Aubrey got all dolled up for her big day at the beach: Pink bathing suit, wide-brim hat and a sand bucket accessory.
But would the 16-month-old get to dip her toes in the water at Hudson Beach? No way, her mother decided Tuesday morning — and that was before they saw the closed-to-swimmers signs put up over last weekend.
"It's just nasty," said Jannel Dunn of Hudson as she watched Aubrey play in the sand, away from the water. "It's just never been a clean beach."
That's a common sentiment among local beachgoers, who figure they must be content with soaking in the sun — or have a backup plan in case polluted water forces the county Health Department to close Pasco shores to swimming.
The history of problems at the beach goes back years. Between August 2002 and July 2009, for instance, the Pasco County Health Department issued 153 advisories and warnings for Hudson Beach (officially known as Robert J. Strickland Beach) after tests showed high concentrations of enterococci and fecal coliform bacteria in the water.
Such bacteria, which are indications of fecal pollution, could cause disease, infections or rashes.
"It's definitely a level of frustration but until you can isolate what the problem is, it's tough," said Commissioner Jack Mariano, who counts Hudson Beach as part of his district. "There's nothing worse than having a sign saying 'beach closed.' "
Over the past nearly two decades, officials have pointed to everything from septic tanks to birds to boaters as the most likely suspects in the pollution. Now, a recently completed analysis of Hudson Beach puts a bit more weight behind those guesses — and estimates how much the problem would cost to fix.
The analysis by Trinity-based Florida Design Consultants lists these six most likely culprits:
• Improper disposal of waste from boats.
• Pet waste carried by stormwater runoff.
• Leaking or failed septic tank systems.
• Damaged sewer systems.
• Private wastewater treatment facilities.
• Wildlife, particularly birds and raccoons.
Improving the water quality at Hudson Beach could cost at least $12 million, a price tag that includes removing septic tanks and extending public and private sewer systems as well as installing pet waste disposal stations and launching public education programs.
The report also recommends the county undertake a "microbial source tracking" program, which would use gene markers to determine if the dominant source of bacteria is animal or human.
A costly fix
Nearby residential areas, which make up well over half of the land within the study area, take a significant share of the blame.
For one, the report estimates a population of several hundred dogs and cats in the neighborhoods. Most of that area was built before stormwater treatment requirements were implemented, meaning pet waste washes into tidal canals after rainfall.
And septic tanks, even if they are properly installed, are a problem in an area with a relatively high water table. The Pasco County Health Department, which started keeping track of septic tank systems in 1998, counts 1,667 permitted septic tank systems in the study area, which includes properties not only near Hudson Beach but also upstream areas that run east of Little Road.
The report says the septic tanks that would have the most direct impact on water quality at the beach are located in the service area of private utility Ni Florida LLC, which in 2008 bought wastewater company Hudson Utilities.
Hudson Utilities spent years hooking Hudson Beach residents up to its sewer lines, said former owner Bob Bammann. But he said the utility hit resistance from some property owners, and that the Health Department has not enforced a state law requiring customers within a certain distance of available sewer lines to hook up.
As a consequence, he said, there are still homes near Hudson Beach that use septic tanks.
Michele Baker, chief assistant Pasco County administrator, said officials have long viewed septic tanks in the Hudson area as the biggest source of the problem. But she said the price tag — not only the cost of extending sewer lines but the costs charged to individual homeowners to connect — has resulted in little action.
"If we could find a big grant, we would," she said.
The report also notes private wastewater treatment facilities for two nearby mobile home parks may contribute to the pollution and advocates abandoning such "package plants" and connecting the communities to the sewer system.
One is for Shady Acres Mobile Home Park, which stores effluent in a holding pond that is located less than 150 feet from a small wetland connected to the tidal canals. Leaching from the holding pond or overflows during storms "could result in discharges that could lead to elevated levels of bacteria in the adjacent canals," the report says.
The other is for Osceola Mobile Home Park, off State Road 52, which has an effluent pond system that could reach Bear Creek and, thus, be sent into tidal waters.
But it's not just residential, according to the report. Two of the four marinas near the beach — Hudson Beach Marina and Manson Marina — are not equipped with sewage pump-out facilities. And, according to the report, that could be a problem.
"Discharges of wastewater from on board sewage tanks from vessels using these facilities would represent a significant contribution to fecal bacterial loadings," the report says. "Vessel operators that are returning from extended trips, especially commercial fishing vessels, and that intend to dock at facilities without sewage pump out stations, would have a tendency to either discharge their sewage off shore or at the docks."
Sean Phelps, manager at Hudson Beach Marina, said tying marinas to the water problems is farfetched. He said the boats that use Hudson Beach Marina rarely have on-board sewage and, if they do, he sends them up to Port Hudson, which does have the pump-out facilities.
"If I saw anybody that runs their sewage at the docks, I'd throw them out," he said.
The report, along with a separate one for Brasher Park Beach and the Energy and Marine Center near Port Richey, represent the first step toward dealing with environmental regulations that will start coming down the road in 2012, said Mike Garrett, who oversees Pasco's stormwater management division. Together, the two reports cost about $50,000, he said.
As part of the federal Clean Water Act, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection is developing a "total maximum daily load" for its most polluted waterways. That's a calculation of the maximum amount of a pollutant that a body of water can receive from various sources and still meet certain quality standards.
The next step after that is to come up with what is called a "basin management action plan" — essentially a blueprint on how to reduce pollution from various sources to meet the standards. The big cost to local governments will come when it's time to put those pollution-control measures into place.
The latest warnings at Hudson Beach stem from high levels of enterococci. County health officials also issued a warning last weekend at Oelsner Park Beach in Port Richey for the same reason. (By Friday, the warning had been lifted at Hudson Beach.)
The warnings came at an unfortunate time: beautiful weather and spring break.
Cathy Pearman brought her two teenage sons to Hudson Beach on Tuesday. Then they saw the signs.
So Pearman took her book and sat under a picnic shelter. Her sons, in their dry clothes, took a camera and walked up and down the sidewalk, taking pictures of birds and the dolphin they saw at a distance.
"It's a beautiful area," said Pearman, of Port Richey. "It's a shame they can't work out the problem."
Reach Jodie Tillman at email@example.com or (727) 869-6247.