Worried about the water? Get a beach report before jumping in

You’re driving the kids to the beach on a beautiful spring day and the thought creeps into your mind – is the water clean?

Don’t wonder. Look it up. The Florida Department of Health puts the latest readings on beach water bacteria levels as close as your smart phone.

The data shows that in South Florida, the water is almost always safe. Even so, FDOH officials say swimmers should take a few precautions at the beach to avoid contamination that can cause illness.

“Overall, our beach water is very clean,” said Craig English, an environmental specialist who runs the Healthy Beaches program at the FDOH in Broward County. “We take samples every two weeks, and in the vast majority of cases, there is no problem at all.”

FDOH inspectors test beach water at 42 locations in South Florida. Problems are rare. In 2013, the DOH-Broward issued only one advisory about high bacteria levels in beach water – in an area just south of the Pompano Beach fishing pier for a few days in December. In Miami-Dade County, the FDOH found high levels at Sunny Isles beach for a week in February and Dog Beach in Miami’s Virginia Key for a few days in March 2013.

The FDOH in Palm Beach County issued advisories for a few days at Dubois Park in Jupiter in January and February, and last year in April and May, as well as twice last year at Phil Foster Park in Riviera Beach and once each at Ocean Inlet Park and Riviera Municipal Beach.

The FDOH posts the latest reports of ocean bacteria levels every two weeks at www.floridahealth.gov/healthy-environments/beach-water-quality/index.html, so you can check out your favorite beach before leaving home. On the site, you can view all the water-quality readings dating back to the year 2000.

The FDOH tests ocean water for enterococci, which are illness-causing bacteria that live in feces. If levels exceed safe standards in the first sample and in a re-test the next day, health officials post an advisory at the beach urging people to avoid swimming there until bacteria drops to safe levels. However, it’s up to local governments to decide whether to close a beach.

High bacteria levels in the ocean most often stem from storm water runoff, untreated or undertreated sewage, pets and wildlife. Bacteria can enter the body through breaks in a swimmer’s skin or if ingested in contaminated water, causing diarrhea, vomiting and even fever.

Be aware that ocean water can contain other harmful bacteria and contaminants that the FDOH does not measure. Health officials urge beachgoers to take a few simple precautions: Use a beach shower before and after swimming, supervise children so they don’t drink ocean water, and avoid swimming if you have a cut or cover it with a watertight bandage. If you have a weakened immune system, ask your doctor if you need to take special precautions.

More information: DOH-Broward Healthy Beaches program at www.browardchd.org/environmental/HealthyBeaches.aspx or 954-467-4700, or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency at http://water.epa.gov/type/oceb/beaches/health.cfm