Part I: Looking for Signs of Harvey in the Galveston Bay Report Card

Why didn’t Harvey impact the Water Quality grade?

At Galveston Bay Foundation and Houston Advanced Research Center, we are frequently asked if Galveston Bay is a productive system for fish and wildlife. And the answer for 2017 is yes, for the majority of 2017, Galveston Bay and its rivers and bayous met state water quality standards for aquatic life.

The Galveston Bay Report Card summarizes the conditions in Galveston Bay over an entire year and takes into account over 2,300 samples. The Report Card’s Water Quality grade of an “A” represents nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) and dissolved oxygen. Harvey was a large event with direct water quality impacts extending over several weeks. Harvey’s long-term impacts relating to pollution and toxicity are reported in different Report Card categories.

Why doesn’t the Water Quality grade represent more than indicators for aquatic life?

The Water Quality grade represents nitrogen, phosphorus, and dissolved oxygen. Each indicator grade in the Report Card helps us answer a different question. We analyze and summarize the results of different types of data behind the grades and also work to keep them specific. Your questions below were answered in the clearest and most accurate way.

If Water Quality grade doesn’t reflect what happened during Harvey like bacteria and chemical spills – what does?

Bacteria are monitored as indicators of pathogens in Galveston Bay for contact recreation uses and human safety. It’s classified as contact recreation, because when bacteria in water come in contact with humans (by swallowing water or through open cuts), then contaminated water can make people sick. Bacteria is monitored in Galveston Bay and its rivers and bayous all year long. We answer the question of “Is it safe to swim in Galveston Bay?” in the Human Health Risk category. To see bacterial sampling immediately post Harvey, visit and look for the bacteria data under the Water tab at the top.

Harvey’s flood waters also carried oil, chemicals, debris, and other dangerous materials to Galveston Bay. However, The Galveston Bay Report Card does not include chemical concentrations in the water because that is not the best way to monitor toxic chemicals in an estuarine system. Spills evaporate into the air, are diluted in water and broken down, and it’s very hard to track them as they are carried by winds and tides. That’s why prevention, early detection, rapid response and containment are so important. It is much more difficult to track, much less clean up a spill once it is out in the Bay.

The best we can do is keep people away while the proper authority tries to contain or clean it up and look for clues as to how chemicals might end up in marine life. That is why Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Galveston Bay Report Card examine Toxics in Sediments. When chemicals are broken down and carried away by water and tides, some compounds are left behind and the settle onto the bottom of the Bay. There, they can be consumed by algae, worms, clams, fish, and other organisms that make their way up the food web. Harvey’s flood waters may have deposited new chemicals, but we know that it also moved old contaminated sediments to new parts of the Bay. The work on studying toxics in sediment is ongoing, and we plan to include that in the Galveston Bay Report Card when those data are available.

So how could the Bay possibly get a “C” after everything that happened during Harvey?

Galveston Bay is a very large and dynamic system. It is constantly changing due to a variety of factors including weather, winds, tides, seasons, freshwater inflows, Gulf water inflows, animals entering and leaving the bay, and more.

The Galveston Bay Report Card was designed to answer dozens of questions from you, its residents and stakeholders, by pulling together over 20 different data sets and putting them all in one place. The average grade is just that – an average across all categories. Most of those category grades, are averages for the entire period of 2017. The Galveston Bay Report Card is a summary of an entire year for our estuary. We monitor Galveston Bay to ensure that it is functioning as a healthy ecosystem and supporting aquatic life as well as our human use. Our goal is to maintain a Bay system that is healthy enough to weather storms, crises, and recover.

One of the questions that we ask after any event like Harvey is “How resilient is Galveston Bay?” We continue to monitor and research and ask questions. We hope you will ask us your questions and help us do everything we can to improve the health of Galveston Bay every year.