Over the last year, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) have undertaken a project to reduce the hazardous E. coli levels in the Big Creek watershed that have persisted since 2002.
After three public feedback sessions, officials say work to reduce those levels could begin later this year.
“It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” H-GAC Senior Development Planner Justin Bower said during a public meeting last Thursday. “Sometimes the best success you can have in the early years of a project is slowing the rate of how bad it gets – you’ve got to curb it before you can turn things around. Every year we’re trying to get it a little better.”
Based on a 2018 study that considered data from 2009-16, the TCEQ determined that Big Creek has failed 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 problem 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 TCEQ and H-GAC have held three public meetings about the project. Following public feedback from meetings in July and August 2019, Bower said preliminary computer modeling has been done in search of solutions to the problem.
“It will be a much more efficient process than it has been in other waterways,” Bower said Thursday. “So we can start to have those conversations this year.”
According to Bower, the H-GAC anticipates coming back with preliminary modeling results in April or May of this year before bringing a more definitive implementation plan in June for resident approval. If approved, Bower said H-GAC could submit the plan to TCEQ in July and begin implementation by the end of August.
While last year’s meetings largely entailed public feedback, Bower said this year’s work will involve meeting with stakeholders to determine factors for computer modeling that will determine the extent of pollution in the waterway and specific reduction needed for each tested spot.
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 last year, 62 percent of the samples collected for the ongoing study contained E. coli levels that were higher than that standard, posing a noticeable – though not irreparable – risk.
“We’re looking at sources to track what we need so that down the road we’re not just throwing darts at a wall,” Bower said.
Bower said the main sources of contamination in largely rural areas, such as those Big Creek serves, can come from humans – such as wastewater plants/systems, septic/aerobic systems or illicit sewage and dumping – or animals and wildlife such as pets and livestock.
And while they have put together preliminary models based on current trends, the H-GAC’s plans could also change as the area urbanizes in future years.
“We don’t want to set a limit that doesn’t take into account what is going to happen,” Bower said.
Those transitions could impact sources of contamination, and thus methods of reduction, according to Bower. According to an initial report, the Big Creek watershed currently has a population of 58,442, which is expected to rise to 65,000 by the end of this year. More than 275,000 residents are projected by 2040.
Additionally, while just over 25 percent of land within the watershed is currently developed – contributing to contamination – the H-GAC projects that more than 40 percent of the area will be developed by the year 2045 as urbanization pushes out from Sugar Land, Richmond and Rosenberg, potentially changing the dynamic.
“We try to build that in so that what we have is a goal to work toward even though there’s room to change as we move forward,” Bower said.
And even though a cleaner creek may seem far away now, Bower said there is light at the end of the tunnel.
“Some of the modeling that will identify what the reduction in fecal waste needs to be, we actually got started last year,” Bower said. “This puts us in a really good place.”