What’s so spooky about water?

Mary Kramer, graduate student at Harte Research Institute, demystifies the complexities of water quality issues in Texas.

Residents of Texas are more than familiar with the big bad wolf that is water, in terms of both quantity and quality. Surely, we have seen or heard at one point or another about the importance of water, and when one thinks through how they use water on a normal day, the implications of water issues can get scary. Whether it’s a shower, brushing your teeth, filling your pet’s water bowl, or even making your morning coffee, we are constantly in contact with water. When water is not properly treated, contact or ingestion can be harmful to us.

Thankfully, scientists are working towards solutions to fit our growing communities; over the past year, members of the Community Resilience team and Water Economics Program at the Harte Research Institute have been investigating the social, cultural, and behavioral drivers of water quality issues in the Texas Coastal Bend. This effort has helped to more accurately characterize and understand how communities’ land use patterns and day to day habits can influence the natural environment.

Now, you may be thinking: “Do my daily habits really matter when it comes to water quality?” The answer is yes! Let’s dive in and investigate how small behavioral changes can help to make water issues a little less spooky and, more importantly, why we should care in the first place.

Where I live, water is treated before it comes out of my tap at home, so why should I worry about polluting local waterways? Well, the truth of the matter is that wastewater treatment facilities are not perfect and there are many enforcement cases that can attest to this. Treatment facilities treat for things like waste that would make us sick but, often as these facilities begin to age or operate beyond their capacity, they can become less effective. Additionally, water that is flowing through old pipes or old infrastructure may not be up to the same standard as newer builds. Things like flooding or intense population growth such as what we are seeing in coastal communities can overload these facilities, causing an overflow of untreated water into the environment. These events then result in poor water quality in recreation areas like public beaches or fishing spots as well as aiding in negative human health impacts and livelihood changes.

Over the past year, I’ve been working with my team to identify social, cultural, and behavioral variables that may be contributing to water pollution in watersheds near San Antonio, Texas. Example variables include social vulnerability measures, land use and land use changes, presence of wastewater treatment facilities, and impervious land cover. I am exploring relationships like household composition (people living together in a household), disability vulnerability, and water quality. Could households demographics be associated with better or worse water quality? Could ageing infrastructure in older homes be contributing to pollution and putting some populations at higher risk? More research needs to be done to verify these types of connections as well as identify valid water quality restoration techniques without displacing residents.

The different ways that we use our land has a big influence over the quality of nearby waterways. For example, forested areas are generally associated with better water quality compared to agricultural or pasture areas.  Agricultural or pasture areas are often associated with fertilizer runoff that causes nutrient loading and a host of other water quality issues.

While not everyone can construct a wetland on their property or plant a forest around their home, there are some simple landscaping steps that can be taken to help keep nearby waterways healthy. Using natural barriers made of brush around shoreline of any streams or rivers running through your property can hinder pollutants, reduce erosion, and even conserve water. Planting drought resistant trees, bushes, and flowers around your home can also help to both conserve water and not negatively impact nearby streams because they cut down on fertilizer needs.

Rio, posing on the shoreline of Corpus Christi, Texas. Photo by Mary Kramer.

Believe it or not, your pet may be having a big impact on water too. Walking the dog or letting pets play in the yard can be very fun and while not picking up after them can seem easier and often harmless, the opposite is true. Even if pet waste is just left in your yard, it can still end up in nearby water sources after a short rain shower. For residents with yard space, having a designated disposal method and making sure to clear the entire yard before rain is a simple lifestyle choice that keeps poop out of the water. Properly disposing of pet waste is a simple step that pet owners can take to help keep our waterways clean.

When we break down the water crisis into small more manageable chunks like this, it really helps to take away most of the fear associated with the subject. This Halloween, instead of getting spooked by the idea of water issues, try to implement some small lifestyle changes to help your local environment!

Map showing household composition, disability vulnerability, and status of water impairment for the city of San Antonio. Household composition and disability vulnerability refers to a composite index measure that includes: population aged >65 and <17, population over age 5 with a disability, and single-parent households. Index values range from 0 to 1 where higher values depict a higher level of household composition and disability vulnerability. (source: CDC-SVI: https://svi.cdc.gov/Documents/Data/2018_SVI_Data/SVI2018Documentation.pdf )

Author: Mary Kramer

Mary is currently a Master's student at Texas A&M Corpus Christi studying Environmental Science. She loves to be outside, explore new places and hopes to use her degree to connect young adults to nature and careers in the natural sciences. Mary loves to paint, fish and read in her free time and can often be found doing so at the beach.

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