Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

For Texas Bays and Beaches, Pick Your Poison: Rainfall or Drought

Photo by Caleb Miller/KUT News

Rainfall, while providing drought relief, can also cause more pollution runoff.

We find ourselves at a bit of a catch-22 under the state’s historic drought. On the one hand, the lack of rainfall is creating a struggle for wildlife.

When hot temperatures cause evaporation, salt remains, and that increases the salinity of the water in Texas bays. “You definitely saw the salinities were really high [during the drought],” says Leslie Hartman, the Matagorda Bay ecosystem leader of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “They were actually oceanic levels of salinity last year, and not all fish are comfortable when there’s that much salt in the water.” Bays like Matagorda, with a mix of fresh river water and salty ocean water, need a balanced mix of the two in order for fish and wildlife to thrive.

On the other hand, too much rainfall can cause pollution to run off into the rivers, and eventually threaten the state’s bays and beaches.

A new report from the National Resources Defense Council details testing done on hundreds of state beaches around the nation and evaluates the levels of certain bacteria found in the water. Texas’ lack of rain in 2011 yielded less polluted runoff – and so some Texas beaches are cleaner than they have been in previous, wetter years.

Texas’ South Padre Island was rated one of the nation’s twelve cleanest beaches, and Texas ranked 8th in beachwater quality overall out of 30 states. Only five percent of the samples in designated beach testing areas exceeded national standards last year. (But Nueces, Matagorda, Kleberg, Harris and Aransas beaches all exceeded the daily maximum bacteria standard.)

But when Texas does have a wet year, like in 2010, the numbers go higher. That years, eight percent of samples taken at designated beaches exceeded national standards. And that bacteria caused by runoff and other sources of pollution can cause stomach flu, respiratory infection, and ear and skin infections. They can also cause harmful algal blooms, also called “red tides,” which disrupt local ecosystems.

So at a certain point, the excess of rain can lead to damage to certain areas in the environment. But at the root of this problem, there is another cause, says Luke Metzger, Director of the group Environment Texas.

“The rain is not to blame,” Metzger says, “what is to blame is the pollution, and our failure to prevent the pollution from running into our streams.” The answer, Metzger says, is to become proactive in preventing pollution that rain would relocate.

A big portion of this pollution comes, not from trash left by people, according to Metzger, but from the concrete in buildings. “We have paved so much of our state, that the pavement is a ready conduit for pollution, including animal and sometimes human waste, motor oil, pesticides, all to just rush along that concrete and go into our streams.”

Solutions? Metzger says that porous pavement, rooftop gardens to collect rainfall that would otherwise run off, and factory farms having ‘buffers’ between their properties and the streams would all help.

“What happens inland carries down, it has an effect all the way down here to the coast,” says Hartman of Parks and Wildlife. “I get very frustrated, we see that all the time. You can go out to Matagorda Island, and it’s just awash, and I do mean awash, in human garbage.”

“Humans have a right to be here,” she explains, “but we’ve got to be here smart.”


Robb Jacobson is an intern with StateImpact Texas.


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