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Water Quality Monitoring Program
The Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act (BEACH Act) signed into law on October 10, 2000, amends the federal Clean Water Act (CWA), incorporating provisions intended to reduce the risk of illness to users of the Nation's recreational waters. The BEACH Act authorizes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to award program development and implementation grants to eligible States, Territories, Tribes, and local governments to support microbiological testing and monitoring of coastal recreation waters, including the Great Lakes, that are adjacent to beaches or similar points of access used by the public. BEACH Act grants also provide support for development and implementation of programs to notify the public of the potential exposure to disease-causing microorganisms in coastal recreation waters. EPA encourages coastal States and Territories to apply for BEACH Act Grants for Program Implementation (referred to as Implementation Grants) to implement effective and comprehensive coastal recreation water monitoring and public notification programs. CWA section 406(i) authorizes appropriations of up to $30 million per year to develop and implement beach programs. Unfortunately, only about one-third that amount has been authorized each year since the program's inception. In recent years, the total funding available for BEACH Act grants has been about $9.5 million. Funding beyond 2012 has been in jeopardy, since EPA's budget requests for this program in FY2013 and FY2014 were ZERO (money for testing in 2013 and 2014 was ultimately allocated as part of Continuing Resolutions to resolve the Federal Budget impasse) and there was also no money for beach testing in the FY2015 budget. Again, it was restored at the last minute as part of a Continuing Resolution. It is very discouraging to have to fight for this basic funding to protect the public's health at the beach every year. Thankfully, there is a growing movement to provide stable funding. Unfortunately, in 2017 the situation is even more dire. If available, funds are allocated to the states and territories based on a formula which uses three factors that are readily available and verifiable: (1) Length of beach season, (2) miles of beach and (3) number of people that use the beaches. Texas was eligible for a $364,000 grant in fiscal year 2016.
On April 8, 2009, Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson unveiled the new Texas Beach Watch website. The website is part of a public notification initiative that reports water conditions along the coast. The updated website provides information alerts on water quality conditions for Texas recreational beach users.
Other parts of the public notification initiative include a banner ad campaign on selected travel and news websites, public service announcements for television and radio in both English and Spanish and new beach signage to correspond with the new Texas Beach Watch logo.
Much of the following discussion is taken from the Texas section of National Resources Defense Council's (NRDC) report Testing the Waters, A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches, June 2014. NRDC's report evaluates beach monitoring data relative to EPA's recommended Beach Action Value (BAV). The BAV is a more protective threshold than the national allowable bacteria levels used in previous years to trigger beach advisories. The EPA considers the BAV to be a "conservative, precautionary tool for making beach notification decisions."
NRDC ranked Texas 16th in Beachwater Quality (out of 30 states). 10% of samples exceeded EPA's new BAV standards for designated beach areas in 2013.
Texas has 169 public beaches. Out of approximately 2,500 miles of coastal, bay, and estuarine shoreline in Texas, 336 miles are covered by the monitoring and notification program under the BEACH Act. The Texas General Land Office (GLO) administers the Texas Beach Watch Program. Beachgoers can learn about beach advisories on the Texas Beach Watch website.
Water Quality Challenges and Improvements
New Sanitary Survey Program for Texas Beaches
The Texas Coastal Management Program is currently funding a project to create a standard sanitary survey program to characterize and categorize Aransas and Nueces County beaches, and to assess potential sources of pollution and predict water quality on the basis of existing data. The surveys will allow coastal managers to make better-informed decisions regarding water quality, modeling, beach categorization, and remediation plans to reduce potential health risks to the public. The project will develop a standard sanitary survey tool for Texas beaches that will be available for all of the coastal counties.
Sampling Practices: Beaches are monitored year-round, with weekly monitoring from May to September for all monitored beaches and during the month of March at some beaches to coincide with spring break.
