Cutbacks in bacterial tests on beaches

Results from the eight sample points monitored by Historic City News in St. Johns County have consistently been in the “good” range; however, the Florida Department of Health plans to quit testing water for bacteria at 45 beaches, statewide, to reduce spending.

St. Johns County beaches are expected to be among 93 beaches in northern Florida counties where the department plans to quit sampling during winter months when fewer people swim. During the remaining months, the plan is for those beaches to be tested every-other-week.

The St. Johns County beach locations tested are:

1 Solana Rd Good
2 Mickler’s Landing Good
3 Vilano Beach Good
4 Anastasia State Park Good
5 St Augustine Bch A Street Good
6 St Augustine Bch Ocean Trace Good
7 Crescent Beach Good
8 Matanzas Inlet Good

The “good” rating translates into 0-35 enterococcus spores per 100 ml of marine water.

“A great majority of beaches in Florida never have a problem — and they should continue to not have a problem,” said David Polk, Florida Healthy Beaches Program coordinator. “I don’t expect less beach water testing to discourage tourism or swimming by local residents.”

Environmentalist and director of the Clean Water Network of Florida, Linda Young, said beach water quality is important to residents and tourists and the state should expand testing, not reduce it.

In addition to other cuts and cutbacks, Florida Department of Health will test only for enterococcus and won’t test for fecal coliform — which could also lead to fewer advisories being issued.

Polk said, “Under a federal grant, $525,000 in state money was shifted into county health department budgets — intended to be used for beach water testing.” Polk explained to Historic City News that the reality is, when it gets to the county level, there is no guarantee the money will be spent solely for that purpose.

Last week, the Department of Health held a workshop on the proposed changes in
Daytona Beach. Now they are preparing a “modified work plan” for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; hoping for approval through the federal grant program. Workshops were also held in St. Petersburg, Tavernier and Panama City.

“I think it’s very short-sighted to scale back on any monitoring or any attention at all,” Young said. “If anything it needs to be expanded — there already was inadequate testing and responses to high bacteria levels.”

Also, the credibility of testing has been questioned by some residents and local officials in sparsely populated Citrus, Levy, Dixie and Taylor counties; where there are frequently high bacteria levels without an obvious source of pollution, such as a sewage spill.

Most of the coastal Big Bend is salt marshes with fewer of the wide, sandy beaches found elsewhere in Florida — consequently there are fewer swimmers. “It’s always good to monitor those locations if people are swimming there,” Polk said. There are only six beaches tested in those four counties compared to 15 in Broward County alone.

The Natural Resources Defense Council says those counties have ranked among the nation’s worst, in having the most advisories against swimming; however, Polk defended the decision, saying the “number of advisories” was not a factor in deciding to end testing at those beaches. “Unfortunately we have to prioritize where we are monitoring — to protect as many people as possible.”

The beach water testing program was launched in 2000 with routine testing every other week. Routine testing was increased to weekly in 2002. Swimming advisories are issued on signs at local beaches.

Photo credits: © 2011 Historic City News staff photographer

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