The group, Cypress Creek Watershed Partnership, has been working to identify pollution sources—namely fecal matter—along Cypress Creek since its formation last July. If left unaddressed, water quality is likely to continue to deteriorate as the area becomes more developed, which would have negative effects on public health, the environment and the local economy, said Justin Bower, a senior planner with the Houston-Galveston Area Council who is overseeing the partnership's work.
The partnership is aiming to reduce pollution levels by varying degrees spanning 64%-74% at different segments along the creek. On May 29, officials revealed the vast majority of pollution—about 75%—can be attributed to pet waste.
"Overall what we’re trying to do is change the behaviors of pet owners," Bower said. "A big part of what we need to do is make people more aware of the negative impacts of pet waste and the role they have in that."
Possible solutions include installing more pet waste stations in highly trafficked areas, increasing the number of dog parks and capacity of existing dog parks, and looking to homeowners associations and apartment complexes to help with enforcement, Bower said. Solutions would be targeted at the more developed parts of Cypress Creek, largely focusing on downstream areas but also including master-planned communities located upstream.
Although sewer systems only account for about 4% of creek pollution, Bower said they are still of concern because human waste has more severe health consequences, especially in instances where a system overflows into a neighborhood.
“That is something that is much more of a concern to us in public health because it’s where we live," Bower said. "We decided to treat [sanitary sewer systems] as a priority regardless of what percentage [of pollution] they make up."
Possible solutions can take a number of different forms, including working with utility companies and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to identify areas that overflow and trying to identify and resolve problems. Solutions could also be aimed at private septic systems, Bower said, through he acknowledged that would come with its own set of challenges.
"A lot of the watershed downstream is traditional sewer, but a lot of [septic systems] are in that area in the headwaters," Bower said. "One of the big challenges we have is that, instead of having one plant under the state with one point of contact, you have 10,000, all of which have to be maintained by homeowners, all of which could have their own point of contact."
Bower said improving septic systems could involve identifying clusters of older systems and leveraging funds from a TCEQ program that helps low-income landowners fix failing systems.
"We assume 10% of [septic systems] at any time are in failure or malfunctioning state. That is likely to grow as they age, or new systems are added in larger tract rural areas," Bower said. "We have to have planning in place to deal with them as they fail."
Other sources of fecal pollution for Cypress Creek include cattle and wildlife, such as wild hogs, Bower said. The final plan is also likely to include conservation efforts and restoring riparian buffers, which help slow and filter stormwater, he said.
In late June or early July, members of the partnership are expected to further develop solutions for cleaning up the creek and identify funding sources at a series of workshops, Bower said. A final roadmap for how solutions will be carried out is expected to be completed in 2021, he said.