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Florida panhandle tops list of cleanest beaches

By BILL KACZOR Associated Press

PENSACOLA

Fort Walton beach, Florida panhandleVacationers looking for a pristine beach should head for Walton County in the Panhandle. It has 16 of 49 sites certified by the Clean Beaches Council as the nation's cleanest, safest and environmentally healthiest.

Florida dominates the council's "Blue Wave" list with 40 beaches. Only seven other states have made the list. Walton has more certified beaches than any other Florida county; Pinellas is next with eight followed by Broward and Brevard at five each.

The number of certified Florida beaches is unchanged from 2002, although the national total is down by nearly half from 91. A recently released pollution survey by the federal Environmental Protection Agency also shows beach closures across Florida increased by 30 percent from 2000 to 2001.

"That shines the spotlight on these particular beaches even more," Clean Beaches spokeswoman Carrie Collins said Monday. "That means those beaches are even better."

The EPA survey results indicate coastal communities need to invest more in beach protection, including rainwater runoff control and sewage treatment, Clean Beaches President Walter McLeod said in a telephone interview from his Fredricksburg, Va., office.

Walton, which includes Seaside, Grayton Beach, Santa Rosa Beach and Seagrove Beach, is a community with such a commitment, McLeod said.

The Beaches of South Walton Tourist Development Council has adopted Clean Beaches standards and has used taxes collected from visitors to hire beach maintenance workers and a marine biologist. The latter is unique for a local tourism agency, McLeod said.

"That's their prize asset," he said. "You can't build any more of that coastline."

Walton is on the Gulf of Mexico about 50 miles east of Pensacola. It is known for powdery sugar-white sand, towering dunes and emerald-green water.

"We live in a community that cares very strongly for its beaches," said Beaches of South Walton spokeswoman Jane Higdon.

More than 1,000 people last year volunteered to pick up litter from the county's 26 miles of beaches, Higdon said. Walton also is doing a management study to scientifically and economically evaluate beach needs and erosion losses, using a satellite tracking system to help measure ecosystem changes.

Other advantages are that Walton, although undergoing a growth boom, is comparatively underdeveloped and the state owns 40 percent of its coastline. Three of Walton's Blue Wave sites are Grayton Beach and Deer Lake state parks and Topsail Hill State Preserve.

Clean Beaches is a nonprofit organization funded about equally from federal, corporate and foundation grants. It strengthen its criteria this year, and that's one reason why the Blue Wave list is shorter, Collins said.

Notably missing are beaches in Hawaii and California, which had three and six sites on the 2002 list. The only state outside Florida with more than one beach is Delaware with three.

Certification is voluntary so beaches unlikely to qualify usually do not apply and several applications came in too late to do onsite inspections for this year's list, McLeod said.

Pensacola Beach made it although it is one of the most dangerous places in the nation for drowning. It is part of Santa Rosa Island where 21 people have drowned in just over two years. Only those sections with lifeguards are certified, McLeod said. None of the drownings have been on guarded beaches.