water quality press

Fort Lauderdale's water-quality report card: Here are the latest results - Sun Sentinel

By Bill Kearney

Published: June 7, 2023

Read the original article in the Sun Sentinel.

Nearly half of Fort Lauderdale’s water quality testing sites fail to meet clean water standards on most days, according to an annual report released on Tuesday by Miami Waterkeeper. It’s not all doom and gloom, however, some sites are almost always clean.

The data comes from the Miami Waterkeeper Annual Report for 2022. The watchdog environmental group partners with the City of Fort Lauderdale to test 10 sites throughout the city each week for bacteria levels. They chose sites likely to see a good bit of recreational use.

During their 2022 testing, the worst site was Sweeting Park (Reverend Samuel Delevoe Memorial Park) on the north fork of the New River, which failed testing 94% of the time, said the report, meaning its bacteria levels would warrant a swim warning. The most consistent clean water quality occurred at Sunrise Bay (Hugh Taylor Birch State Park) just north of Sunrise Boulevard, which received a passing grade 92.3% of the time.

Other sites that failed frequently tend to be a bit farther inland. They include Himmarshee Canal just off the New River (passed 23.1% of the time), the Tarpon River just south of Southeast Ninth Street (passed 35.4% of the time) and Annie Beck Park (passed 46.2% of the time). Coontie Hatchee Park was a tad cleaner, passing 55.6% of the time.

“The more urban upstream areas have higher [bacteria] levels as a general pattern in Fort Lauderdale,” said Miami Waterkeeper executive director Rachel Silverstein. “And you kind of expect that,” she said — tidal interchange flushes areas closer to the ocean, while the upstream sites are not flushing as thoroughly.

Sites with better grades include Middle River at George English Park (passed 77% of the time), Royal Palm Drive at Las Olas Boulevard (passed 82.8% of the time), Stranahan River at Southeast 10th Street (passed 79.3% of the time) and Lake Sylvia just inside the Fort Lauderdale inlet (passed 90.7% of the time).

Miami Waterkeeper tests the water at each site for enterococci bacteria levels. EPA studies indicate that enterococci, which is associated with fecal contamination, correlates with swimming-associated gastrointestinal illness in both marine and freshwater. A measurement of 70 colony-forming units or greater per 100 milliliters of water results in a swimming advisory.

Some of the higher counts of 2022 include 3,282 at Tarpon River on Nov. 22, 3,654 on Oct. 13 at Himmarshee Canal, and 9,606 on July 26, also at Himmarshee. Other days are nearly perfect, with all but one or two sites having water that’s easily safe for swimming. To view all the weekly counts for 2022 and 2023, go to the Miami Waterkeeper Water Quality Monitoring page and click on “Fort Lauderdale Water Quality Data” on the left side of the page.

Where does the bacteria come from? Natalia Soares Quinete, a chemist at Florida International University who studies water contamination, said it can come from septic tanks and parks where there is dog waste and possible human waste.

Silverstein said that after a sewage spill, bacteria can colonize a seawall and remain living there after a sewage spill. “The sewage leaves, but the bacteria stays,” said Silverstein. “That’s a possibility.”

The rainy summer months ahead usually have higher bacteria counts, said Silverstein. “You have more stormwater pushing all of the contamination, debris, pet waste, chemicals down the storm drain,” she said. “You also have a higher likelihood of having sewage spills in the rainy months because there are cracks in the sewage pipes underground and when there’s a lot of rain you have a higher water table and that water rushes into those cracks in the pipes underground and overwhelms the sewage infrastructure.”

As for 2023, April’s record rains and flooding resulted in astounding bacterial levels throughout Fort Lauderdale’s waterways.

Every site was well over the limit for three days, and on Thursday, April 13, the day after the rains, Miami Waterkeeper staff measured 9,606 units of enterococci at Lake Sylvia, Sweeting Park and Taron River, and a whopping 10,112 units at Himmarshee Canal downtown, which empties into the Tarpon River. That’s 144 times higher than the 70 units that the EPA deems recreationally safe, and 37 times higher than what you might find in a used toilet, according to a 2010 University of Maryland study.

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