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Eco-friendly group seeks standard for E. coli levels in state lakes

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Posted: Sunday, January 15, 2012 12:00 pm | Updated: 9:52 am, Thu Aug 16, 2012.

By Sean Wardwell

Killeen Daily Herald

A statewide environmental group is concerned about the elevated levels of E. coli bacteria in several popular Texas lakes, including Stillhouse Hollow.

The popular recreational lake had high bacteria levels in 27 samples taken between March 2010 and July 2011, according to a report released by Environment Texas, an Austin-based environmental advocacy group.

Fifteen percent of those tests exceeded the minimum safety level set by the Environmental Protection Agency and the state. The report also showed Stillhouse Hollow had "very high" levels of E. coli 40 percent of the time in 2011.

"We had not heard that report, but I don't doubt it is because of the drought and shallowness of the lake," said Kenneth Schoen, president of the Lake Stillhouse Hollow Cleanwater Steering Committee.

E. coli is measured according to the most probable number of colony forming units per 100 milliliters of water. The standard set by the EPA is 235 units, while Texas sets its standard at 394 - nearly 68 percent higher.

Schoen said he could provide between 15 and 16 reports over as many years from various agencies acknowledging awareness of the contamination in the area.

"They'll say we have a problem with source pollution but attribute it to the 'phenomenal growth' in the Fort Hood area," said Schoen about those previous reports.

Inconsistent tests

Luke Metzger, director and founder of Environment Texas, said inconsistent testing and a discrepancy between federal and state clean water standards makes

determining the exact scope of the problem difficult.

"Texas is not alone in that it has standards that allow more pollution," he said. "It's unfortunate because it does put more people at risk."

The environmental group's report was critical of Texas' clean water standards and testing, which presented a problem with the report itself. Environment Texas had to rely on data from several different organizations, which in many cases may not have been collected by trained people.

"Given the lack of a centralized database and that data was collected through multiple agencies, a lack of consistency in the quality and frequency of testing across sites is to be expected," stated Environment Texas in its report. "Only sites with a relevant number of reported samples were used for analysis, limiting consideration to about 50 percent of the sites originally listed in the study."

The report contrasts this with data the state makes available for Texas beaches by the General Land Office.

The Beach Watch program collects samples from 160 stations at 65 recreational beaches every two weeks, and as frequently as each week during peak beach seasons. That data is placed on a searchable, online database.

Stillhouse Hollow safe

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality defended its standards in regards to the report.

"Stillhouse Hollow typically has very good water quality. The Brazos River Authority, in coordination with the TCEQ Clean Rivers statewide monitoring program, has sampled bacteria in the main pool for a number of years," said Lisa Wheeler, spokesperson for the state environmental agency. "The available data for the reservoir indicate that water quality fully supports primary contact recreational uses such as swimming."

She added that in the agency's 2010 statewide water quality assessment, Stillhouse Hollow actually exceeded safety standards for E. coli contamination.

"In addition, limited monitoring was conducted at two additional stations - one in Trimmier Creek Cove and the other in Pleasant Branch Cove," said Wheeler. "Bacteria counts were also generally low at these two stations."

Metzger said his group's report was intended to shine a light on a problem it feels has been neglected by the state.

"The overall point of our report is about making sense of the data," he said. "Our conclusion is it's difficult to get a handle on this, especially for the layman who wants to just go swimming. They need a better system."

Ronnie Bruggman, lake manager for Stillhouse Hollow for the Army Corps of Engineers, said the samples in Environment Texas' study were taken in areas of the lake not usually frequented by visitors.

"The tests (for the study), I believe, were taken where Sulphur Creek meets the Lampasas River, which is outside the Corps' jurisdiction, but it does concern us," he said, adding that the times federal testers see higher E. coli numbers is after a heavy rain or flood.

Bruggman said because the Corps of Engineers is a federal body, it holds to the EPA's E. coli reporting standards. But Stillhouse Hollow is a popular state destination, so they try and adhere to Texas' standards as well.

Within standards

He added the Corps does test recreational beaches at Stillhouse Hollow, but only during peak recreation times. The last testing was done in July 2011, showing results well below federal and state standards.

The state environmental commission's website lists Stillhouse Hollow as having elevated E. coli levels in a 2008 paper, stating that further testing is needed to determine the best way to address the pollution. The latest documentation this month on Stillhouse Hollow continues to acknowledge the presence of the bacteria but still says further analysis and input is needed before addressing it.

Lisa Prcin works with Texas A&M University's AgriLife Program, which works with others to address pollution concerns along the Lampasas River as it flows into Stillhouse Hollow.

She said technology, such as DNA source tracking, can help pinpoint E. coli contamination, along with increased testing. However, as mentioned in Environment Texas' report, the lack of uniform testing among agencies and volunteers makes determining the source of the contamination difficult.

Schoen said he believes the contamination source is increased development along Trimmier Creek through Killeen and Harker Heights. However, because of a lack of membership in the past, his committee had to leave water quality testing to others.

"We were so small at times. We had to back off the research," he said. "But, this is our home, and we're really worried about it."

Contact Sean Wardwell at seanw@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7552. Follow him on Twitter at KDHcity.

What is E. coli?

Escherichia coli (abbreviated as E. coli) are a large and diverse group of bacteria. Although most strains of E. coli are harmless, others can make you sick. Some kinds of E. coli can cause diarrhea, while others cause urinary tract infections, respiratory illness, pneumonia and other illnesses. Still, other kinds of E. coli are used as markers for water contamination - so you might hear about E. coli being found in drinking water, which are not themselves harmful, but indicate the water is contaminated.

Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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