County health departments have been testing beach water quality since 2000, and issuing advisories when bacteria levels get too high.
A review of data collected under the Florida Healthy Beaches Program over the past 15 years shows wide variation among counties, with some issuing hundreds of advisories, while others have issued just a few dozen. And in the case of Flagler County, no advisories have been issued.
Florida has nearly $500,000 in federal funds – more than any other state -- to monitor water quality at its beaches this year.
"What we work to do is to make sure that there are no unexpected consequences from enjoying our beautiful beaches,” said Dr. John Armstrong, Florida’s surgeon general. "Where there is a risk, we post advisories that let people know that they should not go into the water."
Water samples are taken weekly at beaches across the state’s 30 coastal counties and tested very specifically for enterococci, a bacteria that occurs naturally in the intestine, but one that can trigger illness elsewhere in the body.
"What the EPA and the government has found out is that by testing for enterococci in the waters, it's the best way to determine if we're having a population problem in that area,” said Steve Huard, the public information officer with the Hillsborough County Health Department. "It gives us an indication whether we're seeing a large amounts of human waste in the water, animal, whether it be runoff from the roads, the grounds, anything that's hitting the earth's surface is eventually making it into our waterways."
On a recent August afternoon, Teresa Martin was visiting Tampa’s Ben T. Davis Beach with her children. The small patch of land on Old Tampa Bay juts out into the water just off the Courtney Campbell Causeway, a busy four-lane road that connects Tampa and Clearwater.
Martin said she found the beach by searching online.
"This was the closest, nice, public access beach that it gave us on the tablet,” she said. “This is actually the first time that we've been to the beach since we moved to Tampa, so it's pretty nice. I love the breeze.
Her son, 17-year-old Keith Anderson, has been swimming out to the buoys, and says the water is pretty warm.
When asked what would make him avoid a beach, he said, "I would have to say bacteria in the water, to be honest.”
As for the bacteria, water samples taken that week under the Healthy Beaches Program showed the water quality at Ben T. Davis Beach was "good." That wasn't the case two weeks earlier, when an advisory was issued because of high levels of bacteria.
To help explain why, Huard, with the health department, pulled up Google Maps on his computer
"This little estuary, the way the water comes in, it doesn't move real well right here,” Huard said. “So now if you go up and up and down the coastline of the state of Florida, you're going to have all these little inlets and cuts and backs, and you can basically hit an area where the water is just not moving a whole lot, and it may end up testing poor a couple weeks, especially if the water's not moving a whole lot."
That's one of the reasons why there’s so much variation among counties in terms of water quality advisories. Other factors include broken sewage lines, runoff and rain.
A review of the data for Hillsborough County from July 2000 through July 2015 shows only about 5 percent of water samples resulted in an advisory.
"So if you have scrapes, a big scrape on your leg, and we have an advisory in place, you could possibly get a good infection on that leg that could turn staph, and you may need to be hospitalized,” Huard said.
“Additionally it's ingesting the water, (which) can give gastric distress, so you may have problems, diarrhea for a couple days, you may have some vomiting, so it's just not clean water to be in."
And while Huard says monitoring bacteria in the water is important there are other things to remember, such as staying out of the sun, and doing the stingray shuffle with your feet.
"You know, not becoming a victim to something else at the beach that you're not really thinking of. The water, in many cases, catching a disease from the water is the least thing to worry about.”