Published on 04/21/05

4-H 'orange tide' helping solve problem on beach

By Sydne Moody
and Dan Rahn
University of Georgia

One of the perks of living on an island is easy access to the beach. Naturally, people at St. Simons Island, Ga., weren't happy when health officials posted beach advisories banning swimming.

Then 15 high school 4-H members decided to do something about it. And their efforts are not only helping officials understand the problem but are attracting international attention.

The problem started when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency changed the bacterial indicator for marine waters, said Elizabeth Cheney, beach water quality manager for the Coastal Resources Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

New test

Cheney said the EPA began requiring tests for enterococcal bacteria instead of coliform bacteria. When the CRD changed its weekly tests of the beach water to meet the new standard, their readings were sometimes high.

Enterococcal bacteria are associated with human and other animal feces. They can cause gastrointestinal and other infections. No one knows why the levels are high, Cheney said. They weren't even sure where the water on the beaches came from.

That's where the 4-H group came in. 4-H is the University of Georgia Extension Service's youth development organization. When Cheney called for volunteers to help run some tests, the group's 4-H advisor, Robi Gray, called her back.

Eager volunteers

"They had me come out and talk to them," Cheney said. "And they just ran with it."

The club members, who call themselves the Sea Monkeys, set up an experiment to trace the marsh water flow with oranges. They wanted to know where exactly the marsh water behind the island drifted.

Citrus fruit's tough peel withstands the beatings of rocks and seagull beaks. The teenagers gathered 280 oranges and other citrus fruits, many of them rejects donated by grocery stores. They painted the non-orange fruit with special wildlife-safe paint to make the fruit easier to spot in the water.

The launch

On the ebbing high tide at 1:30 a.m. on Dec. 18, the group launched the "Orange Tide" fruit in two places, Black Banks River and Postell Creek. They marked the Black Banks River fruit with a black band.

"Having to get up early and walk the cold beach was my least favorite part," said 17-year-old Will Prince.

Within a few hours, though, they spotted oranges between Landsend and East Beach. They found more Dec.22 in front of the King and Prince resort and the boardwalk on East Beach. They were still finding them Dec. 26 as far away as Sea Island.

"Walking on the beach searching for the oranges and knowing I was helping my community was my favorite part," said Charles Thompson, 15.

Phase 2

Now, the students will expand their test during the May 25 spring tide, the highest area tide in the lunar cycle. But this time, the UGA Marine Extension Service will test the marsh water for enterococcal bacteria at the drop sites.

Using Global Positioning System software donated by ESRI, the students will also put the data on orange locations into graphs and maps. They plan to use 600 fruits, too, and add another launch site in a larger marsh area farther into Postell Creek.

A source tracking study proposed by UGA scientist Peter Hartel could add another key to solving the problem by tracing the origin of the bacteria.

High hopes

The students' project is one of nine accepted in the Earthbound3 Challenge, an international competition open to any student group. The club will compete with two groups from Kenya and others from Australia, New York, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Pennsylvania and Texas.

The group is optimistic. "Using GPS is the key to the Sea Monkeys' experiment's winning," said Angelina Tebarts, 15.

The 4-H'ers are collecting fruit for their May experiment. If you'd like to volunteer or donate fruit, contact Gray at (912) 634-1682.

(Sydne Moody is a student writer and Dan Rahn a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

Dan Rahn is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Sydne Moody is a student writer with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.