Foes of Fort Worth floodwater plan cite high bacteria levels

FORT WORTH -- On the day before the Fort Worth City Council is scheduled to vote on recreational enhancements for Riverside Park, a local group opposed to the plan has once again raised questions about water quality in the park and along the Trinity River.

After samples taken at two locations in the Trinity River indicated what they call high levels of fecal coliform bacteria near Riverside Park and along Northside Drive, the Friends of Riverside Park urged city officials to conduct more testing before they allow swimming or tubing in the river.

"The question still is -- given these public health questions about the quality of the water -- about the appropriateness of putting the flood storage in the public park where the public will have much more access to primary contact with the river water," said group member Libby Willis. "The city is always concerned about liability and risk management, and I would think these documents would raise that flag on this project in a major way."

But the group's conclusions have been challenged by the Tarrant Regional Water District, which has conducted monthly water quality sampling at four locations -- Beach Street, 4th Street, Northside Drive and Trinity Park -- along the Trinity River for the last decade.

Woody Frossard, the water district's environmental director, said the Friends of Riverside Park tested for fecal coliform bacteria rather than E. coli, which is the state standard. When the fecal coliform bacteria readings are translated into E. coli measurements, they are close to acceptable levels, Frossard said.

"They're right at the level identified by the state," Frossard said. "They're not out of the norm. It may or may not be a reportable event."

Kelly Woulters, a forensic consultant for Armstrong Forensic Laboratory in Arlington, which conducted the tests, didn't disagree with Frossard's conclusions but said that they still should be cause for concern.

More investigation needed

City staff is likely to brief council members about the lab report's findings, said Randle Harwood, director of the city's program management office. But Harwood agreed with Frossard's conclusions about the river's water quality.

"All of the testing we have done and that we have seen shows it's safe for swimming," said Harwood, who added that the findings were being studied by staff on Monday.

"You need to investigate it," Harwood said.

The issue of water quality has gained more attention as the $909 million Trinity River Vision Project, which will stretch from the near-north side to Gateway Park, moves forward.

This summer, Trinity River Vision conducted three highly publicized tubing events on the river, and Cowtown Wake Park also has a temporary operation in place at Trinity Park.

But the Friends of Riverside Park have been focused on the future of Riverside Park itself.

Willis' group has argued that poor water quality from floodwaters would make the park unsafe. City officials and the water district have strongly disagreed.

Move water storage

Last week, the water district said it has the right to store floodwaters in the park as part of the Trinity River Vision Project regardless of whether the city approves the plan, leaving it to council members to decide whether to approve the recreational enhancements.

Willis and others view the announcement as an end-run around two-plus years of public debate.

In making the water samples public, Willis is still urging council members to persuade the water district to use an adjacent property for flood storage rather than the park.

Willis said it is not news that the Trinity River Vision Authority, a political subdivision of the water district, and the water district, have a flood control easement on the property.

"In fact, that easement extends to the private property just north of the park, begging the question about why that has not been seriously reviewed for the flood storage," Willis said. "It's not a case of TRVA/TRWD needing to buy the property to create flood storage -- that's not necessary. They have the authority right now to create the flood storage there and have had that authority for over 50 years."

But Frossard said a decade's worth of water sampling shows the river is safe for swimming, except for isolated incidents that are usually caused by storm runoff. He also noted that elevated bacteria levels can be found occasionally at popular Texas swimming holes in the Guadalupe and Comal rivers near New Braunfels and at Barton Springs in Austin.

Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698