A WHNT News 19 Taking Action Investigation uncovered potentially harmful bacteria at two public splash pads in north Alabama. Over two months, we performed water quality tests at seven different locations. During our investigation, either total coliform or E. coli surfaced in samples from two locations. WHNT News 19 decided to compare the maintenance of those locations to the others that showed no sign of either bacteria to find out what, if anything is done differently, and what you can do to keep your family safe.
Splash pads and waters parks provide hydrating, free fun when the sun starts bearing down on north Alabama. Could something harmful be hiding in the H2O? WHNT News 19 took action to find out.
Working undercover, we collected samples from the River Heritage Park Splash Pad in Florence, Riverwild Splash Pad inside Decatur's Delano Park, the Scottsboro Splash Park, H. A. Alexander Park Splash Pad in Moulton, Heritage Park water play area in Cullman, the Jane K. Lowe Children's Fountain at the Bicentennial Park in downtown Huntsville and the interactive fountains at Bridge Street Town Centre.
Then, we took the samples to Enersolv, an EPA approved bacteriological water testing facility in Decatur. Dr. Bill Hollerman checked for total coliform and E. Coli.
Five of the seven locations checked out fine. There was no total coliform and no E. coli in the samples from Florence, Moulton, Decatur, Cullman, and Scottsboro. However, the sample from the Jane K. Lowe Children's Fountain at the Bicentennial Park in downtown Huntsville revealed the presence of total coliform. The most disturbing test result came from the fountain at Bridge Street Town Centre. It tested positive for both total coliform and E.coli.
The next day, WHNT News 19 re-tested Bridge Street and it tested positive for total coliform, but not E. coli. Two weeks later, we tested both locations again. The second test at the Jane. K. Lowe Children's Fountain at Bicentennial Park was clean. However, the Bridge Street fountain failed, and again tested positive for total coliform and E. coli.
"The testing wasn't just a testing of the water, it tested the entire environment there," says Hollerman.
Dr. Hollerman says chlorine is not a cure-all chemical and contamination could come from many sources.
"A child who had been in the grass playing around and coming back into a splash pad area could introduce bacteria," explains Hollerman. "Wild animals passing through the area at night or birds flying over during the day could introduce bacteria. A child with a soiled diaper could introduce E. coli to this."
Diapers are one of the many items not allowed at the Jane K. Lowe Children's Fountain, but enforcing the rules isn't easy.
"We have seen kids out here that are toddlers that are just out here in regular underwear or diapers," says John Johnson, the Swimming and Activities Supervisor for the city of Huntsville. "That's a no no."
Johnson and his staff maintain the fountain on a daily basis. He's confident in the fountain's safety and says visitors need to obey the rules.
"We would like the public to know that when they do bring their young children out here, especially toddlers, make sure that they have a swim diaper on them and don't bring your dogs or cats out here," says Johnson. "That can contaminate very easily if there was an accident in the fountain."
At Bridge Street Town Centre, three samples revealed the presence of total coliform each time, and E. coli twice.
"We haven't seen that before, so if there's an issue we need to correct, we'll absolutely do it," says Rochelle Allgood, Bridge Street General Manager.
The posted pop jet rules didn't specifically address diapers. It did say no bare feet and no food or drinks. However, our hidden cameras caught adults and children violating the rules. Allgood admits it's a challenge getting guests to comply.
"We're always telling folks to put their shoes back on, whatever we see," says Allgood. "We have a combined effort with security, customer service and maintenance. We're constantly at the fountain."
How do the other five sites that were in the clear compare? WHNT News 19 contacted several supervisors for detailed descriptions of their maintenance. At the H. A. Alexander Park Splash Pad in Moulton, Parks and Recreation Director Jackie Burch says they test for E. coli and pure coliform bacteria weekly by taking water samples to an independent lab.
WHNT News 19 revisited the Scottsboro Splash Park to see their operation. Parks and Recreation Director Yvonne Yockel showed us around.
"The computer system that we use reads all levels, including pH, chlorine and every chemical level that we need to know about," describes Yockel.
As a backup, Yockel says they manually check and use cartridge filters, instead of sand filters. Two lifeguards help reinforce the rules like required swim diapers, no food or drinks, and no pets.
"One of them is usually walking around making sure they're not running and that kind of thing," says Yockel. "We try to keep one more stable so visitors will know where to go if they need something."
For Yockel, preventing contamination, or worse an E. coli outbreak, is usually top of mind.
"It's something that's constantly on your mind," says Yockel. "We try to stay on top of it and we feel pretty confident we're doing what we need to do to make the water safe, ". 9:17
On Monday, July 25th, WHNT News 19 collected a third sample from the Jane K. Lowe Fountain at Bicentennial Park. The results were clean - no total coliform and no E. coli present.
The fountain at Bridge Street Town Centre shut down for several days after WHNT News 19 reveals the results to management. Today, it re-opened with new rules.
Before WHNT News 19's Taking Action Investigation, the pop jet rules at Bridge Street said no bare feet, no running, and no dogs. Now, a new sign states, "Your safety is our first priority."
"No diapers and no pets" are added to the list of pop jet rules. It also includes a health warning, which says: "This pool system is chemically treated. Do not drink the water." The final rule reads, "Please do not put objects in the fountain or jets."
WHNT News 19 would like to thank Bridge Street Town Centre for promptly addressing the health threat and making changes to improve the safety of the fountain.