USF Research News

USF, Southern Methodist University Researchers Seek to Improve Costa Rica’s Coastal Water Quality

April 7, 2018

Transdisciplinary effort seeks to find new solutions to costly beach pollution

River with dye Scientists use dye at the mouth of the river along the coast of Costa Rica to show how the river water mixes with the coastal water (Photo: Carlos Fernández Arce)

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Researchers from the University of South Florida, Southern Methodist University and Biological Consulting Services, Inc., are collaborating on a new project to address unsafe and costly beach pollution in Costa Rica in an effort to find new answers to the common global danger.

The transdisciplinary, $1.5 million study funded by the National Science Foundation’s Coastal SEES Program is working to develop an innovative, alternative framework to current water quality management programs, using a beach town along Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast as a model.

Researchers named the effort MERA for its principal research areas in Spanish: (medio ambiente (environment), etnografía (ethnography), evaluación de riesgos (risk assessment), and calidad de agua (water quality). The team is working in collaboration with Costa Rican institutions, universities, and non-governmental and non-profit organizations.

The USF team is lead by College of Marine Science Professor Mya Breitbart, a marine microbiologist who specializes in virus detection and analysis, and Integrative Biology Department Chair Professor Valerie Harwood, an environmental microbiologist whose laboratory investigates public health-related water microbiology, including wastewater-related pathogens.

MERA logo

“In order to safely manage and use coastal waters for recreation, it is critical to measure pathogens and indicators associated with fecal pollution as well as gain an understanding of human behavior and perception. We are excited to have this unique opportunity to simultaneously examine multiple dimensions of coastal ecosystem sustainability”, said Mya Breitbart.

Currently, 90 percent of the world’s household wastewater enters the environment without being disinfected, leaving beaches polluted with wastewater than can impact the health of those who swim and play there. Beach pollution worldwide costs an estimated $12 billion in illness and lost tourism dollars, and can impact every beach near human populations – including those located in the Tampa Bay Region.

Javier Gallard USF PhD students Javier Gallard (left) and Adriana Gonzalez (right) collecting water quality data at the beach (Photo: Carlos Fernández Arce)

Despite scientific advancements, coastal water quality monitoring approaches rely on outdated practices that do not accurately identify the risk of disease for people who rely on that water for economic, recreational and ecosystem functions, the researchers said. The MERA investigation aims to identify an improved coastal water management strategy by using human health risk analyses - which integrate data on human behavior, human health and pathogen prevalence in coastal waters.

Understanding human behavior and perception, as well as wider social, political, and historical influences on coastal environments, is fundamental to safely managing and using polluted recreational spaces, the researchers said.

“This project is particularly innovative in its transdisciplinary approach, which allows for our team, including scholars from anthropology and biology, to ask novel questions about human-environment interactions and provide new theory and methods for looking at these issues,” said Maryann Cairns, an SMU Assistant Professor of anthropology.

“When we estimate risk we are purposefully incorporating culturally-relevant data gathered through ethnographic methods into our mathematical model - this is central to our approach to accurate risk assessments.”

Scientists SMU principal investigator Dr. Cairns meets with Dr. Rivera Navarro and Andrei Badilla Aguilar at the AyA National water laboratory (Photo: Erin Symonds)

USF postdoctoral investigator Erin Symonds, who is based in Costa Rica during the project, said the project will have a particular impact in tropical climates, where the world’s most popular and most polluted beaches can be found.

Over the next four years, USF and SMU faculty, staff and students will collaborate with scientists at BCS laboratories and Costa Rican entities to accurately and effectively reporting MERA’s findings to the public.

For more information on MERA, visit

USF scientists USF scientists--Dr. Harwood, Dr. Symonds, Javier Gallard, and Adriana Gonzalez, meet with collaborators at the Costa Rican Water laboratory--Dr. Darner Mora Alvorado, Dr. Pablo César Rivera Navarro ,and Andrei Badilla Aguilar (Photo: Erin Symonds)

River with dye (Photo: Carlos Fernández Arce)