Waterkeeper receives message from associate that concerned citizen called regarding potential negative health issues related to swimming. Weather is hot, water warm. Your Waterkeeper knows warm water = good for little bugs, bugs not good for people. Waterkeeper calls citizen back and learns that victim is suffering from a staph infection and rash, possibly associated with swimming in the Pack River or at Sunnyside. Citizen asserts that their pharmacist states: “a significant uptick in swimmer’s itch, selling lots of antibiotics and creams.” Waterkeeper hears of issues at the Mudhole. Waterkeeper thinks: “rut roh”. Waterkeeper calls pharmacy, leaves message. Waterkeeper calls other pharmacy, leaves message. Waterkeeper calls Panhandle Health, leaves message. Waterkeeper calls Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), leaves message. Ongoing with messages. Waterkeeper knows water temperature at City Beach was 81 – 85 degrees all week, (thank you lifeguards!), water pretty warm, bugs like warm, bugs like people. Lake wide monitoring results come in, water very warm all over! Waterkeeper wonders who identifies what bug is in water? Waterkeeper calls Panhandle Health again, leaves message, again! DEQ calls back, yes! Local people in charge on vacation, no! DEQ not sure about what to do, will check in with Boise. Waterkeeper gets call from 3 pharmacies, no uptick in swimmer’s itch indicated! Waterkeeper gets call from another pharmacy, definite uptick in number of cases, still selling lots antibiotics and creams, what?? Waterkeeper wonders, confused. Someone must be able to test the water to see if it is safe for swimming. Waterkeeper tests lots of things but not for that bug. E Coli yes, bug no. Sh_t! Pun intended. Waterkeeper wonders what to do. Waterkeeper emails Panhandle Health. Panhandle Health calls back, yes! No protocol for testing water or keeping people out of it if it is not safe, NO! Is referred to supervisor, says call DEQ. Waterkeeper leaves message for supervisor. DEQ local people on vacation call Waterkeeper back, yes! Can’t test for bug, NO! Panhandle can’t issue no swim alert without test. DEQ can’t test, Panhandle can’t test, Waterkeeper can’t test, patients must go to doctor to grow culture, what? RUT ROH!
On the surface I hope you found this somewhat amusing. Unfortunately this was my last week and even more unfortunate were the results of my phone calls and emails. While DEQ and Panhandle Health employ a plethora of good caring people who are genuinely concerned, there seem to be no protocols in place to discern if there is a serious problem everyone should be aware of without the actual presence of an algae bloom. I’m sure if a significant quantity of people were getting seriously ill or dying from swimming some agency would step forward to help protect us, the real question is how long would it take and how many would suffer in the meantime.
LPOW has monitored the water quality of Lake Pend Oreille for the past 10 years and all our data indicates that we live around a relatively clean waterbody. There are a lot of indicators we can use to determine if a water body is safe to swim in or pull drinking water from. However, there are still things that no one is testing for which can be harmful to swimmers. Right now, LPOW is the only entity regularly testing for potentially problematic contaminants in our waterways. From our July testing, high levels of total coliform bacteria were detected around nearly the entire lake and were especially high at recreational areas, such as City Beach and Bottle Bay, and the sloughs. Total coliform bacteria is used as an indicator test since high numbers may signal high levels of other pathogens in the water. E. Coli, which can shut down public beaches, wasn’t at critical levels – but was still present. Yes, we have our problems, but at this point all I can say is let common sense be your guiding light. If the water is excessively green and the visibility is non-existent, probably best not to swim in it. Head for deeper water! And always shower after a swim in any questionable waterway.
If anyone out there knows something I don’t know about all this, feel free to inform me – your knowledge and advice are welcome!