BELTON — Signs warning visitors to swim at their own risk have adorned the banks of Nolan Creek in Belton for a month now.
Elevated levels of E. coli were discovered in two of four tests conducted last month, city officials announced last month.
“You do still see people swimming in the creek,” said Troy Davis of Waterside Sports, a nearby business, “but not like before.” He has noticed a high attendance at area lakes and believes fewer people are willing to risk swimming in the creek.
Paul Romer, the city’s public information officer, said the water testing was a preemptive measure by the city.
“The water testing was totally self-initiated,” Romer said. “There have been no reports of anyone getting sick. This was all just a precaution initiated by the city staff.”
This year the city added four “drops” to the downtown area of the creek. Each drop in creek elevation is followed by a wide pool of water. They were installed for both flood mitigation and recreational use.
The $521,427 project was approved in October by the City Council. The city received two grants for the project: One for $100,000 from Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the second for $50,000 from H-E-B and CGI Group Inc.
The creek improvements were delayed due to heavy rains at the beginning of the year.
“We built this with kayaks and tubes in mind, understanding the creek was in fact a natural water body,” Romer said. “However, tons more people than anticipated came to swim, so we had to ask what our responsibility as a city was and decided to test.”
2011 sewage spill from Killeen
Other than a sewage spill from Killeen in 2011, there were no known problems with the water quality of the creek before the installation of the drops.
Before the discovery of the E. coli bacteria, Davis decided to expand his Waterside Sports business by offering inner tube rentals for customers to float down Nolan Creek.
He pulled the service when the city announced the high bacteria levels. Now Waterside Sports does not allow any equipment to leave the lake.
Creek tested since 2013
Anne McFarland, interim executive director at the Texas Institute for Applied Environmental Science, has been conducting tests on the creek since May 2013. Testing ended in June and McFarland is in the process of writing a report on the data gathered.
She commended the city for being proactive in letting residents know about the increased bacteria levels. “Though they are elevated to a degree where primary contact is not advised, they are not super elevated,” she said. “I’ve seen much worse.”
McFarland expects the levels to go down, especially if residents do their part. The Texas Institute for Applied Environmental Science plans to get involved in an educational effort to inform residents how they can help improve the water quality.
“Pet waste is a huge contributor to increases in bacteria,” McFarland said. “Waste in general is a problem.”
She said people tend to dump bacteria contributors such as dead animals off bridges into watersheds. Though she hasn’t seen such activity in Belton, “there is a lot of stuff washing in, due to a mix of rural and agricultural areas upstream. But again, the levels are not extremely elevated, so small steps from the public such as eliminating waste can still have a significant impact,” she said.
McFarland plans to run more tests at the beginning of 2016.
The city continues to run tests as well and plans to conduct quarterly readings on the water next year. They also will host educational events.
“When it starts to warm up next year, we want to have an open house for swimming season to talk and share information about the creek,” Romer said.
Once the weather cools, the city plans to remove the temporary warning signs. They are in the process of developing permanent signage that will say something similar to, “for water quality information, please see …” followed by a website link to type in or scan that will direct swimmers to constantly updated water quality reports.