Florida Department of Health warns of fecal bacteria at SWFL beaches, but many swim anyway
The bad news: Sometimes there are unsafe levels of poop at the region's beaches.
The good news: It's no secret. That means would-be recreators can arm themselves with knowledge before they grab their towels and head out — though not everyone does.
Last week, 11 Southwest Florida beaches got poor marks after tests showed high fecal bacteria counts. At popular Bonita Beach, the Florida Department of Health is advising people to stay out of the water completely until it clears. Even so, plenty of people ignored the bright signs posted at the pavilion and planted in the sand Monday as they body-surfed, rafted and dove in the tainted waves.
Swallowing or swimming in such waters can make people sick with diarrhea, nausea, rashes or eye irritation. The state’s Healthy Beaches program monitors enteric bacteria then posts the results online. It rates each site's water quality as good, moderate or poor for bacteria, then issues an advisory if the result is confirmed, which means there's an increased risk of illness in swimmers at that location.
Enterococci, the target bacteria, live in the intestines of warm-blooded animals, including humans, so large numbers of them mean there’s likely poop in the water. “The Florida Department of Health always recommends people avoid swallowing recreational water and those with open cuts or wounds avoid swimming until they are healed,” said Tammy Soliz, spokeswoman for the department’s Lee County office.
On July 11 in Lee County, Lovers Key State Park, Lynn Hall Park on Fort Myers Beach, Sanibel’s causeway and Blind Pass/Turner Beach, Little Hickory Island Park and Bonita Beach all tested poor. The same day in Collier, Delnor Wiggins Pass State Park, Doctors Pass, Lowdermilk Park, South Marco Island and Vanderbilt Beach tested poor as well, while Park Shore, Seagate, and Barefoot beaches all had moderate levels of fecal bacteria that day.
At the next round of Lee County testing on the 13th, all had returned to a good rating except Bonita Beach, which remained poor.
On the 13th in Collier, Lowdermilk Park had risen to moderate and the rest were good.
The next set of results will be available on the 19th, said Soliz. Bonita Beach’s advisory will continue until bacteria levels are below the accepted health level, she said. Once it does, “We will issue a press release and update the beach signage that it is safe to swim in this area again." The next results were to be available Tuesday.
Many things can cause fecal pollution, including stormwater runoff, wildlife and pet feces, and human sewage. Only DNA testing can pinpoint which creatures’ poop is in the water, but Calusa Waterkeeper John Cassani says it’s likely washing to the Gulf from inland “unless lots of birds (are) aggregating nearby. Because the Gulf of Mexico is such a big mixing zone, it’s hard to say for sure where it’s coming from.
Though tests were the 11th, it took the Lee County recreation department until Saturday to post an online advisory, which “perplexed and vexed” Louise Kowitch. “Why the lack of transparency?” she wrote in an email to the county. “Visitors are going to the beach without knowledge of the conditions. Please do a better job.”
The health department has done all it can, says Soliz. "We don't have the authority to close (beaches)," she said. "We post the signs, then people do what they do."
Those who swim anyway are illustrating what Cassani calls “Darwinian evolution."
And it's why "it is so hard to reform policy if the users don't care," he said.
See a map of current beach conditions: https://data.news-press.com/beach-water-quality/
For more information on the Healthy Beaches Program and sampling information, visit https://www.floridahealth.gov/environmental-health/beach-water-quality/index.html