BOISE -- Nothing sounds better in these hot summer temperatures than jumping in the water and cooling off; with the Boise River still rushing at dangerous levels, people and animals in the Treasure Valley are flocking to other bodies of water. But that can - and did - lead to contamination.
Quinn's Pond and the water at Esther Simplot Park are still off limits after alarming levels of E. coli were found last week. Bacteria levels in the water are dropping, but they're not at a consistently safe level yet.
"Hang with us. We're doing everything we can to clear it up to find out what the source is, and then manage the source as quickly as we can," City of Boise Parks & Recreation Director Doug Holloway said.
The most popular spots for swimming, kayaking and paddle boarding in Boise have now become hot spots for unsafe levels of E. coli bacteria.
"E. coli is a naturally occurring bacteria in our intestines. There's a lot of good E. coli but then there's bad E. coli that can make us sick and that's what we hear about most often," Central District Health Department Public Information Officer Christine Myron said. "E. coli is an indicating marker... It tells us there's a certain amount of feces in the water and that feces is what can make us sick. Whether that is from somebody who swam in the water who had diarrhea, an animal - be it a dog or bird that is putting droppings in water - all of those things can contribute to high, elevated levels of E. coli."
Discovered during weekly testing, the elevated bacteria levels found at Esther Simplot and Quinn's Pond indicate an animal - or human - was carrying illness-causing E. coli, which then contaminated the water.
"We've never had a number that we had to consider pond closure before," City of Boise Water Quality Coordinator Kate Harris said. "The highest number we had was back in 2015 but it wasn't even near that single sample maximum concentration that is a water quality standard for more sampling."
Harris says the city has established agreements and developed a system with the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and Central District Health (CDH) in which they have set a particular criteria for deeming levels unsafe and thus notifying the public of a health risk.
The ponds shutting down is a result of fecal contamination and the fast-moving Boise River that left the ponds stagnant.
"Fresh water that is piped into the ponds was turned off during Boise high river flow. So not having that turnover in the ponds probably exacerbated the situation," Harris added. "There has to be an elevation difference from one water body to the next for water to flow that way. But when river levels were so high they just had to turn off that pipe that normally brings fresh flow into Quinn's Pond, which goes into Esther Simplot ponds and back around."
In three cases reported to Central District Health, high E. coli levels at the Boise ponds may have caused people to get sick with side effects like diarrhea and nausea.
"Anytime you're swimming in a naturally occurring body of water or even man-made body of water like a pond there is definitely a risk for a recreational water illness," Myron said. "We know that bodies can contribute to these parasites and bacteria."
Myron says if you or your child has had diarrhea, stay out of any communal body of water for at least 72 hours (ideally two weeks) after your symptoms have subsided. CDH advises taking a shower before going into the water and after getting out of the water, washing your hands post-swim, and avoid swallowing any bit of water.
"This time of year we start to receiving calls about Giardia, Crypto, Campy- shortened names for parasites and bacteria often associated with splash pads, swimming pools," Myron added.
Places like Sandy Point Beach and Eagle Island can foster germs that lead to recreational water illness. That water is tested for E. coli on a regular, weekly basis during the spring and summer, much like Esther Simplot and Quinn's Pond.
Holloway says to get rid of the bacteria, they started pumping water from the nearby Boise River into Quinn's, flushing it through the connected ponds in Esther Simplot and back out to the Boise River at very diluted levels. Holloway says as they test the water daily, they're finding this process is working and E. coli levels are dropping- particularly quickly in Quinn's Pond because it is the initial pond in the system.
"They'll remain closed until those levels not only come down but we also see some consistency in decrease over several day period of time," Holloway added. "Until we see a consistent downward trend of those test results so that we don't get into situation where we say it's open, then three days later it tests high again and unsafe and we would have to close again."
Holloway tells KTVB they don't know the culprit yet and they are waiting on DNA test results from samples they sent off to a lab in Florida.
"Once we get DNA testing back that confirms the source, then we can work towards how do we manage the source so that we can either prevent or eliminate this from happening in the future."
As mentioned, the source of the elevated E. coli levels could be anything - from wildlife to pets to people.
Idaho Parks & Recreation tells KTVB Sandy Point was recently tested and results showed E. coli levels are safe. E. coli is typically found in outdoor water where wildlife frequent - the amount of it is the issue.
Idaho Parks & Recreation spokesperson Jennifer Okerlund says there have been times where the department has reduced access to those areas based on test results. Okerlund says they have only shut down a state park once in the last 17 years for a water illness; that occurence was when human-caused Norovirus was found at Eagle Island.
A reminder for everyone: Dogs are not allowed to swim in the water at Quinn's Pond or Esther Simplot Ponds I and II, or at Eagle Island State Park or Sandy Point Beach.
According to Boise Parks & Recreation website, all areas of Esther Simplot Park are open for off-leash use from November 1 through March 31, sunrise to sunset, with the exception of the Greenbelt, parking lots and roads and the playground. A full time off-leash park is available for use year round in the north end of the park.
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