Florida's Healthy Beaches Program Monitors Saltwater Beaches

Sep 15, 2015

Steve Jackson collecting a water sample from Wayside Park on Okaloosa Island.
Credit Danielle Freeman

Throughout the spring and summer, the Florida Department of Health in Okaloosa County keeps a close watch on the quality of saltwater beaches. That includes weekly testing at more than a dozen locations, as part of the Healthy Beaches Monitoring Program.  

I’m holding a bailer, attached with a role pack that will contain the water that I’m sampling I’m going to dip it into the water about 18 inches below the surface to avoid the contaminants like gas, oils, debris, stuff like that.”

“Measure out 100 ml. Swirl the pack, tighten the pack,” That’s Steve Jackson, an Environmental Specialist for the Florida Department of Health in Okaloosa County, collecting a water sample at Wayside Park on Okaloosa Island.

Jackson collects water samples at each of the 13 sites throughout Okaloosa County from March through October. Several of the sites include Liza Jackson Park, Gulf Islands National Seashore, East Pass, and Rocky Bayou State Park.

“Basically for the Healthy Beaches program what we do test the water for is enterococci. So we are testing to see if there’s a possibility of contamination.”

Dana Grissom is Environmental Health and Epidemiology Section Chief for the Florida Department of Health in Okaloosa County. She says the main objective for testing is to determine if the water contains one particular type of bacteria, “The enterococci is basically the organism that is a tale tell for that contamination. So, we’re looking for the enterococci numbers. Anything over 105 colony forming units per 100 ml of water will cause us to put out an advisory.  So, if that level is elevated that advisory will be put out.”

Site locations are chosen by two criteria -- the number of people who use that particular beach – and the potential for the impact of storm water runoff, waste water outfalls, the use of septic tanks, and other pollution sources.

Although these microorganisms are not necessarily pathogenic (or disease causing), they do indicate that pathogens may be in the water. In high concentrations, if they’re ingested while swimming, or enter the body through broken skin, It can cause any types of illness in humans. That is the types of bacteria that cause your nausea, vomiting type symptoms, diarrhea type symptoms. They can also cause wound infections.”

The results are reported as “Good,” “Moderate,” or “Poor.” Good translates to 0-35 enterococcus per 100 ml of marine water. Moderate ranges from 36-104 and a result of poor is a count of 105 or higher. If the levels are elevated, Grissom says that’s when the DOH takes action.

We’re just advising the public that we have found an elevated level of the enterococci. And, we suggest not swimming or not recreating in that area.”

Now, are there different levels of advisories that go out?”

It is either an advisory or not advisory.

All sites passed for the first 3 weeks in the month of June, but the final week had 3 fails at Wayside Park, Lincoln Park, and Rocky Bayou State Park in Niceville.

In July, during the height of the tourist season, there were a total of 3 weeks of failed results. The first week had 5 failed sites, the second week had 3, and the third week had only 1 failing site. While, during the final week of the month the sites unanimously passed.

In August, the entire month had only 3 failed sites. However, this month one site failed at Garniers Park in Ft. Walton Beach. And, an advisory has been issued for that area.

Each sample collected has the site location, time the sample was taken, tidal conditions, and rainfall for the area. Then the samples are put in a cooler on ice and sent off to be tested.

We have to keep in on ice so the bacteria doesn’t increase and multiply.”

“How do you go about testing? What’s the procedure for testing? You’re going to take it back to the Department of Health?”

Actually it’s taken to any of the state certified labs. We use Analytical Services here in Niceville. They do the actual plate counts and everything for us.  And we get the results back usually 24-48 hours after the sampling.”

Grissom says that Environmental Health not only covers the Healthy Beaches program but also a variety test subjects including close to 500 public pools in the county – at hotels and apartment complexes, among others. Also conducted are some food inspections at county schools, assisted living facilities, and detention centers, along with rabies surveillance.

Before heading out to the beach the DOH recommends checking their website at Healthy Okaloosa dot com and click on the Environmental Health-Healthy Beaches link to avoid arriving at the beach only to find out that it’s not advisable to swim in the water.