Who is Really Regulating Water Quality?

There is a tributary to Galveston Bay named Clear Creek that old timers reminisce about. They will tell you that fifty years ago you could walk the shorelines and catch trout and redfish. Often times freshwater species including bass and crappie could be caught at the same location by simply changing depth and taking advantage of the salt water below the relatively light fresh water. Today this area is not useful as a fishery because of pollution. In the late fifties Lake Houston was an excellent fishery as well. Today I don’t think many people would bother to spend a lot of time fishing either. Why is this important? It is important because, without intervention, history will repeat itself. The lakes of East Texas that we love so dearly will suffer exactly the same fate unless the political bodies, and business, industrial and agricultural interests are made to recognize the economic and recreational value of these reservoirs and tributaries are important. If you don’t think what has happened to Clear Creek can happen in East Texas and other areas read on. Just like Columbine, warning signs exist if we just take the time to recognize them.
Regional Water Quality Assessment
The Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC) duties include responsibility for environmental assessments, administration of the Texas Clean Rivers Program, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Non Point Pollution grants Program. The TNRCC has regulatory authority. The Angelina & Neches River Authority (ANRA) has “broad responsibilities for protecting and enhancing the environments of the Angelina and Neches River Basins”.
The information which follows was taken directly from the Regional Assessment of Water Quality Upper Neches River Basin Study, October 1, 1996 which was prepared in cooperation with the TNRCC. “In 1991, based upon preliminary data, state regulatory authorities proposed poultry litter land application regulations which would have severely impacted poultry growers in East Texas, thus detrimentally impacting the poultry industry which is a substantial contributor to the East Texas Economy. In 1993, in response to the proposed regulations and a lack of sufficient poultry litter application research data, the TNRCC contracted with the ANRA who in turn contracted with Stephen F. Austin University to conduct a research pilot program to determine the effects of land-applied broiler litter on water quality of East Texas streams.” Poultry litter is a mixture of wood shavings and poultry manure.
Some of the published observations and findings of the 1996 poultry litter study follow.
· “Today, (1996) the majority of poultry growers in the study area still continue to remove litter
annually and spread 3 to 5 tons of litter per acre.”
· “Despite long-term land application of litter in the tributary watersheds, no adverse effects to water quality were detected.”
· “Nitrate-Nitrogen concentrations in many water quality samples were found to be greater than necessary to support excessive algal growth in both forested and pastured sites.”
“Study findings indicate that current and historical land management practices appear to have no adverse effects on water quality in the study watersheds therefore, if the TNRCC chooses to regulate poultry litter land application rates in East Texas, the current rate of litter application (3 to 5 tons per acre) should be considered for adoption to the standards. However, some growers are beginning to spread litter more than once per year resulting in application rates of approximately six to ten tons per acre.” According to the Regional Assessment do*****ent, “about 400,000 tons of waste material was produced in 1995”.
According to a TNRCC, Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) project status report for the Lake of the Pines and Big Cypress Creek another study, “to assess the current and potential water quality impacts of the poultry industry”, was conducted in 1997 and 1998. The Cypress Creek basin report was scheduled for completion in early 1999.
A typical broiler production cycle takes eight to ten weeks and the poultry farmers we have talked with say they clean out their houses every second or third production cycle, not once a year. The bottom line is this. No one is counting how many tons of litter are applied and there is no regulation; just as there is no regulation or tracking of quantities of herbicide / pesticide applications throughout the state.
Who really cares how may tons of poultry manure, herbicides / pesticides are applied as long as it is profitable? Does it make any difference to water quality or aquatic life? The answer to the first question is; not enough people care to make a difference. At present apathy prevails. The answer to the second question is yes. Read the labels found on herbicide and pesticide containers. The warnings are there for a reason.
Fecal Coliforn Bacteria Concern
In the Regional Assessment of Water Quality Upper Neches River Basin Study, October 1, 1996 do*****ent the following water quality concerns were identified. Sam Rayburn Reservoir was given a “concerned” status because of excessive fecal coliform bacteria in the spring and was not a concern in summer and winter. The Angelina River above Sam Rayburn was given a “concerned” status in all three designated periods, spring, summer and winter because of fecal coliform bacteria.
