Hidden Cost of Fecal Contamination: Removing It

Fecal contamination of water can have many health consequences. It can also have consequences for your wallet in terms of hospital bills and water treatment costs. The expansion of Houston’s Northeast Water Purification Plant will cost $1.765 billion.

Persistent Sewage Leaks at Colony Ridge

Yesterday, I reported on 48,000 gallons of sewage documented by the TCEQ in ditches and streams near Colony Ridge in Liberty County just before Imelda struck last year. Stormwater from that area flushes into the San Jacinto East Fork and Lake Houston. Any sewage not cleaned up from that particular spill likely wound up in the main source of the City of Houston’s drinking water.

Had it been a one time affair, it could have been explained as an accident. But the problems recur. Neither the developer, sewage contractor, County, nor State have managed to eliminate the frequent leaks.

Sewage Coverup

In fact, yesterday’s post contained photographs of one incident where the leak remained. A bulldozer had simply covered up sewage that leaked into the ditch adjacent to a road. It was as if the people responsible were saying, “out of sight, out of mind.” The sewage leak remains, though, and without remediation, the pollution will eventually wash down toward Tarkington Bayou, which also enters the East Fork.

Putting Water Test Results in Context

Two recent tests of samples taken within Colony Ridge by Eastex Environmental Labs showed fecal contamination on the order of 3,000 to 5,000 “colonies” per 100 milliliters. Just what does that mean?

One-hundred milliliters equals a little more than six tablespoons.

A website called Water Research Center contained a very helpful article that explains what fecal contamination can do in those concentrations. In addition to concentrations, it also discusses sources of contamination, health/environmental consequences and more. It said that the current US EPA recommendations for:

  • Body-contact recreation (i.e., swimming, diving, water skiing) is fewer than 200 colonies/100 mL
  • Fishing and boating is fewer than 1000 colonies/100 mL
  • Intake at water treatment plants for domestic water supply is fewer than 2000 colonies/100 mL.

The drinking water standard AFTER TREATMENT is less than 1 colony total coliform bacteria/100ml with E. coli ABSENT.

The presence of fecal contamination is an indicator that a potential health risk exists for individuals exposed to this water. Diseases and illnesses that can be contracted in water with high fecal coliform counts include but are not limited to:

  • Typhoid fever
  • Hepatitis
  • Gastroenteritis
  • Dysentery,
  • Ear, nose, eye and cut infections. 

Cost to Make Drinking Water Safe

On my last flight over Lake Houston, I flew over the expansion of the Northeast Water Purification Plant. Until you’ve seen this in person, it’s hard to believe how large it is.

The new plant will quintuple the amount of pure, fresh water available to customers in this area. The City is adding 320 million gallons per day (MGD) to the existing 80 MGD capacity for a total of 400 MGD.

In addition to conventional treatment processes, the new plant will include an advanced oxidation process called ozonation. Ozonation helps disinfect water to help ensure that harmful organisms such as Giardia and Cryptosporidium are eliminated. Ozonation also helps eliminate taste and odor causing compounds.

The intake facility shown below will finish next year, but the plant itself won’t finish until mid 2025.

The cost of this project is $1.765 billion.


Photos of New Intake for Plant

All aerial images below were taken on 6/16/2020. While the plant expansion will make drinking water safe, it won’t make all the water in Lake Houston safe as long as people allow fecal contamination to leak into it.

The expanded plant lies more than a mile from the intake in the foreground.
The expansion will occupy approximately 150 acres of the City’s 252 acre site.
The new intake pump station will be located approximately 900 feet from the shore of Lake Houston to draw water from a deeper depth than the current intake. That, say the partners, will alleviate some water-quality challenges.
Construction of the intake pump station should finish in about a year.
The pipelines carrying water back to the treatment plant will measure 108″ in diameter.
That’s nine feet tall. About the height of that cargo container used as a construction office! Photo cropped and enlarged from wider image above.

The City and its partners have produced an easy-to-understand, yet informative website that documents construction of this project.

This PowerPoint, posted as part of the latest update is packed with photos that may inspire your kids and grandkids to become engineers someday. It shows the meticulous planning and attention to detail that goes into such a project.

Objectives for Project

According to the web site, the project has two objectives:

  • To support the region’s growth
  • To reduce subsidence

But the partner’s sell themselves short. The fundamental reason is to provide safe, clean drinking water, despite the pollution from places like Colony Ridge.

For the record, lest you think I’m picking on Colony Ridge, there are many other sources of water pollution. They include livestock, leaky septic tanks, runoff from streets and more.

We can all help by reporting spills and leaks to City, County and State authorities when we see them.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 6/24/2020

1030 Days after Harvey and 279 since Imelda

The thoughts expressed in this post represent opinions on matters of public concern and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.