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Testing water for beach advisories

Updated: May. 20, 2021 at 12:57 PM EDT
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TYBEE ISLAND, Ga. (WTOC) - You may have heard about recent Tybee Island beach advisories, but the process of sampling, testing, and issuing these alerts begins much earlier.

We know the water is not sterile. It’s inevitable that some bacteria exists at your favorite beach spot.

But the Georgia DNR and other agencies work to ensure your summer oasis remains as safe as possible. They do this by taking water samples.

It’s area streams and rivers, but also streets and pools like this that can transport animal feces back into the ocean and that’s what Georgia DNR will be testing for.

“It’s Enterococcus bacteria. Enterococcus bacteria is not necessarily troublesome bacteria, but it is an indicator that other bacteria that are harmful are present in the water,” DNR Marine Technician William Hughes.

Bacteria can make its way into beach water a few different ways. Runoff after a rain could drain animal waste into the ocean. It could leak in from a faulty sewer system. Even beachgoers, themselves, can leave behind certain bacteria.

“It is from warm-blooded animals. It is from the intestines of warm-blooded animals, so it could be wildlife. It could be human. It would not be from fish or, you know, snails or crabs or anything else,” William said.

You may only hear about advisories every so often, but water tests are being done frequently.

Now the sample gathering process really isn’t that complicated. You may see William or another Georgia DNR Marine Technician wading out into the surf on a beach day – it’s a quick dunk and then it’s off to the lab in Brunswick.

The Department of Natural Resources used to outsource the test, but began testing the water themselves on their camps in Glynn County a few years ago.

Scientists in the lab run the ocean water through a filtration system. Any bacteria present will get stuck on a tightly woven piece of fabric placed in the system – which is then removed and set aside to allow bacteria to grow. Bacteria growth, if any, will be monitored and counted, then reported to the health department for joint evaluation. The decision to issue an alert will be made then.

“It’s just something we want people to be aware of. If you have a big open wound… If you have a suppressed immune system, perhaps very young or you’re very old, you might want to consider before you go swim at that beach,” chemical analyst Jennifer McDonald said.

These alerts serve as a word of caution and could signal more harmful bacteria in the water. If bacteria are ingested and you do get sick - stomach impacts like nausea, diarrhea and vomiting are the most common symptoms.

Remain aware, stay healthy and of course, have fun, this beach season.

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