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Boca High teams with nonprofits to widen water quality tests

If it’s Monday morning in Boca Raton, you may notice somebody standing in the surf or at a boat ramp collecting water in sterile polyethylene bags. They’re not gathering small fish but searching for something unseen — Enterococcus bacteria from sources such as fertilizers, faulty septic systems and polluted stormwater runoff.

These bacteria can indicate fecal pollution and other pathogens that in high concentrations may make people sick.

Volunteers from the nonprofit Boca Save our Beaches began collecting water samples in January from the ocean at Spanish River Park and South Inlet Park, and from the Silver Palm Park boat ramp and Spanish River Park’s kayak launch on the Intracoastal. Its partners are the Surfrider Foundation and Boca Raton Community High School.

“You go in about knee deep, fill the [bag] up, put it in a cooler … and drop them off to Boca Raton High by 11 o’clock in the morning,” said Jessica Gray, founder of Boca Save our Beaches.

The samples are incubated in a lab at the high school at nearly 106 degrees for 24 hours. Students in Rachel Wellman’s advanced environmental management class are helping in small ways until she can devise means to work within COVID-19 restrictions that will enable them to do more. For now, she is doing most of the work.

The testing protocol includes adding a reagent to the water samples, swirling the mixtures and examining them under ultraviolet light in a darkened room. A yellow color indicates a negative result, but if it glows fluorescent blue — “it’s kind of pretty,” Wellman says — this indicates the presence of bacteria. Another step follows to determine precisely how much.

The project gives students “real-life data that can be shared. It’s a good work experience,” said Wellman, an ecologist with a PhD in ecosystems science and management who teaches about water pollution.

Surfrider paid for lab equipment, including glass laboratory bottles and an autoclave to sanitize them after each use. REI Co-op, the outdoors clothing and gear retailer, supplied coolers and backpacks.

Surfrider has a national network it calls Blue Water Task Force of citizen scientists providing water quality information to more than 50 labs. The goal, the foundation says, is to fill in gaps and complement local and state water quality programs, while raising public awareness of pollution issues.

The foundation already had similar water monitoring programs from Jupiter Inlet to Boynton Inlet, so with the addition of the Boca Raton program, most of the county’s coast is covered. Jupiter High School and Forest Hill High School in West Palm Beach preceded Boca Raton High in setting up labs to assess water quality.

What makes Boca’s lab different is that “we decided to spend the initial money on doing a glassware lab versus doing a plastic lab,” said Aaron Barnes, who runs Surfrider’s Blue Water initiative in Palm Beach County.

“Our other labs have only plastic items, which unfortunately are only able to be used once. We’re not for plastic pollution, so … we decided to get the glassware and an autoclave unit which sanitizes the glassware after each time so we are able to reuse it, and therefore create less waste.”

Wellman also favored using glassware. She created a spreadsheet with the test results that Gray and Barnes can access. Barnes uses it to post data on Surfrider’s website. Initial test results at the Boca sites showed safe levels of bacteria. Surfrider also tracks weather conditions like temperature and wind speed to try to determine what conditions are most likely to contribute to high bacteria counts, Barnes said.

“Whenever we get high readings, we report them to the county officials and whatever city they happen to be in,” he said.

The Florida Department of Health already conducts coastal water quality testing through its Healthy Beaches Program, including at several Palm Beach County locations, but Barnes believes there is value in what Surfrider, Wellman and Boca Save our Beaches are doing.

“We sample more locations than they do,” Barnes said, and sometimes more frequently. “Bacteria levels can differ from place to place. I feel the more locations, the better.”

By Larry Keller


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