Fecal coliform bacteria are a result of contamination by human and or animal waste excretions.
1994 Assessment – Sulfate Concern
During the1994 assessment effort, historical water quality data was screened in the period 1982-1991. The “concerns” identified for Sam Rayburn Reservoir classified the water quality as “limited”. In the 94 assessment of Sam Rayburn a “concern” for Sulfates was identified and “possible concerns”, were identified for the following; dissolved oxygen, total dissolved solids, chloride, fecal coliform bacteria, nutrients, and metals. The most logical source for sulfates and chlorides is the Champion Intl. paper mill which has been in continuos operation and is now owned and operated by Donohue paper, Inc. Sulfates are constituents of pulp mill “liquor”.
TNRCC Non Point Source Pollution Report
On the TNRCC web site page that is headed as Data Collection you will find discussion of the TNRCC Non Point Source Program which states that, “the updated assessment report will be published for public comment in the fall of 1998”. It also says, “the final report will be available in early 1999 after indicated revisions from the public comment period are incorporated”. On another page, under Data Management it says; “the Data Collection section produced several reports of interest to the regulated community” and a link is provided to the Non Point Source Program 1997 Annual Report. The report file will not down load. No explanation or reason is given, it just leaves you hanging out thinking a down load is happening. No link to the 1999 report scheduled to be available in early 1999 was provided. A TNRCC representative was asked how to obtain the report and the response was; they decided not to publish the report and the 303d Impaired Waters List do*****ent was adequate to provide the same information. Note that the 303d Impaired Waters List do*****ent does not list a single tributary to Sam Rayburn. That is not adequate. This lack of information on Sam Rayburn tributaries is unique! All other significant reservoir tributaries are covered in the 303d do*****ent.
Furthermore, in another TNRCC do*****ent titled Guidance for Submitting Data and Information for the Texas 2000 Clean water act, April 27.1999 Section 303d list it says; any data submissions must “limit the data to all water bodies in the following river basins: Canadian, Red, Sulfur, Cypress, Sabine, and Neches”. Thus submittal of information pertaining to the Angelina River, Attoyac Bayou and Ayish Bayou – or any other Rayburn tributary is excluded. According to another TNRCC do*****ent “Sam Rayburn Reservoir drains approximately 3,449 square miles” and there are 31 waste water discharge facilities dumping into the Angelina river. As already stated “results of the assessment screening analysis identify a concern for sulfates, and possible concerns for dissolved oxygen, nutrients, metals, and fecal coliform bacteria are also identified.”
At this point it has not been determined if a Non Point Source Pollution Report actually exists and is being withheld from the public or what. If it does exist you can be sure it would provide additional insight into what is happening on Rayburn and Toledo Bend. Is it possible that powerful interests are applying political pressure that is preventing information relevant to pollution sources in the Sam Rayburn tributaries from being made public? Decide for yourself.
Apathy or Ignorance
At least one official (not the janitor) of an agency having responsibility for water quality recently took the position that Ammonia is not toxic. He is either misinformed or was attempting to mislead – one or the other. In either case, his position does not instill confidence. Apparently, he has never examined Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) Records available to the public that list Toxic Chemical releases into Paper Mill Creek which empties into the Angelina River arm of Sam Rayburn Reservoir. The TRI records establish that in 1997; 20,768 lbs. of Ammonia, 4,937 lbs. of chloroform, 9,680 lbs. of Methanol and other toxic chemicals were released as surface water discharges into paper mill creek, a tributary to the Angelina River a few miles north of the 103 bridge. The agency
this official represents has “broad responsibility for protecting and enhancing the environments of the Angelina and Neches River Basins”.
