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Political science

July 22, 2016
Cape Coral Daily Breeze

Four days after closing the riverfront at the Yacht Club to swimmers, City Manager John Szerlag reopened Cape Coral's lone bathing beach Thursday.

A subsequent testing of the waters by the state Department of Environmental Protection showed no detectable levels of the algae-caused toxin microcystin, the reason the beach was closed without official notice Sunday morning.

The re-opening of the beach is good news for those who use the amenity at one of the Cape's most popular parks.

We'll not Monday morning quarterback Mr. Szerlag's decision to, in "an abundance of caution," close the beach in the wake of some discussion with Mayor Marni Sawicki Retzer and Rep. Dane Eagle, who provided a DEP test showing a low level of microcystin and who, along with the mayor, raised the issue of the city possibly "posting a notice to swimmers."

Rep. Eagle had requested the testing after his office received calls from residents who reported algae sightings. The test administered by the FDEP on July 7 detected 1 microgram per liter of microcystin, a toxin typically produced by blue-green algae.

There are, though, some procedural issues to note going forward for Councilmember Richard Leon is absolutely correct in saying the decision "set an unprecedented policy" that could very well come back to bite the city going forward.

Microcystin is not the only contaminant tested for in public waters nor, in terms of local waters, is it the most common potential health threat.

By setting the safety bar literally as low as it could go - 1 microgram, a level far below the World Heath Organization's benchmark of 10 or lower to be considered a "low-level risk" except for the standard risk groups of children, the elderly and those who are immunocompromised - the city now must decide how to address future test results, including those for the far more common issue, bacteria.

For example, the Florida Health Department, Lee County determined the water at the Yacht Club to be of "moderate" quality- as opposed to very good, good, fair or poor - on July 18, the same day the FDEP did its re-test for microcystin.

The "moderate" designation was due to levels of enterococcus sp., an indication of fecal coliform contamination, typically caused by feces, including animal waste runoff and septic leachate.

The levels for a moderate designation is a measure of 35.5 to 70.4 per 100 ml of water. "Good" water quality would be any level up to 35.4.

According to WHO, levels under 40 carry a minimal risk of gastroenteritis - about 1 percent -while levels from 41 up to 200 carry a risk of 1-5 percent with the standard high risk group being the most prone to serious symptoms.

If a "1" - defined as any measurable "contaminant" with the potential for health risk - is the standard, and it is also applied to certain bacterial levels, the Yacht Club beach is pretty much going to stay closed to swimming.

Which brings us to the second point regarding precedent. While the city manager has - and should have- the authority to address an immediate health emergency, any decision to set standards more stringent than those defined by a state agency or accepted science must be city council's.

To that end, we recommend that the elected board pull the emotion from what has become a highly politicized issue -?water quality problems caused by discharges of nutrient-laden water from Lake Okeechobee down the Caloosahatchee into the Gulf - and endorse a standard for its recreational waters that is science based.

Our recommendation:

Stay consistent with the risk-factor findings shared by the World Health Organization pertaining to microcystin (unlike many states, Florida has no specific health risk standards) along with the recreational water standards of the Florida Department of Health.

If, "in an abundance of caution," the city wishes to implement more stringent standards, well and fine. That can be easily accomplished by posting swimming "advisories" at the Yacht Club beach denoting risk.

This is fairly common around the state for everything from detected rip tides and rough surf to sea lice and sting rays.

In fact, the Health Department's Lee County office already does this with a "flip sign" at all beaches, including the Yacht Club where this week's "moderate" designation warranted no advisory.

By either the state or the city.

And that is the third precedent cited by Councilmember Leon:?Consistency, specifically how the city can now be consistent following this weekend's decision to close the beach to protect "the health, safety and welfare of all citizens" when it has not done so before for similar issues.

That comes back to what standards - and whose.

Council, as a whole, now needs to decide.

Or the bulk of our elected board members can simply sit back and wait for the next "emergency beach closure" notification to come via email or Facebook as happened this go around.

Science. Or political science and the risks that brings.

The choice is theirs. We urge them to choose wisely.

- Breeze editorial



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