Learn More: Healthy Beaches

What does this mean?

The Healthy Beaches program was created to more accurately determine whether beaches are safe for recreational uses such as swimming. Beginning with a 1998 pilot program, 11 Florida coastal counties began conducting beach water sampling every two weeks and reporting the results on the Florida Healthy Beaches Program website and in local news media. In August 2000, the beach water sampling program was expanded to include 34 Florida counties. But later, in 2011, a reduction in state funding reduced the number of monitoring sites. However, because of the importance of coastal water quality to local economies, many counties and municipalities chose to assume responsibility for performing their own beach water testing.

Samples are collected at least bi-weekly, and in some cases weekly, at multiple locations along Florida's coasts and analyzed for Enterococcus bacteria. Elevated levels of these bacteria may be due to sewage contamination, livestock, pets or wildlife. High concentrations of these bacteria may indicate the presence of pathogens (microorganisms that could cause disease, infections, or rashes). County Health departments issue health advisories or warnings when these conditions are confirmed. A health advisory indicates that contact with the water at this site may pose increased risk of infectious disease, particularly for susceptible individuals.

In 2000, Congress passed the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health (BEACH) Act, to "amend the Federal Water Pollution Control Act to improve the quality of coastal recreation waters." One effect of this legislation was that Enterococcus spp. took the place of fecal coliform as the updated federal standard for water quality at recreational coastal waters. According to some studies, the presence of Enterococcus has a higher correlation than fecal coliform or fecal Streptococci culture tests for the incidence of waterborne illness.

How are the data collected? (Methods)

Samples are collected in sterile 100-milliliter (ml) containers and transported to a certified laboratory. The samples must be kept cool during transit. During sample collection, environmental conditions are also observed and recorded, along with recent rainfall amounts.

Historically, sample analysis involved filtering water samples to isolate targeted bacteria types, incubating the result, and counting bacteria colonies. Newer methods use chemical analysis to detect metabolized enzymes produced by targeted bacteria to detect their presence and estimate their abundance. These methods are more economical, take less time, and are less subjective than the earlier methods.

Analysis results are reported as “Colony Forming Units (CFU)”, as “Most Probable Number (MPN)” of colonies, or as “Membrane Filter (MF)”, which is equivalent to CFU.


Results are posted on the Healthy Beaches website as Good, Moderate or Poor. For Enterococci organisms, a Good result is 0-35.4 colony forming units (CFUs) per 100 milliliters (ml) of water, a Moderate result is 35.5-70.4 CFUs per 100 ml of water, and a Poor result is 70.5 or greater CFUs per 100 ml of water.

Caveats and Limitations

Environmental contamination can be very localized or patchy, especially if the source of contamination is wildlife. Bacteria may persist in a water body for a period after its source is eliminated. Poor sample results may reflect the immediate area where sampling occurred, but not necessarily be representative of water quality in the entire water body. Conversely, while waters with indicators exceeding the levels in water quality standards may be considered a potential health risk, that does not mean that levels within acceptable ranges are entirely free of risk.