Disease-causing bacteria in water off Georgia beaches now routine presence

By David Pendered

Beachgoers were advised they may get sick if they enter the water along portion of three of Georgia’s coastal islands in February because of high levels of a waterborne bacteria associated with disease. The waters have been declared safe, but the warnings remind of the potential harm caused by runoff from manmade or other sources.

beach, bacteria

Health officials periodically advise that the presence of bacteria in waters near the beach could lead to illness in those who swim or wade in the water. Credit: David Pendered

There’s nothing to indicate the number of warnings has increased or decreased in recent years. A spot-check of warnings issued as far back as January 2007 indicates they are issued year round, not just in warm-weather seasons.

The concern to public health is a strain of bacteria, the enterococci. It’s a marker for fecal waste in the water because it lives in the intestinal tracts of warm-blooded animals, including humans, according to a report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Division.

For this reason, presence of the bacteria is viewed as an indicator of possible contamination by fecal waste of streams and rivers.

Along the coast, the state monitors levels of the bacteria at beaches where folks like to swim or wade in the water. When levels that exceed federal standards are observed, local health departments issue advisories include the following types of geographical boundaries:

  • Feb. 19 – “The Glynn County Health Department has issued advisories North Beach at Goulds Inlet (Fifteenth to Tenth St.), Massengale Park Beach (Driftwood Dr. to Cedar St.), 5th St. Crossover Beach (Cedar St. to 9th St.), and South Beach at the Lighthouse (9th St. to Pier) on St. Simons Island.
  • Feb. 19 – “The Glynn County Health Department has issued for an advisory for South Beach at 4H Camp (from the South Water Tower to Macy Ln.) on Jekyll Island.
  • Feb. 19 – “The Chatham County Health Department has issued an advisory for Polk Street Beach (the northernmost part of Tybee Island at the mouth of the Savannah River from the end of the beach to the jetty) on Tybee Island.”

Each advisory had been issued by Feb. 26.

This batch of advisories follows a batch issued for the same three islands in January. Those warnings, too, were lifted in a matter of weeks.

The culprit, enterococci, indicates the possible presence of fecal material in the water. The state describes the public safety threat in these terms:

  • “There is no way of knowing if going into water that is under advisory will result in illness; however, this beach water advisory is to alert the public of a possible risk of illness associated with water contact. An area under advisory does not mean the beach is closed.”

The state’s cautions continue with identical paragraphs that appear to change only to add the name of the county issuing the advisory:

  • “The [fill in the blank] County Health Department recommends you do not swim or wade in the water in the area(s) under advisory. Fish and other seafood caught from this area should be thoroughly washed with fresh water and thoroughly cooked before eating as should fish or seafood caught from any waters.”

According to the EPA, the bacteria can enter waterways from any number of sources:

  • “Sources of fecal indicator bacteria such as enterococci include wastewater treatment plant effluent, leaking septic systems, stormwater runoff, sewage discharged or dumped from recreational boats, domestic animal and wildlife waste, improper land application of manure or sewage, and runoff from manure storage areas, pastures, rangelands, and feedlots.
  • “There are also natural, non-fecal sources of fecal indicator bacteria, including plants, sand, soil and sediments, that contribute to a certain background level in ambient waters and vary based on local environmental and meteorological conditions.”

Note to readers: For more information about water quality along Georgia’s beaches, visit the Department of Natural Resources’ Georgia Health Beaches page.

 

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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