By Mike Phillips
Somehow, on July 11, the Jasmine Street beach access and some other inland water bodies in Nassau County were put on what’s called the state’s “303(d) Impaired List.” This apparently was done without a phone call or official notice sent to the city or county.
Now, let’s start putting this essay into plain English. An “impaired” area means you should stay out of there, or something very bad might happen to you. In this case, “bad” means you could get very sick. So for more than five months, nobody was told that using the Jasmine Street access might make them sick. And people living in the area weren’t told that they also might be at risk.
According to a Florida Department of Environmental Protection spreadsheet, between 2008 and 2019, 331 water samples were taken at the Jasmine access. The tests were conducted and results verified by the Department of Health Bureau of Laboratories in Jacksonville. Their results say that, depending on the sample, there were between 3 and 252 units of enterococci per 100 ml of water at depths of 1½ ft below the surface during that time. Anything below 70 is considered acceptable for swimming. Beyond that, the Department of Health starts getting worried, and at 252, “worry” doesn’t begin to describe the Department of Health’s concerns. Therefore, this is not a new issue. Just a hidden issue that has surfaced.
According to Kevin O’Donnell, the program administrator for the state’s water quality program, Jasmine Street was most recently assessed as part of the 2020 – 2022 biennial assessment – although the assessment used data from 2008 through May 2020. Based on that data, the Jasmine access got added to the list of “impaired waters for bacteria” last July. Does that make you wonder why it took so long? And what the situation is right now? Read on.
But first, let’s ask where this enterococci comes from. The word means, roughly, in the gut. It is an indication of fecal material in water and, therefore, of the possible presence of disease-causing bacteria, viruses, and protozoa. These pathogens can sicken beach swimmers and others who use rivers and streams for recreation or eating shellfish or fish. Potential health effects can include diseases of the skin, eyes, ears, gut and respiratory tract. (E. coli also relates to the gut.)
The important thing for non-bureaucrats is, why wasn’t the beach access shut down if the water quality was impaired? Where do the state advisories go if they aren’t being sent to the city where the problem exists? O’Donnell said, “We intend to reach out to Nassau County Department of Health to discuss their monitoring efforts.” Sounds good, but that’s not the city where the problem exists. And when you know that there has been a five-month lag, it sounds like something else. Something like infuriating.
The bureaucratic maze is especially concerning because in order to receive notifications from the state environmental people, you must sign up for the notifications as a stakeholder. However, if you don’t know about the notifications, how would you know you need to sign up to get them? That seems to be the situation for the city.
That is all the background we have right now for this sad story. But before you throw your hands up, consider this: When the bureaucrats are failing us, we still have us: the people. And in this community, when the people are needed, they tend to stand up and volunteer.
So here’s a proposal: Let’s let these lollygagging bureaucrats plod along while we take action. What is needed?
#1 Immediate, up-to-the-minute testing at Jasmine Street.
#2 An immediate investigation into the ongoing source of biological polllution around the Jasmine Street area. Who knows? It could just be one bad septic system.
#3 A way to provide regular testing – and reporting to the whole community — of the status at Jasmine Street until that particular problem has been solved.
#4 Regular testing at every other beach access – and also every inland waterway where people swim, kayak, fish or just wade around looking for oysters.
#5 Adjustable signs, like the rip tide warning signs, that advise about the water’s biological safety.
#6 And – most important – a good, high-functioning citizen organization to make those things happen. Fortunately, we have good examples of such an organization on either side of us: the St. Marys Riverkeepers to the north and the St. Johns Riverkeepers to the south. They are part of a 15-member network of Waterkeepers in Florida. Let’s tap into them for expertise and training.
#7 We’ll need to raise some funds for testing equipment and supplies.
Can all that happen? We think so. But hit the comments button and tell us what you think. And stay tuned. The story isn’t over.