Who's Making Sure Idaho's Public Swimming Areas Are Clean?

Jul 19, 2017

Summer means barbecues, baseball and of course, bathing suits. When temperatures push a hundred degrees, there’s no better way to cool off than by jumping in a pool or pond. But this season, some of the ponds around Boise have dealt with outbreaks of E.coli. As part of our news experiment where we answer questions submitted by you, we went with a summer theme and explored this question from listener Alexi Balmuth: Who monitors harmful bacteria in public swimming areas and how is it done?

Kids are splashing in the shallows and adults are floating several feet from shore as Christine Hummer stands on the beach at Quinn’s Pond in Ester Simplot Park. She’s wearing salmon-colored shorts, a gray t-shirt and a faded baseball cap. The dress code is pretty relaxed in the summer when you work for Boise’s Public Works Department as a water quality sampler. 

With her hands protected in blue latex gloves, she follows Teddy Roosevelt’s old maxim as she samples the pond water: speak softly and carry a big stick.

Water sampler Christine Hummer uses a swing sampler to test the waters of Quinn's Pond for E.coli. The water is tested daily and results take around 24 hours to get.
Credit Matt Guilhem / Boise State Public Radio

She’s reaching out into the water with a long, yellow pole called a swing sampler. On the end is a sterilized bottle to collect the water.

“When we sample, we’re going for a clean sample,” she says. She’s reaching as far out into the water as possible “because, as you can see, there’s a lot of goose poop and stuff. We dip it about 12 to 18 inches in and then just take a sample across, pull it out, recap the bottle and send it off to the lab.”

She says test results take 24 hours to come back. And she’s not exaggerating when she says there’s a lot of goose poop on the beach. Where we’re standing, numerous little deposits from the fowl litter the sand in every sense of the word. But it’s not geese who are the main offenders.

Remember in the old Peanuts gang movie when Snoopy would see a sign and a deep baritone voice would admonish him: “No Dogs Allowed?” Well, those signs are around Quinn’s Pond and they’re present for a good reason.

The water quality coordinator for the city, Kate Harris, says the dog ban isn’t arbitrary but backed up by science.

These signs are posted near both Quinn's Pond and neighboring Esther Simplot Pond. DNA testing revealed dog poop to be the main source of contamination to the ponds.
Credit Matt Guilhem / Boise State Public Radio

“We’ve done some DNA testing, and in those early tests we did see that dogs were the dominant source; the fecal contamination that was there was from dogs,” Harris says.

In other words, dog poop. She says that wasn’t the only kind of waste found in Esther Simplot Park Pond; in that one samplers found a panoply of poop: dog, goose and human. Yes, human.

“And that’s common,” Harris quickly jumps in with. “Just so we know – in public swimming beaches, swim diapers leak. We weren’t shocked to find it there.”

Harris says Esther Simplot Pond was the only body of water to be closed specifically due to E.coli. Because of its close proximity to Esther Simplot Pond, Quinn’s was also shut down for nine days.

With water quality tests conducted every day, Harris says the city responds to any bacteria reading that comes back elevated.

“If we got one sample that was a little high, we would post an advisory that ‘we’re still testing, but we got this one sample that was high—that was above the levels that are safe for public swimming beaches,’” according to Harris. “Then, if we got another sample the next day that confirmed that high level, we would close the ponds.”

While dogs shoulder most of the blame for the contamination, Boise Parks & Rec Director Doug Holloway says there’s a contractor with one dog who’s welcomed at city swim areas.

“His dog has been specially trained to really condition the geese – to move them around, to make them feel uncomfortable,” Holloway says. “If you look around, there’s no geese in the park right now at all,” he says while scanning the shoreline.

It’s already warming up and more bathers are arriving this morning at a goose-free and clean Quinn’s Pond. Ponds like this are overseen by the city, but swimming beaches at places like Lucky Peak get checked by the state.

Three young boys swim near a beach at Quinn's Pond fouled with fowl droppings. Boise's water quality coordinator, Kate Harris, and the Department of Environmental Quality's Danie Merriman say goose poop is the enemy of good water quality and clean beaches.
Credit Matt Guilhem / Boise State Public Radio

Danie Merriman works for the Department of Environmental Quality’s Boise office; her agency and the city have a common enemy when it comes to water quality.

“It’s hard to control the geese, for sure,” Merriman says. “They also like to hang out on swimming beaches, so we often find that geese feces is a problem.”

A moment passes before she corrects herself.

“Goose poop,” she says with a laugh.

So, should you decide to go for a dip this summer in Quinn’s Pond or any other body of water that isn’t a chlorinated pool, here are a few tips. Try to keep your head above the water while swimming. When you’re done, wash your hands – or, better yet – take a full shower. And here’s the big one: don’t drink the water! After all, there’s no telling what fish, geese, and dogs do in it.

This story is part of a new listener-generated project at KBSX. Last month, we asked you – our readers – what you’re curious about in the region. We received a bunch of great questions, and you voted on your favorite (Alexi Balmuth’s question). We want to hear more of your ideas. Ask your question below!

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