Every Monday morning this swim season, beachgoers can find the Georgia Department of Natural Resources collecting samples of water at Coastal Georgia’s most popular beaches on Tybee, St. Simons and Jekyll Islands. 

What are they testing for? Enterococcus, a type of bacteria found in the guts of all warm-blooded animals. When found in high amounts in beach water, the bacteria can indicate that an excess of boat discharge or fecal matter has runoff into the water, or that other potentially harmful pathogens are present. 

This beach water sampling and testing is managed by the DNR’s Coastal Resources Division, which in May received a $277,000 grant from the federal Environmental Protection Agency to fund this public health and safety initiative.

So far this year, 19 water quality advisories have been issued: five on Tybee Island, eight on St. Simon’s Island and six on Jekyll Island. The most recent advisory was issued on June 15 at South Beach near the lighthouse on St. Simons Island, which has had four total advisories, the most of any beach this year. The advisory was lifted on June 16. 

At this time last year, 19 advisories had also been issued along the coast. By the end of 2020, a total of 44 had been issued: 10 on Tybee Island, 24 on St. Simon’s Island and 10 on Jekyll Island. 

The EPA has provided $1.8 million in grants to six southeastern coastal states this year. The amount of money a state received was dependent on the length of its beach season, the number of miles of shoreline it has and the population of its coastal counties. Florida, which has the most shoreline of any southern state and the second most shoreline in the country, received a $470,000 grant. 

Georgia has received a beach grant from the EPA annually since 2001. The state usually receives around $270,000 to $280,000, for a total of nearly $5.4 million in funding over the past two decades. In total, the EPA has awarded over $195 million in beach grants across the country since 2001. 

“Clean and healthy beaches are important to the prosperity of numerous communities and are critical to boosting environmental and economic benefits,” John Blevins, acting administrator of EPA region 4, said in a press release. “EPA beach grants enable our partners in Georgia to conduct testing and address potential sources of contamination to ensure that waters are clean and healthy for beachgoers this summer.”

The EPA is authorized to award grants that support testing and monitoring of coastal waters due to the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health (BEACH) Act, which amended the Clean Water Act in 2000. The act is designed to reduce the risk of disease at coastal waterways across the country by supporting water quality testing, monitoring and communication efforts.

Edward Zmarzly, coordinator of the DNR Coastal Resources Division beach sampling and testing program, said the annual grants allow the department to run its sampling and testing. He said monitoring beach water quality is vital because if beachgoers come in contact with water that has elevated bacteria levels, they can be at risk of symptoms like an upset stomach, ear infection, sore throat or wound infection. 

“If you have an immune system that’s not so great, children with their mouths open in the water, you have the potential for some infection problems,” he said. “So we’re trying to make sure we keep our beaches safe.”

Cathy Sakas, chair of the Board of Trustees of the Tybee Island Marine Science Foundation, added that beach water testing also plays a role in protecting tourism, a huge economic driver on the coast that can help encourage coastal conservation. 

“It’s extremely important for people to be able to see, to feel and to safely experience their ocean,” she said. “If they don’t, they’ll never make a visceral connection to that environment.” 

How does water testing work?

Georgia beaches are split into three tiers that determine how often they’re tested, Zmarzly said. 

Tier One beaches, including ones on Tybee, St. Simons and Jekyll Islands are tested once a week during swim season due to them being easy to access and popular with swimmers, and twice a month during the off-season. Swim season runs from April to November. 

Tier Two beaches include Skidaway Narrows, Reimolds Pasture, Sea Island North and South and sandbars. These beaches are ones that are generally more difficult to get to, like boating beaches, or are only accessible during low tide. They are tested monthly during swim season. 

The rest of the coast’s beaches are Tier Three, and are assumed to be relatively remote and not influenced by people. They’re not tested by the DNR.

Tybee Island, a Tier One beach, welcomes thousands of tourists each year. Water is tested weekly there for safety. File photo/The Current

Beaches that are under a permanent water advisory, meaning that there are continually elevated bacteria levels in the water, are sampled four times a year. These beaches include Clam Creek Beach on Jekyll Island, St. Andrews Beach on Jekyll Island and Kings Ferry County Park. 

“Our permanent advisories are in areas that are closer to the rivers and closer to discharge points,” Zmarzly said. “Bacterias like nutrients, they like warm water, and they get that in those locations.”

The DNR takes their weekly samples from Tier One beaches like Tybee to their lab in Brunswick and often have test results by the following day. If an elevated level of bacteria was found in any of the samples, an advisory for that beach is issued, alerting beachgoers of the threat to their health. 

Zmarzly said the DNR Coastal Resources Division partners with the Georgia Coastal Health District to send out advisories when water tests reveal bacteria levels above 70 cfus. That is a threshold that equates to the presence of 70 bacteria with the ability to multiply per 100 milliliters of sampled water, an amount equivalent to a shampoo bottle that is allowed through airport security screening.

Advisories don’t close the beach or apply to the whole island. Rather, they just warn beachgoers of the potential health threat and only apply to an area around the initial water sampling point. Beaches remain under advisory until another water sample is tested that shows acceptable bacteria levels. 

Zmarzly said the grant received from the EPA will go towards continuing to communicate these advisories, in addition to the water sampling and testing that allows them to be issued in the first place. 

“The grant funds our office,” he said. “And it just allows us to keep our beaches safe.” 

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