Are Florida Beaches Safe for Swimming?

Media Contacts
Jenna Stevens

New report warns about contaminated water as Congress votes on funding to prevent pollution

Environment Florida Research and Policy Center

St.Petersburg, FL – With summer in full swing, water pollution can close Florida beaches or put swimmers’ health at risk. Last year, bacteria levels at 187 Florida beaches indicated that water was potentially unsafe for swimming there on at least one day, according to the new report Safe for Swimming? by Environment Florida Research and Policy Center

 “Whenever it is safe for us to go to the beach, it should also be safe for us to swim in the water,” said Jenna Stevens, state director for Environment Florida Research and Policy Center.  “All too often that is not the case. We can and must do a better job of keeping waste out of our water.”

To assess beach safety, the group examined whether fecal indicator bacteria levels exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) most protective “Beach Action Value,” which is associated with an estimated illness rate of 32 out of every 1,000 swimmers. South Beach on Key West had bacteria levels above this safety threshold on 51 percent of days tested last year.

Other Florida beaches found potentially unsafe for swimming at least once in 2019 were:

  • Robert K. Strickland Beach

  • Crandon Park- South

  • Higgs Beach

  • Bayou Chico

However, many cities in Florida have utilized the Clean Water State Revolving Fund as well as state and local funding sources to invest in clean water infrastructure in order to begin preventing this kind of pollution. 

“As stewards of the Earth, it’s our duty to conserve and protect the beautiful beaches that line our coasts. It’s no secret that our economy depends on clean water, and families in Pinellas deserve nothing less than to be able to safely enjoy the beaches we have been blessed with. It’s why we must continue fighting to fund clean water infrastructure projects,” said Congressman Charlie Crist. “I could not be more proud of the clean beaches in Pinellas county. And once the public health risks of the COVID-19 pandemic subside, I look forward to sharing all our beaches have to offer with our neighbors and the rest of the world.”  

Several local beaches, like Pass-A-Grille and Fort DeSoto North Beach, had zero exceedances on days when testing occurred.  

“The award-winning Tampa Bay Beaches are a treasured destination for people from all over the world. Healthy waterways are essential to the tourism industry, Florida’s number one industry,” said Doug Izzo of the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce. “ Residents and visitors chose our location expecting clean waters and white sand. With dirty waterways, those expectations would quickly fade costing the state billions of dollars.”

St. Petersburg City Councilmember, Darden Rice, added, “Locally, this report shows that our commitment to clean water and healthy beaches is paying off and with the right policies in place, we can effectively cut pollution and protect our environment. But we should not take this local progress for granted because without the continued support of Congress and our State Legislature, counties and municipalities would not be able to appropriately invest in clean water infrastructure.”

Polluted runoff from roads and parking lots, overflowing or failing sewer systems, and farms are common sources of contamination that can put swimmers’ health at risk and lead authorities to close beaches or issue health advisories. Scientists estimate that 57 million instances of people getting sick each year from contact with polluted waters in the U.S.

“Regardless of your status, privilege, race, occupation, or location, we all need clean water to drink, grow our food, and swim in, particularly here in Florida. Our health and our family’s health depends on it. That’s why it’s so important for governments to track and address known sources of pollution,” said Dr. Ankush Bansal.

The report recommends major investments to prevent sewage overflows and runoff pollution.  In contrast to deep budget cuts proposed by the Trump administration, on Friday, the U.S. House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on the “minibus #1” spending package, which includes an additional $11 billion in emergency water infrastructure funding

“Let’s make our beaches safe for swimming by building the infrastructure that will keep the water clean,” said Stevens. “Whenever it is safe to go to the beach, let’s make sure it’s safe to go swimming in the water too.”