SAN LEON, Texas (AP) — Powering his small boat across Dickinson Bay, Steve Hoyland Sr. worries about fish kills near the mouth of Dickinson Bayou every summer for the last six years.
"I've lived here my whole life, but in the last two years you can't catch (anything)," said Hoyland, 61, part owner of the monthly San Leon Seabreeze News.
Hoyland points to the depth finder to show how silt has clogged the mouth of the bayou and prevented the tide from cleansing it with oxygenated water. "We've got a serious problem here," he said.
Officials charged with overseeing water quality say that fish kills, where thousands of fish die for lack of oxygen in the water, are a symptom of urban encroachment on bayous like Dickinson that lace the Houston region. The urbanized area in the Dickinson Bayou watershed more than doubled between 2002 and 2008.
The 27 miles of Dickinson Bayou that snake through Galveston and Brazoria counties are plagued with low oxygen levels that occasionally kill fish. The bayou is filled with bacteria that can cause illness to swimmers and pollutants such as oil, pesticides, human waste from septic tanks and animal waste washed into the bayou through storm drains.
Of 139 water bodies in Harris and Galveston counties, 91 have excessive bacteria levels that make them unsafe for human contact, 21 have low dissolved oxygen levels and in 33 the cancer-causing toxic contaminants dioxin and PCB have been found in fish tissue, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The bacteria levels in Buffalo Bayou, for example, are generally higher than Dickinson Bayou and pesticides are found in the tissue of fish there in addition to dioxin and PCB, the TCEQ says.
In Dickinson Bayou, E. coli and enteroccus bacteria levels are more than double the federal standard, said Todd Running, clean rivers program manager for the Houston-Galveston Area Council. The federal standard for E. coli is 126 colonies per 100 milliliters of water, Running said, but the levels in the bayou range from 247 to 1,645. The standard for enteroccus, a bacteria measured in the tidal area of the bayou because of its resistance to saltwater, is 35, he said, but bayou levels range from 373 to 8,485.
State and local agencies are working on plans to reduce pollution in the bayous, but they take years to complete and rely on the cooperation of a public that is largely unaware that seemingly unimportant things like leaving pet waste in the yard contribute to the thousands of small incidents that add up to tons of pollution washed through storm drains into the bayou. The TCEQ says that the most common sources of bacteria are wastewater treatment plants, stormwater runoff, septic tank overflows and failures, and broken sewer lines.
"All of our urban streams have issues and it's a result of more people living in the area, more pipes that are more likely to break, plus it's runoff from our yards and our streets and our parking lots," said Charris York, stormwater projects coordinator for the Texas Coastal Watershed Program.
Excess yard fertilizer, household chemicals, septic tank leakage and illegal discharges from wastewater treatment plants add to the load of pollutants draining from 106 square miles of Dickinson Bayou watershed.
There are 11 wastewater treatment plants on Dickinson Bayou. The TCEQ issued its most recent violation notice to KC Utilities in August. The commission fined Meadowland utilities $132,000 in December for seven violations.
The TCEQ estimates that there are 1,546 failing septic tanks in the Dickinson Bayou watershed.
Hoyland published several articles calling attention to the poor water quality at the mouth of the bayou.
He took two experts from Eastex Environmental Laboratory Inc. out on his boat to take water samples at the mouth of Dickinson Bayou and a nearby intake channel cut for the now abandoned Houston Power & Light generating plant that once pulled water from Dickinson Bay for cooling.
"We found areas of concern with dissolved oxygen levels," said Mark Bourgeois, one of the Eastex analysts who took the samples.
Low oxygen levels are typical during the summer on the sluggishly flowing bayou, said Winston Denton, upper coast assessment team leader for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. The long list of documented fish kills because of low oxygen stretches back to the 1970s when federal clean water laws first required reporting.
Hoyland believes that dredging the mouth of the bayou would allow tidal flows to wash oxygen into the bayou mouth. TCEQ oxygen readings show that on average the bayou's tidal area, unlike the rest of the bayou, meets state oxygen level standards.
Oxygen levels fluctuate, however, and Running said that dredging has improved water quality at the mouth of other bayous, but that there is no guarantee that it would work on Dickinson Bayou.
The TCEQ and local agencies are developing a plan to reduce the pollution to acceptable levels that likely will combine regulations with voluntary compliance. The plan is being written with the assistance of local businesses, cities and residents. "We have a lot of input from different folks who have knowledge," York said. The plan has been in the works for about two years and the draft is expected to be ready for public review early next year, she said.
Meanwhile Hoyland continues to write about water quality problems and hopes that a plan to build a new wastewater treatment plant nearby will include dredging the mouth of Dickinson Bayou. "It would be a great thing if they do something good for the environment," he said.
Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com