On a sun-drenched Thursday afternoon in Galveston, Scott Schitoskey waded out into the brackish, viridescent water at Fort Crockett Seawall Park, fishing rod in hand, where he had already caught several catfish and a stingray.
As waves crashed below his waist, Schitoskey cast his line out about 10 feet, blissfully ignorant to the fact that he was exposing himself to one of the six Galveston County beaches listed as one of the most unsafe places to swim in Texas, per a water quality report released Thursday by Environment Texas.
âWeâre accustomed to the dirty water,â Schitoskey said, noting that he and his wife, Katrina, have traveled several times from their home in Kilgore down to Galveston to enjoy the beach. âIt doesnât bother us.â
Katrina Schitoskey was a bit more hesitant. While she did swim in the water â and noted that the Gulfâs lukewarm temperature was ideal â she was mostly content to sit in her beach chair about 90 feet from Scott, watching him try his luck fishing.
âI like to be able to see through (the water),â Katrina said. âMy husband loves it, but Iâm just the kind of person if something touches my feet, Iâm just like, âOh my gosh.ââ
Of the six Galveston County beaches listed by Environment Texas, Fort Crockett Seawall Park â an enhanced stretch of the Galveston Seawall from 45th Street to 51st Street â is less contaminated than other beaches in the county, having been declared unsafe for five days total in 2017. By comparison, further west down the island, Galveston Island State Park #6 was declared unsafe for eight days. Rettilon Road beach on Bolivar Peninsula was also declared unsafe for eight days.
âWhile bacteria levels in Galveston Bay are safe for swimming most of the time, we do see spikes in bacteria levels after major storms,â said Sarah Gossett, water quality manager at Galveston Bay Foundation.
âBacteria concentrations are highly variable â just because itâs safe to swim at one spot doesnât mean itâs safe elsewhere, and just because levels are low today doesnât mean theyâll be low tomorrow,â Gossett said.
The Environment Texas report analyzed state water quality testing data at 120 statewide beach locations and 1,450 freshwater locations in 2017 for indications of fecal bacteria â E. coli in freshwater and enterococcus in saltwater. They found that about 50 percent of sites were unsafe on at least one testing day.
This kind of contamination can come from urban stormwater runoff and sewage overflows. Environment Texas researchers noted that Hurricane Harvey last year likely impacted the cleanliness of waterways and beaches, although smaller storms also cause problems.
The Houston Chronicle has previously reported that more than 150 million gallons of raw sewage and industrial discharge spewed from wastewater treatment facilities both during and after Harvey.
Officials with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality conducted the testing. Beaches on average were tested about 40 times throughout the year, the report stated, while freshwater areas were tested between four and 35 times.
Researchers found that Corpus Christi Bay had the most unsafe beaches in the state, with Ropes Park unsafe 42 percent of the 57 times it was tested; Cole Park was unsafe 38 percent of the 53 times it was tested; and Emerald Beach unsafe 30 percent of the 47 times it was tested.
The beaches in Galveston County didnât have quite as many unsafe days, but researchers still found them concerning.
The other Galveston County beaches listed in the report were Magnolia Lane beach on Bolivar Peninsula (six unsafe days in 2017), Sylvan Beach-South in La Porte (six unsafe days), and Helen Boulevard beach on Bolivar Peninsula (five unsafe days).
The Galveston County Health District contracts with the General Land Office to test 52 sites in Galveston County â 36 on Galveston Island, 16 on Bolivar Peninsula and one on the Texas City Dike â through its Texas Beach Watch program, testing for enterococcus.
During beach season, each of Galveston Countyâs testing sites are individually tested weekly, Ashley Tompkins, communications director for the Galveston County Health District, said in a statement. During non-beach season, the sites are tested bi-weekly.
The health district issues an advisory for that testing location when a sample comes back with a high level of enterococcus. That site is tested daily until the level subsides, which typically occurs within 48 hours. There are currently no advisories issued for Galveston County, Tompkins said.
In the Environment Texas report, Houston area water also boasted some unsafe days. For example, Brays Bayou was unsafe 100 percent of the days it was tested, and Buffalo Bayou was unsafe 87 percent of the days it was tested.
Swimming in contaminated water can lead to ear and eye infections, skin rashes and gastrointestinal disease, according to Environment Texas, an environmental advocacy group based in Austin. Bacteria primarily enters the body through ingestion or open cuts or wounds.
Recommendations, âcommon senseâ
The report urges the state to test water more frequently and to publicly post the information, as well as work harder to prevent urban runoff pollution.
âAt popular swimming areas, bacterial pollution can mean vacation days ruined by warning advisories, or the threat of illness for those who do go in the water,â the report states.
âAt waterways that are generally avoided for recreation â often precisely because they are known to be unsafe â bacterial pollution can also threaten public health,â the report says. âSometimes people swim where they are not supposed to, and sometimes they canât stop their kids or pets from jumping.â
And yet, even with Fort Crockett Seawall Parkâs less-than-stellar reputation for cleanliness, Ruthie Kelly and her mother, Bobbie Woods, had no issue swimming and enjoying themselves.
âOur neighbors actually said, âWe havenât visited Galveston in a few years because itâs dirty down there. We prefer (Port Aransas) because Galvestonâs just dirty,ââ Kelly said. âWeâre like, âthatâs just not the case, we love it, we wouldnât come anywhere else.â â
Kelly and Woods are veteran Galveston beachgoers, having made the nearly seven-hour drive from their home in Possum Kingdom Lake, northwest of Fort Worth, for the last 15 years.
They said they make sure to pay attention to beach advisories, but noted that the beaches appear cleaner than they have in past years, and that the waterâs hue is more âturquoiseyâ than usual.
âThe bacteria thing was one of the things they said to pay attention to what part of the beach youâre at,â Kelly said. âYou just have to use common sense.â