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FOX 4 investigates beach water quality

Posted at 7:26 PM, Jul 05, 2016
and last updated 2016-07-06 07:05:07-04

A state of emergency remains in effect for Lee County, and two other counties along Florida’s east coast as bacteria and potentially toxic algae continue to plague our waterways.

The problem, likely sparked by Lake Okeechobee water releases, is gaining national attention, but the solutions to the problems remain in short supply.  Recent concerns over these releases raise the question whether or not it’s safe to go swimming.

Many locals like Darcy Olbrich tell me the fear of not knowing what’s in the water keep them from going in.  “I’m really scared for our beach and our way of life here,” Olbrich said.

Her fear has risen after seeing pictures circulating online of gruesome infections, where many people say the conditions of our beach waters are to blame.  “There’s no reason why it wouldn’t be infectious to anybody. They’re swimming in trash so it’s not good. “

Four In Your Corner started digging to find out if our waters are actually safe to swim in despite the recent Lake O releases.

According to the Department of Health, recent results from their Healthy Beaches program reveal Lee County beaches are all in “good” condition for swimming.  The department specifically tests for human pathogens, meaning bacteria, viruses, or fungus.

When FOX 4 asked DOH which department is in charge of testing the waters for anything else that could potentially be lurking in our waters, we were referred to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

FOX 4 called the DEP and a spokesperson instead responded in an email. The response reads: “These are questions best addressed by Department of Health. DEP does not make health related decisions and determinations.

All Floridians and visitors are encouraged to exercise caution to minimize their risk and to abide by all posted signs and beach warning flags. "If the water is discolored or a visible bloom is present, people are encouraged to stay out of the water, to keep pets and livestock out and to not use bloom water to irrigate lawns,” said the DEP spokesperson.

When FOX 4 asked if it was safe to swim in our beaches and if there is an easy way for people to find out if it’s safe or not with recent concerns, this was the response:

“Please contact DOH for any additional information regarding where they have existing advisories in place, etc. as they make those determinations.

Again, as far as closures, those decisions are made at the local level, as such residents and visitors are encouraged to contact the county directly for the most up-to-date information regarding their actions.

The State Department of Environmental Health has launched a toll-free hotline and an online forum to report any algae blooms in your area. The number is 1-855-305-3903 or you can report blooms by visiting reportalgaeblooms.com

Reported information will be relayed to the Department of Environmental Protection, Department of Health, and Florida Fish and Wildlife.

Voters have already approved a plan to treat murky water releases from Lake Okeechobee but it won’t be in time to save this summer’s fishing or tourist season. The Army Corps of Engineers has been dumping water into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers to stabilize the Lake Okeechobee water levels and relieve pressure on the aging Hoover dike.