Since we all evolved from fish, we can assume we're safe in the water, right? Hardly. Although it's incredibly rare locally to become ill from disease spread at a public swimming pool or water feature, it can happen, says Tara Olson, interim environmental health program manager at El Paso County Public Health.
The safety of pools appears to be more reliant on good pool managers than a rigorous inspection program. Olson says the department inspects all year-round indoor public pools and water features twice a year and once for those that are outdoors and seasonal. But, she adds, her eyes aren't the only ones watching the county's public water-recreation facilities.
"Although we're in there for those times a year, they themselves are constantly checking the chemical quality, the filtration system, doing walks around the pool, checking for turbidity [cloudiness]. All pools are doing this," she says. Private pools and water features aren't tested, but kits are available for homeowners to use, Olson adds.
A 2010 national study found one in eight public pool inspections led to an immediate closure due to code violations, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tests of the 272 public pools and hot tubs throughout El Paso County are conducted on the spot, she says, for chlorination and alkalinity. If a pool tests outside the recommended margins, use of the pool is suspended until it is brought into compliance. That can be within minutes, she says, or as long as it takes for pool operators to add chemicals to the water to handle whatever problem is detected.
Olson says in her 10 years with the department, she's not aware of any local pool being closed for a prolonged period or one that's caused chronic sickness. "We work closely with pool operators," she says. "Typically what happens is, we go in and we do our inspection, and if they require closure, we close them until they can fix the problem. Whether that's a few minutes, it's up to them. Typically it's very quick."
She also notes that every pool inspected is required to have a certified pool operator who's completed a two-day course offered by the county's Public Health Department. "They have to keep chemical logs," she says, "and it has to be done three times a day for pools, and for spas, every two hours. We look at that, and we ask them questions. There's nothing we couldn't dig into if we needed to."
Citizens can check the history of various pools on the county's website, where inspections are available at elpasocountyhealth.org/services/inspection-reports.
Some pool operators go above and beyond, among them the YMCA of the Pikes Peak Region. "We ensure chemical levels by having two-hour pool checks of sanitizing chemical and pH," says Carrie Bair-Norwood, the Y's vice president of marketing and development, via email. "This is six more chemical checks than the three per day required by code."
The Y also has adopted emergency response plans to deal with any unexpected issues involving recreational water illnesses (RWI), which usually bring on diarrhea. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the most common are caused by germs such as Cryptosporidium, Giardia, Shigella, norovirus and E. coli. But RWIs also can include gastrointestinal, skin, ear, respiratory, eye and wound infections. (Learn more at cdc.gov/healthywater/swimming/rwi/.)
The YMCA operates several city-owned pools and water features, including Monument Valley Pool, Portal Pool, Wilson Ranch Pool and Prospect Lake Beach in Memorial Park, for which Bair-Norwood says the Y follows state Department of Public Health and Environment's guidelines for natural swimming areas and water testing. The beach is tested 17 times during summer, collecting bacteriological water quality samples at least once every seven days and no fewer than five times per month, and collecting water-quality samples at least 24 hours prior to the beginning of a peak-use period and within 24 hours after the end of the same peak use period; for example, before and after Memorial Day weekend.
The Y charges to use the city pools, and the one-day rate for a family to use Monument Valley, Portal or Wilson Ranch pools is $32. Family passes for the season cost $450 for non-members. If you join the YMCA, you'll pay only $175.
"The Y is committed to keeping all pools open to everyone," Norwood explains, "regardless if they are a Y member. Fees were initially determined based on previous vendor pricing and the non-member pool pass rates for a family have remained unchanged since 2013, though we did have a slight increase in the daily rate this year. ... The rates help cover overhead such as utilities, staffing and maintenance of the pools, not just during the summer, but year-round. In calculating the cost of a single day family pass (2 adults and 4 children), the seasonal pass would pay for itself after 15 visits."
She also notes the Y doesn't make money from running the city's pools: If revenue exceeds expenses, the money is reinvested in the city-owned facilities. (Learn more at ppymca.org/programs/outdoor-pools.)