Jeffrey Turner stands on a concrete overlook above Corpus Christi Bay. Water laps gently below him, and shorebirds circle overhead. Nearby, a fishing pier recently rebuilt at a cost of $7.5 million gleams in the bright sunlight. Amid this idyllic scene, the marine biologist points to a spot just below his feet and says, “It is always leaking human waste from here.”
He’s talking about the Louisiana Parkway Outfall, a subterranean canal that runs deep under Corpus Christi and flows into the bay at Cole Park, just south of downtown. It’s one end of the line for an arterial network of storm drains, pipes, and culverts intended to drain excess rainwater from the city’s streets. This system wasn’t meant to discharge human feces, but it does, especially when rainstorms overwhelm the sewers. “This outfall drains a large area,” Turner says, “and a lot of the homes in that area are old and have bad plumbing.”
So much waste flows into the bay, in fact, that the Environmental Protection Agency sued Corpus Christi in 2012 for failing to properly maintain its sewer system. The case was settled in 2020, with the city agreeing to make $725 million worth of repairs and upgrades. But even as that fifteen-year process has gotten underway, Turner argues that we still don’t fully appreciate the extent to which Texas coastal waters can pose a public health hazard.
Researchers at Turner’s lab at Texas A&M–Corpus Christi have determined there is more human waste in Corpus Christi Bay—and potentially in the other urban bays—than state officials recognize. Turner says the lone water-safety test that Texas uses to determine when to close its beaches isn’t sufficiently gauging whether conditions are safe. And that may be leaving swimmers and kite surfers and fishers and others exposed to dangerous conditions.
Frolicking in waters laden with feces isn’t just cringeworthy. “There’s so many human health outcomes from recreating in water, and it’s not just diarrhea,” says Dr. Kristina Mena, the dean of the UTHealth School of Public Health’s campus in El Paso, who evaluated the water quality of the athletes’ village during the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics. “It’s also respiratory and skin infections.” Human waste can carry all manner of nastiness, including meningitis, rotavirus, cholera, Hepatitis A, Norwalk virus, and creepy worms called helminths that relish burrowing into human skin.
The state doesn’t test for any of those—or even the feces they live in—when it sets out to assess the safety of coastal waters. Instead, officials sample water to test for a proxy for these pathogens, bacteria from the genus Enterococcus that are found in the guts of humans and other animals. Enterococci don’t make people sick, but studies dating as far back as the fifties have linked the presence of high levels of enterococci in recreational waters to the health risks posed by human waste.
Texas isn’t alone in relying on enterococci tests. The EPA made enterococci testing the national standard in 2000, after Congress passed the BEACH Act, which made funds available for states to pay for mandated open-water testing for microbial outbreaks. By 2004, every state with saltwater beachfront had created a monitoring program based on that single proxy. In Texas, it’s called Texas Beach Watch.
The program is run by the Texas General Land Office and funded by the EPA. It received $460,000 in federal money in 2020, the most recent year for which a figure was available. Texas Beach Watch collects water samples from 168 stations at approximately 61 recreational beaches in Aransas, Brazoria, Cameron, Galveston, Harris, Jefferson, Kleberg, Matagorda, Nueces, and San Patricio counties every two weeks. (During peak beach season, May to September, tests are done weekly.) The EPA has guidelines as to what constitutes a recreational beach, where testing is required, but the states nevertheless have leeway in how broadly they test. Texas’s testing regime isn’t as nearly comprehensive as those of other states that have less coastline. For example, Rhode Island, with a coastline of 40 miles, tests 65 beaches; North Carolina, with coastline of 301 miles, tests 210 beaches; Texas, meanwhile, with a coastline of 367 miles, tests just 61 beaches.
