Imagine getting dressed in your bathing suit for a day at the beach, unloading your kayak for a peaceful paddle, gathering your fishing tackle to wet a line or arriving at the marina to enjoy your power or sailboat when you encounter a sign that reads, “Warning: Surface Water is Contaminated. Do not play, swim or fish in this area.”
Recreational water warnings and closures are common occurrences in the greater Tampa Bay area after heavy rain events that follow a drought because of elevated levels of harmful bacteria. Earlier this month, St. Petersburg temporarily closed Northshore and Maximo beaches along with Lassing Park. The Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County temporarily closed Ft. DeSoto’s North Beach. In mid June, Gulfport issued in-water advisories temporarily closing Clam Bayou, the marina and beach areas.
“Whenever you get heavy, heavy rains and it hasn’t rained in a long time, you’re getting everything that is in the [stormwater drainage] pipe or everything that is close to that pipe like fecal coliform from bird doo and dog feces. That’s one of the major problems that we have,” said Don Sopak, Gulfport’s director of public works.
What Government Agencies Test For and Why
Routinely, area municipalities, government agencies and the state of Florida, through the Healthy Beaches program, test recreational water areas for the presence of harmful bacteria.
Gulfport tests for two types called enterococcus or fecal coliform.
Enterococci “are part of the normal intestinal flora of humans and animals” and of “more that 17 species, only a few cause clinical infections in humans, ” according to Medscape, an online worldwide reference for disease information for physicians and healthcare professionals. The bacteria thrive for short periods of time in high salt concentrations and are resistant to antibiotics, which poses a problem for fighting infectious diseases in humans and animals.
Gulfport’s City Manager Jim O’Reilly echoed Sopak’s assessment and said it can come from bird feces “washing off leaves.” Even decomposing seaweed can cause elevated testing levels, said O’Reilly.
Fecal coliform “originates from multiple sources including wastewater treatment plants, poorly managed septic systems, application of manure to fields, agricultural facilities such as livestock operations” and pet waste not being properly bagged and disposed of in the garbage, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
“Water contaminated with fecal coliform drains from land into” bodies of water like creeks, rivers and salt water bays and beaches.
The major public health risk regarding recreational water contaminated with high levels of fecal coliform is ingestion. The EPA says ingestion of fecal coliform in humans can cause disease and symptoms may include diarrhea, cramps, nausea, headaches and fatigue.
After weather events, the recreational water quality in Gulfport is not normally affected by sewer discharges, said O’Reilly. The most notable exception was in August 2015 when after an extraordinary rainstorm occurred in Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, sanitary sewer pumping stations were overwhelmed and the city of St. Petersburg released raw sewage into Clam Bayou to prevent portions of the city from flooding, said Mary Yeargan, director of the southwest district for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection during a environmental panel discussion in Gulfport on April 27, 2016.
“If we get an anomaly, these are primarily related to weather events,” said O’Reilly.
Recreational Water Quality in Gulfport
“Closing a public area to in-water activity is pretty substantial. We don’t take this lightly,” said O’Reilly.
For years, the city performed weekly tests only at the beach. After the August 2015 sewage discharge into Clam Bayou by St. Petersburg, the city added two additional testing locations at the bayou and the nearby municipal marina, said O’Reilly.
Currently, water samples are taken early each morning on Mondays and Thursdays. Gulfport contracts with the city of St. Petersburg’s nearby lab and after 24 hours of processing, results are returned by 1 p.m. the next day.
“If we get a universally bad result, then we take immediate action,” said O’Reilly. If only one of the six measurements shows an elevated result, a second sample is immediately taken and tested. “If a retest shows that it’s still bad, then we take action.”
And, sampling at the location showing high bacteria levels continues until results fall to within acceptable ranges established by the state of Florida, said O’Reilly. If needed, sampling and testing is also done on weekends.
Action means the city staff posts warning and closure signs in appropriate public access locations to recreational waters, on the city’s website and on social media like Facebook. They also let the public know when an area is reopened. Full lab reports, along with other technical information, are available on the city’s website: mygulfport.us/waterquality.
“We don’t take this lightly,” said O’Reilly. “Closing a public area to in-water activity is pretty substantial.”
And, it has major economic impact for the city, said Sopak.
The frequency of water sampling by the state and other area municipalities is typically every four to six weeks. Why does Gulfport sample twice a week?
“It’s the right thing to do,” said O’Reilly.
Key online resources with regularly updated data:
• City of Gulfport Water Quality sampling reports and closing advisories: mygulfport.us/waterquality
• City of Gulfport closing advisories: facebook.com/mygulfport
• Florida Healthy Beaches program reports for Pinellas County:
• City of St. Petersburg Recreational Water Quality map: stpete.org/water/waterquality.php