Like many of Texas’ waterways, Big Creek isn’t safe for swimming.

For the last seven or eight years the waterway — which starts where Hartledge Road crosses Cottonwood Creek, just north of Pleak — has been suffering.

“There’s too much fecal bacteria in Big Creek,” said Justin Bower, a senior planner with the Houston-Galveston Area Council. “What we’ve found is elevated levels of E.coli in the watershed.”

Naturally occurring e-coli is present in almost all waterways, Bower added. The bacteria can find its way into a stream in a dozen different ways.

“E.coli could come from agricultural runoff, wild animals or wastewater treatment plants,” Bower said.

For Big Creek, the problem is getting the amount of e-coli down to acceptable levels. The EPA and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality have set a limit of 126 colony-forming units of E.coli per 100 milliliters, a colony-forming unit is a way to estimate the number of viable cells in a sample.

Since 2012, Big Creek’s annual average of E.coli bacteria has surpassed the EPA’s limit, Bower said.

“During that time there have been some major flooding events which raised the CFU count and there have been some droughts which lowered it,” he added. “But on average the CFUs have exceeded the limit.”

Big Creek’s elevated levels of fecal bacteria led the Houston-Galveston Area Council and TCEQ to have a stakeholders’ meeting at George Memorial Library on July 11. Officials from Fort Bend County, Brazos Bend State Park and some of the local municipalities got together to identify the problem, Bower said.

“Right now we are in the preliminary stages of the process,” he added. “We’re trying to determine the sources of the bacteria.”

Determining the source of a particular strain of e-coli in a body of water that meanders through 25% of the county, before reaching the Brazos River at the southeastern tip of Brazos Bend State Park, can be an expensive, and time-consuming, process.

“We can do DNA testing to find the point of origin, but that costs thousands of dollars per sample,” Bower said. The easier way is to come up with a rough estimate of the possible sources.

“We try to estimate how many cows, horses, dogs and septic systems are on a stretch of water,” he said. Once the possible sources are identified the TCEQ will move forward in creating a response. It will take one to two years before TCEQ develops a plan for the Big Creek watershed. “It didn’t get to this point overnight and it won’t get solved overnight,” Bower said

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