Bacteria advisories issued for coastal waterways

OKEECHOBEE — The St. Lucie County Health Department has issued an “avoid water” advisory for the North Fork of the St. Lucie River due to high bacteria counts. Samples taken Oct. 30 at Westmoreland Tract Canoe Launch, Veterans Park and River Park Marina tested in the “poor” range, above 71 Enterococci per 100 milliliters.

Florida Healthy Beaches Program Categories for water safety are:
• Good: 0-35 Enterococci per 100 milliliters of marine water;
• Moderate: 36-70 Enterococci per 100 milliliters of marine water;
• Poor: 71 or greater Enterococci per 100 milliliters of marine water.

Enterococci are indicator bacteria indicating fecal contamination and the possible presence of disease-causing organisms. All natural bodies of water contain microscopic organisms including fecal bacteria and parasites that cause gastrointestinal illnesses in people. The fecal organisms come from a variety of sources, including human or animal waste from activity in or near the water, rainwater washing waste or debris into the water, or discharges of incompletely treated wastewaters from nearby wastewater treatment plants, according to the Florida Department of Health.

Beaches and river access are not technically “closed” during an advisory. A warning sign is posted advising the public that the water may be unsafe for swimming. An advisory still allows the public to recreate at the beach and river. During a swimming advisory, warning signs are posted when the water has bacterial levels at or exceeding the EPA criteria for beach advisories.

Also of concern in the Indian River Lagoon is the presence of Vibrio vulnificus. Vibrio vulnificus is a bacterium that normally lives in warm seawater and is part of a group of vibrios that are called “halophilic” because they require salt. Vibrio vulnificus infections are rare, but they can be deadly. Vibrio vulnificus is a naturally occurring bacteria in warm, brackish seawater. Water and wounds do not mix. Do not enter the water if you have fresh cuts or scrapes, warns the Department of Health.

The North Fork of the St. Lucie does not receive any flow from Lake Okeechobee.

Following Oct. 30 water testing by the Florida Department of Health, 13 area beaches were found to have poor quality water, and warnings were posted. This includes: St. Lucie County’s River Park Marina, Veterans Park and Westmoreland Park; Martin County’s Stuart Sandbar, Sandsprit Park and the Stuart Causeway; Palm Beach County’s Boynton Beach, Carlin Park, Dubois Park, Jupiter Beach Park, Ocean Inlet Park, Phil Foster Park and South Inlet Park.

The statewide testing program tests for Enterococci, which the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has recommended states adopt as a saltwater quality indicator. According to studies conducted by the EPA, Enterococci have a greater correlation with swimming-associated gastrointestinal illness in both marine and fresh waters than other bacterial indicator organisms, and are less likely to “die off” in saltwater.

If an Enterococci result were observed to exceed 70 colony forming units per 100 milliliters of beach water sampled and a resampling result also exceeds this value, then an advisory would be issued for the sampling site.

The Florida Department of Health recommends simple precautions that can help you and your family protect your health and safety when swimming in the ocean, rivers, ponds or lakes:

• Don’t swallow the water;
• Shower after swimming;
• Wash hands before eating after contact;
• Avoid water contacting an open cut, wound or skin infection.

Pay attention and follow advisory signs.

Precautions to keep waters clean include:
• Don’t swim if you are ill;
• Don’t feed birds near water;
• Dispose of trash in appropriate containers;
• Change baby diapers before allowing them to swim;
• Don’t dump household chemicals or wastes in street drains;
• Avoid using excess fertilizers or pesticides on your yard;
• Report possible sources of contamination to local authorities.

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