A new state initiative should help protect local waters from bacteria.
Last week, the The Florida Department of Environmental Protection announced it had new tools and testing methods to find and reduce pathogens in recreational waters, by better identifying fecal bacteria and determining if it came from humans, animals, or other sources.
The new method uses a DNA analysis of bacteria and modern tracers, including artificial sweeteners, to identify human waste.
"Measuring fecal bacteria levels is easy," said Drew Bartlett, director of the Division of Environmental Assessment and Restoration. "Unfortunately, readily distinguishing the sources of the bacteria and the potentially harmful pathogens that may go along with them has been beyond scientific capabilities. We have tools to address the issue now and will craft rules and protocols that guide on the ground action to protect public health."
James Evans, director of Sanibel's Department of Natural Resources, said the focus in Southwest Florida has been on finding the type of pollutant and locating its sources. But, even with new technology it's difficult to find out where they come from.
"What it means for us is new tools that can help figure out what the source is, but it's still difficult to track those sources down," said Evans.
The watershed encompasses so much distance, from Lake Okeechobee to the Gulf of Mexico, that it's difficult to pinpoint specific pollutant sources, he explained.
"If you find septic systems are leaking into the water shed, how do you pinpoint that?" he said. "How do you know if it came from Lehigh, downtown Fort Myers, or farther up the water shed?"
Every week the Lee County Health Department samples local waterways to measure levels of enterococcus, intestinal pathogens from humans and animals that cause serious infections. If levels of enterococcus are higher than what is deemed safe, the beach is closed.
Locally, that means samples are taken at Blind Pass, Bowman's Beach, Lighthouse Beach, and Bowditch Beach, to name a few.
The DEP is also proposing updates to its bacteria criteria for recreational waters, water quality assessment strategy, and new procedures to reduce pollutants and target restorations.
For more information, visit www.dep.state.fl.us/water.