Reliability of state “healthy beaches” Web site questioned

Visitors crowd Shell Point Beach in Wakulla County on April 25 despite an advisory against swimming that was correctly posted on a state website:

Heading to the beach this summer? A good idea might be to check the Florida Department of Health Web site to see if there are advisories against swimming because of bacteria.

But a recent review by of DOH’s database of swimming advisories found numerous reporting errors. Bacteria tests are an indicator of fecal pollution from stormwater runoff, pets, wildlife and human sewage, according to the department.

Much of the state, including the Atlantic Coast beaches, have not been under advisories this spring. But there have been advisories at some beaches in the Florida Panhandle and Big Bend, where most of the reporting problems also were found.

Some advisories weren’t posted when they should have been, or they were lifted when there were no test results to suggest it was safe to swim. Testing wasn’t done at Taylor County beaches for several weeks and some test results weren’t reported in Gulf County — therefore no advisories were issued.

David Polk, state healthy beaches coordinator at the Florida Department of Health, attributed the Web site inaccuracies to a variety of administrative, computer and clerical problems. He began correcting some of the inaccuracies last week after raised questions.

“I’m going to go back and review our policies to see if we need to make further improvements,” he said.

At Dixie County’s Shired Island, advisories were inadvertently lifted for 12 weeks when they should have been maintained, Polk said. He corrected the Web site last week.

At Taylor County’s four beaches where water is tested, the state web site indicated that advisories were lifted when there were no test results to confirm swimming safety.

Polk said, “That was an administrative snafu by me.”

He explained that advisories are automatically lifted by the computer software if there are no test results — unless he takes action to maintain the advisory, which he failed to do. Department policy, he said, requires the advisory to be maintained until there are test results to show bacteria levels have dropped.

The Taylor County Health Department also failed to conduct testing between March 10 and May 5 that it was supposed to do, Polk said.

The Florida Department of Health allowed Taylor County to quit testing during the winter months when there are few swimmers and when low tides create mud flats that are difficult to cross to obtain water samples, Polk said.

Taylor County began retesting on March 3, and new advisories were issued on the state Web site for Dekle Beach, Cedar Beach and Hagens Cove. Then the advisories were lifted, according to the web site, after Taylor County Health Department quit testing from March 16 to May 5.

After testing resumed on May 5, new advisories were issued for Dekle Beach and Hagens Cove.

Taylor County Environmental Health Director James Rachal said in an e-mail to that beaches were not tested because of local flooding and other health priorities, but he couldn’t be reached on the telephone to elaborate. He also said the advisories against swimming remained even while the Web site erroneously indicated they had been lifted.

Polk said he plans to meet with Taylor County officials to discuss the testing.

“We may have to re-evaluate how they continue the program,” Polk said. But he ruled out the possibility that beach testing would stop in Taylor County.

In Franklin, Levy and Wakulla counties, there were single instances of advisories being lifted on the Web site when there were no test results to show that it was safe to swim.

And at Dixie Belle Beach in Gulf County, there was no health advisory issued on April 13 despite high levels of enterococcus bacteria. Polk said he would need to find out why there was no advisory issued. Test results also were not reported for at least three weeks this spring because sampling results were not provided by a laboratory, Polk said.

Polk said the DOH beach testing Web site still is a useful tool because residents and visitors can view water quality results at their favorite beaches even if an advisory isn’t correctly posted.

“We still think the Web site is a credible means to determine whether you should or should not swim that day,” he said.

Editors note: This story was updated on May 30 to include comments from Rachal, the Taylor County Health Department official.

Story and photo copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission.

6 thoughts on “Reliability of state “healthy beaches” Web site questioned”

  1. Taylor County Citizen

    Those warnings are only for tourists; we locals know that there’s pretty much ALWAYS poop in the water in Taylor County.

  2. Thanks for the comment. My question is, does that mean that the locals NEVER go swimming? Or do the locals ignore the advisories as they do in so many areas, such as Shell Point?

  3. Hey Bruce – I’m glad you hit on this issue. I have been having an ongoing discussion with DOH for months over when they post their beach quality results. We carry the Franklin, Gulf and Wakulla County reports on Oyster Radio, and usually the reports are posted by Thursday so we can have them on the air by Friday when the tourists start pouring in. But there are times when the reports come in very late on Friday (or later) which keeps us from getting the info on the air in a timely manner. There is also an ongoing debate over whether Gulf County’s postings are even useful since they don’t test at Cape San Blas which is where the most popular beaches in Gulf County are. The more pressure the better. Keep up the good work – Michael Allen

  4. Thanks Michael. I’ve had similar problems over the years in reporting the beach testing results on a weekly basis. My intention going into this story was to simply report on where the most advisories were being posted statewide. But I found comparing difficult when so many reports that are used to issue advisories were never posted.

  5. Taylor County Citizen

    Bruce – I think we’ve just become numb to all the warnings over the years. We perpetually see them in the newspaper, and we may or may not get notified when they’re lifted. I don’t know of anyone local rescheduling a Gulf outing based on the alerts.

    The most annoying thing is that the paper never provides any insight into why this is happening. Where is the fecal matter coming from? How can it be stopped? I’d love to know.

  6. I appreciate the annoyance of not knowing what is causing the bacteria or what is being done about it. I’ve spoken with the Taylor Co. Health Department in the past and was told there are no obvious source. The state DOH a few years ago conducted some microbial source tracking studies at Mashes Sands Beach in Wakulla County to try to determine the source but they were inconclusive. The US EPA also was doing some more in-depth studies of beach water and indicator bacteria but now I’m getting into deeper water than I’ve done reporting on recently.

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