Health & Science

Nearly all Texas beaches contaminated with bacterial pathogens dangerous to swimmers, report says

There’s a number of ways Texas waters can be contaminated, but the most dangerous is from leaking sewage pipes.


City of Galveston
FILE: Galveston’s Seawall Boulevard

As Texans head to local beaches this summer, a new report from nonprofit Environment Texas warns that more work is needed to ensure that all waters are safe for swimming. Ninety percent of Texas beaches were found to be contaminated with bacterial pathogens on at least one day last year.

In its report, Environment Texas examined whether detected levels of fecal bacteria on Texas beaches exceeded what the EPA considers to be dangerous to swimmers. It found that eight beaches in the state, including Seawall Boulevard in Galveston and Texas City Dike, exceeded these levels on over a quarter of days last year.

Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas, says dilapidated wastewater infrastructure in areas of the state is partially to blame.

“A lot of our sanitary and sewage systems are really old and failing, and so we need to invest money to fix the leaks and make sure there’s sufficient capacity to handle the volume of wastewater, including during kind of big rainy events.”

MORE: John Rumpler of Environment America Research & Policy Center discusses pollution at Texas beaches on Houston Matters


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There’s a number of ways the waters can be contaminated, but Metzger said the biggest and most dangerous is from leaking sewage pipes. The city of Houston itself is currently under a federal consent decree to upgrade its aging sewer system after many clean water violations.

“They’re now required to invest millions of dollars to clean up these sewage systems,” he said.

Runoff pollution from pet waste or manure from cities and factory farms can find their way to beaches and also lead to contamination.

“The kind of fecal matter that is most dangerous to humans is our own,” Metzger said.

Exposure to contamination can result in serious gastrointestinal problems that could lead to hospitalizations, he said.

But in an email, the Texas General Land Office said their Texas Beach Watch research indicates that water quality levels on Texas beaches remain stable throughout the year, and are safe for recreational use.

“Since Texas Beach Watch was established, there has never been a time when a Texas beach was closed due to high bacteria levels,” the email said.

The GLO said its program collects over 7,000 samples each year and monitors 172 sites along Texas’ recreational beaches.

“During the summer, the GLO's Texas Beach Watch collects samples weekly, with repeat sampling the following day if the findings resulted in a Beach Advisory,” they said.

The Office also said they have an interactive map and give weekly notification emails.

Metzger said they are seeing similar trends from previous years, and there is a slight improvement.

“The good news is that we now have these federal consent decrees, and a bipartisan infrastructure law is sending tens of millions of dollars to Texas to … reduce the amount of pollution coming through,” he said.

But Metzger said it’s not enough.

“My hope is that we’ll start to see these numbers come down.”

Further investment in the infrastructure will help with that, he said.

“We need to fix the leaks and make sure there’s sufficient capacity to handle the wastewater in the big rainy events,” he said.

Rebecca Noel contributed to this report.