It’s clean. At least, that what the experts say about the waters of Clam Bayou.
In December, the city of St. Petersburg released a study performed by the third party Environmental Consulting and Technology, Inc. that documented the water quality from the days after the unprecedented 15-plus-million gallon dumping of diluted sewage into the bayou.
Though fecal coliform levels were high initially – and lead to multiple closures of Gulfport Beach, Municipal Marina and the bayou – the fluctuated and dwindled until a report from October 23, 2015 showed that the water no longer contained fecal coliforms from humans or birds.
According to Mary Yeargan Mary Yeargan, district director of the Southwest District of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP), fecal coliforms die after three to five days of environmental exposure.
“The sun kills them,” Yeargan said in a presentation to Gulfport City Council on Tuesday, April 19. “And we have a lot of runoff into Clam Bayou: from the west, it’s Gulfport and from the east, it’s St. Petersburg. And we try to analyze the source [of fecal coliforms]; is it from wildlife, is it from a sewer overflow, is it from people walking their dogs and not picking up after them?”
Yeargan also stated that there were better ways to test the water for human waste.
“[Fecal coliforms] are not a good indicator of water quality,” Yeargan said. So the FDEP used another, less conventional method to determine water quality.
“If you want to identify if something is coming from a waste treatment plant, you search for artificial sweeteners,” Yeargan said. “Why? Because they pass them right out.”
In addition, Yeargan states that rainfall that has a lot of animal waste in it can temporarily affect the water quality.
By September 2015, the results of the tests for fecal coliforms greatly fluctuated; the fluctuations were showing differences of hundreds and thousands, but what caused the fluctuations? According to Yeargan, rain.
“It’s from rainfall events and surface water flowing over the ground and more storm water coming into the Bayou and into Boca Ciega Bay,” Yeargan said.
Yeargan also provided a map showing all the places in Pinellas County where there was water that had detectable amounts of fecal coliforms in it. It’s everywhere, and the bodies of water that didn’t show coliforms, well that’s just because they haven’t been tested yet, Yeargan said.
The FDEP has been collecting samples from Clam Bayou since February and according to Gulfport City Manager Jim O’Reilly, the tests show “no content of human or bird DNA.” All other bacteria in the bayou is said to be “naturally occurring organic matter.”
These findings directly agree with the findings of St. Petersburg’s earlier study released in December 2015.
But according to O’Reilly, they were different types of studies.
“You can’t really compare the two,” O’Reilly said.
The study conducted by the FDEP focused on identifying waters affected by untreated human waste because it represents the greatest potential human health risk. The St. Petersburg study primarily focused on water content and quality through searching for dissolved oxygen, phosphates and nitrogen.
Both tests focused testing on several different locations throughout the bayou, including the stormwater ponds and the point of initial discharge near the center pond.
According to Yeargan, there is an expectation of high coliform levels in the stormwater pond, as it’s designed to hold water so the sediments sink to the bottom before the water enters the surface water. But after the studies were released, it was confirmed that even the pond had an acceptable level of coliforms, in compliance with Clean Beaches guidelines.
According to O’Reilly, a “safe” or “acceptable” level of coliforms is 400 per 100 milliliters, though water testing in that range would be given a “poor” quality rating. During the initial discharge of sewage, the levels were seen in and over the 100,000 coliforms per 100 milliliter level.
In fact, O’Reilly is so confident in the test results from the two cities, that he claims he has “no problem” swimming in Boca Ciega Bay now.
“Let me put it this way: the runoff behind the Casino and the pier, where the water goes into the bay? I have no problem with fishing there or being in the water,” he said.