In mid-May, letters urging support for the determination of the reason for the 1998 Sam Rayburn fish kill and remedy for the decline in productivity of the fishery were posted to the Governor, and to U.S. and Texas legislators, the Director of Inland Fisheries, and the Chambers of Commerce in Lufkin and Jasper. Since then the Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPW) has taken some positive actions including collection and analysis of fish specimens and release of information attributing the presence of lesions on fish taken from Sam Rayburn to an infestation of Epistylus. “Epistylus is most often associated with poor water quality”, according to the TPW release and others. Currently, only three responses to the letters asking for support have been received. Responses were received from U.S. Senator Phil Gramm, State Senator Drew Nixon, and a Shirley Green, “Director of Correspondence” for Governor George Bush. Should it be concluded that the economic and recreational value of Sam Rayburn is not important to the non-responsive officials? Perhaps they should be asked this question prior to the next election.
TNRRC Water Quality Planning
The TNRCC has divided the state into five regions or groups. Each year water quality monitoring efforts are focused and intensified on only one of the five groups. Apparently, sufficient funding is not available to support rigorous sampling and analysis concurrently for all regions. Each year a different region or group is selected for an intensified sampling and analysis effort. Up until the present, the region having the most severe water quality problems were selected for intensified water sampling effort. In other words the worst water gets the attention. Unfortunately, this has created a situation where a body of water that may be void of any aquatic life and not suitable for any recreational purpose may get higher priority and attention than a body of water which is marginally suitable for support of aquatic life and recreational activity. In other words, the worst gets fixed first, meanwhile the marginal body of water condition worsens making it much more difficult to remedy. Catch 22!
Once the water sampling data from the intensified effort is available an analysis is performed resulting in preparation of an Impaired Waters List 303d. This list identifies specific water quality issues and based on this do*****ent a requirement for preparation of a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) Plan may be generated. The TMDL Plan specifies the action that will be taken to obtain data and perform an analysis that will result in the determination of the maximum amount of pollutant a body of water can receive and still meet water quality standards.
A summary of information pertaining to a TMDL project initiation on Lake of the Pines and a tributary, Big Cypress Creek follows. Detection of high concentrations of Zinc and Selenium and low dissolved oxygen levels have established that the water quality in Lake of the Pines and Big Cypress Creek does not meet the State of Texas Standards. Due to these findings a TMDL project has been initiated. The first step of the TMDL project was the formation of a watershed committee made up of 43 separate agencies with representation from; 4 state agencies, 2 federal agencies, 7 cities, 5 industries, 3 citizen groups, 8 local governments, 5 universities, 3 water districts, 3 agriculture groups, 3 other water user groups. They left out the partridge in the pear tree.
A status report for the TMDL development project lists July, 1998 as a start date and a target end date of August, 2001. That’s three years from start to completion of the TMDL project with the purpose of defining the measures necessary to restore the water quality in Big Cypress Creek and Lake of the Pines. Nothing has been said about action to correct the problems at this point. Putting it kindly, a committee of 43 agencies is inherently constipated and dysfunctional. Who is regulating whom?
Interestingly, the water quality issues identified as reasons for initiation of the TMDL project were excessive concentrations of Zinc and Selenium but one of the “project highlights” was a study of the current and potential water quality impacts of the poultry industry. This is a second poultry litter study and is not the study done in the Attoyac region previously mentioned.
Impaired Waters List 303d, April 1999
The Impaired Waters List summarizes water quality issues for each the five groups in Texas. It typically includes reservoirs and tributaries to the reservoirs, but not for Sam Rayburn. The Sam Rayburn reservoir segment summary says fish consumption use is partially supported, based on a restricted consumption advisory issued by the Texas Department of health due to Mercury in fish tissue. The summary also says; “in the upper arm of the reservoir, dissolved oxygen concentrations are sometimes lower than the standard established to assure optimum conditions for aquatic life”. “Also in the upper portion, bacteria levels sometimes exceed the criterion established to assure the safety of contact recreation.” In plain English this means that sometimes fish will die because of oxygen deprivation and sometimes it’s not safe to swim or water-ski in, because of fecal coliform bacteria. Sulfates are not mentioned in the summary of conditions on Sam Rayburn even though the TNRCC data collection web site page “identifies a concern for sulfates’. The Angelina River, and Attoyac and Ayish Bayous, all major tributaries for Sam Rayburn reservoir, are not even listed in any group; it’s as if they didn’t exist. Some questions which should be addressed follow. Where did the contamination causing elevated levels of fecal coliform bacteria come from? Why are the dissolved oxygen levels insufficient for aquatic life? Reasonable people would look upstream of the reservoir at the tributaries for answers. The trouble is; Rayburn tributaries are missing from the list so we can’t look there. In the 1993 Poultry Litter study previously mentioned herein the Attoyac was a “study stream”. Certainly, it was not selected for the poultry litter study because it was a pristine water body. In the ANRA 1994 Water Quality Assessment previously mentioned herein, a concern for Sulfates in Sam Rayburn Reservoir was identified. In the same 1994 assessment, possible concerns for dissolved oxygen, dissolved solids, chloride, fecal coliform bacteria, nutrients and metals were also identified. Has anything happened to clean up the pollutants or has it just been decided to exclude them from mention? Engineers have a descriptive phrase for eliminating a problem without solving the problem. It’s called “pencil whipping the problem”. Again, who is regulating whom? Are organizations with deep pockets exerting influence and inhibiting accurate assessment of water quality? You decide.
