Up Shit Creek

Brad Tyer
Trinity River

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is proposing to significantly lower clean water standards, a gift to wastewater dischargers.

Even though the public comment period closes tomorrow it’s unlikely that the vast majority of Texans have heard a thing about it.

The only daily newspaper to have written a word on the subject – from my search of Google News – is the Austin American-Statesman. That’s really unfortunate. The overhaul of water quality standards, which hasn’t happened since 2000, is a major statewide environmental story, with far-reaching implications for anyone who fishes, kayaks, swims or skips stones in Texas rivers and lakes.

The most radical part of the TCEQ proposal involves a loosening of the limits on bacteria. In comments to be filed today, the Sierra Club calls the changes “a systematic effort to weaken existing clean water standards that protect the health of people who recreate in or on Texas lakes and streams.”

The Statesman summarizes the changes:

Currently, Texas waterways are divided into two basic categories: The vast majority are known as contact recreation waterways, in which people might swim, wade, fish or kayak, among other things. A few, such as the Houston ship channel, are known as noncontact.

Contact recreation waterways can have up to 126 colonies per 100 milliliters for E. coli, a bacterium linked to human and animal waste, before they are considered polluted.

Under the proposed revisions, “primary contact” waterways would have a limit of 206 colonies per 100 milliliters before being considered polluted. Many waterways where fishing and boating, but not swimming, take place could have as many as 630 colonies per 100 milliliters before being called polluted.

According to a risk assessment by the commission, for a water body with an E. coli level of 126, eight in 1,000 swimmers could become ill. If the E. coli level is 206, 10 in 1,000 swimmers could become ill. At 630 parts per 100 milliliters, 14 to 15 swimmers per 1,000 could become ill.

Essentially, the state has decided to allow more shit in our water. By TCEQ’s own admission, 293 bodies of water would have “less stringent” bacteria standards.

Perhaps most worrisome is what will happen to bodies of water with “primary contact recreation,” defined in the proposed rules as “activities that are presumed to involve a significant risk of ingestion of water (e.g. wading by children, swimming, water skiing, diving, tubing, surfing, and whitewater kayaking, canoeing, and rafting).”

By loosening the standard from 126 to 206 colonies per 100 ml, the agency would, with a wave of the bureaucratic pen, bump at least 62 “primary contact” streams from a list of polluted bodies of water. Removal from the list would mean the state would no longer have to develop what are called “Total Maximum Daily Loads” (TMDLs), limits on the total amount of pollution in a body of water. TMDLs are supposed to trigger a clean-up plan, though environmental groups contend that TCEQ routinely ignores this requirement under the federal Clean Water Act.

(I’m trying to get a list of the streams and lakes that would be de-listed under this proposal and will update this post when I do.)

TCEQ justifies its proposal as a common-sense cost-saver.

By dropping just those 62 streams from its polluted-waters list, the agency estimates that it can save $1 million over three years.

Of course, the real monetary winners are the wastewater utilities and agrobiz interests.

“There are real costs associated with managing a farm to comply with the law,” said John Cowan, executive director of the Texas Association of Dairymen. To prevent manure from washing into waterways, farmers may be forced to fence in cattle, thereby losing valuable grazing acreage, he said.

Wastewater utilities also support the new standards.

“The tighter the standard, the more technology you might have to employ to treat (sewage to meet) that standard,” costing wastewater companies and ratepayers, said Brad Castleberry, a lawyer who represents the Water Environment Association of Texas.

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is the editor of the Observer.

Published at 10:20 pm CST
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