The GLO determines sampling practices and locations and recommends that local government and health departments issue beach advisories when the bacterial standard is exceeded. Samples are generally collected about 1 foot below the surface in water that is knee-deep (2 feet deep) in an area where people are engaging in recreational activity. If the majority of recreational activity occurs at a depth significantly different from 2 feet, or if the 2-foot sampling depth is more than 50 meters from shore, samples can be collected at the location of greatest swimmer activity. Recreational beach segments used most frequently by the public and where health risks are the greatest are given priority for monitoring.
If a sample exceeds standards, monitoring is conducted daily until standards are met. States that monitor more frequently after an exceedance is found will tend to have higher percent exceedance rates and lower total closing/advisory days than they would if their sampling schedule did not increase after an exceedance was found.
Texas relies primarily on federal BEACH Act funding for its beachwater monitoring and notification program, but federal funds are periodically insufficient for meeting the goals of the program and are supplemented with funding from the state.
Other Monitoring Programs
National Ocean Service/National Center for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) has carried out many water quality research projects in Texas.
Closings and Advisories
Standards and Procedures: There are three levels of advisories in Texas. The lowest level occurs when enterococcus densities are below 35 cfu/100 ml. A medium-level advisory occurs when enterococcus densities are between 35 cfu/100 ml and 104 cfu/100 ml, and a high-level advisory is issued, with swimming not recommended, when the enterococcus density is greater than 104 cfu/100 ml. The public is notified of all advisory levels through an interactive map of beaches and through email subscriptions on the Texas Beach Watch website. Signs are posted at the beach (in English and Spanish) only for high-level advisories. Only high-level advisory days are reported to the EPA and included in this summary.
Texas does not have preemptive rainfall standards. In the case of a known sewage spill, the decision to issue a preemptive closing or advisory would be made by local government.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) has a team of biologists that responds to incidents where fish or other animals have been harmed. These specially trained biologists contact other agencies and personnel (including Texas Department of State Health Services if human health issues are suspected, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for impacts to natural resources, and the governing authority that manages a particular area), collect water samples for analysis and confirmation of algae, if appropriate, collect water quality and environmental data, and identify and count the number of dead wildlife, among other tasks. The TPWD monitors harmful algal blooms and communicates to the public through their website, email alerts, and a hotline. The Harmful Algal Bloom Workgroup has produced the Texas Harmful Algal Bloom Response Plan for identification and management of harmful algal blooms in Texas.
Water Quality Contact
Texas Beach Watch Coordinator
Grant Program & Support
Texas General Land Office
Phone: (512) 463-8126
The latest Texas Beach Watch monitoring results can be found here.
Texas was rocked in 2016 by several high-profile cases of people contracting bacterial infections at the state's beaches, including one instance in which a Harris County man gruesomely lost his leg. According to a spokesman with the Texas Department of Health Services, there were 102 cases of vibriosis reported in Texas in 2016. Of those, 35 involved cases with the bacteria Vibrio vulnificus, which can cause necrotizing fasciitis — a "flesh-eating" infection that spreads quickly. More on this.
In 2013, Texas reported 169 coastal beaches, 62 of which were monitored. Of all reported beach monitoring samples, 10% exceeded the Beach Action Value (BAV) of 60 enterococcus bacteria colony forming units (cfu) per 100 ml marine or estuarine water in a single sample. NRDC considers all reported samples individually (without averaging) when calculating the percent exceedance rates in this analysis. This includes duplicate samples and reported samples taken outside the official beach season, if any.
The beaches with the highest percent exceedance rates of the BAV in 2013 were Ropes Park (62%), Cole Park (38%), and Poenisch Park, (31%) all in Nueces County; Sylvan Beach Park in Harris County (26%); Palacios Pavilion Park in Matagorda County (26%); and Laguna Shores in Nueces County (26%).
For a bar chart showing a 5-year water quality trend, see NRDC's report.
In June 2013, U.S. EPA released its latest data about beach closings and advisories for the 2012 swimming season. Note that for some states the data is incomplete, making state-to-state or year-to-year comparisons difficult. Here's EPA's BEACH Report for Texas' 2012 Swimming Season. EPA no longer publishes this report.
