By ABBEY KUNKLE
Special to the PRESS
The University of Texas-Pan American (UTPA) Coastal Studies Laboratory, soon to be a part of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV), was originally established in 1973 as a marine biology laboratory and was expanded in 1985 to concentrate on university and public education and coastal research. In addition to programs such as sea turtle and marine mammal rescue, conducting sea grass surveys and hosting educational outreach programs, in 2004, the UTPA Coastal Studies Lab went into a contractual agreement with the Texas General Land Office (GLO) implementing the Texas Beach Watch Program to monitor and analyze beach water quality.
Per the request of SPI Coastal Resource and Parks Administrator Reuben Treviño, members of the Coastal Studies Lab addressed the SPI Shoreline Task Force at their meeting Monday afternoon to give a presentation about the Texas Beach Watch Program and water quality reports. Treviño requested the presentation to address a large volume of questions regarding bacteria issues on the upper Texas Coast this summer. He said, “I think a lot of people don’t realize that we actually do monitor pretty closely, and they are a great resource for us.”
The program was initiated in 2000 by the Texas General Land Office, the oldest state agency in Texas and involves collection of samples to be tested for the presence of the potentially life-threatening enterococcus bacteria, which is found in the digestive tract of mammals, potentially coming from the drainage of water treatment plants, as well as pet and farm waste, and even directly from humans. Samples are taken weekly during peak season and biweekly on Tuesdays and Wednesdays throughout the year at 26 different sites along the county and city beaches and bay. If the samples exceed criteria, beaches will be marked with advisory signs of elevated bacteria levels and could even be closed until levels reduce. The last time the beaches were closed was in June 2012 when Hurricane Alex passed through.
Samples are currently collected in front of major hotels and high traffic areas, as well as near the Island’s water treatment plant on the bay. Shoreline Task Force members were happy to hear that when compared with other coastal areas, the waters near South Padre Island are generally very good quality even during high temperature and high use times. Unfortunately, due to cost, the testing does not check for flesh-eating bacteria, but the lab is very involved in educating the public and recommends that people do not enter the shallow water during higher temperatures if open sores are on the body.
Task Force members had concerns in regards to the lack of testing on the bay. Twenty-five of the tested sites are on the county and city beaches as well as Boca Chica Beach, whereas only one site on the bay is sampled for bacteria. Treviño noted that the GLO has been contacted in regards to expanding the project on the bay, however, funding is not yet available. With so many residents and visitors participating in a variety of recreational activities on the bay such as kayaking, paddle boarding, wading and more, task force members requested further action from the Coastal Studies Lab towards the expansion of the project and planned to help lobby or provide a letter of support. In addition, they suggested that one or two sites of sampling be removed from the beach to provide funding for further bay testing. Task Force members decided to revisit the issue on the agenda at their next meeting for further discussion and action.
To find out more about the program, visit TexasBeachWatch.com.
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