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Houston Ship Channel: A TMDL Project for Nickel

A completed project to limit nickel concentrations in the Houston Ship Channel. The TMDL is adopted and the I-Plan is approved. Together, the TMDL and I-Plan are the road map to improved water quality.
aerial photo of the houston ship channel
Houston Ship Channel
Photograph courtesy
of Texas Parks and Wildlife
map of the Houston Ship Channel watershed


Counties: Chambers, Galveston, Harris
Parameter: Nickel
Basins: San Jacinto River, Bays and Estuaries
Segments: 1001, 1005, 1006, 1007, 1013, 1014, 1016, 1017, 2426, 2427, 2428, 2429, 2430, 2436

On this page:

Background and Goal

Data collected in the 1980s and early 1990s caused concern about dissolved nickel concentrations in the Houston Ship Channel system. The goal of this project is to assure that nickel loadings remain below the target amount, and that the water-quality standard will continue to be supported.

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Watershed Description

The Houston Ship Channel System is located in the San Jacinto River Basin. Its various branches originate in western and northern areas of the City of Houston, and at the Lake Houston Dam on the San Jacinto River.

The Houston Ship Channel System consists of 14 segments, which together comprise the “enclosed” portion of the Houston Ship Channel proper, with its major tributaries and side bays. The System excludes those portions of the Ship Channel located in Galveston Bay, seaward from Morgans Point. 

Most commercial navigation happens in the segments southeast of the central business district of Houston, which has one of the highest densities of petrochemical facilities in the world. The Port of Houston has long been one of the three or four busiest ports in the United States

The Houston Ship Channel System is tremendously important to the surrounding region. Commercial navigation initiated and supported the historic growth of the Houston area economy. The channel’s production of materials and inland location have been, and will be, important to the military security of the United States. The headwater reaches, tributaries, and fringes of the System provide recreational opportunities for residents.

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Public Participation

Due to the lengthy and extremely technical nature of the sampling, analysis, and model development aspects of this TMDL, initial public participation was primarily by permitted dischargers that contributed to data collection efforts and provided comments on laboratory results and model characteristics. In June 1999, approximately 40 people representing environmental groups, local governments, local industries, and consultants met with TCEQ staff to discuss the draft TMDL report. Participants recommended some revisions to make the report easier to understand and to more clearly describe the allocation. The draft report was revised and released for public comment. A public meeting was held in Houston in January 2000 to hear comments.

The TCEQ held an online public meeting on June 17, 2020 to discuss consideration of withdrawing the nickel TMDLs for the Houston Ship Channel. Houston-Galveston Area Council facilitated the meeting. A fact sheet about the proposed withdrawal and the meeting presentation are posted below.

Withdrawn: Total Maximum Daily Loads

TMDLs Withdrawn October 2020

Advances in the ability to accurately measure very low concentrations of metals and repeated sampling revealed that nickel is much less of a threat than was initially indicated by the less accurate data collected in the 1980s. However, TCEQ continued implementing the TMDLs to address public concerns until sufficient data were collected to reevaluate the nickel impairment.

Water quality in the channel has improved dramatically since the 1970s, due largely to efforts of state agencies, local governments, and industries. Areas of the channel that were once devoid of aquatic life now support abundant communities and recreational fishing. Many of the human health and environmental risks have been reduced or eliminated. 

In 2020, TCEQ proposed to withdraw the TMDLs as unnecessary based on newer, more valid data. In March 2021, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved TCEQ’s recommendation to withdraw the nickel TMDLs. The withdrawal was submitted as Appendix I in the state's application/pdfOctober 2020 Update to the Texas Water Quality Management PlanExit the TCEQ. The technical report supporting the withdrawal request is provided below. 

Withdrawn TMDLs

The commission first adopted these TMDLs on August 11, 2000, and adopted revisions to them on June 14, 2002. EPA approved them on May 9, 2003, at which time they became

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Implementation Plan

The commission approved this I-Plan on July 13, 2001. With the TMDLs withdrawn, the I-Plan is no longer in effect.

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Contact the TMDL Program

Please email tmdl@tceq.texas.gov and mention the Houston Ship Channel in the subject line. Or call us at 512-239-6682.

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