The Healthy Beaches program was created to more accurately determine whether beaches are safe for recreational uses such as swimming. Beginning with a 1998 pilot program, 11 Florida coastal counties began conducting beach water sampling every two weeks and reporting the results on the Florida Healthy Beaches Program website and in local news media. In August 2000, the beach water sampling program was expanded to include 34 Florida counties. But later, in 2011, a reduction in state funding reduced the number of monitoring sites. However, because of the importance of coastal water quality to local economies, many counties and municipalities chose to assume responsibility for performing their own beach water testing.
Samples are collected at least bi-weekly, and in some cases weekly, at multiple locations along Florida's coasts and analyzed for Enterococcus bacteria. Elevated levels of these bacteria may be due to sewage contamination, livestock, pets or wildlife. High concentrations of these bacteria may indicate the presence of pathogens (microorganisms that could cause disease, infections, or rashes). County Health departments issue health advisories or warnings when these conditions are confirmed. A health advisory indicates that contact with the water at this site may pose increased risk of infectious disease, particularly for susceptible individuals.
In 2000, Congress passed the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health (BEACH) Act, to "amend the Federal Water Pollution Control Act to improve the quality of coastal recreation waters." One effect of this legislation was that Enterococcus spp. took the place of fecal coliform as the updated federal standard for water quality at recreational coastal waters. According to some studies, the presence of Enterococcus has a higher correlation than fecal coliform or fecal Streptococci culture tests for the incidence of waterborne illness.