Suncoast Waterkeeper reports bacterial levels in water at three Sarasota sites that well exceed EPA standards

City Utilities Department finds indications that waste from various animals the culprit

The Centennial Park Boat Ramp, which may be reached from 10th Street in Sarasota, provides access to Sarasota Bay. Photo courtesy City of Sarasota

In water samples collected for the week ending on Feb. 19, the nonprofit Suncoast Waterkeeper found three areas in the City of Sarasota where enterococci bacterial counts were high, the Sarasota-based organization has reported.

The samples, analyzed by Benchmark EnviroAnalytical Inc. in Bradenton, showed problems at New College of Florida’s Caples Bayfront, the Centennial Park Boat Ramp near downtown Sarasota, and Indian Beach, Suncoast Waterkeeper pointed out in a Feb. 22 news release.

“The health of these waters [is] crucial to the recreational and economic security of our community,” the news release added.

The nonprofit repeatedly has been finding high levels of bacteria at several Sarasota locations, it added, “particularly at Centennial Park.”

The EPA explains, “Enterococci are bacteria that live in the intestinal tracts of warm-blooded animals, including humans, and therefore indicate possible contamination of streams and rivers by fecal waste.”

The agency adds, “Enterococci are indicators … of the possible presence of disease-causing bacteria, viruses, and protozoa. These pathogens can sicken swimmers and others who use rivers and streams for recreation or eat raw shellfish or fish. Other potential health effects can include diseases of the skin, eyes, ears and respiratory tract. Eating fish or shellfish harvested from waters with fecal contamination can also result in human illness.” further notes that, although Enterococci faecalis “normally lives harmlessly in your intestines … if it spreads to other parts of your body it can cause a more serious infection. The bacteria can get into your blood, urine, or a wound during surgery. From there, it can spread to different sites causing more serious infections, including sepsis, endocarditis, and meningitis.”

The EPA says that in the United States, “[T]he marine recreational water quality criterion for enterococci … is not more than 104 colony forming units” per 100 milliliters.

Image from the Suncoast Waterkeeper website

In samples collected for Suncoast Waterkeeper on Feb. 16, Benchmark EnviroAnalytical found 1,723 colony forming units per 100 milliliters at Centennial Park; 591 colony forming units per 100 milliliters at Indian Beach; and 187 colony forming units per 100 milliliters at the New College Caples Bayfront, as shown in the reports Suncoast Waterkeeper provided to The Sarasota News Leader.

On its website, the nonprofit explains, “To address concerns raised by our board, and our members, Suncoast Waterkeeper started a weekly sampling program during January of 2020. The locations we sample are usually not part of any other sampling sites. Some of these sites have intense recreation. We also include our site specific sampling files to provide accurate data relevant to our waters. Any results over 70 should be evaluated for some concern of a health risk if there is contact with the water.”

When the News Leader contacted the City of Sarasota about the report, Jan Thornburg, senior communications manager, responded in Feb. 24 email that members of the city’s Utilities Department team “shared they do not know a specific source. The Suncoast Waterkeeper samples show high levels of an organism that is animal-specific: e.g.: birds, raccoons, dogs, cats, etc. — not human. Some could be attributed to nature and some could be from people not picking up after pets.”

Thornburg added, “We treasure our beautiful Sarasota Bay and appreciate the water quality reports we receive from Suncoast Waterkeeper. The Bay’s health continues to be a top priority for the City.”

This map shows the locations in Sarasota where Suncoast Waterkeeper collects water samples. Image courtesy Suncoast Waterkeeper via Google Maps

Suncoast Waterkeeper also noted in its news release that it had provided its data to the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County (DOH-Sarasota).

In response to a News Leader inquiry, Tom Higginbotham, DOH-Sarasota’s environmental health administrator, also replied on Feb. 24.

He wrote in an email, “The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is the state’s lead agency for surface water quality oversight and management. DEP’s Division of Water Compliance Enforcement Program (WCEP) facilitates statewide coordination of compliance and enforcement activities relating to the development of policy, guidance, and training materials to ensure consistency among the state’s Industrial Wastewater, Domestic Wastewater and the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Stormwater programs.”

Higginbotham continued, “Furthermore, the WCEP administers the compliance and enforcement activities associated with the processing of Discharge Monitoring Reports (DMRs) for the NPDES Stormwater Program. DEP’s Water Quality Assessment Program (WQAP) responsibilities include monitoring and assessing how water quality is changing over time, the overall water quality and the impairment status of the state’s water resources, and the effectiveness of water resource management, protection and restoration programs. Any person or organizations concerned about pollution in the waters of the state is encouraged to contact DEP South District office at 239-344-5600 or via email at”

Tom Higginbotham. Image from his LinkedIn account

When the News Leader provided a copy of Higginbotham’s comments to Sandra Ripberger, a spokeswoman for the Suncoast Waterkeeper, she wrote in an email, “We have not contacted FDEP about the high readings. FDEP sampling is primarily along the beaches on the Gulf and we sample where other entities are not, primarily along the Bay.”

Higginbotham also pointed out, “The Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County’s (DOH-Sarasota) Healthy Beaches program conducts year-round weekly water quality monitoring at 16 public beaches along the Sarasota County Coastline. When bacteria levels exceed limits established by the US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA), no-swim advisories are publicly issued and remain in place until further testing shows that bacteria levels have returned within EPA limits. Any findings of human-caused contamination such as sewage spills are reported to local and state agencies that hold regulatory primacy regarding surface water quality.”