To beat the heat this summer, many people are hitting the beach.
"It's pretty hot," Doug Seely offered during a visit to Ben T. Davis beach in Tampa. "You want to go in the water when it's this warm."
But bacteria levels at Bay Area beaches have been alarmingly high lately and none is higher than Ben T. Davis beach.
"It's a shallow body of water, kind of like a microbial incubator," explained John Paul, a distinguished professor in USF's College of Marine Science.
Professor Paul has a long history of spotting problems in the water. In the 1990's, he helped identify a water quality crisis in the Florida Keys. The problem was leaking septic tanks, a problem which was later fixed by advanced wastewater treatment.
FOX 13 asked him why Ben T. Davis Beach seems to always have water quality issues, forcing the Hillsborough County Heath Department to issue health advisories.
County records show the north section of the beach was closed to swimmers several weeks in June and remained closed over the 4th of July because water samples showed high bacteria.
"There's no real source of fresh water to flush out the bacteria," Paul explained. "There's no rivers, there's very little tidal exchange. We're up fairly high on the estuary."
Paul sees the same problem for the area of beach along the Courtney Campbell Causeway -- the worst beach for bacteria in Pinellas County.
"There's no current, virtually no current. It just kind of sits here in this sort of armpit of Tampa Bay."
Just what exactly causes high bacteria samples? Often times it is a mystery. However, Paul says most can be traced to the guts of warm blooded animals.
"If you have a lot of contamination from pets, dogs, birds or humans, it gives you a very high enterococcus and fecal indicator."
Heavy rain, like when Debby rolled though last month, only makes it worse because everything in the parking lot washes into the water.
"When it rains, the rainfall picks up contaminants and that also can bring viruses and things that make people sick to the beach," offered Jon Devine, who leads the clean water solutions team for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The nonprofit environmental group believes the EPA needs to strengthen its water quality standards.
NRDC analyzed and compiled government data on beach water quality for 2011 and posted the results online (LINK: http://www.nrdc.org/water/oceans/ttw/beach-ratings.asp)
A look at Florida's more than 600 beaches shows many exceeded state standards and Ben T. Davis was the second-worst in the state.
"That's something that people should take into account when they are making decisions to go to a beach."
Professor Paul says he thinks Florida is doing a good job with the Healthy Beaches Monitoring Program, but state funding was cut last year, which is making it harder for counties to monitor beach water.
Check beach water quality in your county: http://esetappsdoh.doh.state.fl.us/irm00beachwater/default.aspx
Now the federal government has proposed eliminating millions of dollars that states get though the Beach Fund Act. John Devine says that would be a big mistake and put beachgoers at risk.
He also thinks, given shrinking budgets, Florida is doing a good job.
"Florida, like many states, has had budget challenges and cut back on some monitoring and that makes it all the more important that the federal commitment is maintained and beaches are monitored."
FOX 13 / WTVT-TV
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