Texas beaches have a fecal contamination problem. These researchers have a grant to help.

The Meadows Center at Texas State University is launching a pilot project to monitor contamination.

By Sarah AschJuly 9, 2024 11:56 am,

It’s summer, which means lots of people are hitting the beaches along the Texas coast. However, the murky water there has often ruined beach trips because of levels of fecal bacteria contamination.

Researchers at the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment, based at Texas State University in San Marcos, are trying to help.

Jenna Walker, director of watershed services at the Meadows Center, said the researchers received a $500,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to study fecal bacterial contamination along the Gulf Coast.

“It is a well-documented problem. So our study is going to be developing a pilot project that will be monitoring bacteria levels in a new way,” Walker said. “And it’s working with community scientists — so folks in the community that are interested in getting involved and learning more about the health of their waterways can actively be trained to monitor bacteria through this program and tool that we’re developing.”

The program will initially focus on recreational beaches in Harris, Matagorda and Nueces counties before being rolled out statewide.

“We are going to be looking at two parameters in particular. One is optical brighteners. Optical brighteners are indicator type parameters that are sometimes a surrogate of sanitary waste in storm drainage,” Walker said. “So we can be monitoring this amount to understand the bacterial levels for current conditions. And then through the results, we are developing an AI tool that’s going to be evaluating those results and spitting out trends.”

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Walker said there are a number of reasons Texas has such high levels of fecal contamination along the coast.

“Most of it is coming from what we call non-point source pollution. So oil grease that’s running off the road or some type of septic system that is leaking that we’re not aware of that we haven’t been able to identify yet,” Walker said. “We have these large storm events that are just washing rainwater down into different creeks and off the roads into our rivers, that are picking up bacteria and other contaminants along the way. And then there’s just your typical overflow of sewer systems in our communities that happen from time to time.”

There are typically increased bacteria levels throughout the year, Walker said.

“There are a lot of great professional monitoring programs across the state, but not enough to really fully understand our water quality,” she said. “And so this type of program is going to be filling in those gaps, providing more data to understand the situation and how things are going to be looking into the future.”

For information on current fecal contamination levels on Texas beaches, go to TexasBeachWatch.com.

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