Local News

Highlands County beaches swimmingly well for summer

- With the hot, humid summer days lurking just around the season corner, folks around Highlands County will soon be planning beach days out at area lakes.

And as of April 4, those waters should be clear for a plunge and the proverbial shouts of, "Come on in, the water's fine!"

Since the beginning of April, Preston Colby, captain of Florida Public Safety -- a private, aquatic program training organization that samples lake beach water for testing -- said lake beach waters around Highlands County, mostly in Avon Park and Sebring, are safe for swimming,

Primarily, beach water -- water close to the shore where most people swim -- is tested for fecal coliform. Coliforms can indicate possible sewage contamination because they are commonly found in human and animal feces. Although they are generally not harmful themselves, they indicate the possible presence of disease-causing bacteria, viruses and protozoans that also live in human and animal digestive systems. Sources of fecal contamination to surface waters include wastewater treatment plants, on-site septic systems, domestic and wild animal manure and storm runoff.

Colby, who's responsible for taking water samples for Florida Public Safety, said readings were good in April but he advises swimmers to swim beyond two to three feet of water, as any fecal coliform is more likely to be dispersed. He said water near the beach is also more likely to contain contaminants from stormwater runoff.

Florida Public Safety water samples are taken to Short Environmental Labs, Sebring, for testing.

"Bottom line is we don't want the public swimming in contaminated water. If we know it's contaminated as shown by sampling results, then we will close the beach," said Colby, who has worked as a Highlands County water sampling agent for 24 years. "The more shallow the water, the more likely to have contaminants because it's not deep enough to disperse fecal coliform."

In the summer and December of 2012, the Highlands County Healthy Beaches Program issued swim advisories for the Crescent, City Pier, Hidden and Veterans beaches. Those beaches are now at acceptable coliform levels, said Jason Wolfe, environmental supervisor II with the Florida Department of Health, Highlands County.

He those lakes are in "satisfactory" swimming conditions and counts have been in range.. He said as far as summer swimming, county waters should be safe for swimming.

Wolfe said Lake Tulane and Camp Wingmann were tested in April and Camp Sparta's lake in February. In addition, the last reading on lakes in Lake Placid in 2013 -- Sun N' Lake, H.L. Bishop Park, and Lake Grassy Inn & Suites have all tested good.

"There are really no deterrents for people not to swim as of the beginning of this month," he said.

Most lakes in the county with public swimming beaches have signs posted when they aren't suitable for swimming, said Scott Noethlich, Sebring city administrator.

He said currently all public beaches are open and signs are in place indicating when water is not swimmable due to contamination.

He said contrary to common perception, most fecal contaminants come from animal waste, mostly birds. He said during the heavy bird winter migratory period, large populations of wading and swimming birds flock together, causing heavy concentrations of fecal deposits.

Fecal coliform bacteria are the most common microbiological contaminants of natural waters and forms in the digestive tracks of warm-blooded animals, including humans, and are excreted in the feces, according to the Florida Department of Health.

Although most of these bacteria are not harmful and are part of the normal digestive system, some are pathogenic to humans and can cause diseases such as gastroenteritis, ear infections, typhoid, dysentery, hepatitis A and cholera.

The Environmental Protection Agency has set acceptable limits for fecal coliform in water based upon the use of the water. For example, drinking water cannot contain any fecal coliform but water for swimming may contain up to 400 fecal coliform colonies per 100 milliliters.

The next water sample testing will take place during the first week of May.

"Typically, this time of the year, we do have higher fecal counts because of bird migrations. It fluctuates depends on weather and migrations. But for the month of April, our beaches have been sampled and are in good health and for those looking to swim can come out and enjoy it," Noethlich said.


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