Bacteria hits the beaches

The days leading up to Super Bowl Sunday arrived with an unpleasant summer-news Déjà vu more disturbing then the prospect of the New England Patriots winning another national championship. The pooping problem on Crandon Beach was back, notwithstanding the cooler weather.

“This is a relatively unusual incident,” said Dr. Rachel Silverstein of Miami Waterkeeper, a not for profit organization focused solely on water quality issues and funded in part by the KB Community Foundation.

“We don’t usually have high bacteria levels in the winter. In the summer we get a lot of rain and there is run off from the streets that can compromise sewage structures...but we don’t (typically) see it at this time.”

The Florida Department of Health, Healthy Beaches Program, defines enterococci as “enteric bacteria that normally inhabit the intestinal tract of humans and animals.”

When it inhabits recreational waters, it is generally a result of high levels of human sewage from storm water runoff, sewage pipe leaks, or animal feces. If contaminated water is swallowed or enters the body through cuts in the skin it can cause infection and disease.

The state’s Beach Water Sampling Program has been testing water samples weekly since 2000 thanks in part to funding from the Environmental Protection Agency. The website categories are good, moderate, or poor. When “poor” (meaning heightened levels of enterococci) advisories are generally issued.

“We have a federal standard we follow and it is risk based,” said Dr. Samir Elmir, Florida Department of Health Environmental Administrator for Miami Dade County.

“If you increase the standard you can contract illness so we issue advisories but we don’t close beaches. It’s up to people to follow advisories or not. High illness risk increases with exposure…we issue public advisories and people will have to make their own decision.”

Elmir also said he did not know why it was happening and that the health department wasn’t doing anything to find out.

“We really don’t know what’s causing it. Many sources can contribute…we have a lot of rain…a lot of winds stir the water column sediment and disturb anything in the sand; that can increase the water problem. It’s a very complex situation and not easy to determine unless you do some type of study.

Board President of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Biscayne Nature Center, Jackie Kellogg, rallied locals last October to hold a “Shit Show March to Sea” performance art event following the summer epidemic of beach closings compounded by the arrival of red tide. The Nature Center was standing room only for a talk afterwards.

“My advice to the village is to step it up with a new department of professionals,” said Kellogg.

“A full time staff that can dedicate their expertise to nothing but water issues, climate change, and green initiatives to lead Key Biscayne through this new frontier reality of unhealthy ocean mitigation.”

Resident frustration boiled over again after the latest advisory last week when Fernando sent a strongly worded letter to village manager Andrea Agha, and copied Islander News. He chastised the council for his perceived lack of prioritizing by the village to resolve the insidious problem.

Agha sent Islander News a list of nine contacts from local, state, and federal agencies she said the village has consulted with.

At press time, she said she expected to present a resolution at the February 5th council meeting for “approval to enter into an agreement with the University of Miami for a study related to potential sources of enterococci on village beaches.”

The agreement would be to fund a program led by UM environmental engineer and associate dean for research at the College of Engineering, Dr. Helena Solo-Gabriele.

“We’ve learned from the regulatory agencies that testing is their primary job and it doesn’t align with the village,” said Agha.

“They are testing certain bacteria for health and safety but they are not getting at the root causes of the issue. The program with UM will get at the source.”

The study is estimated to take approximately 18 months before a comprehensive report can be produced. Seasonal changes would be observed and multiple possible contributing sources such as the Central District Wastewater Treatment Plant on Virginia Key are to be considered, according to director of public works for the village, Jake Ozyman.

“The relationship with the waste water treatment plant is one of the things they will look at first,” said Ozyman.

“The second thing will be sampling from the beaches. They will also look at human and animal factors. Now you have a county wide bacteria spike. If you look at the entire Miami Dade County, about 90 percent of location advisories are elevated. It is a county wide problem.”