When a test detects a surge in Enterococcus bacteria, most often after a hard rain, an advisory is posted on the Texas Beach Watch website, and testing continues daily until conditions clear up. Texas Beach Watch color codes its advisories: green for safe, yellow for elevated counts of enterococci, and red for a beach closure. (The technical measure for “elevated” is anything above 35 “colony-forming units” of bacteria per every 100 milliliters of saltwater. For a closure there need to be more than 104 colony-forming units for every 100 milliliters, a level set by the EPA.) An analysis of Texas Beach Watch data done last year by Texas State University’s Meadows Center for Water and the Environment tallied 6,521 times that the state’s monitored beaches exceeded the bacterial threshold requiring closure between 2009 and 2019.
More concerning are studies that show these conditions worsening. In May 2021, researchers from Turner’s lab published the most comprehensive study of historic trends in Enterococcus data in Texas, looking at the period from 2009 to 2020, and found that the counties losing the most coastline to sea-level rise are registering higher levels of microbial contamination. Although nearly every recreational beach in Texas at times can act as a septic tank, the study found 22 microbial hot spots in Harris, Matagorda, Brazoria, Nueces, and San Patricio counties. Beaches in those areas posted levels of enterococci on at least one occasion that “exceeded the tests’ upper detection limit,” meaning bacteria were too densely packed for the instruments to accurately measure.
Not only that, but Turner and his A&M research partner, Nicole Powers, have found over the past two years that Enterococcus tests often fail. Using DNA testing to look directly for the presence of human feces—rather than the indicator enterococci—the pair has sampled the water in Cole Park and seen enough human feces to warrant the beach’s closure at times when Texas Beach Watch was saying the water was clear.
Even worse, they found that the Enterococcus test fails during heavy rains, precisely when fecal levels in the water peak because of the flooded sewer system. Heavy rains can dilute water samples, obscuring the amount of human waste flowing through the stormwater system. “Even if the tests show Enterococcus is low,” Powers says, “we could still have a ton of human fecal pollution in Corpus Christi Bay.”
The researchers reported indicators in 2020 that human fecal waste might be omnipresent in Cole Park, and in 2021 consistently found human waste in samples taken there. They concluded that a possible source was continuous seepage from septic tank leaks and sewer line breaks—the sort of problems Corpus Christi is under a federal court’s order to fix as part of the city’s settlement with the EPA.
Turner and Powers also determined that traditional Enterococcus tests can lead to unnecessary beach closures. Unlike the DNA analysis employed by Turner and Powers, traditional testing can’t determine whether humans or animals are generating the fecal matter found in the water. Making the distinction is important, because fecal pathogens are best suited to make new homes in familiar hosts. That means the most dangerous form of excrement for humans to encounter at the beach is our own. Not every beach is subjected to a steady barrage of human sewage, as Cole Park is, yet they can be closed when a flock of birds creates a bacteria spike or a naturally occurring Enterococcus bloom is detected.
Because Texas and other states rely on a single test that, even when it works, doesn’t pinpoint the source of the waste in the water, Turner and Powers believe the true risks to beachgoers are unclear. “A policy decision based on any single data point is never a good idea,” Turner notes wryly. “It may be time to reevaluate what our standards are.”
DNA testing of samples at hot-spot beaches could find exactly what’s in the water and allow local authorities to make better-informed decisions about when beaches should close. But implementing Turner and Powers’ methods would likely prove too expensive. A cheaper alternative is a polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, test—the same kind of now-ubiquitous test employed to detect COVID-19.
PCR tests extract, copy, amplify, and identify tiny fragments of DNA, at a cost of $20 per sample. That’s a significant increase compared to the current testing. A spokesman for the GLO wouldn’t specify how much Texas’s current testing costs, but water microbiologists who use the tests in the field told Texas Monthly that traditional Enterococcus tests cost about $10 each.
Additional money for more elaborate testing might have to come from the EPA. Whether state officials have any interest in requesting that funding, however, is anyone’s guess. There has been no discernible public hand-wringing over Turner’s studies, and there is no ongoing dustup, in Texas or any other state, over the reliability of Enterococcus testing. “I’m an academic,” Turner says. “I publish studies that are not easily decipherable, in obscure journals that no one reads. Including people at the General Land Office.”
