Cleanest Waters: Study indicates local beaches least polluted

Shorebirds walk through the surf Thursday on Boca Chica Beach.(Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

Cameron County beaches are some of the least polluted in Texas, according to a new report released by the Environment Texas Research and Policy Center.

Researchers who worked on the study’s 2020 edition analyzed fecal indicator bacteria, sampling data from beaches in 29 coastal and Great Lakes states and Puerto Rico. They found that 386 beaches — nearly one out of every eight surveyed — were potentially unsafe on at least 25 percent of the days that sampling took place last year.

Across the Gulf Coast, 84 percent, or 223 of the 266 sites surveyed, were unsafe for swimming and fishing at least one day in 2019.

In Texas, pollution data collected from coastal waters in large urban areas was staggering.

During a Zoom presentation on Thursday, Anna Farrell-Sherman, clean water associate with the Environment Texas Research and Policy Center, cited enough pollution documented at Sylvan Beach Park in Harris County to put swimmers at risk of getting sick on 99 percent of the days tested in 2019.

“This test is a national standard to see how much fecal matter — how much poop — is in the water at our beaches,” she said. “It isn’t just gross. This type of pollution can actually make us sick. It causes gastrointestinal illness, skin rashes, ear and eye infections, and even respiratory disease — which we’re aware right now is an even bigger risk than usual.”

The fecal bacteria can come from gulls, pets, wild animals, and human beings. According to the study, the pollution is largely caused by sewage overflows, rainfall, and watershed runoff, exacerbated across urban centers where non-permeable materials like asphalt and standard concrete prevent the ground from absorbing rainfall.

“Outdated infrastructure in low-income and communities of color make it more likely that residents will experience the effects of these sewage overflows,” said Jordan Macha, executive director of Waterkeeper, based in the greater Houston area.

Cameron County beaches had some of the cleanest water documented in the study. According to the report, samples were collected at nine county beaches, showing an average percentage of days with potentially unsafe water conditions at just one percent.

By comparison, the 17 beaches in Nueces County showed a 27 percent average percentage of potentially unsafe days. San Patricio County, also in the Corpus Christi area, displayed a 30 percent average.

Brazoria County, towards Galveston, had a 76 percent average of unsafe days across only four beaches tested.

Beaches in the Houston area showed the highest pollution rates, with Harris County testing at a 99 percent average of unsafe days, and Matagorda County with an 87 percent average of unsafe water days.