Questions or Comments: info@tceq.texas.gov

Agency Activities: Water Quality

The following summarizes the agency’s activities regarding development of surface water quality and drinking water standards, water quality monitoring, assessing surface water data, restoring water quality, bay and estuary programs, stormwater permitting, utility services, and the Clean Rivers Program. (Part of Chapter 2—Biennial Report to the 87th Legislature, FY2019-FY2020)

Water Quality

Developing Surface Water Quality Standards

Texas Surface Water Quality Standards

Under the federal Clean Water Act, every three years TCEQ is required to review and, if appropriate, revise the Texas Surface Water Quality Standards. These standards are the basis for establishing discharge limits in wastewater permits, setting instream water quality goals for total maximum daily loads, and establishing criteria to assess instream attainment of water quality.

Figure 1. Management Strategies for Restoring Water Quality (pie chart). An assessment unit (AU) is the smallest geographic area used when evaluating surface water quality.

TMDLs/Implementation Plans: 256 AUs; 33.5%.
Water Quality Standards Review/UAAs: 183 AUs; 24%.
Watershed Protection Plans: 151 AUs; 20%.
Other: 172 AUs; 22.5%.
Total AUs with an assigned restoration strategy: 762.

TCEQ can address water impairments in a variety of ways. The selection of an appropriate restoration strategy is coordinated with stakeholders through the Watershed Action Planning (WAP) process. This figure is reflective of the 2014 Texas Integrated Report. Since the 2020 Texas Integrated Report was recently approved by EPA in May 2020, we are in the process of evaluating our strategies. Source: WAP database and the 2014 Texas Integrated Report

Water quality standards are set for major streams and rivers, reservoirs, and estuaries based on their specific uses: aquatic life, recreation, drinking water, fish consumption, and general. The standards establish water quality criteria for temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen, salts, bacterial indicators for recreational suitability, and a number of toxic substances.

The commission revised its water quality standards in 2018. Major revisions included:

  • A new single-sample criterion for coastal recreation waters as mandated by the BEACH Act.
  • Revisions to toxicity criteria to incorporate new data on toxicity effects and local water quality characteristics that affect toxicity.
  • Numerous revisions and additions to the uses and criteria of individual water bodies to incorporate new data and the results of recent use-attainability analyses.

The revised standards must be approved by EPA before being applied to activities related to the federal Clean Water Act. Although federal review of portions of the 2010, 2014, and 2018 standards has yet to be completed, TCEQ has proceeded with the 2021 triennial standards review. Initial preparations for the 2021 Texas Surface Water Quality Standards began in June 2019, and proposal to the commission is anticipated in 2021.

Use-Attainability Analyses

Use-attainability analysis is a scientific assessment of the physical, chemical, biological, or recreational characteristics of a water body.

The Surface Water Quality Standards Program also coordinates and conducts use-attainability analyses to develop site-specific uses for aquatic life and recreation. The UAA assessment is often used to re-evaluate designated or presumed uses when the existing standards may need to be revised for a water body. As a result of aquatic-life UAAs, site-specific aquatic-life uses and dissolved-oxygen criteria were adopted in the 2018 revision of the standards for individual water bodies.

In 2009, TCEQ developed recreational UAA procedures to evaluate and more accurately assign levels of protection for water recreational activities such as swimming and fishing. Since then, the agency has initiated more than 131 UAAs to evaluate recreational uses of water bodies that have not attained their existing criteria. Using results from recreational UAAs, TCEQ adopted site-specific contact-recreation criteria for numerous individual water bodies in the 2018 Texas Surface Water Quality Standards revision.

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Clean Rivers Program

The Clean Rivers Program administers and implements a statewide framework set out in Texas Water Code, Section 26.0135. This state program works with 15 regional partners (river authorities and others) to collect water quality samples, derive quality-assured data, evaluate water quality issues, and provide a public forum for prioritizing water quality issues in each Texas river basin. This program provides 60–70% of the data available in the state's surface water quality database used for water-resource decisions, including revising water quality criteria, identifying the status of water quality, and supporting the development of projects to improve water quality.

