How safe are Georgia's beaches?
Georgia has issued more than 200 coastal swimming advisories since 2007. Some beaches are so perpetually polluted, they carry permanent warnings.
A trip to Southeast Georgia isn’t complete without a day at the beach.
Whether it’s exclusive Sea Island, touristy St. Simons, or the popular Driftwood Beach at Jekyll Island, visitors flock to the waterfront just north of the First Coast.
But just how safe are the Golden Isles?
A First Coast News review of health warnings found more than 200 swimming advisories issued for beaches in Southeast Georgia since 2007. Some advisories last months, and some beaches are so perpetually polluted, they carry permanent advisories.
It adds up. Although the state has 122 miles of coastline, much of it is streams, swamps and estuaries – not beach. Of the 14 barrier islands suitable for beachgoers, only 3 are public and accessible by car. The portion of Southeast Georgia that is actually public, the swimmable beach is smaller than the St. Johns County coastline.
Which is why when the state warns people not to swim -- it gets noticed.
“It’s a health hazard,” Susan Inman, Coastkeeper for the Altamaha River watershed, told First Coast News. “It does concern me of how more frequent the beaches are closing.”
State officials are careful to note the beaches aren’t “closed.” They’re just unsafe for swimming. Or fishing. Or wading.
“We want the public to know they are at increased risk of illness if they swim or wad in these waters,” said Saroyi Morris, who runs the Georgia Health Department’s Coastal Health District. “So, if they are experiencing a sore throat, an ear infection or wound infection, they need to consult with a health care professional.”
The contaminant that prompts a water warning is enterococcus, a form of fecal bacteria found in the intestines of humans and other mammals. Exposure to the bacteria can cause stomach bugs, urinary tract infections, even meningitis. The risk is greater for children, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems.
Elizabeth Cheney manages the beach water testing program for the Department of Natural Resources. She says the reason Georgia sends out so many water advisories “is because we test so often.”
Georgia’s weekly tests are twice as frequent as Florida’s. But the warnings are also far more frequent. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection issued just eight water warnings in the last five years in Nassau, St. Johns and Duval counties.
Jen Hilburn, the Altamaha Riverkeeper, says coastal pollution just the dramatic conclusion of a story that starts near Atlanta and Athens, and flows down 700 miles of rivers. She blames the bacteria on failing septic systems and maxed out sewage treatment plants.
“The coast is the culmination of all of these waterways impact of all that wastewater combined comes to the coast. An increase of hurricanes, an increase in storm surges -- these are the type of things that trigger sewage spills.”
Inman agrees. “Our infrastructure, our sewage system is just old.”
Cheney disagrees that failing infrastructure is the case. “We don’t think that it’s human sewage,” she says. “Because the bacteria comes from dogs and birds, racoons, deer, other wildlife -- we suspect that might be source of bacteria.”
But Hilburn has seen enough sewage spills in the watershed to think otherwise. And she says it’s not a problem unique to Georgia. Failing infrastructure – and the money to fix it – are issues she says all states are going to have to address, and soon.
“This issue will not go away. It’s only going to get worse. Death by 1,000 cuts is still death.”