The Impaired Waters List 303d in basin groups a & b which includes the Trinity River and water bodies East of the trinity, discloses a total of 13 “impairments” caused by pesticides Atrazine or Chlordane. Excessive metal concentrations including Zinc, Selenium, Copper and Lead are also present in this region. The typical routine water sample and analysis normally done, determines water temperature, dissolved oxygen, pH, and conductivity. Analysis capable of detecting pesticide / herbicide constituents is not routinely done and it would be reasonable to expect a significantly greater number of “impairments” attributed to pesticides / herbicides if it were.
In late spring many fish caught on Sam Rayburn reservoir and Toledo Bend were covered with external lesions or open sores not caused by predators or handling. Similar findings on lakes Richland Chambers, Fairfield and Limestone were also reported. Logic suggests that there is a common pollution source weakening bass crappie and perch disease resistance and immune systems. A short list of possible, common, pollution sources includes herbicides, pesticides, sewage and animal or poultry manure applied to crop lands as fertilizer. Possible common sources for pesticide and herbicide applications include agriculture (which includes the timber industry), and all agencies using herbicides to control vegetation and underbrush along highways and other right-of -ways. These are the types of pollution sources you would expect to be addressed in the Non Point Source Pollution Report mentioned previously herein which is not available.
The aquatic grasses, Hydrilla and Coon-Tail moss, have practically disappeared from Sam Rayburn. Those who are intimately familiar with the history of Sam Rayburn know that this is abnormal. TNRCC officials recently said they were not planning to perform water sample analyses capable of detecting herbicide / pesticide constituents in Sam Rayburn reservoir.
Any objective comparison of tournament results from 1999 to preceding years clearly supports the conclusion that the impact of the 1998 fish kill was much more severe than reported. A comparison of fish population surveys although not conclusive also suggests a decline in numbers of legal size fish.
Summary & Conclusion
The preceding makes it evident that information relevant to water quality which is vitally important to the communities economically dependent upon the recreational use of Sam Rayburn reservoir is not available. While the reason this is so has not been clearly established, it is evident that the agencies responsible for assessing, regulating, and maintaining water quality have not been effective. We do not believe these problems are a consequence of apathy or inability on the part of people employed by TNRCC and ANRA but rather
the problems may be a consequence of the political influence powerful moneyed interests wield. We believe these interests inhibit regulation in order to secure profits. The situation will not change until the political bodies, and business, industrial and agricultural interests are made to realize that economic and recreational value of the reservoirs of East Texas are enormously important. That is the challenge. It can be met, but only if the merchants, boat dealer associations, boat and tackle manufactures, motel and restaurant owners ,etc. form an alliance with the common purpose of achieving water quality suitable for all recreational activity in our lakes and streams. The first step is to define the economic value of particular water bodies. These lakes and streams don’t belong to industry, timber, or agricultural interests and they should not be allowed to control their fate.
Foot note: A second letter signed by George Bush was received after completion of this article.
A Concerned Citizen
6/28/99 – Lake Mohave

– Lake Mohave