Harris County begins to clean bayous

HOUSTON What you may not realize is how polluted the bayous are. Cleaning them up is a huge challenge, but it's already being done at one bayou.

After being viewed for years as giant flood control ditches, Harris County's bayous are looking more like the natural areas they once were.

There are boats and canoes on Buffalo Bayou. Elsewhere, people fish. Beyond that, though, it's not safe to go into the water.

Buffalo and White Oak Bayous both exceed state standards for E. coli contamination by 10 times and more -- that's what the Houston-Galveston Area Council found when it began measuring bayou water quality. The causes? Wildlife, lawn fertilizers, aging sewage pipes, and more. All make their ways into waterways. But, a solution may be found on Brays Bayou.

It's a $1.5 million county flood control project that looks like a nature habitat. Its job here is pollution control. Beneath banks of wildflowers is a series of three manmade ponds filled with native reeds and water lilies. Polluted neighborhood runoff flows from an old inlet, and pond by pond, E. coli bacteria is filtered out before it enters the bayou. Scientist Marissa Sipocz of Texas A&M Extension Service helped design all this.

"There is still amazement as to how much a water quality benefit this particular benefit has produced," she said.

For instance, on extreme days, this one inlet measured 431,000 colony units of E. coli bacteria per 100 milliliters of water (that's about the size of an aspirin bottle). After being filtered through the ponds, bacteria was reduced to 180 units, slightly above the state standard, but improved by more than 200 times. Put these inlets up and down bayous, and the water could be cleaner. The only limitation is money and funding partners.

"When more people come together for one single cause, we can get a lot more done at a lot faster pace, too," Heather Saucier of Harris County Flood Control said.

Clean water mandates, though, may convince more people and agencies to fund these projects, which do their jobs without electricity, or technology -- perhaps some would say, the way nature intended.

Compliance deadlines for improving bayou water quality are on the horizon. Local authorities, such as the City and County Flood Control, will be meeting next month with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to map out a strategy.

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