Most experts say the Trinity River is safe for swimming

FORT WORTH -- Running through the heart of the city, the Trinity River is already home to canoeing, kayaking and wakeboarding.

But as plans are laid to create more access to the river, such as the tubing events that were held this summer, some residents still wonder: Is it safe?

Most experts say yes.

While bacteria levels meet state guidelines for swimming and wading, the average level of E. coli along the Trinity's Clear Fork from Benbrook Lake to downtown Fort Worth is just below the state standard for what's considered safe for swimming. E. coli is a bacterium linked to human and animal waste. Levels on the West Fork are well below the state standard.

"The river is suitable for swimming," said Andrew Sansom, executive director of the River Systems Institute at Texas State University. "Its E. coli standards are acceptable except when you have a lot of rain. When you have a lot of rain, the bacteria levels spike but they normally come down quickly."

Call for additional testing

Despite the results, not everyone believes the river is safe for swimming.

Libby Willis of Friends of Riverside Park said there isn't enough data to know anything about the Trinity's water quality.

The group was unsuccessful in its effort to block a plan to divert floodwater from the Trinity to Riverside Park once the Trinity River Vision Project's bypass channel is built.

The bypass channel will shift floodwater away from downtown, allowing the levees to come down and for development of the near north side.

Friends of Riverside Park released its own study in October that they said showed that high levels of bacteria near the park could be dangerous to human health.

Those findings were disputed by officials of the Tarrant Regional Water District, but Willis said the underlying message is that local officials don't know whether the Trinity is safe for swimming.

"They should be doing more frequent, independent testing of the Trinity," said Willis, who added that the city and the water district should develop a plan to "clean up" the river.

But Randle Harwood, planning and development director for Fort Worth, said that the level of activity on the Trinity hasn't reached the threshold to mandate more testing and that the city doesn't have the resources to test weekly.

"I think you should test more frequently if conditions indicate you should, but I'm leaving it up to the scientists to tell us if we should," Harwood said.

Making further improvements difficult

Texas rivers, including the Trinity, are in far better shape than in the '60s and '70s, Sansom said, because the most obvious sources of bacteria from water treatment plants and industrial waste have been tackled.

But that also poses a challenge.

"The biggest issues today in water quality are what we call nonpoint sources -- those are parking lots, highways runoff and agricultural sources -- things that are not coming from a pipe," Sansom said. "When it storms, everything just washes into the river or streams and we don't have an adequate means of protecting it."

In some urban areas, high bacteria levels can even be traced back to pet waste. One section of Bull Creek in Austin recently had to be closed because of high E. coli levels that were traced back to yards in residential areas.

"It was people's pets pooping in the yard and it washed into the creek," Sansom said. "People need to pick it up."

Weekly testing recommended

The River Systems Institute recommends weekly testing statewide to ensure that bacteria levels are safe for swimming. The institute's Texas Stream Team has 2,000 volunteers statewide to help test waterways because the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality simply doesn't have the manpower to monitor on a more regular basis.

If Fort Worth and the water district don't have the staff to test weekly, Sansom said, creating a team of volunteers would be the best way to instill confidence in residents that the river is safe for swimming. Sansom also cautioned that litter and debris are not indicators of overall quality, even if they are unsightly.

"The more we can get people in our rivers enjoying them for recreation, the better chance we will get for cleaning them up," said Sansom, a former executive director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. He said kayakers and canoeists have been instrumental in cleaning up many rivers and streams across the state.

Bacteria levels higher on the Clear Fork

On the Clear Fork, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality's 2010 Integrated Report showed an average of 116 E. coli colonies per 100 milliliters -- just below the state standard of 126 colonies per 100 milliliters. That was based on 67 samples.

On the West Fork of the Trinity from the Lake Worth dam to Village Creek near Arlington, samples showed an average of 66 colonies per 100 milliliters, well below the 126 level. That figure was based on 353 samples. Neither of the samples is high enough to trigger more monitoring by the state.

"At this point, it doesn't initiate any action on the state's part," said Andrew Sullivan, a team leader for TCEQ's surface water quality teams. "It is not until it goes over 126 that it triggers regulatory action."

In defending water recreation in the Trinity, city leaders and the water district have said most high bacteria events are triggered by floods or heavy storm-water runoff.

"Generally you get higher numbers in the summertime and you generally you get higher numbers associated with high flows," said Woody Frossard, the water district's environmental director. "Once the flows go down, so do the numbers."

Under the old federal standards, if 25 percent of the samples exceeded the 126 level, that could also trigger regulatory action, Sullivan said. A study for the TCEQ estimated eight in 1,000 swimmers would get sick at the 126 level.

Over a nine-year-period, the City of Fort Worth's monthly sampling at Beach Street found 27 samples out of 120 that exceeded the 126 standard. At its Fourth Street sampling station, 23 out of 120 exceeded it. In the water district's quarterly samples at Beach Street, four of the 34 samples exceeded the state standard, and at Fourth Street, three out of 34 samples were above the 126 threshold.

Austin-area swimming hole tested weekly

At Hamilton Pool, a popular, creek-fed swimming hole outside of Austin, closures are caused several times a year by high bacteria levels. As a result, Travis County officials test weekly, said Charles Bergh, Travis County Parks Director.

The popular hangout sometimes has high bacteria because of livestock waste upstream or from birds nesting near the pool.

"Except for the month of June, when it may close because of birds nesting, I suspect the issues with bacteria would be pretty similar to the Trinity," Bergh said. "We probably have more livestock issues and they probably have more issues with wastewater treatment, but the bottom line is high levels are usually caused by rain and runoff."

While the Clear Fork and West Fork in Fort Worth are considered safe for swimming, there are state health advisories on both segments against consuming fish because of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dioxin. Human exposure is caused by eating fish that have high concentrations of those chemicals, but it is not caused by swimming.

Other major rivers in Texas are something of a mixed bag.

The Guadalupe River and the Comal River near New Braunfels, the most popular tubing areas in the state, have levels well below the state standard. But another stretch of the Guadalupe near Kerrville exceeds state standards, and there is a state plan to address the problem.

Most major rivers are in compliance, including the Brazos River below Lake Granbury, the Paluxy River near Glen Rose and Town Lake in Austin.

But some rural rivers, such as the San Saba in Central Texas and the Concho in West Texas, are well above state levels.

Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698