(DON'T) TAKE ME TO THE RIVER 

An October 2002 report issued by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (previously the TNRCC) reveals that parts of Walzem Creek, Salado Creek, Lower Leon Creek, and the Upper and Lower San Antonio River are so contaminated as to violate the federal Clean Water Act. The report, also known as a 303d list, is based on data from 1997-2001.

For environmental scientists, bacteria - usually fecal coliform - and low oxygen levels are sentinels indicating that the river or stream is probably plagued with other contamination as well. For the casual swimmer or angler, these environmental alarms portend that it is unhealthy, even dangerous, to fish or play in the water.

Yet, a dispute over the quality of TCEQ's data and collection methods means that no one knows the extent of the contamination. Funding shortfalls and a lack of gumption prevent the TCEQ from discovering the sources of pollution and cleaning up Texas' environmental disaster plaguing the majority of waterways in the state. And worse yet, the Bush administration is neutering the Clean Water Act, rolling back federal protections that have been in place for 30 years.

San Antonio's love affair with asphalt is partially to blame for high bacteria levels in its waterways. Urban runoff from streets, parking lots, driveways, or any impervious surface flows into rivers and streams, taking with it garbage, oil, antifreeze, and lawn chemicals.

The south-central Texas climate also hurts rivers and streams, because as the waterways dry up to a mere gurgle, oxygen declines, and aquatic life - fish, plants, and beneficial microscopic organisms - can't survive. If a waterway stops moving, it dies.

A disagreement over the level of contamination casts doubt on whether many Texas and San Antonio rivers will ever be clean. The National Wildlife Federation believes the TCEQ, to save money, has cut corners, and that the report underestimates the pollution in Texas waterways. Meanwhile, the San Antonio River Authority believes the TCEQ has been overzealous, and that its report overestimates the contamination. And the TCEQ, while conceding its data is incomplete, stands by the report.

Mike Gonzalez of the San Antonio River Authority disputes TCEQ's report because some of the data is five years old. "Once a stream gets on the list it is impossible to get them off," he explains, adding that SARA's studies on Salado Creek show it should come off the list. "SAWS, the City and SARA have been working very hard to do pollution abatement programs. We don't have the sewage overflow we had years ago."

As for Walzem Creek, Gonzalez says that it is nothing more than a concrete-lined drainage ditch: "It makes a great bird bath."

Yet SARA can't make an effective case to the TCEQ because of a lack of money to collect new data that could refute the state's findings. "We need more documentation to get off the list," Gonzalez explains, adding that SARA's budget for water quality monitoring is $300,000, about half of what it needs to adequately test San Antonio's waterways.

To compensate for low water levels in some area rivers, SAWS has been pumping reuse water, for example, into the San Antonio River, to increase its flow. Gonzalez criticizes the TCEQ for gathering some data during the summer, when water levels are low. "We questioned their methods at the time. There is a lot of the new data coming out that is challenging some of those findings. But we don't have resources to collect additional data."

Myron Hess, a lawyer for the National Wildlife Federation who specializes in water quality issues, claims the TCEQ's new method for determining which rivers go on the list actually underestimates the levels of contamination. In other words, rivers and streams that once would have been deemed polluted now are deemed clean enough.

Hess used Salado Creek as an example. According to the report, of the 47 samples taken from a segment of the creek, 14 exceeded the standard for bacteria. Under the old standard, that number would have been enough to declare it in violation of the Clean Water Act. But the new TCEQ method says 15 are required before that portion of the creek violates the federal standard.

The money problem means it takes five years to assess the rivers and streams, but Hess says the majority of Texas waterways aren't even being investigated. "There is pressure on the agency to stop the lists from getting bigger and bigger," Hess says. "But we have to do something about it and state has to spend money."

As for the TCEQ, Patrick Roques, of the agency's surface quality monitoring program says that while the report is based on data collected by his agency, the City of San Antonio, and SAWS from the late '90s, he considers the information to be current. "Water quality doesn't change very rapidly; there aren't going to be dramatic changes."

The listed rivers will undergo additional studies for a more detailed report and cleanup plan; in some cases, these investigations will kick a river off the list; it could also show the river is more polluted than before. In either case, it takes so long to collect data, by the time the cleanup plan is implemented, the river has changed, and the information - and cleanup - can be obsolete. "For many of the water bodies in Texas, we have set our expectations based upon data not as complete as it ought to be," Roque says.

The report has been forwarded to the cash-strapped and castrated Environmental Protection Agency for approval. Under the Clean Water Act, the EPA has 30 days to approve it; yet, the federal agency just approved the 2000 list of contaminated rivers last year.

The Bush Administration is also allowing more pollution into U.S. waterways. Recent decisions that have been approved by the EPA, include allowing coal mining companies to dump their fill in streams and dropping proposals to reduce storm water pollution regulations from new developments.

Without adequate funding, data, and state and federal protection, Texas' waterways will turn into sewers and dumps, and fishing and swimming holes will become only memories.


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