HOUSTON - A trip to Texas beaches could leave you and your loved ones sick.
A new report by Environment America tested beaches across the U.S. shows for potentially unsafe water quality.
It found Texas beaches as a whole did worse than the national average, and some of the worst are in the greater Houston area.
How contaminated are Texas beaches?
The report called Safe For Swimming tested 61 Texas beaches in 2020 for fecal matter and found that 55 were potentially unsafe for swimming on at least one day. 31 beaches were potentially unsafe on at least 25% of the days they were tested.
In Harris County (with just one monitored beach in 2020), the average beach was potentially unsafe for swimming on 61% of the days that sampling took place, a higher percentage than any other county in the state.
Here's a look at some of the worst beaches in the greater Houston area:
SURFSIDE BEACH IN BRAZORIA COUNTY: 72%
SYLVAN BEACH PARK IN HARRIS COUNTY: 61%
FOLLET'S ISLAND IN BRAZORIA COUNTY: 57%
QUINTANA BEACH IN BRAZORIA COUNTY: 53%
"This is the third year that we've done this report, and each year we find that there are far too many pathogens in the water that can make people sick," said John Rumpler, the Clean Water Program Director with Environment America, who co-authored the report.
Some of the primary sources of that contamination are sewage overflow and runoff pollution. According to Rumpler, "these are problems we can solve."
INTERACTIVE MAP: Check current fecal bacteria levels at Texas beaches
"I mean, we hope that local authorities are doing regular beach testing and posting advisories so that families know when the water's potentially unsafe that's exactly what should be done in the short term."
How to check water quality
If you are headed to a beach along the Texas coast, you can check out the water quality report before going by visiting TexasBeachWatch.com to find up-to-date information on bacteria counts. The website features an interactive map with details at different locations.
Visitors can see where water is collected and sampled and whether a color-coded advisory has been recommended.
Green means low bacteria levels, yellow means medium bacteria levels, and red signifies high bacteria levels. Local governments are supposed to post advisory signs where the water quality exceeds acceptable bacterial levels.
Is it safe to swim in contaminated water?
"We really ought to have all our beaches safe for swimming, but unfortunately the beach testing data shows that's not always the case," said Rumpler.
Dr. Sara Andrabi, assistant professor of emergency medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, warns against contact with contaminated water.
She says it can lead to many different sicknesses.
"Contact with contaminated water can result in gastrointestinal illnesses, ear infections, skin rashes," Dr. Andrabi lists off. "Severe cases require you beat them in the hospital."
Some of the symptoms are quite displeasing.
"On a few of these gastrointestinal illnesses usually have the symptom of diarrhea, which a lot of different diseases can cause," Dr. Andrabi said. "Swimmer's ear occurs when contaminated water stays in an individual's ear for a long period of time," she added. That will lead people to have red or swollen ears. Some may have drainage.
People can also suffer from severe or rapidly-progressing wound infections if they have a recent piercing or a surgical site or an open wound.
People can still use a beach under a water quality advisory, as long as local authorities have not closed it. The Texas General Land Office says that although contact with the water is discouraged until an advisory is canceled, "beaches offer plenty of other recreational opportunities," like volleyball, sunbathing, and picnicking.
What needs to happen to improve the water quality?
But what can be done to improve the water quality at our Gulf Coast beaches? "That's the crux of the matter," says Rumpler. "We need to invest in fixing our water infrastructure. We should not have billions of gallons of sewage overflowing into our waterways in the 21st century. That's just crazy here in the United States of America."
Rumpler says we should invest the money to fix our sewage treatment systems and focus on restoring nature's ability to absorb stormwater so runoff doesn't flow into the places where people love to swim.
"What we have to worry about is that each year that goes by the infrastructure gets a little bit worse and therefore more costly to repair storms on the Texas coast, so the problem is likely to get worse if we don't fix it."