The EPA has information on water quality in Texas, including a fact sheet that notes that the leading problem in estuaries is bacteria that contaminate shellfish beds. Sixty-one percent of the surveyed estuarine waters fully support shellfishing use, 23% partially support this use, and 16% do not support shellfishing.
The United States Geological Survey (USGS) maintains a website, Texas Water Science Center. This site is a valuable source of information including current projects, online reports, publications, and maps, real-time water conditions and educational outreach material for teachers and students.
Additional water quality information is available from the Texas Sea Grant website.
Storm Drains and Sewage Outfalls
Virtually all of the Texas coast is bordered by a barrier island system that separates the Gulf of Mexico from the bays. Although fishing activity is heavy in the bay systems, most swimming occurs on the Gulf beaches. The sewage-treatment plants (STPs) that have outfalls along the estuaries discharge into the bays or tributaries of the bays. There are few, if any, combined sewer and stormwater systems, although at times the STPs can have a bypass. Stormwater runoff and sewage treatment plant bypasses can adversely affect water quality in the bays and shellfish-harvesting areas. Matagorda Bay and bay systems in Matagorda County are closed periodically to shellfishing by the Texas Department of Health because of elevated coliform levels from stormwater runoff.
Information from the Texas GLO states "Texas has no sewage treatment facilities located on the Gulf of Mexico shoreline. Although some beach front subdivisions drain toward the Gulf, current development regulations require new developments to drain away from the beach."
Additional information on sewage treatment plants may be obtained from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the permitting agency for sewage treatment plants. Their website is: http://www.tceq.state.tx.us/nav/permits/water_qual.html
The Texas Coastal Nonpoint Source Pollution Control Program (Coastal NPS Program) is outlined in a two-volume set. Volume I, available via the CMP Website in Adobe Acrobat format presents the program and response to public comments. Volume II contains a list of the applicable laws, regulations, and programs that will be used to carry out the program. Maps from this document, in GIF or JPEG format, are also viewable online.
Water Quality Contact (Runoff and Outfalls)
Texas Beach Watch Coordinator
Grant Program & Support
Texas General Land Office
Phone: (512) 463-8126
Perception of Causes
GLO considers non-point source pollution to be the greatest regional threat to coastal water quality.
In September 2009 the Gulf Restoration Network gave Texas a grade of C- (best of all the Gulf states) on how well they implement the Clean Water Act and protect their state waters and public health. The Clean Up Your Act report grades the Gulf States on issues such as establishing water quality standards, policies to prevent Dead Zone-causing pollution, public health protection, and facilitating public participation in the policy-making process.
Texas Integrated Report for Clean Water Act Sections 305(b) and 303(d) evaluates the quality of surface waters in Texas, and provides resource managers with a tool for making informed decisions when directing agency programs.
Texas conducted an extensive outreach campaign about its beachwater quality monitoring program in 2009. The GLO launched a revised Texas Beach Watch website in March 2009, and banner ads ran on selected websites identified as beach tourist websites and on major media websites in Texas’ urban areas in early 2009. In April of 2009, the GLO began a public service announcement campaign with television, radio, and web banner ads that continued through Labor Day 2009. A continuing outreach program is the Texas Adopt-A-Beach Program. The program strives to raise public awareness, educate citizens about the sources of debris, and generate public support for state, national and international action to clean up coastal waters.
The Texas Coastal NPS Program was mentioned above. The Coastal Management Program funds projects through the Texas Coastal Nonpoint Source Pollution Control Program (Coastal NPS Program), such as storm drain stenciling, materials in Spanish on the responsible use of landscaping chemicals and fertilizers, development of the Clean Texas Marinas Program through Sea Grant, and a project by the Pollution Prevention office of Texas A&M University - Corpus Christi to increase awareness of stormwater/nonpoint source pollution issues and to assist Coastal Bend governments and businesses with development of nonpoint source pollution prevention programs. The Land Office is also developing a coloring book on nonpoint source pollution.
