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Two Americas: Nueces County ranks among worst beaches in Texas for fecal bacteria

Posted at 6:41 PM, Oct 21, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-25 08:52:59-04

CORPUS CHRISTI, Tex. — Bacteria levels should probably be the first thing beachgoers check before diving in.

Millions of travelers take trips to the county’s coasts every year. Some are unaware of exactly what is in the water. Sometimes, it is poop.

“We think that everyone should be able to swim in the gulf and in our beaches without the fear of getting sick,” said Luke Metzger, who is executive director of the Environment Texas organization.

ET tracks nationwide enterococci testing. When seawater tests positive for this class of bacteria, it means fecal matter (also known as poop) is present, and therefore there also might be disease-causing bacteria, viruses, and microorganisms. This danger cannot be seen from a bird’s-eye view or with a zoomed-in camera. It takes special equipment.

"I have my collection stick,” La Dona Parr said as she collected her tools from the sand.

Parr is a public-health technician for the Corpus Christi-Nueces County Public Health District. She also helps the Texas Beach Watch by sampling 49 Texas coastal waters on a weekly or biweekly basis.

texas beach watch
A map of La Dona Parr's collection sites.

"We want to ensure that, when people come to the beach, they’re not going to get sick,” said Parr.

Gulf-coast beaches have had problems for years.

They are not everywhere, but when seawater is potentially unsafe, bright-orange signs are opened to display a warning.

"Unfortunately, some of the worst beaches for fecal bacteria in the state are in Nueces County and Corpus Christi area,” Metzger said.

ET’s latest Safe for Swimming? report shows: 55 Texas beaches had potentially unsafe fecal bacteria levels for at least a day. Corpus Christi's Cole Park did the worst with potentially unsafe seawater for 62 days of testing time.

"The things you can get from bad water quality can be anything from sinus issues, gastrointestinal issues, ear issues, to more serious things,” said Neil McQueen, vice chair of the Texas Coastal Bend chapter of the Surfrider Foundation.

Years ago, McQueen unknowingly surfed over a sewer line break in California.

"My throat started swelling up within hours and I came down with a bad cold,” McQueen said.

Metzger said the problem is badly outdated infrastructure. Sewage systems can get overwhelmed when it rains, which can lead to overflowing.

"Raw sewage can enter into our creeks and flow into our gulf waters,” said Metzger.

And there are 80-100 stormwater outfalls on the Corpus Christi Bay.

Congress is making historic infrastructure investments, but more needs to be done. Advocates push communities to contact elected officials for more backing on clean water. They also remind pet owners to scoop the poop.