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Tropical Point Park waters cause concern

By PAULETTE LeBLANC - | Oct 28, 2020

Tropical Point Park on Pine Island. FILE PHOTO

pleblanc@breezenewspapers.com

Island resident and GPICA President Scott Wilkinson often finds himself running back and forth to Fort Myers to test the waters from Tropical Point Park in St. James City. After noticing several people, including school children, wading in these waters, he contacted county officials on behalf of fellow islanders in an effort to keep them safe.

“It’s a great field trip,” Wilkinson said, “but if the water is polluted, it’s not safe.”

Lee County Public Communications Director Betsy Clayton said Tropical Point Park is not designated as a swimming beach, so it is not part of the Florida Department of Health’s Florida Healthy Beaches Program, adding that the state DOH’s program for swimming beaches does involve regular testing.

“Tropical Point Park is a Lee County Parks & Recreation site. We do not post it or market it as a beach park, which is why it’s not listed on our website,” Clayton said. The website link is https://www.leegov.com/parks/beaches.

Wilkinson said he feels strongly that if locals and visitors see the “no lifeguard on duty” sign posted at the park, it will indicate that swimming is permissible. The Greater Pine Island Civic Association teamed up with Calusa Waterkeeper and paid to have the water tested several times with varying results.

Calusa Waterkeeper Founding member John Cassani disagrees with the county’s position on designation, saying it is absolutely designated a potential public bathing area and that Florida’s DOH has simply absolved itself of any responsibility from monitoring the waters or providing signage with regard to risk.

“This is what we call a class three water body in Florida,” Cassani said. “Matlacha Pass is also an outstanding Florida water, which is entitled to the highest protection the state can provide. So if this is not a designated area for swimming…what is?”

Cassani said he doesn’t see any overt official designation that any of the coastal beaches are actually designated for swimming, adding that the way in which these waters are classified and designated results in a policy disconnect.

Although Cassani said he understands the waters at Tropical Point Park are not often used for bathing, he has, on occasion, seen adults as well as children in the water.

“It’s a paddling destination,” said Cassani, “sometimes you get in the water to launch your kayak or you fall off your kayak into the water and you might ingest some of that water. The levels we’re seeing are pretty high. The sample in August was 243 MPN, which is four times what we call the beach action value, which is 70 for enterococci bacteria.”

In early October, Cassani said the sample came back at 1,660 MPN (over 23 times higher than the Florida DOH threshold of 70). The last sample, completed in mid-October, registered at 75 MPN.

“It’s decreased quite a bit,” said Cassani, “but it’s still above the 70 threshold, which would define poor conditions.”

The same threshold, he said, FDOH would use to close a beach.

The county’s position on the matter is that concern for public safety led directly to the decision to go forward with testing on its part.

“Tropical Point Park is used as a paddle-craft landing and launch,” Clayton said, offering some history on this particular matter. “Last fall, staff from the Lee County School District contacted Lee County Natural Resources to inquire whether Tropical Point was safe for a regularly scheduled field trip. While the park is not designated as a swimming beach, Lee County Natural Resources proactively chose to test the beach area at Tropical Point to provide school staff with information to help them make a decision on the trip. Lee County Natural Resources dispatched resources to test the beach area for enterococci. A biologist from the county’s certified Lee County Environmental Lab collected samples from the beach area at the park, and the county analysis of the sample showed levels of enterococci were under the maximum contaminate levels. This information was provided to the school district. Prior to a second planned field trip, a water sample was collected by a third party and provided to the Environmental Lab for analysis. Results from this test showed bacteria levels above the maximum contaminate levels. There was a question as to whether the water sample had been preserved properly. Rather than wait to have another test be conducted on the waters at Tropical Point, Lee County Schools opted to go to another site.”

Cassani explained enterococci bacteria come from the guts of warm-blooded animals, including humans.

“We don’t know where it’s coming from but the health risk is the same regardless,” Cassani said. “We call entrococci fecal indicator bacteria. Enterococci are not as pathogenic as what could be there. That’s why they call them indicator bacteria. There could be other things there that are actually more pathogenic than enterococci bacteria.”

Clayton said to date, no further field trips have been planned for Tropical Point Park by Lee County schools.

She also said levels of bacteria in coastal waters can be affected by many factors including bird or animal waste, stormwater runoff and tidal action and that a test gives a snapshot of conditions at the time the test is taken.

According to Lee County, the following general precautions when recreating in any surface water should be followed.

n If you have an open cut or wound, don’t immerse it in water. If there’s bacteria in the water, they can enter your body through the cut or wound. Avoid swallowing water as well.

n If you get a cut or wound while swimming, wading or boating, wash the area with clean, running water and soap, and cover it with a clean, dry waterproof bandage.

“We also wanted to make you aware that Lee County Natural Resources is currently in the process in performing a major study to determine sources of human waste in county waters. Results of this study will be used to determine whether human contributions caused by deteriorated or obsolete septic systems are adversely impacting county waters. Other sources of bacteria can come from a number of other sources, which include bird or animal waste, stormwater runoff and tidal action.”

Clayton said to keep up to date on this study and other Lee Board of County Commissioners information and news, residents can sign up for a county newsletter.

Visit www.leegov.com and click on the “sign up” button. You can also follow on Facebook at Lee County Government.