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Cleaning up Water for Swimming, from the Beach to the City

Urban waterways, in Texas and around the country, were mistreated for much of the 20th century, often serving as nothing more than an open sewer for human and industrial waste. Today, almost 50 years after the passage of the Clean Water Act, many waterways still suffer from dangerous pollution, a condition highlighted in our new report with Environment Texas Research & Policy Center.

Swim at Your Own Risk is an analysis of bacteria counts at beach and freshwater sites across the Lone Star State, based on data provided by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the city of Austin. Our analysis found hundreds of sites where bacteria levels, an indicator of fecal contamination, made them unsafe for swimming based on criteria established in Texas Administrative Code. Among the findings:

  • More than half of all beach sites, and more than 700 freshwater sites, were unsafe for swimming on at least one day in 2017.
  • Corpus Christi Bay and Galveston Bay accounted for 10 of 12 beaches that had at least five unsafe days in 2017.
  • In Houston, 96 out of 100 freshwater sample sites were unsafe for swimming at least once in 2017, and many sites were unsafe every time they were tested.
  • In Austin, 46 out of 76 sites were unsafe for swimming at least once in 2017.

Why should we worry that rivers and bayous in the middle of our cities be safe enough for swimming? A better question might be: Why shouldn't we?

The goal of opening urban waterways for swimming is being embraced by some of the world's major cities, something that would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago. An article from Curbed published earlier this year notes that "cities around the world are now working to make once-polluted rivers safe for swimming," and that while the proposition might seem shocking to those who grew up alongside polluted rivers, it is "actually happening." Cities like London, Paris, and New York are all taking steps to clean up urban waterways and install swimming infrastructure. I'm particularly excited for early plans to put a swimming area in the Charles River here in Boston.

For those who don't have the time or money to travel long distances for a beach vacation, swimming, floating or tubing in a local river or stream can be an affordable and accessible recreational opportunity. And many of the measures we might take to keep fecal bacteria out of our waterways can make our cities healthier and more livable, as well as more resilient against threats like flooding.

In Texas, efforts are already underway to clean up urban waterways, even those with a long legacy of pollution. For example, Houston community and watershed organizations created a 3.5 acre marsh that can filter runoff pollution before it enters Brays Bayou, which has long been one of the city's more polluted waterways. And in Austin, where our analysis found high bacteria counts in some of the streams that run through communities and parks, city officials have proposed requiring new buildings to include green stormwater infrastructure.

Texas should build on these efforts to make all of its beaches and waterways safe for people. As we discuss further in the report, there's a lot Texas can do, including expanding its water testing and taking steps to prevent pollution at its source, whether from urban runoff, factory farms, or sewage systems. If Texas can successfully protect and restore its waterways, its communities and beachgoers will be happier and healthier for it – and may even get some new places to cool off on a blisteringly hot Texas summer day.

Photo: The Colorado River as it flows through Austin, Texas. Credit: User Leaflet at Wikimedia Commons, public domain photo.