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Water Quality Monitoring

Surface water quality is monitored across the state in relation to human-health concerns, ecological conditions, and designated uses. The resulting data form a basis for policies that promote the protection and restoration of surface water in Texas. Special projects contribute water quality monitoring data and information on the condition of biological communities. This provides a basis for developing and refining criteria and metrics used to assess the condition of aquatic resources.

Figure 2. TCEQ Continuous Water Quality Monitoring Stations – July 2020. In July 2020, TCEQ had 33 active stations around the state as part of the Continuous Water Quality Monitoring Network. Instruments at these sites measure basic water quality conditions every 15 minutes. The data is used to make decisions about managing water resources and water quality. The number and locations of sites may vary from year to year.

Coordinated Routine Monitoring

Each spring, TCEQ staff meets with various water quality organizations to coordinate monitoring efforts for the upcoming fiscal year. TCEQ prepares the guidance and reference materials, and the Texas Clean Rivers Program partners coordinate the local meetings. The available information is used by participants to select stations and parameters that will enhance the overall coverage of water quality monitoring, eliminate duplication of effort, and address basin priorities.

The coordinated monitoring network, which consists of about 1,800 active stations, is one of the most extensive in the country. Coordinating the monitoring among the various participants ensures that available resources are used as efficiently as possible.

Continuous Water Quality Monitoring

TCEQ has developed—and continues to refine—a network of continuous water quality monitoring sites on priority water bodies. The agency maintains 30 to 40 sites in its Continuous Water Quality Monitoring Network (CWQMN). At these sites, instruments measure basic water quality conditions every 15 minutes.

CWQMN monitoring data may be used by TCEQ or other organizations to make decisions about water-resource management to target field investigations, evaluate the effectiveness of water quality management programs such as TMDL implementation plans and watershed-protection plans, characterize existing conditions, develop and calibrate water quality models, define stream segment boundaries, and evaluate spatial and temporal trends. The data are posted at TCEQ's website.

The CWQMN data is used to guide decisions on how to better protect certain segments of rivers or lakes. For example, TCEQ developed a network of 15 CWQMN sites on the Rio Grande and the Pecos River, primarily to monitor levels of dissolved salts to protect the water supply in Amistad Reservoir. The Pecos River CWQMN stations also supply information on the effectiveness of the Pecos River Watershed Protection Plan. These stations are operated and maintained by the U.S. Geological Survey through cooperative agreements with TCEQ.

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Assessing Surface Water Data

Every even-numbered year, TCEQ assesses water quality to determine which water bodies meet the surface water quality standards for their designated uses, such as contact recreation, support of aquatic life, or drinking-water supply. Data associated with 200 different water quality parameters are reviewed to conduct the assessment. These parameters include physical and chemical constituents, as well as measures of biological integrity.

The assessment is published on TCEQ's website and submitted as a draft to EPA as the Texas Integrated Report for Clean Water Act Sections 305(b) and 303(d) (found at www.tceq.texas.gov/waterquality/assessment).

The Integrated Report evaluates conditions during the assessment period and identifies the status of the state's surface waters in relation to the Texas Surface Water Quality Standards. Waters that do not regularly attain one or more of the standards may require action by TCEQ and are placed on the 303(d) List of Impaired Water Bodies for Texas (part of the report). EPA must approve this list before its implementation by TCEQ's water quality management programs.

Because of its large number of river miles, Texas can monitor only a portion of its surface water bodies. The major river segments and those considered at highest risk for pollution are monitored and assessed regularly. The 2020 Integrated Report was approved by EPA in May 2020. In developing the report, water quality data was evaluated from 2,639 sites on 1,644 water bodies. The draft 2022 Integrated Report is under development.

