stop their kids or pets from jumping in.
Bacteria contamination and algal blooms come from a range of sources, including urban stormwater runoff and sewage overflows.
All Texas waterways — from popular Gulf beaches to urban creeks currently too polluted for swimming — deserve protection.
Solutions that can help make our waterways safe for swimming exist. We need more water quality testing and public notification. We’re calling for a new system to alert people when freshwater sites are contaminated.
In addition, the City’s Watershed Protection Department has proposed new policies to help prevent pollution at the source, including promotion of green infrastructure such as rain gardens and green roofs that can capture and filter stormwater. Unfortunately, if Proposition J is adopted by Austin voters this fall, those rules could face a waiting period of up to three years before they could be adopted.
By taking measures to limit pollution at its source and by stepping up enforcement of public health rules, Texas can achieve cleaner and healthier water across the state and summers where all beaches and swimming holes are open.
Metzger is the executive director at Environment Texas.