Big Creek in Fort Bend County has long been a popular spot for recreation, with its 222 square miles servicing 414 miles of waterways.
State and local officials are responding to a threat to its public safety – elevated levels of fecal matter – with a large-scale water-quality project that could begin within a year.
Representatives from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) gathered July 11 with Fort Bend County stakeholders and a few residents to discuss water-quality issues impacting the Big Creek watershed and provide an opportunity to give feedback on potential paths forward.
“Some of these issues have risen to the point of triggering a need to address those issues,” H-GAC senior planner Justin Bower said. “Everything that is happening in a drainage area eventually makes its way down to the water, for better or worse.”
Bower said Big Creek, based on a 2018 study that considered data from 2009-16, has been identified by the TCEQ as failing to meet the state water-quality standard for recreational contact, which applies to places where there is a significant risk of water ingestion because of activities such as wading and swimming. Big Creek’s primary water-quality challenge is elevated levels of fecal bacteria, which can be harmful to health, the economy and the environment. There also are concerns about suitability for aquatic life.
The standard against which Big Creek is measured is 126 colony-forming units of E. coli per 100 milliliters of water. According to data gathered by TCEQ and H-GAC surveyors, 62 percent of the samples collected for the ongoing study contained E. coli levels that were higher than that standard, posing a noticeable – but not irreparable – risk.
Bower said he wasn’t aware of any illnesses or deaths related to the contamination.
“How much E. coli we see helps us gauge how much waste and how much risk there is to the public,” Bower said.
According to project manager Earlene Lambeth with the TCEQ’s Office of Water, work on Big Creek started in 2002 when it made the 303-D list – the state’s list of impaired and threatened waters such as stream and river segments or lakes. States are required to submit their list for Environmental Protection Agency approval every two years, after which H-GAC and the EPA study seven years of trends to gauge potential risks.
Though the fecal matter levels are elevated and some residents at the meeting were surprised by that, Bower said it is not cause for alarm as long as the improvement project comes together. There will be no Big Creek waterways closed to the public.
“We’re just taking the information and working with the stakeholders to find a solution. We’re not restricting public access in any way,” Bower said. “This is a waterway that has had some issues since 2002, so there’s nothing overly concerning on the water-quality side that would make the county shut it down.”
The main sources of contamination in largely rural areas such as those Big Creek serves, according to Bower, can come from humans – such as wastewater plants/systems, septic/aerobic systems or illicit sewage and dumping – or animals/wildlife such as pets and livestock.
How the area urbanizes in the coming years could also have an impact on the study and methods by which the H-GAC attempts to remedy the situation.
“We are a watershed in transition, and that’s going to impact how sediment is traveling through the system,” Bower said.
H-GAC and the TCEQ are planning another public meeting in August to present an initial report based on stakeholder feedback. Following the August meeting, the two organizations and residents will collaborate on a potential implementation plan, a process officials hope to begin in fiscal year 2020.
“This was not a problem that happened overnight, and the solution itself will not happen overnight,” Bower said. “What the sources are now are not necessarily what they will be 10-20 years from now. We have to consider that.
“A lot of (this study) will be based on your knowledge of what’s feasible for your communities, what will or won’t fly and what you believe is a priority. Nobody is going to have as good a handle on it as someone who works and lives here on a daily basis.”
For more information or to give feedback on the project, contact Bower at 713-499-6653 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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