Texas Water Resources Institute (TWRI)

Environmental monitoring in Texas moves into watershed protection plan development

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Results from a three-year monitoring study indicate that Buck Creek in the southeastern part of the Texas Panhandle is not excessively contaminated, and experts are advocating it should be taken off Texas’ list of impaired water bodies.

“Overall the creek is in good shape,” said Lucas Gregory, project manager with the Texas Water Resources Institute in College Station. Gregory and other officials met with landowners to announce the findings and discuss the future of the Buck Creek project.

“Several locations periodically exhibit elevated bacteria levels,” he said. “So until it comes off the list, something has to be done to determine and manage the source of the bacteria.”

Buck Creek is an unclassified freshwater stream that originates in Donley County near Hedley and runs east-southeast through Collingsworth and Childress counties before entering the southwestern corner of Harmon County, Okla. where it empties into the Red River.

Monitoring of the Buck Creek Watershed, a part of the Red River Basin, began in 2004 after it was determined that the stream did not meet all Texas Surface Water Quality Standards enforced by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Gregory said.

Only 20 water samples were taken from 1996 to 2001, and bacterial levels failed to meet water quality standards. If the impairment persisted, federal and state agencies could impose regulations that could impact the use of the watershed, he said.

To prevent this, several groups began working together, and Dr. John Sij, Texas AgriLife Research agronomist at Vernon, took on the project to gather data that would determine bacteria levels and their cause.

The work, funded by the Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board through the Environmental Protection Agency, includes efforts by AgriLife Research, Texas AgriLife Extension Service, Texas Water Resources Institute, Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Red River Authority, Soil and Water Conservation Districts and Texas Parks and Wildlife.

The main objective of this project was to obtain a sufficient amount of data from multiple locations in order to make a scientifically sound decision about the bacterial impairment of the water, Gregory said. Fifteen sample sites were established along the creek and bi-weekly sampling was conducted from 2004 to 2007, which established a data set that now will be sent to the state environmental commission for review, he said.

But the work doesn’t end there. The next step is to establish a Watershed Protection Plan and do some bacteria-source tracking, Gregory said. It is anticipated this portion of the project should be completed by Aug. 31, 2009.

Phyllis Dyer, research technician for AgriLife Research at Vernon, conducted the water sampling over the past three years. She will now collaborate with Dr. George Di Giovanni, AgriLife Research microbiologist in El Paso, who will use DNA analyses to match E. coli colonies found in the water to a library of DNA ‘fingerprints’ gathered from human and animal species found in the watershed.

This will include collecting fecal samples from known animals (either identified visually or with a game-camera photo), from fresh road kill or from trapping, Dyer said. Each warm-blooded species has a different fingerprint for E. coli.

The samples are streaked for purification and then an isolated colony will be sent from Vernon to El Paso for the actual DNA matching, Dyer said.

“The whole point is to better understand what is causing these elevated bacteria levels, and then evaluate management practices that have the highest potential to reduce bacteria loading in the creek,” Gregory said.

By developing a Watershed Protection Plan, Gregory said land owners will be in a better position to secure cost-share funding for putting some of the needed management practices on the ground through this voluntary and stakeholder-driven program.

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