ST. PETERSBURG - Levels of so-called "indicator" bacteria in the water at Gandy Beach are shockingly high, according to a St. Petersburg College professor's studies, but state officials aren't likely to step up monitoring efforts there.
The beach, commonly known as the "Redneck Riviera," sits on Old Tampa Bay, at the west end of the Gandy Bridge. It's a party spot, where dogs and kids splash in the still water, as beachgoers drink beer under tarps strung between mangrove branches. In two sets of samples taken within a week of each other this month, the amount of bacteria far exceeded state standards. While the bacteria found isn't typically harmful, it can go hand-in-hand with pathogens that are potentially harmful but harder to detect. High levels of the indicator bacteria would normally cause health officials to post warnings against swimming for beachgoers. The problem is, due in part to budget constraints, the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County stopped monitoring water quality at the site.
Water samples for the bacteria enterococcus yielded concentrations ranging from 477 to 760 units per milliliter. The state criteria for issuing health warnings is 104. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's recommendation is 35 per milliliter.
Enterococcus may not directly cause illness, but it can be an indicator of pathogens.
"It's usually associated with feces," said Shannon McQuaig, a professor of biology and immunology at St. Petersburg College, who took the samples. "For the most part, they're not going to cause any infections on their own."
The high levels of bacteria at Gandy Beach don't come as a shock to people familiar with the area.
"Surprise, surprise," University of South Florida marine biologist John Paul said, chuckling. "I've seen the bad news firsthand up there."
The beach's geography may be part of the problem. Unlike beaches along the Gulf of Mexico, the bay water that skirts Gandy Beach is relatively stagnant.
"There's not much tidal exchange in Tampa Bay," Paul said. "What happens is, it's what we call sloshing back and forth. It never gets what we would call fresh seawater."
Runoff from nearby houses with pets may cause the bacteria to show up in the water, he said. What happens at the beach is an even greater concern.
"It's a big dog beach, too," Paul said.
McQuaig suspected backyard runoff was the main factor but changed her mind after looking around at the beach.
"When I was at the beach, there were dirty diapers in the high-tide zone," she said. "I saw dog footprints on the beach, and there was a man out in the water with his dog."
Despite the beach's obvious potential for contamination, the health department says monitoring is not needed there. Because of sweeping budget cuts, the department eliminated water quality testing on four Pinellas County beaches in 2011. One of those was Gandy. The Gandy sampling was eliminated, in part, because past tests had shown the water to be clean, despite a consistent stream of beachgoers who often line their pickups along the mangrove-skirted waterfront.
"There had been no advisory days in five years," said Brandy Downing, Pinellas coordinator for the Department of Health's Healthy Beaches Initiative. "To us, it didn't seem like much of an issue."
The department measures enterococcus because it can be easily measured in saltwater, McQuaid said. It's associated with other bacteria, as well as viruses, that are found in feces, including the viruses that cause polio and foot and mouth disease.
Gandy isn't the first beach where McQuaig has found potentially dangerous bacteria. While conducting her doctoral research, she found significant amounts of fecal bacteria at Ben T. Davis Beach in Tampa, stemming from with runoff from a portable toilet near a seawall. Her findings led park workers to move the toilet away from the water. Bacteria levels in the water drastically dropped afterward, she said.
It's unclear whether state officials will start regularly testing the waters at Gandy Beach.
Gayle Guidash, who heads the Pinellas health department's Environmental Health and Preparedness division, said the department intends to work with the SPC researchers to confirm their findings; but it isn't likely to add the beach back to the list of popular beaches regularly tested.
"If we were to find high levels of [enterococcus] units, we would provide an advisory," she said. "And we would test the beach until it comes back clean."
Experts advise against swimming where dogs swim, submerging open cuts in contaminated water or swimming with a compromised immune system.
"Indicators say the guts of animals have been expelled in this water column, and there's a chance for some disease-causing," Paul said. "I wouldn't take my grandkids swimming there, I'll tell ya."
The 10 beaches the Department of Health regularly tests are: Honeymoon Island, Sand Key, Indian Rocks Beach, Madeira Beach, Treasure Island Beach, Pass-A-Grille Beach, Fort DeSoto North Beach, the Courtney Campbell Causeway, Redington Shores (182nd Avenue) and Sunset Beach in Tarpon Springs.