With water quality testing ending for the season in Walton County, results have been fluctuating between "poor" and "good" over the past few weeks. As it turns out, the Florida Department of Health (FDOH) in Walton County is just as confused as local residents.
"We actually have no idea why the quality has been changing," said Crystal Steele, environmental manager for FDOH Walton County. "We've noticed the changes and notified the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), but they have not seen any sewage spills."
Steele said the heavy rainfall in July and August could be a factor.
"When the Coastal Dune Lakes open up it can cause issues to the water quality," she said.
However, no concrete evidence has been able to point to an exact culprit.
The FDOH in Walton County samples the water quality weekly from March to the last week in October. It used be all year round, but was cut because of funding shortfalls.
"Since it gets colder up here compared to South Florida, you may not have as many people in the water," Steele explained. "And usually when the weather cools down, the water quality gets better."
When sampled, water samples are graded by the amount of enteroccocci — or bacteria — per 100 ml of marine water. Anywhere from 0-35 is considered good, 36-104 is moderate and poor is 105 and greater.
In the final tests of the year, Grayton, Holly Street and Eastern Lake Beach were all given failing grades. FDOH re-sampled the water shortly after they released the poor grades, and those same beaches were given "good" grades.
Testing the waters
Blaine Dargavell, a Santa Rosa Beach resident and member of the South Walton Community Council (SWCC), said he is surprised to find that DEP hasn't provided feedback. As a former civil engineer in Kentucky, Dargavell has a few hypotheses.
"When sewer lines get inundated by rain water, the sanitary systems become overcharged," he said. "Livestock, cats and dogs and wild animals — all of their waste gets washed out. Those would be the likely places bacteria will come from. It has to come from somewhere."
Weekly testing is a start, said Dargavell, but may not help the county lead to any conclusions.
"Once the water is analyzed, it goes someplace else," he explained. "One week Grayton is bad and Blue Mountain is good. Ten minutes later and that bacteria has already drifted. It's good to know, but the info isn't particularly useful. You want to know where the bad water is going or you may be avoiding the wrong area."
Sarah Schindele of the Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance said she is not surprised by the inconsistent water quality reports.
"Those tests are a picture of just a little bit of water and that little bit is always moving," she said. " When we have a lot of rain, it's draining the land and flushing it all into the water. The bacteria might be detecting waste from a nearby park. Not that the tests aren't helpful. If you consistently see that one area is always 'poor', then that might be a problem."
Since the mid-1990s the CBA has conducted its own water quality tests monthly. The tests are completely separate from the health department's and do not include bacteria checks — which the non-profit does not have the funds for, said Schindele. CBA volunteers head to more than 140 stations in the watershed including Choctawhatchee Bay, Choctawhatchee River and Walton County's coastal dune lakes to monitor temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen, salinity, oxygen saturation and water clarity.
"What it allows us to do is establish a baseline," said Schindele, grant coordinator for CBA. "This type of data didn't exist before CBA, so we didn't know what was normal. We now know when things change and can determine areas that are suitable for restoration efforts such as oyster reefs."
Schindele explains that the test results from Choctawhatchee Bay waters are "generally quite good." Although, there are high levels of phosphorus in Oyster Lake, which a student at University of West Florida is researching.
Main issues in Choctawhatchee Bay are erosion of the marsh areas and sedimentation from development construction entering water bodies.
"The sedimentation can carry pollutants, which could cause an imbalance to the system," Schindele explained. "And while the erosion of marsh areas is a natural process, it is one of the challenges we face."
Alan Ficarra, president of SWCC, supports the CBA monthly water sampling program by loaning his boat to the cause. Water quality, Ficarra said, is a concern with most of the SWCC board members.
"We support CBA by monitoring county rules, policy and development guidelines," he said. "We then make recommendations to the county and encourage them to adopt rules for developments that will support good water quality and responsible development."
While FDOH Walton County will not be sampling again until March, it's up to the residents to be as proactive as possible in keeping the water clean. CBA is always recruiting volunteers to help monitor and test water samples and suggests that residents pay attention to their surroundings.
"Some things we recommend are limiting fertilizer use, using natural vegetation in your landscaping, which also supports wildlife and needs less fertilizer," Schindele. "If you live on the water, leave a buffer of natural vegetation. Don't clear everything. Those plants do a good job of filtering water."
MORE INFO: If you should have any questions, please contact the FDOH in Walton County at 892-8021, or visit the Department of Health’s Beach Water Quality website www.doh.state.fl.us and click on “Floridians and Visitors” under “Food, Water, Air, Land,” then choose “Beach Water Quality.”
WANT TO HELP? Volunteers are always needed at Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance. Volunteers are trained to collect and monitor water quality. Learn more by visiting www.basinalliance.org. Volunteers can also protect a local waterway by placing bagged oyster shells in the water at an oyster reef restoration site at Eden Gardens State Park on Nov. 16 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wear gloves, clothes and close-toed shoes. RSVP to Rachel Gwin at firstname.lastname@example.org.