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How dirty are Texas beaches? Researchers are using AI to better track bacteria levels.

A boat covered in brown and white wood and glass windows floats on a calm lake under a blue sky with scattered clouds, surrounded by trees and greenery.
Michael Minasi
KUT News
The Meadows Center, which runs glass-bottom boat tours on Spring Lake in San Marcos, will work with community scientists across the state to collect bacteria samples at Texas beaches.

As the worst of the Texas heat looms, people may find themselves heading to the state's beaches, but those same beaches may contain harmful bacteria, a 2022 study from Environment Texas found.

The study helped lay the foundation for research on an artificial intelligence tool that will detect certain bacteria in Texas waterways.

Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas, said their report showed 55 beaches along the Gulf Coast were unsafe for swimming on at least one testing day.

“That is 90% of beaches that do testing, and what that means is there are levels of fecal bacteria above what the federal government deems safe,” Metzger said. “If you were to either ingest that water that's been contaminated or have an open wound and then be exposed to the contamination that way, you could get really, really sick.”

Based out of Texas State University in San Marcos, researchers at The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment will work with community scientists across the state to collect bacteria samples — specifically in Matagorda Bay, Galveston and the Colorado River — and use the AI technology to assess the bacteria levels.

Of all the ways scientists can sample beach water, one method known as "tampling" stands out. It involves dropping an organic tampon into the water. After the cotton sits in the water for a period of time — which could be one hour or 24 depending on the test — the tampon is placed under a black light. If the tampon appears bright pink, researchers can tell there are dangerous amounts of bacteria in the water.

The AI tool is then brought in to analyze that sample and then uses data trends to predict how bacteria levels will change in the future.

“Think of it as a robot that receives test results and is trained to make predictions for the future based on past trends," Jenna Walker, director of watershed services at The Meadows Center, said.

This data will be accessible to the average Texan to use to make decisions on what beaches are clean and which should be avoided.

Clean Coast Texas is at the forefront of partnerships on this initiative. It has a Beach Watch program where beachgoers can check the bacteria count in the water they are about to swim in. The Meadows Center is going to incorporate their findings into an interactive map.

"This is part of a larger initiative to incorporate this bacteria sampling through community science across the state. So we're focusing right now on the coastal zone and further developing this tool but once it is ready for launching, we do foresee that there would be more sampling for bacteria in a more accessible and affordable way," Walker said.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration provided the $500,000 grant for this AI tool, which was earmarked by U.S. Rep. Greg Casar, D-Austin, that will kick in on Sept. 1. Once that happens, Walker said the tool will be put to use in the next six months and the bacteria in Texas beaches will be closely monitored.

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