Addressing the connection between water quality and land use is the primary goal of the Texas Coastal Watershed Program. Using the Sea Grant and Land Grant extension model, the Watershed Program educates and assists local decision makers on planning to protect land, implementing low impact development, and embracing density as a critical element of smart coastal growth that balances economic growth with environmental protection. The Program is engaged in projects ranging from the establishment of an urban wetland to treat storm water runoff in Houston to planning for a more walkable main street in a small coastal town.
The approach of the Texas Coastal Watershed Program embraces the idea that where development is occurring, it can be designed and constructed in ways that minimize impacts to coastal natural resources and water quality. Fortunately for Texas, urban patterns that enable more land preservation are also demanded by citizens seeking better places to live with more community interactions. Therefore, the Watershed Program is promoting smarter coastal growth that emulates the look and feel of our oldest and most beloved cities, such as Charleston, SC. Outcomes sought include minimizing impervious surfaces (e.g. asphalt and concrete) and imitating nature wherever possible.
Substantial additional public education information can be found on the TCEQ website.
Education for Citizens and Teachers:
- CLEAN TEXAS - A statewide pollution prevention program to educate the public and develop, recognize, and inspire programs.
- Education, K through 12 - Lesson plans and other educational resources.
- Take Care of Texas News You Can Use - A free packet containing reproducible materials for educating others on taking action to improve the environment.
- Nonpoint Source Pollution (NPS) - Information on TCEQ's NPS Public Education Campaign.
- Rainwater Collection and Treatment
- Take Care of Texas Guide To Yard Care - A four-step plan for cutting pollution through composting and cost-effective yard care practices.
Several Educator's Guides have been produced by COSEE SE, various Sea Grant organizations and others.
Report-A-Litterer is an app that gives Texans a way to actively report liter and litterbugs who are messing with Texas roadways and adjacent open space areas like beaches. Simply open the app, tap the type of litter you just saw, and use the optional voice recording function to record to the offender's license plate and vehicle information (for reporting through DontMessWithTexas.org). You can also view a real-time zoom-able map of Texas with all reports, including the dates and types of litter reported. Users can also view and amend past reports, including the ability to publish reports to Facebook.
The five U.S. Gulf of Mexico States — Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas — formed the Gulf of Mexico Alliance in 2004 to increase regional collaboration and enhance the ecological and economic health of the Gulf of Mexico region. The Alliance is focused on the following priority areas:
- Water Quality
- Habitat Conservation and Restoration
- Ecosystem Integration and Assessment
- Nutrients & Nutrient Impacts
- Coastal Community Resilience
- Environmental Education
In addition, the Gulf of Mexico Alliance is deeply concerned about the potential environmental impacts the BP oil spill incident on the Gulf Coast region. Each Gulf state is implementing an emergency response plan, and due to the strong Gulf States alliance, agencies are coordinating to address the uncertain future of the region in the wake of the oil spill. Ongoing activities of the Alliance will support future mitigation actions related to water quality and the habitats impacted by this incident.
NOAA has a Harmful Algal Bloom Operational Forecast System that provides information on the location, extent, and the potential for development or movement of harmful algal blooms along Florida and Texas beaches in the Gulf of Mexico. More information on harmful algal blooms from Texas Parks and Wildlife.
General Reference Documents and Websites
EPA has compiled several NPS (Nonpoint Source) Outreach Products that are a selection of television, radio, and print products on nonpoint source pollution that have been developed by various agencies and organizations around the country. They are good examples of outreach in the mass media. Also see What You Can Do.
NOAA, in partnership with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, International City/County Management Association and Rhode Island Sea Grant, has released an interagency guide that adapts smart growth principles to the unique needs of coastal and waterfront communities. Smart Growth for Coastal and Waterfront Communities builds on existing smart growth principles to offer 10 coastal and waterfront-specific guidelines that help manage development while balancing environmental, economic, and quality of life issues.
- Natural Resources Defense Council 2003 Testing the Waters Report.
- Tammy Brooks, Program Specialist, TCMP. Surfrider State of the Beach survey response. December 2003.
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