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Restoring Water Quality

Watershed Action Planning

Water quality planning programs in Texas have responded to the challenges of maintaining and improving water quality by developing strategies to address water quality issues in the state. Watershed Action Planning (WAP) is a process for coordinating, documenting, and tracking the actions necessary to protect and improve the quality of the state's streams, lakes, and estuaries. The major objectives are:

  • To fully engage stakeholders in determining the most appropriate action to protect or restore water quality.
  • To improve access to state agencies' decisions about water quality management and increase the transparency of that decision-making.
  • To improve the accountability of state agencies responsible for protecting and improving water quality.

Leading the WAP process are TCEQ, the Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board (TSSWCB), and the Texas Clean Rivers Program partners. Involving stakeholders, especially at the watershed level, is key to the success of the WAP process.

Total Maximum Daily Load Program

The Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) Program is one of the agency's mechanisms for improving the quality of impaired surface waters. A TMDL is the total amount (or load) of a single pollutant that a receiving water body can assimilate within a 24-hour period and still maintain water quality standards. A rigorous scientific process is used to arrive at practicable targets for the pollutant reductions in TMDLs.

This program works with the agency's water quality programs, other governmental agencies, and watershed stakeholders during the development of TMDLs and related implementation plans.

Bacteria TMDLs

Bacteria from human and animal wastes can indicate the presence of disease-causing microorganisms that pose a threat to public health. People who swim or wade in waterways with high concentrations of bacteria have an increased risk of contracting gastrointestinal illnesses. High bacteria concentrations can also affect the safety of oyster harvesting and consumption.

Of the 1009 AUs listed in the 2020 Texas Integrated Report of Surface Water Quality, about one-third are for bacterial impairments to recreational water uses.

The TMDL Program has developed an effective strategy for developing TMDLs that protects recreational safety. The strategy relies on the engagement and consensus of the communities in the affected watersheds. Other actions are also taken to address bacteria impairments, such as recreational use–attainability analyses that ensure that the appropriate contact-recreation use is in place, as well as watershed-protection plans developed by stakeholders and primarily directed at nonpoint sources.

Implementation Plans

While a TMDL analysis is being completed, stakeholders are engaged in the development of an Implementation Plan (I-Plan), which identifies the steps necessary to improve water quality. These I-Plans outline three to five years of activities, indicating who will carry them out, when they will be done, and how improvement will be gauged. The time frames for completing I-Plans are affected by stakeholder resources and when stakeholders reach consensus. Each plan contains a commitment by the stakeholders to meet periodically to review progress. The plan is revised to maintain sustainability and to adjust to changing conditions.

Programmatic and Environmental Success

Since 1998, TCEQ has been developing TMDLs to improve the quality of impaired water bodies on the federal 303(d) List, which identifies surface waters that do not meet one or more quality standards. In all, the agency has adopted 286 TMDLs for 203 water bodies in the state.

Based on a comparison of the 2016 and the 2020 Integrated Reports, water quality standards were attained for five impaired AUs addressed by the TMDL Program.

From July 2018 to July 2020, the commission adopted TMDLs to address instances where bacteria had impaired the contact-recreation use. TMDLs were adopted for 13 AUs. A TMDL is developed for each AU: Sycamore Creek (one), Armand Bayou Tidal (one), Mary's Creek Bypass (one), Mound Creek (one), Oso Creek (one), Lavaca River above Tidal and Rocky Creek (two), Navasota River above Lake Limestone (two), Brushy Creek and Spring Branch (two), North Fork Fish Creek (one), and Martinez Creek (one). During that time, the commission also approved three I-Plans—for the Lower San Antonio River, Lavaca River above Tidal and Rocky Creek, and the Navasota River above Lake Limestone. The Greater Trinity River Bacteria TMDL I-Plan is an example of successful community engagement to address bacteria impairments. Development of the I-Plan occurred through a stakeholder-driven process that included active public participation. Stakeholders engaged in the process represented a broad spectrum of authorities and interests including government, agriculture, business, conservation groups, and the public. The I-Plan identifies nine strategies for activities that address five TMDL projects. Seven AUs in the I-Plan are meeting their contact recreation uses in the 2020 Integrated Report.