Several state officials, including Jason Pinchback, the manager of the coastal resources program at the GLO, was “unavailable for comment” for several months about Turner’s studies or whether the agency believes Enterococcus testing is flawed. But GLO officials, in an unattributed email, acknowledged that they are looking into another potential Texas Beach Watch improvement: Bacterial Source Tracing, or BST.
BST factors in local conditions, including weather, population, and likely sources of microbes, to anticipate a dangerous outbreak. For example, BST can help locals know what amount of rain typically results in high bacterial levels and issue a warning about potentially hazardous conditions during a storm without waiting for the state to come and test. Even a simple BST system can untangle the real causes of an outbreak from the ambiguity of an Enterococcus test. Rhode Island regularly uses BST on its beaches, and the public Southern California Coastal Water Research Project has used it to identify sources of fecal pollution since 2014.
Texas Beach Watch currently does not conduct any form of BST after discovering an outbreak, but GLO officials also see the potential of BST—up to a point. GLO spokesman Matt Atwood says the state is studying bacterial source tracking, “but there is no current plan for a comprehensive rollout for the entire network.”
Of course, even if the state introduces a system that employs BST, such monitoring may not prove popular with the locals who would be charged with cutting off sources of bacteria. “Fixing problems they may identify is a very expensive challenge,” says Michael Wetz of the Harte Research Institute at Texas A&M–Corpus Christi, which researches and leads conservation efforts in the Gulf of Mexico. “So, I’m not sure that some of the coastal communities are keen to hear what their contributions are to the problem.”
In Corpus Christi Bay, there’s little doubt that much of the human waste is originating in the city’s aging sewers. The EPA fined the city in 2020 for what it called “frequent discharges of raw sewage,” which are known in water quality parlance as “Sanitary Sewer Overflows.” State and federal regulators found that 40 percent of Corpus Christi neighborhoods experienced those overflows regularly, likely because about 450 miles of sewer lines need to be fixed.
At Cole Park, there are no other suspects for the human fecal pollution Turner found there. Still, city officials pooh-pooh any suggestion that the human waste in Corpus Christi Bay is definitively coming from the sewers. Multiple Corpus Christi officials declined to speak with me, but a quintet of them responded to my queries in a jointly written email. It was credited to Mike Murphy, the chief operating officer for water utilities; Gabe Ramirez, the city’s water director; Daniel Deng, the assistant director of wastewater treatment; Nick Winkelmann, a city engineer; and Jessica Martin, the city’s compliance program manager.
“Bacterial pollution can be caused by a variety of known and unknown factors,” they wrote. “Even if human-specific indicators are utilized, there is not a way to conclusively determine that Sanitary Sewer Overflows are the cause of bacterial pollution.”
Researchers long ago determined otherwise. Among them is Joanna Mott, formerly of Texas A&M, who worked on a state-funded study to trace the sources of bacteria in Corpus Christi Bay in 2010. That study found, not surprisingly, that city sewers were among the chief culprits and that Enterococcus tests were unreliable, an early warning of what Turner and Powers discovered a decade later. “I think layering BST onto Texas Beach Watch is feasible,” says Mott, who is now the vice president of academic affairs at the Oregon Institute of Technology. “I think it is also important to identify the source of the contamination, not just to know that there is contamination.”
Until water testing improves or the sewer lines in Corpus Christi all get fixed, beachgoers will have to rely on Texas Beach Watch, which gives a less clear picture of the human waste in the state’s waters than its color-coded online map indicates. For now, it’s up to those who are heading to the beach to weigh the risks and decide for themselves whether to hold their noses and dive in.
Turner won’t. Even though he can walk to Cole Park from his house and take a short bayfront stroll to McGee Beach, he prefers to drive forty minutes to other beaches along the Gulf when his family wants to take a dip. He eyes the surface of Corpus Christi Bay, sunglasses reflecting its innocently shimmering surface, and says, “I won’t swim down here.”