ST. PETERSBURG, FL – With Floridians returning to local beaches this summer, a new report warns that more work is needed to ensure that all waters are safe for swimming. In 2020, 185 Florida beaches were potentially unsafe for swimming on at least one day, according to Safe for Swimming? -- Environment Florida Research and Policy Center’s annual analysis of bacteria testing. The report comes as Congress considers investments in water infrastructure.
“Even as Floridians are back to enjoying the fresh sea breeze and splash of waves at the beach, pollution is still plaguing too many of the places where we swim," said Jenna Stevens, state director of Environment Florida Research and Policy Center. "Now is the time to fix our water infrastructure and stop the flow of pathogens to our beaches.”
To assess beach safety, the group examined whether fecal indicator bacteria levels exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) most protective “Beach Action Value,” which is associated with an estimated illness rate of 32 out of every 1,000 swimmers. Key West’s South Beach had bacteria levels above this safety threshold on 58% percent of days tested last year.
“We are surrounded by water, we have to make sure it is clean, that it is environmentally sensitive, and that we take care of all those people that want to swim in the water safely,” said Congressman Charlie Crist, Florida Congressional District 13.
"Clean water is what makes Florida, Florida. It's our economy, it's home to unique creatures and critters, and it's our culture. Protecting clean water is more urgent now than ever before, and the stakes couldn't be higher," said Rachel Silverstein PhD, Executive Director of Miami Waterkeeper.
Polluted runoff and sewage overflows are common sources of contamination that can put swimmers’ health at risk and lead authorities to close beaches or issue health advisories. Scientists estimate 57 million instances of people getting sick each year in the U.S. from swimming in oceans, lakes, rivers and ponds. This includes cases of acute gastrointestinal illness.
“There is nothing more fundamental to good health than clean water. Beaches and waterways contaminated with sewage and toxic pollutants pose a grave threat to health, especially to vulnerable populations like infants, the elderly, pregnant women and those with chronic diseases,” said Dr. Lynn Ringenberg, co-founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility Florida Chapter.
The report recommends major investments to prevent sewage overflows and runoff pollution.
“I support funding to prevent runoff pollution because I have had to cancel a debris removal scuba dive due to unsafe water conditions. I want my students, and everyone else, to be able to safely restore our ocean ecosystem,” said Shayna Cohen Outreach Coordinator with Tikkun Hayam.
“As a member of the U.S. Senate’s appropriations committee, Senator Marco Rubio has a major opportunity this summer to advocate for funding to stop sewage overflows and use nature-based solutions -- like rain gardens and permeable pavement -- to prevent runoff pollution,” observed Stevens.