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Report from environmental group warns of bacteria risk at Texas beaches, rivers

The report claims fecal bacteria at Texas beaches, rivers and lakes frequently reached unsafe levels in 2017.

For years, the Legislature has been stockpiling hundreds of millions of dollars meant for Texas’ parks in order to artificia…

As Texans prepare for Labor Day weekend, beach- and rivergoers in Texas could encounter unsafe bacteria levels, a report released Thursday by two environmental groups claims.

The report from Environment Texas and the Frontier Group analyzed water testing data from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in 2017 — specifically bacteria levels used to indicate amounts of fecal material in water.

Of 120 beaches tested, 75 were deemed unsafe for swimming on at least one day, and 12 beaches had five or more days with unsafe water pollution in 2017. Beaches at Ropes Park and Cole Park in the Corpus Christi Bay area had the highest number of unsafe days, with 24 and 20 days respectively.

As for freshwater sites, the report indicated that 49 percent of the 1,450 locations tested in 2017 had unsafe levels of fecal bacteria on at least one testing day. In Houston, 96 out of 100 sites tested had at least one day of unsafe bacteria levels in 2017.

Fecal bacteria can cause symptoms such as upset stomach, ear and eye infections, rashes and diarrhea, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Texas Beach Watch, an extension of the Texas General Land Office, tests water quality at state beaches and monitors fecal bacteria levels and issues an advisory if levels rise higher than EPA minimum standards. An advisory does not mean swimmers will be prevented from entering the water.

To protect from infection, the Land Office recommends rinsing off after swimming in natural waters and heeding advisories about elevated bacteria levels.

“Sites are continually monitored, but there are precautions you should always take when you are out in natural waters,” said Land Office spokesperson Brittany Eck. “Anyone with exposed cuts or a low immune system should take higher precautions.”

Philippe Tissot, a bacterial contamination expert and research scientist at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, said swimmers need to take advisories seriously but said the message to swimmers must be nuanced.

"During and after rain events, the waters are unsafe because of the bacteria that washes into stormwater outlets," said Tissot. "When it rains, and for a couple of days after, wait to swim and check water quality levels."

Brian Zabcik, one of the report’s authors, said the best way to reduce bacteria levels is by preventing pollution from entering Texas waterways in the first place. He says there are more streams, lakes and beaches in Texas that have unsafe levels of bacteria than people realize.

“The precautions you have to take when you are in water with high bacteria are not precautions that every person will take or that they will take every time,” said Zabcik. “Even if people don’t go swimming in a stream or lake that is polluted with bacteria, we need to ask ourselves, ‘Do we want to be living next to dirty streams, dirty lakes and dirty beaches?’”

Disclosure: The Texas General Land Office has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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