Florida Department of Environmental Protection technicians Monday drew water and scraped algae at six spots along Hogans Creek in Springfield, a waterway that still contains harmful levels of fecal coliform bacteria.
They will subject the samples to a test called quantitative polymerase chain reaction analysis. It's a new technology that analyzes the DNA of the harmful bacteria to determine whether it came from human or animal waste.
"In years past, we could find the fecal bacteria in this water body, but we didn't know whether it came from birds, ducks or a leaky sewer pipe," DEP Secretary Herschel Vinyard said.
The department has worked since 2009 to lower bacteria levels in Hogans Creek and other tributaries of the lower St. Johns River to safe levels.
The agency, in partnership with JEA, tracked down and repaired a leaky sewer pipe near Hogans Creek, lowering fecal coliform there by 76 percent. But the safety goal is a 92 percent reduction, he said.
"We've identified all the normal problems, so now we're looking for where the fecal bacteria might be coming from that we haven't been able to address," he said.
Florida recently invested nearly $100,000 to retrofit DEP labs for the new type of testing and is one of only three states that now have that capability, said Drew Bartlett, DEP deputy secretary for water policy and ecosystem restoration.
Jim Robinson, director of the city's Public Works Department, said the smarter testing will help the city select corrective measures, such as stormwater improvements or septic tank phase-outs.
"It will pinpoint the solutions that have a greater probability of specifically addressing a problem," he said. "It can help us be more efficient in our spending and more targeted in our projects."
Efforts to clean up Hogans Creek and the park surrounding it got another boost last fall when the mayor's office announced Groundworks USA, a national environmental nonprofit, would start a local chapter in Jacksonville, targeting the Hogans Creek and Deer Creek areas for remediation.
In the early 20th century the area surrounding Hogans Creek was developed into a kind of Central Park for Jacksonville, but since that time, industrial pollution and defaced historic buildings have led to its decline.
The National Park Service is contributing $80,000 to help establish Groundworks USA in Jacksonville and Mayor Alvin Brown has also committed city funding of $50,000 a year for the next three years.
A new testing method that uses DNA analysis could help bring levels of harmful bacteria in Jacksonville's urban waters down to safe levels.