Nonpoint Source Program

The Nonpoint Source (NPS) Program administers the provisions of Section 319 of the federal Clean Water Act. Section 319 authorizes grant funding for states to develop projects and implement NPS pollution management strategies to maintain and improve water quality conditions.

TCEQ, in coordination with TSSWCB, manages NPS grants to implement the long- and short-term goals identified in the Texas NPS Management Program. The NPS Program annual report documents progress in meeting these goals.

The NPS grant from EPA is split between TCEQ (to address urban and non-agricultural NPS pollution) and TSSWCB (to address agricultural and silvicultural NPS pollution). TCEQ receives $3 to $4 million annually. About 60% of overall project costs are federally reimbursable; the remaining 40% comes from state or local matching. In fiscal 2020, TCEQ received $3.8 million, which was matched with $2.6 million, for a total of $6.4 million.

TCEQ annually solicits applications to develop projects that contribute to the Texas NPS Management Program. Typically, 20 to 30 applications are received, reviewed, and scored each year. Because the number of projects funded depends on the amount of each contract, the number of contracts awarded fluctuates. Thirteen projects were selected in fiscal 2019, and 12 in fiscal 2020. Half of the federal funds awarded must be used to implement watershed-based plans, comprising activities that include public outreach and education, low-impact development, the construction and implementation of best management practices, and the inspection and replacement of on-site septic systems.

The NPS Program also administers provisions of Section 604(b) of the federal Clean Water Act. These funds are derived from State Revolving Fund appropriations under Title VI of the act. Using a legislatively mandated formula, money is passed through to councils of governments for water quality planning. The program received $741,000 in funding from EPA in fiscal 2019 and $734,000 in fiscal 2020.

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Bay and Estuary Programs

The estuary programs are non-regulatory, community-based programs focused on conserving the sustainable use of bays and estuaries in the Houston-Galveston and Coastal Bend bays regions through implementation of locally developed comprehensive conservation management plans. Plans for Galveston Bay and the Coastal Bend bays were established in the 1990s and recently updated by a broad-based group of stakeholders and bay user groups. These plans strive to balance the economic and human needs of the regions.

The plans are implemented by two different organizations: the Galveston Bay Estuary Program (GBEP), which is a program of TCEQ, and the Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries Program (CBBEP), which is a nonprofit authority established for that purpose. TCEQ partially funds the CBBEP.

Additional coastal activities at TCEQ include:

  • Participating in the Gulf of Mexico Alliance, a partnership linking Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. TCEQ contributes staff time to implement the Governors' Action Plan, focusing on water resources and improved coordination among the states.
  • Serving on the Coastal Coordination Advisory Committee and participating in the implementation of the state's Coastal Management Program to improve the management of coastal natural resource areas and to ensure long-term ecological and economic productivity of the coast.
  • Working with the General Land Office to gain full approval of the Coastal Nonpoint Source Program, which is required under the Coastal Zone Act Reauthorization Amendments.

Galveston Bay Estuary Program

GBEP provides ecosystem-based management that strives to balance economic and human needs with available natural resources in Galveston Bay and its watershed. Toward this goal, the program fosters cross-jurisdictional coordination among federal, state, and local agencies and groups, and cultivates diverse public-private partnerships to implement projects and build public stewardship.

GBEP priorities include:

  • coastal habitat conservation
  • public awareness and stewardship
  • water conservation
  • nonpoint and point source abatement
  • monitoring and research

During fiscal 2019 and 2020, GBEP worked to preserve wetlands and important coastal habitats that will protect the long-term health and productivity of Galveston Bay. To inform resource managers, the program conducted ecosystem-based monitoring and research, and worked with partners to fill data gaps. GBEP collaborated with local stakeholders to create watershed-protection plans and to implement water quality projects. Its staff completed the Galveston Bay Plan through a collaborative stakeholder process; the plan was approved by EPA in fiscal 2020. The State of the Bay report, which summarizes monitoring data, research findings, and management action along with historical resource uses, began to be updated to transition it into a web-based format.

