Why a record amount of county beaches closed this week

Half of Palm Beach County’s beaches that are tested for bacteria were closed to swimmers this week after high levels of fecal contamination were found.

It’s the most closures at a single time since the testing program began 17 years ago, with one result coming in 10 times higher than what’s necessary to post a no-swimming advisory.

Tim O’Connor, spokesman for the Florida Department of Health in Palm Beach County, said Tropical Storm Philippe is the likely culprit behind the seven beach closures from Jupiter to Boca Raton.

The beaches were reopen late Thursday after updated test results came in clear of bacteria. 

RELATED: Overnight storm brought flooding, high winds to Palm Beach County.

Philippe, which slogged through South Florida on Saturday, dumped as much as 10 inches of rain in some areas of Palm Beach County, sending massive amounts of storm water runoff into the Intracoastal waterway and ocean.

The water samples that tested for high bacteria were taken Monday with results released Wednesday.

No swimming flags flew Thursday at Ocean Inlet Park in Ocean Ridge as leather-colored water oozed from the Boynton Inlet near low tide.

“Any of the parks near inlets are more likely to test positive,” said Palm Beach County Ocean Rescue lifeguard Andrea Vanderplaats, who was on duty at Ocean Inlet Park. “You can just look at the water and see it’s brown inlet water.”

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The health department tests for enterococci bacteria, which indicates the presence of fecal material in the water.

Of 13 beaches tested, the seven closed to swimming included Dubois Park, Jupiter Beach Park and Carlin Park in Jupiter, Phil Foster in West Palm Beach, Ocean Inlet Park in Boynton Beach, Boynton Beach, Sandoway-Delray Beach and South Inlet Park in Boca Raton.

By Thursday afternoon, the no-swim advisory was lifted at all seven beaches.

At Ocean Inlet Park, the amount of bacteria found was 730 bacteria colonies per 100 milliliters of water. That’s 10 times greater than what would be the lowest threshold to be considered in the “poor” category for health and safety standards.

The health department has three levels of ranking; “good,” which is up to 35 colonies of bacteria per 100 milliliters of water, “moderate,” which is 36 to 70 colonies, and “poor,” which is 71 or greater.

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O’Connor said the poor threshold was previously set at the higher level of 100 and changed in 2016 to 71.

“I would like to say it was a result of the levels of colonies being dropped to 71 from 100 to prompt an advisory,” O’Connor said about the high number of closures. “But the lowest was 120 at Phil Foster, and the highest was 730 at Ocean Inlet Park, all of which exceeded even the old standard.”

Jupiter Beach Park tested at 590, Carlin Park at 450 and Boynton Beach at 410.

Generally, the highest levels of bacteria measured are in the 120 to 200 range. O’Connor said the 730 reading at Ocean Inlet Park was the highest he’s seen outside of a known cause, such as a leaking sewer pipe.

O’Connor said the high bacteria test results were not a result of a rain-caused sewage spill in West Palm Beach, which was contained in a pond built for spillover.

“We’re waiting to see what the next samples tell us,” he said. “It should drop pretty dramatically.”

The no-swimming order at Ocean Inlet Park was a disappointment to beach-goer Raymonde Bourcier, who recently arrived for her six-month sojourn to Boynton Beach from Canada.

“I was very surprised it was closed,” she said. “Normally, the water is really nice and blue.”

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