Researchers study pandemic's affect on coastal water quality

A new study examines if Gov. Greg Abbott’s stay-at-home order changed or improved water quality.

Beaches along the Texas coast were mostly free of tourists when stay-at-home orders went into effect in March to slow the spread of COVID-19.

With widely circulated photographs of sea green canals in Venice in mind, Michael Wetz and Jeff Turner wondered how the temporary halt of everyday life impacted the quality of Texas’s coastal waters.

“All of a sudden, for the first time in decades, the canals were crystal clear and a lot of that had to do with the really sharp reduction in tourists and the number of people near the coast,” said Wetz, the chair for coastal ecosystem processes at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, where Turner also works as an associate professor of marine biology.

“We thought, ‘Hey, you know, we need to be looking at that here to see whether we’re seeing a similar phenomenon,’” he said.

A rapid response grant from Texas Sea Grant is letting them conduct research to do just that. The grant will allow the pair to examine how Gov. Greg Abbott’s emergency stay-at-home order changed or improved water quality along the Texas coast.

“We’re looking at not only what happened during the immediate shutdown, but also how it has changed as we’ve sort of loosened restrictions and now with potential slowdowns again, we’re able to kind of track things over time,” he said.

Wetz said historic data and data from ongoing water quality sampling programs, including the Texas General Land Office’s Texas Beachwatch bacteria sampling program, is being used for the project.

Using data from Texas Beachwatch, a student on the project has already found preliminary evidence of a sharp decline in fecal bacteria during the statewide shutdown, Wetz said.

“Basically what that tells us is that there is a fairly good correlation between the number of people and the amount of bacteria in the water,” he said. “That implies that in those locations, you might have either failing septic tanks or something to do with the wastewater infrastructure that is allowing that bacteria to get into the water.”

The project runs until January. Wetz said the goal is to better pinpoint where humans are having the most effect on the water.

“Then when we move forward, we can start to think about what is causing that impact and how can we fix it,” he said. Typically, when I think of a direct human impact, I think from things like septic or wastewater, so we can start to work with counties to figure out how we can solve some of these things where you might have failing infrastructure.”

Note: This story has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Michael Wetz's last name. 

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Kali Venable is an investigative and environmental reporter for the Victoria Advocate. She can be reached at 361-580-6558 or at kvenable@vicad.com.

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Investigative & Environmental Reporter

"I am a Houston native and 5th generation Texan, with a degree in journalism and minor in creative writing from the University of Texas at Austin. I care deeply about public interests and the community I serve.”

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