Caller-Times (Corpus Christi)
with value of bacteria info
Published - 08/11/04
By Neal Falgoust
By the time officials got
those alerts, however, the test results
were more than 24 hours old and provided
little useful information to protect the
public, they said.
Besides, health officials
say, they're not sure how much of a threat
is posed when windsurfers and kiteboarders
go out regularly and don't report ill
"It's data right now
that we have not figured out its exact
purpose," said health district director
University biologists have
alerted local health officials to high
levels of bacteria in local waters at
least 37 times during the past year. Those
advisories, however, were not publicized
because the health department is not convinced
there would have been a clear threat to
public health by the time the advisories
were posted. It also is not sure how to
pass the information to the public in
a way that would allow people to make
an informed decision.
The testing was conducted
as part of the federal Beach Watch program,
which establishes water safety standards
for the nation's beaches. The goal of
the program is to notify the public when
there is an elevated risk of illness posed
by high levels of bacterial contamination.
The tests, funded by the
Texas General Land Office and conducted
three times a week by the university's
Center for Coastal Studies, look for the
bacteria enterococcus, an indicator of
fecal contamination. But it takes 24 hours
to grow the bacteria in a lab, and health
department officials said by the time
they hear about the contamination and
notify the public, it might be too late
to do any good. Once contamination is
found, the tests are conducted daily until
they show normal levels.
Those who work in the field
said there are discussions all over the
nation about the usefulness of the tests.
The question is not about their quality
but in how to apply the results in the
public health sector.
A report issued this month
by the Natural Resource Defense Council
suggested that storm water runoff contributes
to the pollution, but it did not indicate
the exact sources of the contamination.
The bacteria typically cause diarrhea
illnesses usually are not severe or life-threatening,
they can cause significant discomfort
and keep people out of work or school
for days," according to the report.
"The risks are greater for young
children, the elderly and people with
impaired immune systems."
The council is a nonprofit
organization that describes itself as
an environmental action group with more
than 1 million members.
Joanna Mott, an associate
professor of biology who oversees the
tests, said the alerts mean there is an
elevated risk of illness for people who
swim in the water. If the contamination
levels are very high, it could be around
for several days, she said. If they are
low, the danger could pass quickly. Mott
would not say whether the health district
should post alerts, but she said the ultimate
goal is to notify the public of elevated
"There's always a risk
swimming in seawater," she said.
"It comes down to the city government
making the decision." Even if the
tests were made public, some people said
it wouldn't change their minds about swimming
in the bay.
Carrie Robertson, a windsurfer,
has heard about the tests and the potential
for pollution, but does not pay much attention
to them because she has never fallen ill
after swimming in the water. "I just
don't let it bother me," she said.
But state and local officials
all said even with the uncertainty surrounding
the tests, people should avoid the bay
after a major downpour.
Along the coast, there is
no set system for notifying the public
about polluted water. Galveston County
is the only coastal location required
by the land office to post the alerts
because the health district is directly
responsible for the testing. In the other
five counties that participate in the
state's Beach Watch program - Nueces,
Jefferson, Matagorda, Brazoria and Cameron
- the land office contracts with other
agencies, which report their findings
to the land office and local health officials.
In Galveston, the
health district posts notices on its Web
site. Officials said an advisory does
not mean the beach is closed. It is issued
simply to inform the public of the elevated
bacteria level so each person can make
an informed decision about whether to
Lamar University conducts
the tests for Beaumont and Jefferson County,
but the health department does not post
"I don't know who they
tell," said Environmental Control
Director Michael Melancon.
Melancon said he thought
the land office disseminated the information,
but the land office said it doesn't have
the authority to issue advisories.
Philippe Tissot, assistant
professor of physics and physical science
at A&M-Corpus Christi and a windsurfer
who uses the beaches, admits that it's
hard to apply the tests in a way to give
the public useful information. So he's
working with biologists at the university
to develop prediction models that would
allow the health department to forecast
"It's hard to use the
information," he said. "I think
that's at the core of why there is some
Tissot said the local health
department should not exempt itself from
issuing advisories just because of the
time delay. He said the solution should
be that the information is posted on the
Internet so that it is more immediately
available to people who want to use it.
There are no repercussions
if local entities don't use the information.
While the land office would like local
officials to pass the information along,
"We respect their decision not to,"
land office spokesman Jim Suydam said.
Only local health officials
are authorized to issue advisories, but
the land office is developing a Web site
to post the information it receives. The
state office also is sending local government
signs to post at the beach when they issue
an advisory, but it will be their choice
to use them.
Regardless of whether the
health district alerts the public about
contamination, the larger problem is that
the pollution is often caused by storm
water runoff. During a major downpour,
fecal matter from pets and wild animals
washes into drains and into the bay.
Those involved in pollution
prevention believe some of that can be
fixed by replacing concrete-lined ditches
and drains with grass-lined ditches. That
would slow the flow of water and allow
some of it to percolate into the soil.
It would also open the water to sunlight,
which would kill the bacteria.
Ray Allen, executive director
of the Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries
Program, said the pollution is a natural
occurrence, and he said people should
be notified when there is a risk to their
health. "I'm just not convinced that
anything can be done to reduce the bacteria,"
For More Information
Public Information Officer
Galveston County Health District