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New AI Tool Will Help Track Bacteria on Texas Beaches

A 2023 study found that 90 percent of the state’s beaches tested positive for unsafe levels of fecal bacteria for at least one day. Fecal contamination can come from urban runoff, sewage overflows and factory farms.

It's been a year since a shocking study pulled back the curtain on one of Texas' dirtiest secrets: High levels of harmful bacteria are common at state beaches. Now, Lone Star State researchers are taking significant steps to combat the issue. The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University is developing an artificial intelligence tool to provide real-time water safety updates for beachgoers to prevent them from getting sick. Researchers will specifically target Texas bays and estuaries with historically high levels of bacteria, including beaches in Harris, Matagorda, and Nueces counties.

The researchers were inspired by a study released in 2023 by Environment Texas, which found that 90 percent of Texas beaches tested positive for unsafe levels of fecal bacteria for at least one day in 2022. Fecal contamination can originate from urban runoff, sewage overflows and factory farms. Last year, eight Texas beaches exceeded the safety threshold one one-quarter of testing days, with Cole Park Beach in Corpus Christi having higher bacteria levels on 54 percent of days tested, according to the state environmental group.

In late June, U.S. Rep. Greg Casar (D- Texas) awarded The Meadows Center $500,000 in federal funding for the research, which will reportedly kick in on Sept. 1, according to a report from KUT Austin. Once it does, the tool will be put to the test over the next six months. "The climate crisis and contamination are polluting our water and putting Texans health at risk," Casar said in a statement. "Today's investment will fund critical research at Texas State University to protect our water and our shores for decades to come."

While the research is being conducted, Texans can visit, which was created by the Texas General Land Office to monitor whether an advisory has been issued for unsafe levels of fecal bacteria. However, Environment Texas Executive Director Luke Metzger noted during a press conference celebrating the grant that these water tests are usually only administered once a week. "That's what makes the Meadows Center project so important," Metzger said. "By developing an early warning system for fecal bacteria, we can help protect people from getting sick."

(c)2024 the Houston Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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