tx H2O

txH2O Winter 2010

It's worth the work

Proposed water quality standards move Texas closer to cleaner waters

Story by Kathy Wythe

As Texas concentrates on cleaning up its water through Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs), TMDL Implementation Plans (I-Plans), and watershed protection plans (WPPs), many water quality experts in Texas are realizing that applying a single standard of primary contact recreation to hundreds of different surface water bodies may not be realistic or beneficial.

While public interest is high in having an ambitious standard as possible, Jim Davenport, technical specialist for the monitoring and assessment section at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), said a standard set too ambitious "becomes problematic" as the list of impaired waters grows and the commission tries to take action on those on the list.

"It becomes important to tailor our recreation use standards appropriately," he said. "For a water body that doesn't have full primary contact recreation such as swimming, it is important to set our standards to meet its actual use."

With that in mind, TCEQ's Surface Water Quality Standards Advisory Work Group has been working with stakeholders on expanding its water quality standards, including those standards for recreational use. TCEQ has proposed expanding the categories for contact recreation use from two categories-contact recreation and non-contact recreation- to four, adding two more levels: secondary contact 1 and 2 (see definitions).

The agency is also proposing different numerical criteria for E. coli that will be applicable in fresh water based on these assigned recreational uses. Currently the geometric mean criterion for E. coli is 126 colonies per 100 milliliters for contact recreation. Under the proposed revised standards, the geometric mean for primary contact recreation category would increase to 206 colonies per 100 milliliters, 630 colonies per 100 milliliters for secondary contact 1, and 1,030 colonies per 100 milliliters for secondary contact 2.

For salt water, Enterococci bacteria are used as indicator bacteria for aquatic recreation. The geometric mean for primary contact is proposed to remain at 35 colonies per 100 milliliters while secondary contact 1 is proposed as a new recreational use category with a geometric mean criterion of 175 colonies per 100 milliliters, Davenport said.

By having standards that more accurately reflect actual use, Davenport said the agency can focus its resources on water bodies that should have primary contact recreation use designation but do not meet it. "Because we are seriously attacking water quality problems, we have to make sure we target effectively," he said. "Our goal is to make sure we have reasonable standards so when we do a TMDL, we have an appropriate target to go for."

At its January 2010 meeting the commission agreed that the complete standards should be proposed to the public and set a March public hearing on the standards and the procedures to implement the standards. The target date for adoption of the standards by TCEQ is July, with an effective date of August 2010.

Dovetailed with the changes in standards is the use of recreational use attainability analyses or RUAAs, which characterize the impaired water body and then are used to determine which recreational use category is most appropriate for a particular water body.

Davenport said TCEQ has used UAAs for other standards but the agency is just beginning to use UAAs for recreation. Along with TCEQ's water quality standards group and TMDL program, the Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board is using RUAAs for some of its projects.

During RUAAs, Davenport said, agency staff, university researchers, or private consultants conduct one to three surveys on the water body. They determine if there is any recreation activity on the water and/or public access to the water and measure the flow and depth of the water.

The surveyors also look at historical records and interview people who know the area.

"You can only get so much information with surveys," he said. "Observations from local people are important."

Dr. Larry Hauck of Tarleton State University's Texas Institute of Applied Environmental Research and his staff are conducting RUAAs in the Dallas/Fort Worth area and in the Atascosa River watershed.

Water Quality Standards

Water quality standards are the foundation for managing surface water quality. A standard consists of two parts:

  • a use, or the purposes for which surface water will be used;
  • the criteria or the indicators used to determine if the use is met

"The premise is that through site visits, looking at historical records, and talking to local people, you can reconstruct what recreational activities have happened in the past and what is occurring in the present at these various stream systems you are studying," Hauck said. "We are actually gathering data that will indicate the true level of recreational use occurring, as determined from studies."

Davenport said the two agencies have more than 120 RUAAs being conducted. Depending on the results of the RUAAs and standards revisions, water bodies could be put into one of the four proposed categories of contact recreation, and, depending on the associated bacteria counts, some of the water bodies may no longer be listed on the state's impaired water body list.

The proposed expanded contact recreation use and water quality standards, along with the RUAAs, will provide a better starting point for developing TMDLs, TMDL I-Plans, and WPPs, paving the way for improved water quality in Texas.

Draft Definitions (2010 TSWQS Revision)

  • Primary contact recreation: Activities presumed to involve a significant risk of ingestion of water (e.g., wading by children, swimming, water skiing, diving, tubing, surfing, and whitewater kayaking, canoeing, and rafting).
  • Secondary contact recreation 1: Activities that commonly occur but have limited body contact incidental to shoreline activity (e.g. fishing and boating). These activities are presumed to pose a less significant risk of water ingestion than primary contact recreation but more than secondary contact recreation 2.
  • Secondary contact recreation 2: Activities with limited body contact incidental to shoreline activity (e.g. fishing and boating) that are presumed to pose a less significant risk of water ingestion than secondary contact recreation 1. These activities occur less frequently than secondary contact recreation 1 due to physical characteristics of the water body or limited public access.
  • Noncontact recreation: Activities that do not involve a significant risk of water ingestion and where primary and secondary contact recreation should not occur because of unsafe conditions, such as ship and barge traffic. Activities would include those with limited body contact incidental to shoreline activity, such as birding, hiking, and biking.

The proposed standards and additional summary information are available at TCEQ's Web site.

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