Another round of beaches closed Wednesday because of harmful bacteria levels. Unfortunately, the ’no-swimming’ warnings you get are usually too late.

Alicia Simons snorkeled with her granddaughter at Lake Worth Beach for two days last month before learning the water was foul with a fecal contamination.

Between Monday, when a water sample was taken, and the Wednesday beach closure, she suspects the duo swallowed at least a little of the bacteria-laced slurry.

“We feel fine, but I’m not putting my granddaughter at any more risk,” said Simons, who was visiting from St. Augustine and was considering a dip July 24 when someone pointed out the ominous “Do not enter the water” signs. “It looks beautiful today, but we’re going to the pool.”

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On Wednesday, another round of Palm Beach County beaches were closed because of harmful bacteria levels that were in some cases nearly three times higher than what is needed for an advisory.

The closures mark 14 times this year advisories were issued at county beaches. In all of 2018, 15 advisories were issued.

Lake Worth Beach has closed three times this year, the most in any year since at least 2013.

“I think it’s considerate that they protect us from what’s in the water,” said Martha Cottrell, an Atlantis resident and regular visitor to Lake Worth Beach. “On the other hand, I ask the simple question: What are we doing about it?”

Warmer waters due to climate change likely affect water quality

For two decades, Florida’s Healthy Beach’s program has warned when ocean waters tested positive for enterococcus – a resilient bacteria that thrives in warm saltwater and can cause stomach distress, skin infections, headaches and fever.

But technology limitations that slow testing – closing beaches too late, reopening them after unnecessary delay – and a lack of investigation for what causes a contamination has some cities and the Surfrider Foundation concerned about program shortcomings.

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And as climate change warms oceans, pushes water tables into septic tanks and increasingly triggers torrential rains that funnel pollution to the shore, anxiety about beach water quality has escalated.

“It’s one thing to say the water is testing in the poor range and don’t go in it, but we need to find out why it’s happening,” said Aaron Barnes, coordinator for Surfrider’s Blue Water Task Force in southern Palm Beach County. “They don’t follow up as well as we would like.”

The absence of information beyond the same reasons given every time there is a contamination motivated Surfrider to begin its own testing about three years ago in North Palm Beach County and extend it to southern beaches last year.

The plan is to compile a database of weather and environmental patterns that determine when and why beaches are contaminated.

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“Hopefully after a few years of noticing trends we can start presenting it to the county and state, finding hot spots and looking for causes,” Barnes said.

Florida’s Healthy Beach’s program is part of a federal project administered by the Environmental Protection Agency. The U.S. Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act, or BEACH Act, provides grants to states, territories and tribes to monitor the presence of pollution from E. coli and enterococci bacteria at more than 3,500 beaches along the nation’s coastline and Great Lakes.

A GateHouse Media analysis of EPA data for 2017 and 2018 found across the U.S., officials issued nearly 6,500 contamination advisories at about 1,200 coastal and Great Lake beaches during the past two years alone after routine monitoring revealed high concentrations of illness-inducing bacteria.

Racking up the most actions under the BEACH Act were Santa Monica State Beach, Inner Cabrillo Beach and Long Beach – all in Los Angeles County, Calif.

Among the 30 states covered by the BEACH Act, California, New York, Ohio, Wisconsin and Illinois had the highest total number of closures and contamination advisories.

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The Florida Department of Health oversees the Healthy Beaches program, but it’s up to the municipalities in Florida to close a beach if an advisory is issued. The number of Florida beach closures is not recorded in the EPA data. Also, while some states attempt to give a reason why an advisory might be issued, Florida gives the same general reasons: wildlife, high surf, heavy recreational usage, high tides or runoff following heavy rains.

DuBois Park had highest number of contaminated days in ’17 and ’18

Florida increased beach testing last month to once per week in southern counties following a 2011 cutback that reduced testing to twice per month, said Alexander Shaw, a spokesman for the DOH in Palm Beach County. In northern counties, the seasonal sampling months are March 1 to Oct. 31.

Statewide, 414 advisories were issued at about 130 Florida beaches in 2017 and 2018. Some beaches had advisories that covered more than 200 days, with the highest numbers at west coast and Panhandle beaches in Escambia, Okaloosa, Pasco and Hillsborough counties.

Of the 13 beaches tested in Palm Beach County, 42 advisories were issued in 2017 and 2018 with a total of 123 days where beaches were under an advisory action, according to the EPA data.

Dubois Park in Jupiter had the highest number of contaminated days at 24, followed by Boynton Beach’s Ocean Inlet Park (20 days), Riviera Municipal Beach (15) and Boynton Beach’s Oceanfront Park (14).

According to five years of Florida Department of Health data, 2017 was the worst for high numbers of advisories in Palm Beach County.

In early November 2017, half of Palm Beach County’s beaches that are tested for bacteria were closed to swimmers. While the health department doesn’t give express reasons for closures, it pointed to Tropical Storm Philippe as the likely culprit. It was later determined Philippe was not a tropical storm but it still dumped nearly 11 inches of rain in some areas.

Water management district officials said the six-month period ending Oct. 20, 2017 was the second wettest on record for the 16-county region that includes Palm Beach County. Records date to 1932.

Water circulation and heavy runoff likely causes

“I would cut the health department a break as far as giving a reason in that a lot of times they probably don’t know the cause of the contamination and it’s potentially an issue if you start pointing fingers and you really don’t know,” said James Sullivan, executive director of Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute.

Still, he said a lack of water circulation and heavy runoff are likely key reasons for enterococcus advisories. That could be why the Gulf Coast suffers more advisory days with runoff from rivers such as the Hillsborough into Tampa Bay, the Peace River into Charlotte Harbor and the Caloosahatchee River into San Carlos Bay.

“The biggest thing I would think is the flushing,” said Sullivan, noting that testing for enterococci is a laborious process that can take two days. “An E. coli detector is the holy grail of technology.”

Lantana’s beach was free of advisories for more than two years until test results returned a “poor” rating Aug. 7, forcing the town to shut down its only public beach. It was shut down again Wednesday following the second advisory this year.

“This kind of took me back when I saw the results because it’s kind of out of the ordinary,” said Lantana Police Department Commander Robert Haggerty after the Aug. 7 result. “All we get is a copy of the report that says you either scored good, moderate or poor.”

Cities rush to re-test so they can reopen beaches

The health department tests on Mondays, with results typically returned late Tuesday so that beaches that test poor close on Wednesday. It’s up to the city to retest if it wants results back sooner than a week. Lantana scrambled to get a new test.

“God forbid we didn’t get the results from the health department until Thursday because then our beach is shut down until the following Monday or Tuesday and we lose the weekend,” Haggerty said.

This year, Dubois Park and Lake Worth Beach have been closed three times, while Palm Beach and Lantana have been closed twice, leaving tourists from as far as Argentina looking for other places to swim.

“We were here Monday and Tuesday swimming in seaweed that was so terrible you had to part the water with your hands to wade through it,” said South Carolina resident Rhonda Stuteville, who was at Lake Worth Beach when it closed July 24. “So me and my kids have been exposed to whatever is in the water. Say a prayer that we don’t get messed up.”

Lucille Sherman/GateHouse Media contributed to this article.