Nikki Buskey / Houma Courier
GRAND ISLE, La. - Beachgoers are advised to swim at their own risk this week due to high levels of bacteria in waters along the public beach and in the state park.
The advisory is not a closure of Grand Isle's beaches, said Ken Pastorick, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Hospitals.
It's left up to local governments or the state park system, in the case of Grand Isle State Park, to close a beach if it feels the advisory merits it, Pastorick said.
The advisory was issued based on water tests conducted last week for two beaches at Grand Isle State Park and one beach on Grand Isle outside the park. Fourchon's beaches are still closed to the public because of the last year's Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
The state Department of Health and Hospitals posts signs at a beach that tests positive for bacteria informing swimmers of the warning and advising them to swim at their risk, said Gordon LeBlanc, administrator of the state's beach monitoring program. The advisories are also posted on the Department of Health and Hospital's website, dhh.la.gov.
The water sampling to monitor bacteria levels at beaches across the state is conducted weekly by the Department of Health and Hospitals from May through October.
The state tests for two bacteria types, enterococci and fecal coliform, which come from human and animal waste. Their presence doesn't definitely mean you will get sick, but the bacteria indicate that the possibility of disease-causing organisms in the water that can cause sore throat, vomiting, diarrhea, cramping or fever.
The Department of Health and Hospitals program does not look into where the contamination might come from. It can be difficult to track because the tests are sensitive and can come up positive for a number of reasons, LeBlanc said. A group of birds defecating near the test site, for example, can cause a positive test, LeBlanc said. Water from the Mississippi River also tends to carry a high load of bacteria from all the states it drains upstream.
Environmental scientists have said much of the bacteria may come from the septic systems of businesses, camps and homes on the island may be to blame on the island.
The state has closed fishing grounds because of bacteria, Pastorick said. Oyster grounds in Calcasieu Lake were closed until early last year because of high numbers of fecal coliform bacteria found during testing, and grounds at the mouth of the Mississippi River remain closed indefinitely, he said.
If a bacteria advisory is posted at a beach, you should avoid swallowing water or dunking your head underwater. The elderly, parents of babies, small children and people with chronic illness should take special precautions, LeBlanc said.
The advisory will remain in effect until samples show water bacteria levels are in a safe range.
According to “Testing the Waters,” a beach water quality report put out annually by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Louisiana ranked 30th in the nation for clean beach water last year. Thirty-seven percent of water quality samples taken at Louisiana beaches exceeded national standards in 2010, though the test didn't check for oil.
Samples taken at seven locations on Grand Isle exceeded bacterial standards between 3 and 14 percent of the time, with the most-frequent violations coming from the middle of Grand Isle's public beach.
Neighboring Fourchon Beach exceeded bacteria standards 13 percent of the time at the easternmost part of the beach, 9 percent of the time in the middle of the beach and all samples at the eastern part of the beach were clean.
Both beaches were closed last year because of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Grand Isle Fire Chief Aubrey Chaisson said he's never heard of anyone getting sick after swimming in Grand Isle waters. The volunteer fire department acts as the island's first responders.
He said the warnings shouldn't keep swimmers away from the beach, but they should exercise caution.
“Just use your common sense,” he said. “People with open cuts should maybe be cautious. If you've just gone to the doctor and had stitches you might not want to go swimming.”
The warning doesn't stop locals from using the beach.
“My guys, we do water rescue and swimming, and we don't worry about it. They go fishing, and they aren't stopping,” he said.
Mayor David Camardelle did not return a call for comment.