While the sometimes brown and muddy Gulf of Mexico might dampen some tourists’ enthusiasm for island beaches, the water conditions are generally healthy and normal for shorelines on the Texas coast, experts said.
Frisco, Texas, resident C.J. Carroll has heard unflattering things about Galveston beaches and the muddy Gulf before, she said.
She visited Galveston on Thursday with her family and a friend’s family and was pleasantly surprised, she said.
“Actually, it exceeds its reputation,” Carroll said.
Carroll’s friend, New Braunfels resident Kim Mulle, grew up in Houston and is familiar with the Gulf of Mexico, Mulle said.
“I’m used to it,” Mulle said. “I know it’s not Cancun.”
The Galveston Park Board of Trustees, which manages island beaches, does sometimes see social media posts that Galveston’s water is undesirable, but it hasn’t seemed to translate into a decrease in visitation, park board Public Relations Director Mary Beth Bassett said.
Galveston drew in 7.2 million visitors last year, 2.9 percent more than the 7 million who came to the island in 2017, according to park board data. Last year, when unusually clear waters made the Gulf appear blue, tourists flocked to island beaches.
Turbid, murky waters in the Galveston region isn’t uncommon, said Tim Dellapenna, associate professor of marine science at Texas A&M University at Galveston.
“It has mud in it,” Dellapenna said. “And sometimes it has these beautiful blue days. Sometimes it has green water. It’s very cyclical.”
The Mississippi and Brazos rivers carry much sediment into the Gulf of Mexico, which currents carry to the waters off Galveston, Dellapenna said.
“In the East Coast, there aren’t any rivers that flow straight into ocean,” Dellapenna said. “They flow into estuaries first. In Florida, you’re upstream, you’ve got beautiful beach and beautiful clear water there.”
Visitor Jason Dean likes the Galveston beaches, but it’s not the bluest water he’s ever seen, Dean said. He lived in Corpus Christi for a time, so he knows water color cycles, he said.
“It doesn’t look as blue as Corpus does,” Dean said.
The water is pretty brown in Galveston, but that’s what first-time visitor David Williams is used to, Williams said.
“It’s like that in Georgia too," Williams said. "When I came here, I did think that the water would be clearer.”
But water full of mud doesn’t indicate poor quality, Gossett said.
“It’s overall very healthy for aquatic life and for recreation safety as well,” Gossett said.
The Galveston County Health District tests for water quality under the partnership of the state’s Texas Beach Watch Program, district spokeswoman Ashley Tompkins said.
Sometimes, levels of a bacteria called enterococcus can spike after heavy rains send runoff into coastal waters, but the high levels are typically isolated to specific areas, Tompkins said.
“Just because one location has tested high, doesn’t mean the location next to it has tested high,” Tompkins said.
Healthy people have a significantly lower chance of falling ill if they swim in areas with high bacteria levels, she said. People with open wounds or certain health conditions just need to move a couple blocks away from the area tested with high levels, she said.
The park board cleans beaches but also must comply state and federal restrictions that aim to preserve the health of the shores, Bassett said.
“There are criteria we must follow when it comes to raking seaweed at the beaches,” Bassett said. “The coastal zone management team tips the trash cans and hand picks litter off of Galveston’s beaches including those on the West End.”
The park board works to educate visitors on what healthy Gulf Coast beaches look like, Bassett said.