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State stops water quality testing at two Pasco beaches

Two Port Richey beaches and eight others in the Tampa Bay area will no longer be monitored for harmful bacteria in the water after budget cuts at the Florida Department of Health.

This spring, lawmakers cut $525,000 from the department's beach monitoring program, which tests for signs of fecal pollution that could make people sick. Because of the cuts, the department stopped monitoring 60 sites from a list of 300 across the state. A little more than half of the others will be checked only during the summer. The program will continue with a $552,000 federal grant.

Pasco loses testing at two of seven sites: Port Richey's Oelsner Park and the Pasco County school district's Energy and Marine Center, a nature center where students occasionally wade into the waters to seine for sea creatures. Both have a history of at least 21 water quality advisory days in at least one of the past five years, the highest classification from state officials. Most beaches in Florida had no advisory days during that time period or an occasional advisory.

Back in 2005, the Energy and Marine Center ranked No. 7 on Florida's Top 15 Polluted Beaches, a list compiled by the Natural Resources Defense Council. The chronic reports of high bacteria counts put the water off limits for at least half of that year.

A Pasco County study showed that the Energy and Marine Center and Brasher Park Beach were hit with a combined 133 advisories or warnings for high bacteria levels between August 2002 and July 2009. That study also showed 153 such days for Hudson Beach. Both Brasher Park and Hudson Beach will continued to be monitored.

Department of Health spokeswoman Jessica Hammonds said sites were selected either because they had a history of good water quality or because they had a lower number of visitors than other beaches. Because of the cuts, she said, the department had to "right-size our organization."

Pinellas loses monitoring at four of 14 beaches: along the Gandy Bridge, Indian Shores Beach, Mobbly Bayou Preserve and North Shore Beach.

Hillsborough also loses state support at four sites: southern areas of Ben T. Davis Beach, the southern part of Cypress Point Park, Davis Islands Beach and the southern part of Picnic Island Park. Hammonds said the Hillsborough County Health Department will at least temporarily continue monitoring those four sites with local money. The Picnic Island and North Shore locations also reported at least 21 water quality advisory days.

Hernando's Pine Island Beach will continue to be monitored.

Besides dropping 20 percent of the beaches from the program, the changes also include testing beaches every other week instead of weekly. About 100 sites with minimal winter swimming will no longer be tested from November through February. Also, officials will no longer test for fecal coliform at any site. They will continue testing for enterococci, which are a better indicator of problems in marine waters, officials said.

Lee Logan can be reached a llogan@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6236.

State stops water quality testing at two Pasco beaches 09/24/11 [Last modified: Saturday, September 24, 2011 11:23am]
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