State plans to drop beach water-quality testing at 5 spots in region

Signs were posted Thursday to warn the public that Bonita Beach Park was unsafe for swimmers due to high levels of bacteria identified in water sampling taken on August 11, 2011. The tests indicate that the water quality at Lynn Hall, Bowditch, and Bonita Beach Park beaches do not meet the safety criteria for enterococcus and coliform bacteria (ecoli) recommended by the United States Environmental Protection Agency and Florida Department of Health. Greg Kahn/Staff

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Signs were posted Thursday to warn the public that Bonita Beach Park was unsafe for swimmers due to high levels of bacteria identified in water sampling taken on August 11, 2011. The tests indicate that the water quality at Lynn Hall, Bowditch, and Bonita Beach Park beaches do not meet the safety criteria for enterococcus and coliform bacteria (ecoli) recommended by the United States Environmental Protection Agency and Florida Department of Health. Greg Kahn/Staff

— Swimmers would know less about what’s in the water at their favorite Florida beach under a plan to cut back on weekly tests for bacteria.

The Florida Department of Health is proposing to drop 57 beaches statewide, including five in Collier and Lee counties, from the state’s Healthy Beaches program started more than a decade ago. Beaches still on the testing list would be checked only every other week.

The Lee County Health Department plans to pick up the cost of weekly bacteria monitoring at the two beaches that are on the list of drops in Lee County — Bonita Beach Park and Lynn Hall Park on Fort Myers Beach. Each was posted with no-swimming warnings this past week because of high bacteria counts.

The three beaches in Collier County that would be dropped are at Hideaway Beach on Marco Island, Pelican Bay and Barefoot Beach in North Naples.

Since 2000, the surf at the five beaches has had bacteria levels high enough for the water quality to be classified as poor 46 times, according to a Naples Daily News review of health department records.

The state cutbacks were necessary after the Florida Department of Health cut $525,000 from its water quality testing budget, leaving only a $530,000 grant from the federal Environmental Protection Agency to run the program.

The health department has submitted the revised program to the EPA for approval, possibly later this month. The changes could go into effect in September, state agency spokeswoman Christie Goss said.

Collier County health officials shrugged off any concerns about less monitoring.

“There’s a good chance we’ll continue to catch any issues,” county health department spokeswoman Deb Milsap said.

She said the dropped beaches were chosen based on how busy they are, their proximity to other tested beaches and their water quality history.

Bonita Springs Councilwoman Martha Simons called the state cuts “very disturbing” and “ridiculous” because they strike at the heart of government’s role to protect public health, safety and welfare.

“I like to know our water quality is good and I think tourists like to know that too,” Simons said.

The Lee health department decided to step in to bridge the gap in state monitoring to ensure the safety of beachgoers, spokeswoman Diane Holm said.

She said the department is looking at how much it will cost to continue the weekly testing.

“It’s a for-sure thing we’re going to find the money,” Holm said.

At Pelican Bay, that community’s master association will keep an eye on the test results for the nearest sampling spots north and south of the North Naples neighborhood, Pelican Bay Foundation President Jim Hoppensteadt said.

“If we found it makes sense to do more testing, we would,” Hoppensteadt said.

Monitoring beaches for bacteria has been a priority for health officials for a decade.

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Florida began monitoring bacteria levels at beaches in all of the state’s 34 coastal counties in 2000. In 2002, the program began taking weekly samples with an EPA grant.

If bacteria levels are high enough for water quality to be labeled poor, monitors take a follow-up sample. If that sample also falls into the “poor” category, no-swimming advisories are posted at the beach until the bacteria readings return to safe levels.

Monitors have never posted advisories at any of the three Collier beaches on the drop list; in Lee County, besides last week’s warnings, health officials posted advisories at Lynn Hall Park in 2002, 2003 and 2005.

One-day violations, even though they don’t trigger an official warning, are far more common, especially for enterococcus bacteria. Monitors also test for fecal coliform.

Florida uses fecal coliform to determine water quality; the EPA uses enterococcus, which federal studies have shown to be a better indicator of water quality problems because it is less likely to die off in saltwater.

Fecal coliform and enterococcus live in the intestinal tracts of humans and animals and are used as indicators for pollution that can make people sick or cause infections or rashes when swallowed or absorbed in a cut or sore, according to the health department.

Possible sources of bacteria include stormwater runoff, pets, wildlife and human sewage.

This chart shows water quality test results at various beaches in Southwest Florida.

The first number shows the tests for bacteria that had poor water quality results from 2000 to 2011.

The second number shows the number of no-swim advisories.

Lynn Hall Park.........................22...................3...

Lovers Key State Park...............5....................0...

Little Hickory Island Park...........0....................0...

Bonita Beach Park....................5....................0...

Barefoot Beach Preserve............7...................0...

Delnor-Wiggins Pass.................7....................1..

Vanderbilt Beach......................10...................2...

Pelican Bay..............................5....................0...

Clam Pass...............................3................... 0...

Park Shore...............................16..................2...

Doctors Pass............................5...................0...

Lowdermilk Park.......................13..................1....

Central Avenue...........................7..................1...

Naples Pier...............................10.................2...

Hideaway Beach.........................7.................0...

Tigertail Beach..........................16.................2....

Residents Beach........................8..................0...

South Marco..............................3..................0...

Source: Florida Department of Health

_ Connect with Eric Staats at www.naplesnews.com/staff/eric_staats

© 2011 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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