Tampa Bay Beaches Score High In Water Tests

WASHINGTON – Beaches in Florida’s Hillsborough, Pinellas and Sarasota counties last year were found to have risky pollution levels for swimmers less often than the rest of the nation, says an environmental watchdog group.

In the Tampa Bay area, only Pasco County’s beaches had a slightly higher percentage of water samples exceeding bacteria safety limits than the U.S. average, says a report Tuesday by the National Resources Defense Council.

But none of the region’s beaches come close to being rated as having among the nation’s – or even Florida’s – worst water quality, says the council.

The nonprofit group used data from the Environmental Protection Agency to compile its report, “Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches.”

The group says the largest known source of beach water pollution continues to be contamination from stormwater, which carries sewage and pollution from the streets to the beach without treatment when it rains. But unknown sources of pollution also are a frequent cause of health advisories or beach closings nationally.

“What this report means for families heading to the beach is they need to be careful and do a little homework,” explained Nancy Stoner, director of the defense council’s clean water project.

Water monitoring, done weekly in Florida, is important, says the council, because high bacterial levels leave beachgoers vulnerable to a range of waterborne illnesses.

Those can range from gastroenteritis, dysentery, hepatitis, respiratory ailments and other serious health problems. For senior citizens, small children, and people with weak immune systems, the results can be fatal.

In Florida, an average of 4 percent of the water-quality samples taken weekly exceeded the bacterial standards. The regular water-quality checks were done at 308 of the state’s coastal beaches, selected for the monitoring based on usage and other criteria.

The monitoring is carried out locally, but overseen by the state Health Department.

The council’s report found:

Hillsborough County’s beaches mirrored the statewide average of 4 percent of water samples exceeding bacteria safety limits, as did Sarasota County’s beaches.

Hillsborough’s beaches at Cypress Point North, Simmons Park, Davis Island and Cypress Point South did not exceed bacteria safety limits in any of the more than 50 water samples taken at each beach. The worst rate of the nine Hillsborough beaches that were regularly monitored for bacteria was at Ben T. Davis South, where 12 percent of the 60 water samples exceeded the safety levels.

Pinellas County beaches exceeded the bacterial safety limits, on average, in 5 percent of the water samples taken. Of the 15 beaches regularly monitored in the county, Indian Rocks, Sand Key and Belleair Causeway-Intercoastal were those that did not have any samples exceed the bacterial limits.

Of the 16 Sarasota County beaches monitored, none of the more than 50 samples taken at each of the beaches at South Lido, Blind Pass, and Manasota exceeded bacteria safety standards. Ringling Causeway had the worst rate, with 8 percent of its 59 samples exceeding the limit.

Pasco County’s beaches exceeded the bacteria safety standards, on average, in 8 percent of the water samples taken.

None of the 62 samples taken at Anclote River Park Beach exceeded the bacterial safety limits. The worst rate was at Robert J. Strickland Beach, where 19 percent of the 62 samples take exceeded the standards.

“Any time you have high bacterial levels it makes people nervous,” said David Polk, the state health official in charge of making sure counties conduct beach monitoring programs.

But Polk said Florida is shown, overall, to have “very good water quality” and “I think it’s a fairly accurate report.”

The highest rates among Florida beaches for water samples exceeding the bacteria standards were at four Taylor County beaches.

Nationally, Kathy Osterman Beach, a beach in Cook County, Ill., had the highest percentage of water samples exceeding the standard – 100 percent. A Lake County, Ill., beach was next highest, at 83 percent, followed by Avalon Beach in Los Angeles, at 75 percent.

Overall, Florida’s beaches saw a 17 percent increase in 2007 in the number of days (a total of 3,139) where swimming advisories or warnings were posted based on high bacterial readings.

The council emphasizes that a year-to-year increase in warnings or closing may not necessarily be a negative thing – because it might reflect better testing and communication rather than huge increases in pollution.

Reporter Billy House can be reached at 202-662-7673.

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