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Heavy use a strain on McKethan Park

Walk toward the inviting, wind-rippled water off Pine Island and you will see the following, uninviting notice:

"High bacteria levels & Health risk at the time & Swimming not recommended.''

This advisory is the seventh issued for Alfred A. McKethan Park at Pine Island since 2002. It is also — and prepare for a bold, courageous stand on my part — bad news for the county.

Bad because Pine Island is the county's only public beach on the gulf and one of only three county-run swimming areas.

Bad because, with Hernando schools' spring break scheduled for next week, the peak beach season is upon us.

Bad because contamination levels crested a month ago at more than six times the level the state considers safe for swimming, said Al Gray, the Hernando County Health Department's environmental manager.

And bad, especially, because of the contamination's source.

The high level of enterococci bacteria "probably indicates bird or mammal feces and, presumptively, we're thinking it's birds,'' Gray said.

"When you go out there in low tide, the beach is covered with bird feces.''

If that theory isn't unpleasant enough, try the competing one:

The houses on Pine Island and restrooms at McKethan Park are connected to septic tanks rather than sewage lines. As the number of visitors to Pine Island has climbed to nearly 200,000 per year, more of their effluent has seeped into the gulf, some residents say.

"The idea that this is caused by birds is baloney,'' said Weiland Rogers, the former manager of Rogers' Christmas House Village and a part-time resident of Pine Island.

The county needs to run sewer lines to the island, Rogers said, and should bear most of the cost because its park creates most of the contamination.

There's no proof of that without more tests, Gray said. He sent a letter to the County Commission on March 18 saying that only DNA testing could identify the source of the bacteria, and that thorough testing would cost between $54,000 and $64,000.

The county needs these tests, said county parks and recreation director Pat Fagan, and he plans to recommend that the commission pay for them, though he hopes to cut their costs.

Sounds like a good start. And if the park's septic tanks are the problem, the county needs to address them.

I wouldn't be surprised, though, if it's not that simple.

Remember, Pine Island is not a natural beach with waves that scour the gulf floor and carry away contaminants. It was carved out of a salt marsh nearly 60 years ago. Its water is shallow and comparatively stagnant. It has been pressed into service as the county's main public swimming attraction mostly because there are so few alternatives.

More swimmers and sunbathers not only create more trips to the restroom, they also mean more garbage and handouts for sea gulls and, in turn, more gulls, Fagan said.

Pine Island, in other words, is part of an old story in Florida: too many people crowding too few public facilities.

You need proof? On Monday afternoon, despite the warnings, the water off Pine Island was filled with children wading, floating on kickboards, doing headstands.

The parking lot, as it has been for much of the past few weeks, was packed.

Heavy use a strain on McKethan Park 04/01/08 [Last modified: Saturday, April 5, 2008 2:20pm]
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