In fiscal 2019 and 2020, 682.27 acres of coastal wetlands and other important habitats were protected, restored, and enhanced. An additional 4,642 acres will be placed under conservation by the end of calendar 2020. Since 2000, GBEP and its partners have protected, restored, and enhanced a total of 33,408 acres of important coastal habitats.

Through collaborative partnerships established by the program, approximately $15.49 in private, local, and federal contributions was leveraged for every $1 the state dedicated to the program in fiscal 2019 and 2020.

Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries Program

During fiscal 2019 and 2020, CBBEP implemented 56 projects, including habitat restoration and protection, outreach and educational programs, and studies that promote bay and estuary watershed planning. Based in the Corpus Christi area, CBBEP is a voluntary partnership that works with industry, environmental groups, bay users, local governments, and resource managers to improve the health of the bay system. In addition to receiving program funds from local governments, private industry, TCEQ, and EPA, CBBEP seeks funding from private grants and other governmental agencies. In the last two years, CBBEP secured $6,705,581 in additional funds to leverage TCEQ funding.

CBBEP priority issues focus on human uses of natural resources, freshwater inflows, maritime commerce, habitat loss, water and sediment quality, and education and outreach. One of CBBEP's goals under their comprehensive conservation and management plan is to address 303(d)-listed segments so that they meet state water quality standards.

Other areas of focus:

  • Conserving and protecting wetlands and wildlife habitat through partnerships with private landowners.
  • Restoring the Nueces River Delta for the benefit of fisheries, wildlife habitat, and freshwater conservation.
  • Environmental education and awareness for more than 8,000 students and teachers annually at the CBBEP Nueces Delta Preserve by delivering educational experiences and learning through discovery, as well as scientific activities.
  • Enhancement of colonial-waterbird rookery islands by implementing predator control, habitat management, and other actions to help stem the drop in populations of nesting coastal birds in the Coastal Bend and the Lower Laguna Madre.
  • Supporting the efforts of the San Antonio Bay Partnership to better characterize the San Antonio Bay system and to develop and implement management plans that protect and restore wetlands and wildlife habitats.

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Drinking Water

Of the approximate 7,000 public water systems (PWSs) in Texas, about 4,660 are community systems, mostly operated by cities. These systems serve about 97% of Texans. The rest are non-community systems—such as those at schools, churches, factories, businesses, and state parks.

TCEQ makes data tools available online so that the public can find information on the quality of locally produced drinking water. The Texas Drinking Water Watch at www.tceq.texas.gov/goto/dww provides analytical results from the compliance sampling of PWSs. In addition, the Source Water Assessment Viewer at www.tceq.texas.gov/gis/swaview shows the location of the sources of drinking water. The Viewer also allows the public to see any potential sources of contamination, such as an underground storage tank.

All PWSs are required to monitor the levels of contaminants present in treated water and to verify that each contaminant does not exceed its maximum contaminant level, action level, or maximum residual disinfection level—the highest level at which a contaminant is considered acceptable in drinking water for the protection of public health.

In all, EPA has set standards for 102 contaminants in the major categories of microorganisms, disinfection by-products, disinfectants, organic and inorganic chemicals, and radionuclides. TCEQ evaluates approximately 165,000 analytical results each month to determine compliance with these standards. The most significant microorganism is coliform bacteria, particularly E. Coli. The most common chemicals of concern in Texas are disinfection by-products, arsenic, fluoride, and nitrate.

More than 58,000 water samples are collected by TCEQ each year just for chemical compliance. Most of the chemical samples are collected by TCEQ contractors and then submitted to an accredited laboratory for analysis. The analytical results are sent to TCEQ and the PWSs.

Each year, TCEQ holds a free symposium on public drinking water, which typically draws about 1,000 participants. The agency also provides technical assistance to PWSs to ensure that consumer confidence reports are developed correctly and include all required information.

Any PWS that fails to have its water tested or reports test results incorrectly faces a monitoring or reporting violation. When a PWS has significant or repeated violations of state regulations, the case is referred to TCEQ's enforcement program.

