Tybee Beach Water Quality Study Underway

January 22, 2010 by  
Filed under Ecology and Environment, Features

The Editor

One of the characteristics of Tybee Island that makes it such a beach-lovers paradise is its consistently good beach water quality. Locals know and appreciate this, and the island’s businesses recognize the economic importance of operating on an island where they are rarely affected negatively by poor, unhealthy beach water. Tybee’s good beach water is even recognized far beyond coastal Georgia as evidenced by last year’s designation of Tybee being the 2009 Number One “Healthiest Beach in the US” by Health Magazine (July-August, 2009 issue) which was based in part on Tybee’s low incidences of swimming advisories. In fact, it is so infrequent when weekly water quality tests indicate the need for swimming advisories to be posted, that it becomes big news when this does happen. The City of Tybee Island, however, has long recognized the economic importance of clean beach water and has been pro-active and progressive in protecting its beach and beach water, and it is presently involved in a new study to investigate some of the possible causes of the infrequent unusually high bacteria levels in its beach water.

The City of Tybee Island has just begun a new research project, “Runoff, Shore Birds and Beach Water Quality,” to study possible sources of bacteria that are regularly monitored by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources along Tybee’s beaches. The project is funded in part from a $18,544 grant awarded to the City by the Coastal Management Program of the GA DNR and NOAA. Partners in the project that will provide an additional $18,544 worth of funds and services include: the City of Tybee Island, the local Surfrider Foundation Coastal Georgia Low Country Chapter, and Coastal Environmental Analysis. Marine scientist, Dr. Joe Richardson, of Coastal Environmental Analysis, will be coordinating the research activities of this one-year study that runs through September 2010. A final report of the study’s findings will be submitted to the Coastal Resources Division of the GA DNR in early October 2010. The study will focus on two of the commonly blamed possible sources of beach water bacteria (Enterococci) along Tybee: shore birds and storm water runoff. Volunteers from the Surfrider group will help with field work in the shore bird study.

This partnership with the Coastal Georgia Low Country Surfrider Foundation Chapter probably helped the City secure the grant from the GA DNR Coastal Incentive Grant Program. According to Dr. Richardson, “proposals that include volunteers in the activities of the proposed projects receive additional consideration when they are evaluated by the proposal reviewers.” Members of the Surfrider group, and anyone else interested in helping, will be trained and involved in gathering field data during the shore birds portion of the study that will compare beach water quality in areas of high shore bird density to control areas. Additional factors that will be considered are wave energy and tidal range. “Hopefully, we will be able to determine if occasional spikes in beach water bacteria levels can be caused by congregations of shore birds resting on the intertidal sand,” said Dr. Richardson.

Another source of bacteria that is often suggested as a cause of occasional beach water bacteria spikes is surface and storm water runoff. To study this possible cause, water sampling and analysis are being conducted in Tybee’s interior Horsepen Creek. This tidal creek receives much of the surface and storm water drainage from the eastern portion of the island, and then it drains into Tybee Creek or Back River at the south end of the island. From the inlet, water flows out and northward along the South Beach section of Tybee. Water samples are being collected from Horsepen Creek and near the inlet during spring tides, neap tides, and immediately following rain events. “As with the shore birds study, we are including additional possible factors that might affect the bacteria levels in the creek to determine their relative importance,” according to Dr. Richardson.

In a recent press release issued by the City regarding this project, Mayor Jason Buelterman noted, “Tybee Island continues to work with stakeholders and partner agencies to be on the forefront of beach water quality initiatives. As a result of Tybee’s vigilance and thanks to support and guidance from the DNR, we consistently receive high marks for our beaches. It is great to also see the surfing community step up to the plate to help ensure that the waters we all enjoy swimming and surfing in remain as clean as possible. Many thanks are due to Dr. Richardson for his ongoing efforts on behalf of our beach community.”

Ideally, this project will help answer the question of what causes occasional higher than normal bacteria concentrations in Tybee’s beach water. Sampling in the tidal creek and inlet began in October for this one-year project, and the Surfriders and other interested folks are already adding their names to the list of volunteers to help with the shore birds study that will begin this winter.

If you are interested in helping with this study, please contact Dr. Richardson at: joe@ceasurf.com. For more information regarding the local Surfrider Foundation chapter, visit: http://www.surfrider.org/coastalgeorgia.

Coastal Environmental Analysis, headquartered in the Savannah area, is an environmental consulting, monitoring and research firm that specializes in water quality issues and studies in Georgia, South Carolina and Florida. CEA conducts field and lab studies, assists in designing environmental studies, works with municipalities and agencies to propose and acquire funding for environmental studies, and conducts contract studies for clients that include individuals, businesses, municipalities, and organizations. Dr. Joe Richardson, Ph.D. in Marine Sciences, has over 30 years of experience conducting marine biological and water quality research along the southeastern US coast and the Bahamas. For additional information about CEA and some of its recent and current projects, visit its website: http://ceasurf.com.

(Excerps taken from City of Tybee’s December 2009 Press Release)

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