With its year-round swim season and more than 1,000 miles of coastline, Florida has the most coastal swimmers in the nation. The state has more than 600 public coastal beaches stretching along its Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico shores.
Oil from the BP Oil Disaster Continues to Impact Some of Florida's Beaches
Many of Florida's coastal beaches in the panhandle part of the state were impacted by the BP oil disaster, which began with the April 20, 2010, explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig. Oil flowed from the damaged well for three months, until the well was capped on July 15, 2010. Two beaches in Escambia County, Fort Pickens and Johnson Beach, were under notice due to the oil spill at the time last year's Testing the Waters was being prepared. These two beaches remained under notice for about 180 days each in 2011. (NRDC includes oil spill advisory and notice days at all beaches in its oil spill totals, including advisory and notice days at beaches that were not monitored for bacteria in 2011.) Cleanup crews were conducting inspection and cleanup activities at some Florida beach segments throughout 2011 and into 2012.
What Does Beachwater Monitoring Show?
In 2011, Florida reported 636 coastal beaches. Of these, 13 (2%) were assigned a monitoring frequency of more than once a week, 81 (13%) once a week, 162 (25%) every other week, and 5 (1%) once a month. A total of 375 (59%) were not assigned a monitoring frequency, and there was no monitoring assignment information for 1 (<1%) beach. In 2011, 3% of all reported beach monitoring samples exceeded either the state's daily maximum enterococcus standard of 104 colonies/100 ml or the fecal coliform standard of 400 colonies/100 ml, or both. The beaches with the highest percent exceedance rates of the state standards in 2011 were Garniers in Okaloosa County (31%), Ben T. Davis North in Hillsborough County (21%), Phil Foster Park in Palm Beach County (19%), Rocky Bayou (Fred Gannon State Park) in Okaloosa County (19%), Beach Drive in Bay County (18%), and Bayou Chico in Escambia County (18%).
Beaches in Dixie County had the highest exceedance rate of the state standard in 2011(13%), followed by Citrus (11%), Okaloosa (10%), Hernando (10%), Bay (9%), Hillsborough (9%), Gulf (8%), Taylor (7%), Pinellas (5%), Charlotte (4%), Sarasota (4%), Escambia (4%), Pasco (3%), Palm Beach (3%), Levy (3%), Miami-Dade (3%), Santa Rosa (3%), Walton (3%), Lee (3%), Monroe (3%), Manatee (2%), Broward (2%), Indian River (1%), St. Lucie (1%), Brevard (1%), Martin (1%), Nassau (1%), and Volusia (1%) counties. There were no exceedances at beaches monitored in Collier, Duval, Flagler, Franklin, St. Johns, and Wakulla counties. NRDC considers all reported samples individually (without averaging) when calculating the percent exceedance rates in this analysis. This includes duplicate samples and samples taken outside the official beach season, if any.
Beginning in July 2011, state funding for beachwater quality monitoring in Florida was eliminated. As a result, monitoring at two federal beach sites and at dozens of other beaches was eliminated. Also, beginning in September, many beaches began monitoring every other week instead of weekly. Some counties are subsidizing beachwater monitoring in order to monitor more frequently than every other week and/or to monitor beaches whose monitoring is not paid for through BEACH Act funds. However, about half the counties are conducting less monitoring at a smaller number of beaches for fewer fecal indictor bacteria organisms because of the elimination of state funding.
* Please note that only samples from a common set of beaches monitored each year from 2007-2011 are included in the bar chart.
What Are Florida's Sampling Practices?
Monitoring occurs year-round, but the peak season is from April to mid-September. Because of the elimination of state funding for beachwater quality monitoring that occurred during 2011, beaches in 15 northern counties are no longer sampled as part of the statewide program between November 1 and March 1. In some of these counties, some locally funded winter sampling is conducted.
The beachwater quality monitoring program is administered by the Florida Department of Health, which determines sampling practices, locations, standards, and notification protocols and practices throughout the state.4 Samples are collected 18 inches below the surface in water that is approximately 36 inches deep, usually in the morning. Beaches are prioritized for monitoring on a county-by-county basis. Priority for monitoring is given to beaches that are more heavily used, that have potential pollution sources nearby, and that are impacted by stormwater runoff. While this ensures that the most critical beaches in each county are monitored, there are a wide variety of beach characteristics in Florida, and beaches chosen for monitoring in one county may not be as important as beaches left unmonitored in another county.
Sampling frequency does not increase after an advisory is issued.
How Many Notices or Advisories Were Issued in 2011?
Total advisory days for 204 events lasting six consecutive weeks or less decreased 37% to 1,915 days in 2011 from 3,052 days in 2010. In previous years there were 2,201 days in 2009, 2,067 days in 2008, 3,139 days in 2007, 2,686 days in 2006, and 2,991 days in 2005. In addition, in 2011 there were 9 extended events (490 days total) and 4 permanent events (587 days total; most of these were oil spill notice days). Extended events are those in effect more than six weeks but not more than 13 consecutive weeks; permanent events are in effect for more than 13 consecutive weeks. For the 204 events lasting six consecutive weeks or less, all advisory days were due to monitoring that revealed elevated bacteria levels.
How Does Florida Determine When to Warn Visitors About Swimming?
The Department of Health does not have the authority to close Florida beaches; instead, advisories are issued. Florida applies the U.S. EPA's marine designated beach area criteria for enterococcus: a single-sample maximum of 104 cfu/100 ml and, for beaches that are sampled at least weekly, a 5-week geometric mean of 35 cfu/100 ml. Partway through 2011, many monitored beaches began to be sampled less than once a week due to the elimination of state funding for beachwater quality monitoring, and the geometric mean standard was not applied to these beaches. In the past, Florida also applied a fecal coliform single-sample maximum standard of 400 cfu/100 ml. However, the state stopped using the fecal coliform standard when state funding was eliminated in July 2011. Some counties are subsidizing their beach monitoring and are continuing to monitor for fecal coliform and to apply the 400 cfu/100 ml standard.
In most coastal counties, officials issue an advisory if a standard is exceeded. However, if a sample exceeds a standard and the county can conduct follow-up sampling within the same week, the beach may be resampled before an advisory is issued. If the resample confirms an exceedance, an advisory is issued.
Pinellas County has a preemptive rainfall standard for two of its marine beaches: Maximo and North Shore. Maximo Beach's standard is 0.8 inch within a 24-hour period, and North Shore Beach's standard is 1 inch within a 24-hour period.4 Monroe County also issues preemptive rainfall advisories, and Martin County has a preemptive standard based on turbidity. Most counties will warn against swimming after a sewage spill until sampling results are satisfactory. After a hurricane or tropical storm makes landfall, precautionary advisories are issued.
Florida 2011 Monitoring Results and Notice and Advisory Days
||Assigned Monitoring Frequency
||% of samples exceeding state standards
||Closing or Advisory days