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‘Poop in the water’: How safe is your favorite Houston-area beach?

High levels of fecal bacteria were detected in the water at several beaches across Texas
High levels of fecal bacteria were detected in the water at several beaches across Texas

The water at some Houston area beaches is contaminated with fecal matter more often than not, according to a new report published by Environment America.

The “Safe for Swimming” report organizes and explains U.S. beach pollution data collected throughout 2020 by local and state officials. This is the third annual report.

Sylvan Beach in Harris County was “potentially unsafe” 61% of the time testing was done, the report says. Surfside Beach in Brazoria County was “potentially unsafe” 72% of the time.

“Unfortunately, we still have billions of gallons of sewage overflow and runoff pollution running into our waterways,” said John Rumpler, senior attorney with Environment America and the report’s co-author.

“To be blunt, sewage means poop,” he added. “And runoff pollution contains all kinds of pathogens that are on our roadways and other built-up surfaces that get swept up into our waters.”

The Texas General Land Office’s Texas Beach Watch program monitors water quality at recreational beaches throughout the state in real-time. If a water sample contains more than 104 colony-forming units of the Enterococcus bacteria per 100 milliliters of water, swimming is not recommended.

The map at TexasBeachWatch.com shows the presence and levels of fecal bacteria along the coast: Green means low bacteria levels, yellow means medium bacteria levels, and red signifies high bacteria levels. Where the water quality exceeds acceptable bacterial levels, local governments are supposed to post advisory signs provided by the General Land Office.

On Monday, Sylvan Beach was the only local beach in the red, but no advisory signs could be found. Hundreds of people were seen enjoying the beach.

“In many cases, people don’t know,” Rumpler said. “They go, they have a great day at the beach, everybody’s feeling great and having fun, and then a few days later, somebody has nausea or diarrhea or a skin rash and they won’t necessarily associate that with their wonderful day at the beach.”

Texas Beach Watch collects samples from 164 stations at approximately 61 recreational beaches along the Texas coast in Aransas, Brazoria, Cameron, Galveston, Harris, and Jefferson, Matagorda, Nueces and San Patricio counties. During the peak beach season, which runs from May through September, water samples are collected weekly. During the rest of the year, samples are collected every two weeks.

Contact with water contaminated with fecal bacteria can cause “gastrointestinal illness (such as diarrhea or vomiting), respiratory illness, and other health problems,” According to the Environmental Protection Agency. “Skin, ear, eye, sinus, and wound infections can also be caused by contact with contaminated water.”

Fecal contamination at swimming beaches can come from several sources, including improperly functioning sewage treatment plants and septic systems, storm water runoff, boating waste that is not disposed of properly, humans and domestic animals, livestock, and wildlife, according to Texas Beach Watch.

The “Safe for Swimming” report found that 31 out of 55 Texas beaches tested were in the red, called “potentially unsafe”, at least a quarter of the time.

Galveston County beaches generally fared best in the region, with “potentially unsafe” days about 20% of the time. Brazoria County beaches fared worse, especially Surfside.

In Harris County, only Sylvan Beach is tested regularly, and tests consistently show “potentially unsafe” water.

The problems will only get worse over time and the only permanent solution, according to Rumpler, is to improve water infrastructure.

“We’ve paved so much of the landscape, that when we have heavy rains the water has nowhere to go,” he said. “So instead of being absorbed through the ground, that heavy rain is picking up bacteria, grease, oil, toxic chemicals, and sweeping it all off into the sewage system, causing an overflow. Or, sweeping it off right into the coast, causing pollution directly.”


About the Author:

Briana Zamora-Nipper joined the KPRC 2 digital team as a community associate producer in 2019. During her time in H-Town, she's covered everything from fancy Houston homes to tropical storms. Previously, she worked at Austin Monthly Magazine and KAGS TV, where she earned a Regional Edward R. Murrow award for her work as a digital producer.