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Is water safe? She'll check

By NICOLE HUTCHESON, Times Staff Writer
Published January 7, 2008


As an environmental specialist with the Healthy Beaches Monitoring program, Brandy Downing makes sure the 14 beaches in Pinellas County are safe for visitors.

The Florida Department of Health started the beach monitoring program in 1998, and it now encompasses the entire state. If water samples come back with high levels of contamination, a public advisory is sent out, as was the case on Friday when a warning was issued for North Shore Beach.

How does the Health Department conduct water testing and how often?

We conduct it every Tuesday throughout the entire year. And we sample 14 sites throughout Pinellas County. We go out into the ocean waist-deep - even when it's really cold - and take a sample about 18 inches below the water. We sample for fecal coliform as well as enterococci bacteria, commonly found in human intestine.

How do you measure it and when do you decide to close the beach?

We follow the guidelines that were issued through the Environmental Protection Agency. We list the results (as) good, moderate and poor.

What are some of the causes of contamination?

Storm water runoff and wildlife. We do also note any birds near the beach sampling site - they can influence it. Sewer overflow and human waste are other influences.

Are there certain times of the year when the beach gets contaminated more often?

During the heavy rainy seasons, the counts can be high due to storm water runoff. In the warmer weather, sometimes it can be heavier because of the many people who are actually visiting Pinellas County. But it's a bigger picture than that. If it was to rain very heavy and we had a lot of people in Pinellas County and say, our sewer system was overflowing, all those things would have an impact on the water quality.

What illnesses are caused by the bacteria you test for?

Those bacteria cause skin irritations, gastroenteritis and intestinal problems. And, of course, the bacteria we test for can mean other bacteria are in the water.

What should people watch out for when going to the beach?

Water can be clear and free of smell and it could still, unfortunately, not pass.

Are there ways people can help prevent poor water quality at the beach?

Everyone can help by conserving water. Everyone can help by picking up after their pets. Conserving water lessens the amount of water going into our system and that prevents any overflows. ... People should just be overall more conscious of their environment.

FAST FACTS: 

Advisories issued in 2007

North Shore Beach: Advisory issued Aug. 16, lifted Aug. 23. Advisory issued on Sept. 6, lifted on Oct. 9.

Treasure Island Beach: Advisory issued on Sept. 13, lifted on Nov. 1.

Mobbley Bayou Preserve: Advisory issued on Dec. 13, will be lifted on today.