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A ‘Partial Victory’ for Texas Streams

TCEQ votes to keep strong bacteria standard (for now)
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Sometimes shit doesn’t roll down hill. Sometimes shit just stays where it’s at. That was the case Wednesday when the three Texas Commission on Environmental Quality commissioners decided to leave the principal water quality standard for bacteria alone. I’ll let the Fort Worth Star-Telegram explain the details.

Texas waterways that are defined as primary contact recreation – where people can swim, wade, fish or kayak – can have up to 126 colonies of E. coli per 100 milliliters of water before being classified as polluted. E. coli is a bacterium associated with human and animal waste.

Commissioners kept that standard rather than increasing it to 206 colonies per 100 milliliters as recommended by the commission’s staff.

The Sierra Club’s Ken Kramer called it a “partial victory.” Partial because the commissioners nonetheless set up a process in which lakes and rivers can be downgraded to a lower bacteria standard. It’s a little confusing but here’s how it works:

As it stands right now, the vast majority of Texas water bodies are classified as primary contact recreation, lakes, rivers and creeks that are supposed to be safe for swimming. The only other category, non-contact, applies to just a handful of places, like the Houston Ship Channel, where the bacteria standard is 605 colonies and swimming is… well, a bad idea.

On Wednesday, the commissioners chucked this out and created a tiered system, with four different categories.

The most stringent category, primary contact recreation, would stay the same at 126 colonies. Lakes and rivers where people frequently fish or boat but don’t swim could have as many as 630 colonies (“secondary contact recreation 1”). Other places with infrequent use, such as small creeks with limited public access, would be allowed up to 1,030 colonies (“secondary contact recreation 2”). Finally, the standard for “non-contact” water would rise to 2,060 colonies.

The weaker the standard, the more people will get sick from ingesting water.

To downgrade a stream into one of the lower classifications, TCEQ or a “stakeholder” can initiate a “use attainability analysis” of the lake, river, creek or bayou. (An explanation of the process as well as a list of streams under review is here.)

If it’s found that the stream isn’t being used for swimming or wading, then TCEQ can okay more E. coli in the water. Neat, huh?

Chairman Bryan Shaw hinted at this during the hearing when he said, “I know there are those who will perceive that 126 is overly burdensome and not justified.”

Some of “those” testified at the hearing in favor of the weakened bacteria standards, including the Texas Industry Project, the Texas Cattle Feeders Association and a consortium of wastewater dischargers.

The fear is that “those” will be better-organized and wield more influence than the swimmers, kayakers, fishermen, and others who use a particular stream. In a story entitled “New rules could lower standards for S.A. River” the San Antonio Express-News highlights the example of the San Antonio River:

[T]his fall the city is planning to begin constructing a treatment plant for the discharge from the San Antonio Zoo. With that source of bacteria removed and better stewardship of the watershed by residents, the San Antonio River Authority believes it could reach its goal of a river clean enough for toddlers.

[The San Antonio River Authority] does not want that goal to be lost under TCEQ’s new standards.

“Public comments from communities … should be the key consideration when changing the aquatic recreation classification since this limits future recreation opportunities,” SARA environmental sciences superintendent Rebecca Reeves wrote to the TCEQ.

A few months ago, I interviewed Stephanie Stringer, a former TCEQ employee who was highly critical of the agency’s approach to water quality standards. An aquatic biologist, Stringer left TCEQ after fours weeks, in part because of her frustration with the process of reclassifying streams. While at TCEQ, she had a direct hand in both use attainability analyses and clean-up plans for polluted streams.

“It sounded like they had already made the decision to do the downgrading and you had to develop a document to do that,” Stringer said. She said that the agency has developed a streamlined approach that leans toward designating streams as non-swimmable.

Stringer had worked for years at the New Mexico Environment Department, where things were done quite differently.

It was “overwhelming to me that they [TCEQ] could get away with it,” she said. “It’s so different from here in New Mexico where it would take an act of God to downgrade a stream. And we’re dealing with the same region and the same staff at EPA. Why are we dealing with such a dichotomy between these two states?”

Stringer said TCEQ management’s attitude was: “Ok, we’ve got this community that’s not happy about [a river clean-up] so we want to satisfy this particular community because they seem to be pulling strings with someone.”

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is associate editor of the Observer. Forrest specializes in environmental reporting and runs the “Forrest for the Trees” blog. Forrest has appeared on Democracy Now!, The Rachel Maddow Show and numerous NPR stations. His work has been mentioned by The New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Time magazine and many other state and national publications. Other than filing voluminous open records requests, Forrest enjoys fishing, kayaking, gardening and beer-league softball. He holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin.