Research Helps Pinpoint Beach Pollution

Beach closings along the Mississippi Gulf Coast are often caused by high bacteria levels. But can local leaders do anything about that problem?

It turns out, the answer to that question is both "yes" and "no."

Harrison County's sand beach is a recreational getaway for tourists and locals. But high bacteria counts in the water can quickly spoil that fun.

"The analysis we've done shows that dogs and sea gulls are not a major problem. Rather, we've discovered some other things that cause these increases in indicator organisms," said R.D. Ellender.

Dr. Ellender is a professor of microbiology at USM.

His study found outdated, leaking sewer pipes are a major contributor to unhealthy bacteria finding its way into the waters of the Mississippi Sound. Storm water drain pipes are also a part of the problem.

"These things are not always flushed out. You end up with a lot of organic matter in the form of leaves and grass clippings. And bacteria live and reside in those places for fairly long lengths of time," he explained.

While government leaders can lessen the problem by investing in new sewer lines or cleaning out storm water culverts, there's one other significant, contributing factor they can't control.

Dawn Rebarchik is a research assistant at the Gulf Coast Research Lab. She helps test water samples from the Mississippi Sound.

"I think a lot of what happens has to do with the weather. Rainfall and wind seem to play a strong role in water quality of our beaches," she said.

Dr. Ellender agrees.

"Visualize high concentrations of organisms in sediment. Winds come along, stirs the sediment. Tidal movement moves the sediment. Very fine particulates into the water column. Water samples are taken, counts are recorded as high," he explained.

Scientists credit the ongoing beach monitoring program with helping insure the health and safety of those who enjoy the waters.

"I think the people of Mississippi should be very happy that the beaches are being monitored. While it may seem strict, that's often what's required to do the job right," said Rebarchik.