How did Lee and Collier fare in a recent national study of fecal bacteria at beaches?

Amy Bennett Williams
Fort Myers News-Press
A beach goer strolls the beach at Lighthouse Point Beach on Sanibel Island on Friday, August 14, 2020.

Southwest Florida water quality headlines are often alarming, thanks to choking red tide, toxic algae blooms and flesh-eating bacteria.

Sometimes it's broken sewage pipes spewing No. 2 into a river near you.

But here’s a bit of good news: Neither Lee nor Collier County appeared in a recent nationwide study, “Safe for Swimming,” which analyzed levels of fecal indicator bacteria from beaches in 29 coastal and Great Lakes states and Puerto Rico.

The study, a collaboration between two nonprofits, Environment Florida Research & Policy Center and Frontier Group, found 386 beaches – almost one of eight surveyed – were potentially unsafe on at least 25 percent of the days that sampling took place last year. Worse yet, more than half of the 3,172 beaches reviewed were potentially unsafe for swimming on at least one day.

Beaches were considered potentially unsafe if fecal indicator bacteria levels exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “Beach Action Value” associated with an estimated illness rate of 32 out of every 1,000 swimmers. As the name implies, enteric or fecal bacteria come from human or animal feces.  They can get into the water through water washing off the landscape, leaky septic tanks and sewer system failures. 

High counts of enteric bacteria indicate pollution. Swallowing, swimming or wading in contaminated water can cause problems including diarrhea, nausea, rashes and eye irritation.

"It’s great to be seeing Lee and Collier doing better than the state," said Jenna Stevens, Environment Florida state director, but "Ultimately the thing to remember is no matter what, our water should always be safe to swim in. Floridians should never go to the beach wondering if the beach is safe."

A paddleboarder crosses the pass next to the Sanibel Causeway bridge on Friday, August 14, 2020.

In Florida,187 of 261 beaches tested were potentially unsafe for at least one day. The most dangerous: Key West’s South Beach (not Miami’s art deco shoreline) in Monroe County, which showed potentially unsafe conditions on 22 days of 43 tested, more days than any other Florida beach, according to the report.

This isn’t to say the region’s beaches are problem-free. The microorganisms that cause red tide and blue-green algae remain concerns. Nor is it to say Lee and Collier beaches are fecal bacteria-free either, just that the numbers weren’t high enough to land them on any of the lists of trouble spots.

For example, on Aug. 5 of last year, the water at Turner Beach at Blind Pass between Sanibel and Captiva Islands in Lee tested “poor” for  fecal bacteria. Two days later, the water had returned to “good,” and hasn’t had a “poor” rating since.

On Marco Island's Tigertail Beach in Collier, the water exceeded EPA safety standards nine of the 55 days tested. 

Beachgoers hang out on the on Fort Myers Beach on Thursday, August 13, 2020.

That we know this at all is thanks to a Florida Department of Health statewide program called Healthy Beaches, that measures bacterial contamination. As state programs go, it's not pricey. Lee's costs $38,261 a year, said department spokeswoman Tammy Yzaguirre.

It measures the fecal bacteria in samples from 13 Lee County and 12 Collier County Gulf islands and beaches, plus along the Caloosahatchee River and its estuary.

The health department's county offices take samples to measure the presence of potentially dangerous bacteria, then rate the site's water quality as good, moderate or poor for bacteria, then post the results online and issue an advisory if the result is confirmed, which means there's an increased risk of illness in swimmers at that location. Once the reading returns to normal, the advisory is lifted. 

Stevens said there are some straightforward fixes.  

Beachgoers hang out on the on Fort Myers Beach on Thursday, August 13, 2020.

"These are totally solvable problems and there are easy-to-implement solutions," she said. The report recommends undertaking a number of efforts to prevent fecal pollution, including deploying natural and green infrastructure to absorb often-contaminated stormwater.

Calusa Waterkeeper John Cassani points out that while the coastal beaches get pretty good monitoring by the health department, inland sites are all but ignored. That's where his nonprofit comes in, testing rivers and creeks that the health department doesn't.

"We will be doing our sample run (Saturday) at inland areas that FDOH does not do (with) results on Sunday," he wrote in an email. "Most of these inland sites yield results for enterococci well above the EPA Beach Action Value."

Beachgoers hang out on the Sanibel Causeway on Thursday, August 13, 2020.

What concerns him is that the water bodies his group tests are used for recreation,  but only "infrequently monitored by FDOH. Many of the same water bodies have been designated 'impaired' (or polluted) for fecal indicator bacteria, but health risk warning signs posted at these contaminated sites is rare at best." 

Microscopic water hazards

Enteric bacteria live in human and animal intestinal tracts, and their elevated presence shows fecal pollution. It may come from stormwater runoff, pets, wildlife and human sewage. Symptoms include upset stomach, diarrhea, eye irritation and skin rashes.

Algae blooms occur periodically. There are different kinds and some more serious than others. Blue-green algae blooms can be toxic. Symptoms: skin rashes, runny nose, sore throat, allergic reactions, severe gastroenteritis, liver or kidney toxicity and neurological problems.

Vibrio vulnificus is another type of waterborne bacteria but it is far more dangerous — in Florida, 78 people have died and 251 have been infected. The risk of infection is low for healthy people, but higher for those with cuts and weak immune systems. Eating raw seafood from contaminated water is also a common cause of infection. Symptoms up to three days after contact include chills, fever, swelling, blistering, skin lesions, severe pain, low blood pressure and discharge from wound.