West Tisbury closed beaches July 13, after bacteria levels spiked

— Photo by Susan Safford

West Tisbury health officials closed six public and private beaches Wednesday, July 13, after the results of water quality tests taken Monday, July 11, showed high levels of enterococci bacteria, above the state standard for safe swimming.

West Tisbury closed the following beaches to swimming: Lambert’s Cove Beach and Salt Works Seven Gates Beach on Vineyard Sound, Uncle Seth’s Pond off Lambert’s Cove Road, Long Point Beach, Long Cove Pond, and Tisbury Great Pond beach, part of The Trustees of Reservations Long Point property on the Island’s south shore.

In a press release faxed to The Times and received at 8:55 am, John Powers, West Tisbury health agent, said the closed beaches are being retested, and results will be posted on the West Tisbury town web site as soon as they are received (The Times will post updates as soon as information is available).

Last week, results from tests taken Tuesday, July 5 led the town to close Lambert’s Cove Beach, Uncle Seth’s Pond, Long Cove Pond, and Tisbury Great Pond beach to swimming on Thursday, July 7. The beaches reopened on Friday after test results showed bacteria at acceptable levels.

In a telephone conversation Wednesday morning, Mr. Powers said he is at a loss to explain the sudden spike in bacteria levels. Mr. Powers said he has been in contact with state health officials and the testing laboratory and has looked at all his sampling procedures.

“I wish I did have an answer,” Mr. Powers said. “I don’t. We are looking at anything that might be out of the ordinary.”

Mr. Powers noted that West Tisbury is not alone. Oak Bluffs Tuesday evening also announced beach closures. Mr. Powers said Cape beaches have also experienced high bacteria levels.

Chris Kennedy, The Trustees Martha’s Vineyard superintendent, said he is as baffled as Mr. Powers. Mr. Kennedy said the reading for Great Pond, 276 colony forming units per 100 milliliters (cfu/ml) on July 11, was not as high as for the ocean beach, that tested at 2,420 cfu/ml the same day.

“We are talking about the open Atlantic Ocean,” he said. “That does not make sense.”

Mr. Kennedy said TTOR staff follow the state’s procedures to the letter. Water samples are tested at the Wampanoag water testing laboratory in Aquinnah.

Mr. Kennedy said DPH officials have no ready answers. He said they are scheduled to visit the Island on July 26. In the meantime, TTOR has retested its beaches. Mr. Kennedy said the results are expected late Thursday.

According to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), enterococci bacteria are an indicator organism that may mean water is contaminated by fecal coliform bacteria.

High levels of enterococcus can cause skin irritation, vomiting, or diarrhea.

The Bureau of Environmental Health (BEH) posts beach water quality information on the Massachusetts Public Health Department website.

Water samples taken on July 5, showed enterococci counts of 1,553 colony forming units per 100 milliliters (cfu/ml) at the north end of Lambert’s Cove Beach and 548 cfu/100 ml at the south end, according to the department website. In marine waters, the accepted level of enterococci for a single sample is 104 colony forming units per 100 milliliters.

Samples taken on July 7, showed 40 cfu/100 ml. Samples taken on July 11, showed 1,553 cfu/100 ml.

A sample taken on July 5 at the Tisbury Great Pond Long Point sampling site showed a count of 2,420 cfu/100 ml. On July 7 the level had dropped to 2 cfu/100 ml and spiked to 276 on July 11.

Uncle Seth’s Pond had a count of 73. The accepted level for freshwater is 61.

Enterococci are a group of bacterial species within the streptococcus genus, some of which (e.g. streptococcus faecalis) are typically found in human and animal intestines and are therefore present in sewage. These tests are also referred to as indicator organisms.

Any sample with a count greater than 104 cfu/100 ml is called an “exceedance,” which requires that the beach be posted.

The BEH advises that swimming in polluted water can cause gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain; respiratory symptoms such as sore throat, cough, runny nose, and sneezing; eye and ear symptoms including irritation, earache, and itchiness; dermatological symptoms like skin rash and itching; and flu-like symptoms such as fever and chills.

Most of these symptoms are minor most of the time but can occasionally be more serious, especially in sensitive populations (e.g. immuno-compromised children and elderly).

Last summer, beach closings occurred in Oak Bluffs, Edgartown, and West Tisbury during some of the busiest weeks of the summer.

Beach closings have been a regular occurrence along the Massachusetts coast in recent summers.