Understanding High Bacteria Levels in the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon

Clear water off of the Stuart Sandbar, but is it clean?
Clear beautiful water off the Sandbar, Stuart; but is safe to swim? (Photo, Jacqui  Thurlow-Lippisch, St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon, 2012)

Enterococcus: Bacteria normally found in the feces. Two types, Enterococcus fecalis and Enterococcus fecium, cause human disease, most commonly in the form of urinary tract and wound infections. Other infections, including those of the blood stream (bacteremia), heart valves (endocarditis), and the brain (meningitis) can occur in severely ill patients in hospitals. Enterococci also often colonize open wounds and skin ulcers, and are among the most common antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Medicine-Net

*The Martin County Health Department tests for Enterococcus (E) in area waters: According to their interpretation, 0-35 cfu of E./100 ml  river water =GOOD; 36-104 cfu E/100 ml river water=MODERATE; and 105  cfu E./ml River water is POOR (“cfu” relates to number of viable cells per milliliter.)

In November 2012, some members of the public were worried that the Martin County Health Department (MCHD) did not have enough support. Due to the pushing of a few members at a Rivers Coalition meeting, Senator Joe Negron, during the legislative budgeting process, added specific funding for MCHD to sample three new sites weekly. In turn, with input from the Rivers Coalition and the help of Bob Washam of the MCHD, the three test locations were chosen and the public began regularly checking bacteria levels in the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon on the MCHD website. 

Before the senator intervened, the sites being tested in the river were the Roosevelt Bridge; the Jensen and Stuart Causeways, and the north fork of the St Lucie River in St Lucie County. 

The new test sites included Bessey Creek, close to the mouth of the C-23 canal, in Palm City;  Leighton Park, at the base of the Palm City Bridge;  and Sandsprit Park, near the Manatee Pocket in Stuart, close to the inlet. The Department of Environmental Protection also conducted/s periodic testing.

In early June of the 2013, the bacteria numbers really spiked. This occurred after heavy rains caused storm water to run through local canals C-23, C-24, and C-44 into the river, as well as polluted fresh water discharges from Lake Okeechobee through C-44, that had begun on May 8, 2013 by the Army Corp of Engineers.

The areas waters were looking dark and ugly, and most of the river was off limits to the public due to high Enterococcus levels.  By mid June, there were a number of reports from people that had visited the Sandbar, located just inside the mouth of the St Lucie Inlet, that they and their children were feeling ill with stomach aches and diarrhea after contact with the water.

photo of algae

(Photo of water in St Lucie River two miles from Sandbar w/ high bacteria and toxic blue green algae, photo by Jenny Flaugh, July 2013.)

Because of the popularity of the Sandbar area and the complaints to the health department, Bob Washam, MCHD,  together with Mark Perry, of Florida Oceanograpic, decided to drop the Bessey Creek site and change testing to the Stuart Sandbar. When the tests came back, the Sandbar reading was a high 192 cfu/100 ml river water/or POOR. So signs were posted at the Sandbar, at the hight of the summer season; it was off limits to the public. Shocking.

Just for comparison, I am going to share the highest readings at the other sites in June and July of 2013.  The highest readings were as follows: Roosevelt, 1620 cfu; Sandsprit, 640 cfu; Leighton, 3020 cfu; and Bessey Creek, 1560 cfu. As mentioned about 105 cfu per 100 ml of river water is considered POOR.

For a comparison to “today,” the latest readings on April  21, 2014 were:  Roosevelt, 58 cfu; Sandsprit, 7cfu ; Leighton Park, 94 cfu and the Sandbar, 30 cfu . So even without super heavy rains or releases from Lake Okeechobee, readings can be  moderate to borderline poor. (The Leighton site had been in the poor range just a few just weeks ago but is coming down…)

It is important to know that bacteria levels are absolutely exacerbated by the releases from Lake Okeechobee that bring in polluted fresh water from outside of our basin as far away as from Orlando,  but Lake Okeechobee is not the only cause. Local canals’ runoff, poorly cared for septic tanks, farm and domestic animals, along with other sources in both Marin and St Lucie Counties, even Okeechobee, anywhere water runs into our rivers from a basin, play an important role in the bacteria water puzzle.

To understand the sources of fecal pollution, Martin County is presently conducting a water quality monitering study in partnership with Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch. The study is tracking  DNA results leading “back,” through attachment to isotopes, to either human, cow, horse, dog  and/or bird feces.

At this point, studies are inconclusive, and helpful data is not expected until rainy season begins June 1st through November 30th.

We can’t dream that things here in Stuart used to be “perfect.” When I was a kid growing up in Martin County in the 60s and 70s there were some businesses that legally dumped their raw sewage into the St Lucie River and boaters were allowed to dump waste straight into the river. There were fewer people here then, yes, but it is still disgusting by today’s standards.  I grew up swimming and water skiing in these waters. I never got sick and back then no one was monitoring the bacteria in the river

In conclusion, we don’t need to panic, we just need to be careful, and to be thankful for the progress we have made; most important, we must continue to improve the situation and “fix it.”

______________________________

Thank you to Bob Washam, formerly of the MCHD, for his years of dedication and for his help with composing specifics of this article.

To check bacteria levels, visit the Martin County Health Department’s website (http://www.floridahealth.gov/CHD/Martin/MCHD_Internet_Site.htmland look for “river and beach water sampling results.”

3 thoughts on “Understanding High Bacteria Levels in the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon

  1. Thanks Angel Jacqui, I Hope that Our Warrior Rep.Patrick Murphy Notices On His Fly Over of Jupiter Inlet and the Loxahatchee River Area, that It Is CLOSED AGAIN For Water Contact, High Bacteria !!. Too Many Times This is Happening in the Southern End of Our Beloved IRL. This was also Happening in the height of Our Toursist Season, That Looks Real Good To Them They Cannot Swim, Will Not Return Probably–WHO WOULD !! We NEED A KILROY THERE NOW !! I Have Been Fighting For Kilroys Down Here For 8 Months Now !! Lee@Intracoastalecosystems.com

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