Swim at Your Own Risk
Bacteria Pollution in Texas Beaches and Waterways Threatens Public Health

Executive Summary

Texans love the water – especially in the summertime. From South Padre Island to Galveston Bay, and from the San Marcos River to Lake Lewisville, our rivers, lakes and beaches draw thousands of Texans every time the sun is out and the temperature is up.

But many of the waterways where Texans love to play are sometimes too polluted for people to go swimming, tubing, or wading safely. An analysis of water testing data from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) reveals that Texas beaches, rivers and lakes frequently exceed bacteria levels deemed safe under state law, indicating unsafe levels of fecal contamination. Swimming in contaminated water can lead to gastrointestinal illness, as well as respiratory disease, ear and eye infections, and skin rashes.

To protect Texans’ health, and to ensure continued enjoyment of our waterways, Texas policymakers should undertake new efforts to limit water pollution.

More than half of all Texas beaches that were tested for bacterial contamination were unsafe for swimming on at least one day during 2017. Among 120 beaches in the state, 75 were unsafe for swimming on at least one day when water was sampled. Over that period, each site was sampled an average of 39 times.

  • The three beaches with the most unsafe water days in 2017 – Ropes Park, Cole Park, and Emerald Beach – are all located in Corpus Christi, on the southern shore of the bay. All tested as unsafe on more than 10 days. At Ropes Park, one sample site was unsafe for swimming on 24 days (42 percent of the days on which testing took place). At Cole Park, one sample site was unsafe for swimming on 20 days, and the Emerald Beach sampling site tested as unsafe for swimming on 14 days. Because each beach was tested fewer than 60 times during the year, there may have been many more days on which swimming was unsafe during the year.
  • Three beach sites on the outer shore of the Bolivar Peninsula at Galveston Bay – the beaches at Helen Boulevard, Magnolia Lane and Rettilon Road – all tested as unsafe on five or more days.
  • Some areas in Texas did not have any tests that indicated unsafe water in 2017, including beaches in the area of McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge and Sea Rim State Park near Beaumont, and beaches on South Padre Island and Boca Chica State Park at the southern tip of Texas. These beaches were all tested between 25 and 38 times during 2017.

Table ES-1. Beaches with Five or More Days of Unsafe Water Pollution in 2017
For beaches with multiple testing stations, data from the station with most unsafe days is presented.

Beach Name

Coastal Area

Unsafe Days in 2017

Days with Sampling

Percentage of Testing Days with Unsafe Water

Ropes Park

Corpus Christi Bay

24

57

42%

Cole Park

Corpus Christi Bay

20

53

38%

Emerald Beach

Corpus Christi Bay

14

47

30%

Galveston Island State Park #6 - Bayside

Galveston Bay

8

43

19%

Rettilon Road

Galveston Bay

8

48

17%

Magnolia Lane

Galveston Bay

6

43

14%

Sylvan Beach - South

Galveston Bay

6

41

15%

Beach Drive

Freeport*

5

41

12%

Corpus Christi Marina - South

Corpus Christi Bay

5

41

12%

Fort Crockett Seawall Park

Galveston Bay

5

41

12%

Helen Blvd.

Galveston Bay

5

43

12%

Palacios Pavilion East

Matagorda Bay

5

43

12%

* In U.S. Geological Survey watershed maps, this area is referred to as the Austin-Oyster watershed.

 

Figure ES-1. Beaches with Five or More Days of Unsafe Water Pollution in 2017

More than 700 freshwater sites tested as having levels of bacterial contamination that would have made them unsafe for swimming in 2017. Tests at 708 freshwater sites across Texas revealed levels of bacterial contamination that made them unsafe for swimming on at least one day during 2017, out of 1,450 freshwater sites tested. Many of these sites are not currently used for swimming, sometimes because of unsafe pollution levels.

  • Austin: Of 76 test sites within the city limits, 46 exceeded safe bacteria levels at least once in 2017. Waterways that frequently had unsafe bacteria levels included Waller Creek, Walnut Creek, West Bouldin Creek, East Bouldin Creek, and Blunn Creek.
  • Houston: In the city’s bayous, which sustain parks and provide fishing spots for area residents, all 44 sample sites had at least one day of water that was unsafe for contact recreation in 2017. Of those, 20 sites were unsafe at least 75 percent of the days that they were tested, and 12 sites were unsafe every single time they were tested. In Lake Houston, which is popular for boating and fishing, six out of nine testing sites exceeded safe levels of bacteria for contact recreation at least once in 2017. Three sites exceeded safe bacteria levels more than a third of the dates they were tested.
  • San Antonio: Along the San Antonio River, 21 sites were unsafe for swimming for at least one day in 2017, and 10 sites were unsafe for at least three days. In downtown San Antonio, where the river is used for boating and fishing and is the centerpiece of the popular River Walk, four neighboring test sites – the river crossings at Houston Street, Presa Street, and Lexington Avenue, and the southeastern corner of the river loop – had levels of bacteria that would have made them unsafe for swimming every time that they were tested.
  • Dallas-Fort Worth: No lakes in the DFW area showed unsafe levels of bacteria in tests. At 35 test sites in Benbrook Lake, Eagle Mountain Reservoir, Grapevine Lake, Lake Arlington, Lake Lavon, Lake Ray Hubbard and Lake Worth, no test in 2017 found unsafe levels of bacteria. Many other waterways in the area frequently had high bacteria levels, including Village Creek, the main tributary of Lake Arlington.
  • Killeen-Belton: Many sites along Long Branch, South Nolan Creek, and the Leon River after its confluence with Nolan Creek tested as having bacteria levels that would make them unsafe for swimming. Among 13 sampling sites in the Killeen-Belton area, 11 sites were unsafe for contact recreation on at least one day in 2017.

Figure ES-2. In Houston Waterways, 96 out of 100 Test Sites Had Unsafe Bacteria Levels at Least Once in 2017


Urban and agricultural pollution are often to blame for unsafe water. The fecal contamination indicated by high bacteria levels comes from a range of sources – urban runoff carrying animal waste from pets; sewage overflows and septic leaks carrying human waste; agricultural runoff carrying livestock waste manure from industrial-scale feedlots; and all forms of runoff carrying animal waste from wildlife such as deer, feral hogs and seagulls.

Texans deserve access to clean, swimmable waters. But today, all too often, Texans looking to swim at the beach or tube down a river are deterred by warning signs – or worse, have their health put at risk. To keep Texas’ water safe, policymakers must take steps to test water quality at more locations, and test more frequently; post testing results and warnings more publicly; and prevent pollution at the source, whether from urban runoff, sewage systems, or agricultural runoff.