Is Your Local Beach Safe to Swim?

Posted in: United States Water News, Water Contamination, Water Health Effects
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7/8/2015 Sebring, Fla. – RYAN PELHAM/STAFF Ethan Eldridge, 9, walks to the shore while playing at City Pier Beach with his brother, Evan, and Frankie Coffman on Wednesday morning. (Photo Credit: Highlands Today)

Article courtesy of Pallavi Agarwal | July 9, 2015 | Highlands Today | Shared as educational material

— As the sun beats down Wednesday noon, Phyllis Summers and her grandchildren soak up the rays on picturesque City Pier Beach.

Summers, whose grandkids are visiting from Georgia, brings them over to the lake so they can play in the Florida sand and lake. Plus, it gives her some time to relax.

Like many parents and grandparents, the Sebring resident makes sure the lakes she visits are safe to swim. If she sees signs that say the beaches could be contaminated, she leaves and comes back when the water clears.

One of the big culprits that could render a public lake or beach unsafe for swimming is higher-than-permitted levels of fecal bacterial contamination, through high fecal coliform counts.

The coliform bacteria exists mostly in the guts of warm-blooded animals, from alligators to humans, said Highlands County Lakes Manager Clell Ford.

Sometimes, the fecal coliform could indicate the possible presence of organisms that can cause illness.

Before 2012, local governing authorities were required to test monthly the water of public bathing places and close the beach areas down in case the testing did not meet state standards.

In 2012, that law changed, making it optional for governments to test their public beach water for fecal coliform levels.

While local municipalities are still testing the public beach areas within their jurisdiction, Highlands County no longer collects data for the one public beach it maintains, H.L. Bishop Park, which is officially open from May to September. Past water test readings, however, have met state standards, Ford said, adding the testing was stopped for financial reasons.

If a test does not meet the state standard for fecal coliform (an average of two samples must be less than 200 cfu per 100 milliliters of water) the pubic is usually alerted through signs, although the government agencies are not required to close down the beaches, and swimming is left to the discretion of the beach user.

Sebring City Administrator Scott Noethlich said when they have positive water tests for fecal coliform, they uncover pre-prepared signs already installed on the beaches. Otherwise, they leave them covered if the tests are fine.

The water testing reports for the public bathing areas in Avon Park and Sebring are available through an online database.

For the first test done for June, on June 3, Veterans Beach and Crescent Beach met the state standard for fecal coliform bacteria, the report shows, but Hidden Beach and City Pier did not. A subsequent test, done June 12, showed Hidden Beach and City Pier meeting the water standard.

A June 3 sampling for Lake Tulane and Lake Verona, in Avon Park, shows Lake Tulane meeting state standards but not Lake Verona, which passed when a second reading was done June 16.

Lake June has two public beach access areas, one of which the town of Lake Placid maintains.

John Komasa, director of public works for Lake Placid, said in the 10 years he has been with the city, they’ve had to close down the Lake June beach, by the ball parks, twice, and that was for one day.

The town of Lake Placid does monthly testing. “We haven’t had any problems,” he said.

Short Environmental Laboratories Inc. tests the water samples the cities provide and uses one of two tests depending on what is requested.

For Avon Park and Sebring beach water samples, they run fecal coliform tests, said the laboratory’s project manager Doug Morton.

Basically, the sample is filtered through a membrane and is placed in a sterile petri dish with a special nutrient solution. The dish is incubated for 24 hours at a constant temperature.

After the incubation, the number of fecal coliform colonies are counted. The results are calculated and reported as the number of fecal coliform colonies per 100 ml of water. A 100 ml is about half-a-cup of water.

If the sample is less than 200, it’s a good sign, Morton said; anything over is bad.

Since Short Environmental employees don’t collect the actual samples from the public beaches, Morton didn’t want to hazard a guess on why some areas may be more susceptible to fecal coliform than others, but explained that generally the culprits could be bird droppings or septic tank run-off.

To access a water test report, go to

Click on “Customer Login” in the upper right corner of the page.

Enter PUBLIC as the user code.

Enter Public as the password. (the password is case sensitive)

Enter HCHD-EH as the file cabinet name.

Choose “Retrieve” from the menu at the top of the page.

Choose “Water Lab Recreation Water” in the dropdown menu for “Select Your Program Below.”

To narrow search results put in the name of the beach in the “text” box.

The data contains public beach testing for the Lake Jackson beach (City Pier, Hidden Beach, Veteran’s Beach, Crescent Beach) in Sebring; and Donaldson Park on Lake Verona in Avon Park; and Lake Tulane Beach on Lake Tulane in Avon Park.

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