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Monitoring bay's cleanliness
Officials struggle with value of bacteria info

Caller-Times (Corpus Christi)
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 health effects.

"It's data right now that we have not figured out its exact purpose," said health district director Michael Silvers.

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 or vomiting.

"Although swimming-related 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 risks.

"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 swim.

Lamar University conducts the tests for Beaumont and Jefferson County, but the health department does not post the findings.

"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 water pollution.

"It's hard to use the information," he said. "I think that's at the core of why there is some hesitation."

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," he said.

Read about beach advisories

For More Information Contact:
Kurt Koopmann
Public Information Officer
Galveston County Health District
(409) 938-2211