EPA developed the Enforcement Response Policy and the Enforcement Targeting Tool for enforcement targeting under the Safe Drinking Water Act. TCEQ uses this tool to identify PWSs with the most serious health-based or repeated violations and those that show a history of violations of multiple rules. This strategy brings the systems with the most significant violations to the top of the list for enforcement action, with the goal of returning those systems to compliance as quickly as possible.

More than 99% of the state's population is served by a PWS producing water that meets or exceeds the National Primary Drinking Water Standards.

Table 4. Violations of Drinking-Water Regulations

  Fiscal 2019 Fiscal 2020
Enforcement Orders 346 444
Assessed Penalties $420,900 $548,105
Offsets by SEPs $27,620 $14,785

Note: The numbers of public-water-supply orders reflect enforcement actions from all sources in the agency.

Review of Engineering Plans and Specifications

PWSs are required to submit engineering plans and specifications for new water systems or for improvements to existing systems. The plans must be reviewed by TCEQ before construction can begin. In fiscal 2019, TCEQ completed compliance review of 2,327 engineering plans for PWSs; in fiscal 2020, 2,352.

The agency reviews creation applications for general-law water districts and bond applications for water districts to fund water, sewer, and drainage projects. In fiscal 2019, the agency reviewed 563 water-district applications; in fiscal 2020, 557.

Assistance

TCEQ strives to ensure that all water and wastewater systems have the capability to operate successfully. TCEQ contracts with the Texas Rural Water Association to assist utilities with financial, managerial, and technical expertise. About 1,060 assignments were made through this contract in fiscal 2019, and 992 assignments in fiscal 2020.

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Wastewater Permitting

The Texas Pollutant Discharge Elimination System was created in 1998, when EPA transferred the authority of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System for water quality permits in the state to Texas. The TPDES program issues municipal, industrial, and stormwater permits.

Industrial and Municipal Individual Permits

Industrial wastewater permits are issued for the discharge of wastewater generated from industrial activities. In fiscal 2019, TCEQ issued 189 industrial wastewater permits; in fiscal 2020, 179. Municipal wastewater permits are issued for the discharge of wastewater generated from municipal and domestic activities. In fiscal 2019, TCEQ issued 593 municipal wastewater permits; in fiscal 2020, 560.

Stormwater Permits

Authorization for stormwater discharges are primarily obtained through one of three types of general permits: industrial, construction, and municipal. TCEQ receives thousands of applications a year for coverage. To handle the growing workload, the agency has introduced online applications for some of these permitting and reporting functions.

Table 5. Stormwater General Permits

Applications Affected (issued) Applications Received (monthly average) Applications Received (total)
Fiscal 2019 Fiscal 2020 Fiscal 2019 Fiscal 2020 Fiscal 2019 Fiscal 2020
Industrial (facilities)a 1,336 876 111 73 1,330 876
Construction (large sites) 8,625 7,893 712 658 8,540 7,895
MS4s (public entities) 13 5 4 1 526 15

a Includes No-Exposure Certifications.

Industry

The multi-sector general permit regulates stormwater discharges from industrial facilities. Facilities authorized under this general permit must develop and implement a stormwater pollution prevention plan, conduct regular monitoring, and use best management practices to reduce the discharge of pollutants in stormwater. On average per month, TCEQ receives 50 notices of intent, 23 no-exposure certifications, and 35 notices of termination for industrial facilities.

Construction

The construction general permit regulates stormwater runoff associated with construction activities, which include clearing, grading, or excavating land at building projects. Construction disturbing five or more acres is labeled a "large" activity, while construction disturbing one acre or more but less than five acres is termed "small." TCEQ currently receives about 658 notices of intent and 366 notices of termination a month for large construction activities.

Municipal

TCEQ also regulates discharges from municipal separate storm-sewer systems (MS4s). This category applies to a municipality's system of ditches, curbs, gutters, and storm sewers that collect runoff, including controls for drainage from state roadways. TCEQ has 23 active individual MS4 Phase I permits and 583 active MS4s Phase II authorized under a general permit. MS4s must develop and implement a stormwater management plan.

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