Does Untested = Clean?
Did the Trinity River Vision Authority cancel tubing events this year and last year because of high levels of dangerous bacteria in the river? It depends on your definition of “because.”
A TRVA spokesman says E. coli played no part in the cancellation. On the other hand, both times, the events were cancelled during periods when the river could have been expected to have unacceptably high levels of a type of bacteria that can indeed make people very ill.
It also depends on what the TRVA knew about bacteria levels — and what, perhaps, it should have known as a government agency that for the last three years has been encouraging people to dive into a river that local residents have long been told to regard as polluted.
The Trinity as it runs through Fort Worth is a much cleaner river than it was in decades past, and recreational uses are permitted. However, the state still advises against eating fish caught in the Trinity due to chemicals and other pollution.
Mary Kelleher, newly elected to the board of the Tarrant Regional Water District, mentioned at a recent board meeting that she had talked with the district’s environmental staff about the river’s water quality and was told that two tubing events had been cancelledbecause of high levels of Escherichia coli or E. coli bacteria. The water district is the parent agency of the TRVA.
Kelleher knows firsthand about the potential dangers of water pollution. She farms in East Fort Worth near the Trinity on land that floods often, and she’s gotten sick in the past after coming in contact with contaminated floodwaters. Storms can dramatically increase the levels of E. coli in streams and rivers because of additional runoff from animal wastes in agricultural areas as well as pollution from landfills and wastewater treatment plants.
However, the water district only tests water quality in the river once a month — a time period during which pollution levels can vary significantly. So when TRVA spokesman Matt Oliver said the district didn’t cancel events this year and in 2012 due to high levels of bacteria, that was accurate — because the agency didn’t know whether the water that day was dangerously polluted or not. Statistics suggest there was a good chance it was.
The city of San Antonio, by contrast, does weekly testing of its river water and publicizes the results so that people know the pollution levels.
Critics say the Tarrant district should be testing water quality more often and better publicizing the results.
“Oftentimes the E. coli levels are in excess of what is safe according to the Texas Department of Health,” said John Basham, who has ran unsuccessfully several times for a spot on the water district board.
Hundreds of residents attend the tubing events, particularly the Rockin’ the River summer tubing and concert series at Panther Island Pavilion, where people can drink beer while floating on inner tubes and listening to music. The TRVA, which sponsors the events, came up with a marketing slogan that seems to pooh-pooh concerns about the potential for poo problems: “Clean Swimmin,’ Dirty Livin.’ ”
Still, Kelleher said she appreciated that the TRVA was willing to make tough decisions.
“I was pleased to know that they were testing for E. coli and, if they had knowledge that the water was not safe, that they would cancel [tubing events],” she told Fort Worth Weekly.
Oliver said the two tubing events were cancelled for reasons other than increased E. coli levels.
The first cancellation was June 7, 2012.
“We had a big rain the day before and the day of, and the river was moving too swiftly” for public safety, Oliver said. The fast-moving water washed litter and debris into the river, causing the cancellation, he said.
The other cancellation occurred last July 11. A storm’s high winds and hail damaged the pavilion’s sound system, Oliver said.
However, no testing for E. coli was performed on either of those dates. So it’s possible that E. coli levels were high enough to warrant canceling the events.
The water district tests the Trinity for E. coli and 20 other types of pollutants each month and lists the E. coli results on its website. Stated along with the results is this disclaimer: “The program is not designed to give day-to-day water quality information. It is well understood that the river’s water quality can change immediately upon a rainfall event. E. coli bacteria are indicators of fecal contamination by warm-blooded animals. High number of E. coli could increase the chance of contacting some water-borne disease.”
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality recommends banning water-contact recreation if E. coli levels exceed 394 MPN. (MPN is an estimate of the fecal conditions, or bacteria, found in a sample of 100 milliliters of surface water.)
Most of the water district’s tests did show low levels of E. coli. The water district tested the waters 25 times between September 2011 and August 2013, at various sites. The average result was 59.6 MPN, far below the 394 limit.
However, several tests showed high levels of E. coli, particularly after rains. For instance, a sample collected during a rainstorm in January 2012 showed 8,164 MPN, about 20 times higher than the 394 limit.
At Kelleher’s property, a trickle of floodwater becomes a chest-high river through her yard in less than an hour. When that happens, she has to move her farm animals to higher ground by wading through water and pulling them in a boat.
“I was swimming in the Trinity River basically,” she said.
Afterward, she said, she’d often become ill with stomach cramping and “diarrhea from hell.”
Fort Worth League of Neighborhood Associations president Libby Willis and other residents first expressed concerns about water quality three years ago when the TRVA proposed to divert floodwaters to a retention pond in the Riverside neighborhood. Willis’s group consulted with Joon Lee, a University of North Texas Health and Science professor who specializes in public water supplies.
“He was saying you need to test more than once a month; you probably need to test five times a month,” she said.
Testing has its flaws. It can require up to 48 hours to take samples, run tests, and crunch results. By that time, E. coli levels in the river can be completely different.
Officials with the water district, the TRVA, and the city appear hell-bent on establishing water recreation near downtown but don’t appear overly interested in cleaning the river, testing the waters, and sharing results, she said.
“They’re doing it backward it seems,” she said. “It amazes me when I see all those people in the tubes. It’s a nasty river.”
Willis doesn’t blame the TRVA for the E. coli levels, she said. But she does expect the agency to protect residents who are invited to go tubing.
The San Antonio River is considered dirtier than the Trinity — swimming and water-contact recreation is forbidden near the metropolitan area. But boating is allowed — and testing is frequent.
“Paddling and kayaking are something we promote,” San Antonio River Authority spokesman Steven Schauer said. Even though people aren’t submerging in the water, “We pull samples of the river in a variety of locations every Wednesday,” Schauer said. “We do it on Wednesday because it’s usually a 48-hour period to run the E. coli tests and get the data in, and every Friday we post the results on our website. We really want folks to be knowledgeable, and we make it clear if the bacteria levels are high.”
Transparency is crucial to win the trust of residents, he said.
“We try to be very open about the current condition of the river, even if it’s not what we want it to be,” he said.
Making people aware of test results and explaining the reasons for spikes in E. coli bacteria helps officials get the community involved in solving the problems, such as by picking up their pet waste, he said.
San Antonio’s goal is to clean up the river enough to allow water contact recreation, including tubing.
“We’re not there yet,” Schauer said. “That’s why we don’t shy away from letting people know what the bacteria levels are, because we need the community to help us reach that goal.”
The TRVA doesn’t do as much testing or publicizing of results, but it does provide a 500-word release that tubers must sign, which includes absolving the agency of responsibility for “any and all claims for bodily injury, death, sickness, disease” and other damages.