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Heavy rains to blame for high bacteria at local beaches

Posted at 8:01 PM, Jun 20, 2017
and last updated 2017-06-20 20:01:22-04

Closing the beaches due to high bacteria levels. It's happening a lot lately and you can blame the weather for that.

About two weeks ago, Palm Beach County's health department shut down four beaches in Palm Beach County: Jupiter Beach Park, Palm Beach, Riviera Beach and Phil Foster Park.

All of the heavy rain across the area over the last month is washing bacteria through our waterways.

But moms we talked to in Jupiter fear there's not enough testing and enforcement at one of the county's most popular swimming spots.

For the past several weeks, Kate Pittard has dealt with a bad infection on her baby son's arm.

"It ended up being some rare skin infection that you get from dirty soil that's under water," she said. "He wasn't outside digging in our yard. He definitely got it from here."

While she doesn't know for sure,  she believes the water at Dubois Park in Jupiter is the culprit.

"He can't do anything but sit. So he was just splashing, picking up the sand," she said. "And the next day, he woke up with this bubble on his forearm."

After seeing a community Facebook group post on 'Moms of Jupiter,' she realized she wasn't alone. Dozens of other mothers in the area complained of similar issues ranging from rashes to ear and skin infections after visiting the park.

"They can test the water more...they can start charging per car to come in. They have ways of stopping the populations from getting too much because it clearly is. They have sand bags holding up the dunes," said Pittard.

The PBC Health Department said the recent rains are to blame for the issues that arise at Dubois Park.

"Usually it flushes itself very well with tidal flushing coming off the inlet. It's got a good flow. But when we have these heavy rains, because it's a little more inland and closed in,  it has a tendency to capture a lot of the bacteria," said Tim O'Connor, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Health for Palm Beach County.

Currently, the department says all the beaches are safe, from Boca Raton to Jupiter. Boca Raton beaches had received poor results from water testing and were closed for a couple of days last week, but the beaches are now open.

O'Connor said analysts must collect samples from at least 18 inches of water and at least three feet into the waterway.

"And then they turn that into the lab for testing for enterococci -- which is a bacteria that primarily comes from the intestines of warm blooded animals," he said.

But they only test every other Monday, partly due to efficiency.

"We used to do it weekly, but the data showed us that it's just as effective to do twice a month," he said. "95 percent of the time, our beaches test in the good range."

He added testing on Monday, following usually busy weekends, is a good indicator of bacteria levels. It takes the health department 24 hours to get water sample results. If the levels are high, the beach is closed -- but lifeguards continue testing the water every day until the water comes back normal. Beach closures usually last about two days.

There are also other factors like watercraft and sewage spills that can contribute to unexpected bacteria levels at area beaches. Those instances are rare.

"A ship for example, has emptied its bilge...and then that gets carried in and we'll run into it that way," said O'Connor.

The changing tides can also affect the color of the water. On Tuesday, Dubois Park's water looked dark brown, a stark contrast to the deeper blue color.

"When it's going to low tide, it pulls along this trough here and goes back out to the ocean. And that's why we have a little bit of brown tint because it's coming from deeper in the Intracoastal and back in a lake here," said Hannah Forrest, a lifeguard at Dubois Park for Palm Beach County. "It's coming from deeper Intracoastal where the water is brackish water."

But Pittard says until stricter testing is done, she's staying clear from the water at Dubois Park.

"Put a limit on how many people are here. They have to test it more.," she said. "It's a beautiful area. I just wish it was better taken care of. You can't ever trust when it's safe or not. You can take your chances like I did and your kid ends up getting sick."

The health department posts the latest data on bacteria levels at every beach in the county. Click here to see the data.