A study of 100 beaches in Costa Rica from 1996 to 2011 by the National Water Laboratory indicates that 91 percent of all beaches enjoy great water quality in terms of the presence of fecal coliform organisms. The study, which was published in La Nacion, involved 6,847 water samples collected in different bodies of water along both of our coasts, and it was checked against historical data from the last 17 years.
The presence of fecal coliform bacteria in the water of swimming beaches is a widely accepted standard indicator of water quality. Fecal coliform counts can be expected in just about any body of water where live organisms dwell. Fecal material can enter the water directly, or else from agricultural runoff and sewage water. Very high counts of fecal coliform can make a beach unfit for swimming and turn it into a public health risk.
The results revealed that 50 percent of the water samples from the beaches presented very low counts of the fecal coliform bacterium, between zero and 10 per 100 milliliters (ml) of water. The other 41 percent of the samples presented fecal coliform counts between 10 and 100 per 100 ml of water. By way of comparison, the Healthy Beaches Program for the State of Florida in the United States grants a rating of “good” to beach water that contains a fecal coliform count between zero to 199 per 100 ml.
Not all beaches in the study passed with flying colors. Four out of the 100 beaches exhibited a high fecal coliform count. In Puntarenas, Playa Tarcoles with 704 and Playa Azul with 455 are not fit for swimming at this time. In Limon, Portete and Los Banos presented very high fecal coliform counts. These two beaches in Limon are infamous for their low-quality waters caused by improper waste water management; something that health officials and water treatment experts are currently trying to improve.
Testing for the presence of fecal coliform in waters where recreational swimming takes place sometimes leads to surprise closures. Pristine-looking swimming spots in the states of Washington and Minnesota in the U.S., as well as in Halifax, Canada, have been closed due to high fecal matter counts.
Blue Flag Beaches
The sampling of water at our beaches is part of the Bandera Azul (Blue Flag) ecological program, the highest rating that can be granted to a beach in Costa Rica to determine its overall health. There are over 400 beaches in Costa Rica that can be considered to be of touristic value. Testing for fecal coliform bacteria has been conducted since the early 1960s.
In 1996, the Blue Flag program was established to engage the community into taking care of their own beaches. Water quality is one of the most important factors in determining what communities gain or lose the coveted blue flag status. In the next few days, the program coordinators will be announcing the Blue Flag beaches. Until then, you can read about our current Blue Flag beaches here.