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Some Austin waterways unsafe for swimming

Thursday, August 30, 2018 by Jo Clifton

According to a new report from the Environment Texas Research and Policy Center and the Frontier Group, many of the state’s creeks, rivers and beaches are too polluted for swimming or wading – and that includes the Colorado River at Austin, as well as Blunn Creek, East Bouldin Creek, West Bouldin Creek, Waller Creek and Walnut Creek.

The report called “Swim at Your Own Risk,” to be released today, says that 60 percent of Austin waterways tested were unsafe for swimming at least once during 2017. Specifically, of 76 test sites in Austin, “46 exceeded bacteria levels safe for recreational contact at least once during 2017.”

Blunn Creek and East Bouldin Creek were deemed unsafe on each occasion that they were tested in 2017. For example, Blunn Creek’s three test sites were tested four times last year. On each of those occasions, the sites were found to have “unsafe levels of bacteria for contact recreation,” the report says.

Waller Creek, which has eight test sites, was found to have unsafe levels of bacteria on six of eight days it was tested last year.

East Bouldin, West Bouldin and Blunn creeks all run through residential neighborhoods and parkland on the south side of the Colorado River. The report notes, “Of nine test sites in the three creeks, all but one site were found to have unsafe levels of bacteria for contact recreation at least once in 2017.”

Luke Metzger of Environment Texas said, “The fact that Lady Bird Lake and Lake Austin … didn’t have (dangerous) bacteria levels is good news. But the fact that some of our creeks are basically open sewers shows there’s more work to be done.”

For example, he said, Blunn Creek, which winds through Big Stacy and Little Stacy neighborhood parks, “had high levels of fecal bacteria,” as did Shoal Creek. “Unfortunately, there’s some nasty stuff in those creeks.”

Environment Texas reviewed data from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality on testing for E. coli bacteria, an indicator of fecal contamination. As the report notes, swimming in water contaminated with fecal bacteria “can lead to gastrointestinal illness, as well as respiratory disease, ear and eye infections and skin rashes.”

In order to address the urban runoff problem, the study says cities should require new developments to use green stormwater infrastructure features such as rain gardens, permeable pavement and green roofs to reduce bacteria pollution and runoff.

The study also says that “discharges of treated wastewater into environmentally sensitive waterways should be curtailed,” and “communities should upgrade or relocate wastewater facilities that are in danger of overflowing during storms and floods.”

Metzger told the Austin Monitor that runoff and sewage overflows are the biggest sources of human and animal waste causing pollution in Austin’s creeks.

But there are solutions. “You can reduce some of the stormwater that overwhelms sewer systems, such as what (the Watershed Protection Department) is proposing,” Metzger said. “You can refuse some of the stormwater,” he said, which would mean requiring developers to capture more water on-site, and “it would require the city to do better maintenance of sewage pipes.”

Environmentalists had been hopeful that these new regulations would be adopted as part of CodeNEXT, but the timeline for those changes has been thrown into disarray with the Council vote to stop that process.

However, Metzger remains hopeful about the city manager’s work to direct the new process to change the Land Development Code. “He said he wants to include a lot of the work that’s been done … so I think there’s a strong chance” that the watershed regulations will move forward, Metzger said.

Metzger also said that he could envision the watershed recommendations moving forward outside of the Land Development Code rewrite process. He added that the Water Forward Plan is supposed to go to Council in November and it too includes major recommendations about expansion of stormwater and green water harvesting.

David Foster, Texas director of the Clean Water Action/Clean Water Fund, said Wednesday that he had been asking Council offices to lift the watershed protection regulations out of the Land Development Code rewrite to allow them to move forward sooner. He added that his organization is so interested in that question that “We even included a question on our (City Council candidate) questionnaire” about the candidate’s willingness to move forward with these environmental regulations quickly should they be elected.

Statewide, the tests revealed that 49 percent of 1,450 freshwater sites tested had bacterial contamination at levels considered unsafe for swimming at least once during 2017.

Other parts of the state showed similar pollution problems. For example, the report states that Lake Houston, a popular boating and fishing site, had levels of bacteria unsafe for recreational contact six of nine times that it was tested in 2017.

The San Antonio River, home of the popular River Walk, showed unsafe levels of bacteria at 12 of 14 testing sites. In addition, there was an unsafe level of bacteria downstream at a site next to Goliad State Park during eight days in 2017 out of 22 days tested, according to the report.

Popular swimming and fishing lakes in Dallas and Fort Worth, however, were not found to have unsafe levels of bacteria in 2017. But other waterways frequently showed excessively high levels of bacteria, the report says.

And the Rio Grande, which winds through dense urban areas as it flows through El Paso, was also found to have an unsafe level of bacteria. “Four of the sites (tested), while tested just once or twice during 2017, had bacterial levels that indicated water unsafe for swimming every time they were tested,” the researchers stated.

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Map courtesy of Environment Texas.

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