Health & Science

Battle Over Bacteria in Texas Lakes and Streams

It’s summer, and swimmers and boaters are flocking to Texas lakes and streams. But behind the scenes, a small fight is brewing over how clean the water needs to be. Tomorrow, state regulators will vote on a proposal to allow higher levels of bacterial contamination in recreational waterways. From the KUHF health, science and technology desk, Carrie Feibel explains.


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The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality wants to relax the limit on E. coli in water. High levels of the bacteria indicate the water has been contaminated by untreated sewage or animal excrement. Whatever the source, the bacteria can make swimmers sick. Ken Kramer is president of the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club.

“That would basically mean that there’d be a greater risk incidence of illness from coming into contact with the water. The illness incidence would increase from 8 per 1,000 to 10 per 1,000 people.”

The TCEQ doesn’t dispute those numbers, but says the increased risk is slight. Jim Davenport is an aquatic scientist with the agency. He says the federal government will allow Texas to set a higher bacteria limit. And by doing so, Texas can also remove 62 bodies of water from a list of polluted waterways.

“We’re tending to swamp our overall water quality management system under the current criteria. We’d like to target those water bodies that have bacteria concentrations that really are a concern.”

The shift could save TCEQ $ 1 million over three years, and allow the agency to focus clean-up efforts on the most polluted waterways. But environmentalists say that’s the wrong approach.

“For an agency that considers itself to be financially strapped that’s obviously a very compelling motivation but we don’t feel that it’s appropriate to make the standards less stringent just because you have a financial issue that needs to be dealt with through the state budgeting process.”

If the commissioners do vote to relax the E. coli standard, the Sierra Club says it will appeal to the federal EPA.

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