2016’s Top Stories #10: E. coli closes Lakeside beach

Unexpected high levels of the bacteria perplexed city staff in August.

Nelson swimmers were told to stay away from the water at Lakeside Park in the summer after high levels of E. coli were discovered.

Nelson swimmers were told to stay away from the water at Lakeside Park in the summer after high levels of E. coli were discovered.

Going for a swim at Lakeside Park wasn’t an option during the peak of summer in Nelson.

Increased Escherichia coli, or E. coli, levels in that area of Kootenay Lake were discovered in early August, prompting the city to advise residents against using the popular swimming spot.

The only problem was no one knew what was the cause of the sudden and erratic bacteria readings.

The acceptable limit of E. coli, in a 100-millilitre water sample is 200 counts of the bacteria averaged over five different samples. But Nelson’s public works department found a count of 1,100.

That set off a scramble to find the source while angry residents looked for alternate destinations.

“We don’t remember seeing a sample that high in the past,” said Colin Innes, the city’s public works director. “For us this is a rare thing.”

Innes initially thought geese feces was to blame, but he couldn’t be sure.

“That is just us making an assumption. There could be other sources. Sewage could get into this lake, and there is an awful lot of lake and a lot of homes out there.”

But no sewage leaks were found, and city staff were perplexed by irregular E. coli results. The count dropped to 845, then just four days later quadrupled to 4,850. That reading came from water just off the beach, while an inexplicably low number of just five counts was found near the wharf.

Public reaction was predictably negative.

Some readers asked why the city had posted only a few small warning signs at the beach. Others wanted clarity on the state of water at popular beaches outside of Nelson. There was also plenty of blame spread around. Scapegoats included dogs, campers, anchored boats, city council and, of course, geese.

“Awesome tourism feature!” quipped a reader on the Star‘s Facebook page.

The Lakeside Park fields can usually be compared to a minefield of geese poop, but there was never proof that was what polluted the water. Thomas Edge, a research scientist at the federal Ministry of Environment and Climate Change, told the Star that risks associated with geese feces still needed more study, and that the excrement wasn’t as dangerous as it would be coming from humans.

E. coli can come from a variety of types of fecal pollution sources,” said Edge.

“So if you get a high count of E. coli you know you have fecal contamination but you don’t have a way to say that it is a human or goose E. coli.”

He also said the matter was complicated by the fact that standard tests don’t yet show whether safe or dangerous strains of E. coli are present.

The poop became moot before summer ended.

Three weeks after the first results were made public, E. coli levels dropped to 75 and the public was allowed back in the water.

One of the previous readings was discounted as a sampling error, prompting speculation the entire panic had been overstated.

Whether or not that’s true remains to be seen, but the situation remains a mystery.

“Because it is a natural body of water, the quality throughout it will vary,” said Innes.

“We are kind of at the mercy of what the water brings us.”