The topaz-blue waters off Palm Beach County have been noticeably more brown this fall — an opaque sea of tea that is less inviting and even dangerous as high bacteria levels have forced a handful of temporary no-swimming orders.
Officials from the South Florida Water Management District and county agree the icky looking stew is the result of storm water runoff from record rainfall and canal discharges necessary to keep communities from flooding.
But beachgoers are dismayed and tourism leaders are concerned, so much so that the Palm Beach County’s Tourist Development Council agreed last week to send a letter to Gov. Rick Scott and legislative leaders about the discolored water.
County Mayor Paulette Burdick, who is chairwoman of the council, said she wants it known that water concerns aren’t just a Treasure Coast issue. Lawmakers were focused during the 2017 session on finding a solution to alleviate the algae that clogs the St. Lucie Estuary and can show up on Martin County beaches when too much Lake Okeechobee water is released.
“Instead of letting water sit on the land and filter and percolate, we put it in our canals and send it out into the Lake Worth Lagoon,” Burdick said. “It’s not just important to have clean, affordable water, but this has an economic impact to tourism.”
On Tuesday, the Florida Health Department in Palm Beach County issued advisories for high bacteria levels at Ocean Inlet Park in Ocean Ridge and Dubois Park in Jupiter. That followed a record number of advisories earlier this month when seven beaches were closed to swimming from Jupiter to Boca Raton. It was the most beaches closed at a single time since the health department’s water testing program began 17 years ago.
While snowbirds are slowly making their way to South Florida for the winter, and Thanksgiving will draw a crowd, tourism picks up in December with high season being February and March.
Brian Gentry, environmental program supervisor for Palm Beach County Environmental Resource Management, hopes the water clears as South Florida enters deeper into the dry season.
“We had one of the wettest years on record and they have to get rid of that water,” Gentry said. “This too shall pass.”
According to the water management district, the six-month period ending Oct. 20 was the second wettest on record for the 16-county region that includes Palm Beach County. Records date to 1932.
Between June 2 and Nov. 1 — roughly the rainy season — 51.64 inches of rain fell from the Kissimmee basin above Lake Okeechobee to Key Largo. That’s 150 percent more than normal, or 17.25 inches more than average for that time period.
All that water has to go somewhere, and that’s usually draining into canals that send it to the Intracoastal and ocean.
“It’s definitely a result of all the flood control,” said Randy Smith, spokesman for the South Florida Water Management District, about the brown beach water. “This water comes in from the local drainage districts, the counties, anyone who has a connection with water management system is dumping their water into the big regional canals.”
Smith said the water discharged in Palm Beach County is not coming from Lake Okeechobee, which is sending overflow through the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers. Lake Okeechobee stood at 16.62 feet above sea level Thursday. That’s above the high-water mark of 15.5 feet the Army Corps of Engineers prefers.
The National Weather Service said South Florida’s dry season officially began Oct. 24.
But then Tropical Storm Philippe surprised Palm Beach County with a deluge that dumped as much as 10 inches of rain in isolated areas. A couple of stalled cold fronts and east winds kept the county wet over last weekend.
“This is a unique situation,” Smith said. “The sheer volume of rainfall has been immense.”
Also, September’s Hurricane Irma cut down vegetation, some of which ended up decomposing in canals. That decomposition adds to the brown color of the water.
“I’m seeing a polluted coastline from Jupiter to I don’t know how far south,” said Jack Corrick, a Singer Island resident. “Visitors are starting to come back and if people won’t go in the water, it would be a quick death for us.”
But brown doesn’t always equal polluted. The Florida Health Department in Palm Beach County tests 13 beaches for high bacteria levels and will close them to swimming if the tests come back high.