Something in the water? Find out which Fresno area public pools had violations, closures

When the high temperatures of summer come around each year, one way that many apartment-dwellers cope is to take a dip in their complex’s swimming pool or seek refuge at a public pool or water park.

But when dozens or even hundreds of residents are sharing the pool, what assurance do you have about how clean or healthy that water is?

And how much pee could be in that pool? Short answer, up to 20 gallons (yes, really) – yet that’s not a reason for closing a pool. But more on that later.

Through the peak of this summer, from the beginning of May through late July, scores of public pools or spas around Fresno County have been ordered closed – some for a day, some for a few days, some for weeks or months – by the Fresno County Department of Public Health.

Violations can range from chemical imbalances to broken latches on gates, lack of lifesaving equipment, or improper safety equipment on drains or pumping systems.

County numbers on pools

There are more than 1,300 public pools that routinely get inspected twice a year by the Fresno County Department of Public Health.

So far, 100 public pools or spas inspected by the county since the start of this year were closed for at least some period of time before being allowed to reopen. Another 34 pools or spas, however, remained closed as of late July because the operators had been unable to correct the problems..

Pools defined as “public” by the county can include those in apartment and condominium complexes, mobile home parks, hotels or motels, schools, health clubs, water parks, city parks – pretty much anything that’s not a backyard pool at a single-family home.

Twenty-three health inspectors on the county staff not only inspect pools, but also handle restaurant inspections and consumer complaints.

“There are a few pools that are year-round, but for us the big pool season is from around Memorial Day in May to Labor Day in September,” said Wayne Fox, director of the environmental health division of the Fresno County Health Department.

“We try to get our pools two inspections a year at each of those facilities, one at the beginning of the year to make sure everything’s right and ready to go, and then we check again during the season.”

Explore the map below to see pools that have been closed for at least some period of time in 2019 by the Fresno County Department of Public Health for code or safety violations. Zoom in or out and click on a blue or red marker for details including inspection/closure date, reopening date, and comments from the inspector’s report.

Red markers denote pools that remained closed as of July 26, 2019. Map by Tim Sheehan / The Fresno Bee, based on data from the Fresno County Department of Public Health.

Keeping pools clean

Anyone who has a backyard pool knows that maintaining chlorine and acid levels and keeping the water clear can be an intricate balancing act.

For public pools that receive a far higher level of use and have a more stringent set of rules with which to comply, those challenges are multiplied.

Maryjane Day, a supervising environmental health specialist with Fresno County, said water chemistry is by far the most frequent reason for inspectors to order a pool closed.

“No chlorine, that’s the most common, and high pH,” Day said. “A pool is like a baby. Once you neglect the chlorine, it’s a problem” to get things back in balance.

Inspectors use a checklist of code standards when they make their rounds.

The checklist covers testing for chlorine levels that are too low or to high; testing the pH, or acidity or alkalinity level of the water for maximum performance of the chlorine to sanitize, and making sure the pool has a drain suction cover or vacuum shut-off valves that meet safety codes to prevent a person from being held under water by the drain suction.

Inspectors also ensure that the pump and chlorination systems are working property; check that spas have an emergency shut-off switch; check that there’s a life ring and body hook; and make sure the fence and gate around the pool are in a good state.

Pool inspection form
A partial page from an inspection checklist shows the points that county inspectors examine when inspecting public swimming pools at apartments, hotels and motels, parks, playgrounds, schools, health clubs and others. Items marked with an asterisk (*) are points of particular concern for which an inspector can close a pool if found out of compliance. Tim Sheehan / The Fresno Bee

Reasons for closure

Causes for immediate closure can also include a broken fence or gate surrounding the pool; the water being cloudy enough that an inspector cannot see the bottom of the pool; loose or broken pool lights, and shower or toilet facilities that aren’t in working order.

Feces, vomit or blood that are evident in the pool water can also be a reason for closure.

Some of the worst concerns are when a pool has not been maintained and the water has turned green and cloudy with algae. “We have a few of those that whenever we go there, it’s always green,” Day said.

“It’s poor maintenance. … When you cant’ see the main drain at the bottom of the pool, that’s an imminent danger because if someone drowns, you can’t see them.”

Aaron Baruti, an environmental health specialist who is among the inspectors, added that green pools are an automatic closure cause for inspectors.

“It’s a real concern for us because we’re out there twice a year, and if it’s like that the day we go out there, who knows if it’s a pattern?” he said.

And a green pool poses another health threat. “They can breed mosquitoes, and that’s a whole other issue,” Baruti said.

Fox said he’s most concerned about the safety fences that public pools are required to have around them with self-closing gates. He recalled a drowning incident a few years ago in which inspectors had closed a pool because the fence was broken. Despite the efforts of the pool operator to cover up the holes with plywood to comply with the closure order, “kids kept breaking in.”

A couple of weeks later, “a child got away from his father and got through the fence where these kids had broken in, and this child drowned,” Fox said. “That’s one thing I tell my staff: If there’s a problem with the gate or the fencing is bad, close the pool.”

Typically, issues with chlorine or chemicals can be remedied by pool operators or their maintenance service within a few hours, while repairing a fence might take a day or two. Mechanical problems with pumps, drain covers or safety valves can be more complex and costly to solve, however.

But if everything is in working order, Fox said, “it shouldn’t take long for a pool operator to keep it up if they’re on it every day.”

“Pools are pretty basic. Our guys show up, and they’re looking at the pool equipment, they’re looking for the life ring, they’re looking to make sure the gates close and lock, and they’re looking at the chlorine level,” he added. “A pool inspection shouldn’t take more than 15 or 20 minutes.”

Pools that remain shuttered

Fresno County’s longest-lasting pool closure, according to county data, has been at the Dorado Apartments on West Belmont Avenue in southeast Fresno, where inspectors determined in January the safety fence was not closing properly.

A subsequent inspection in April revealed that there were still issues with the gate as well as a problem with the safety drain cover, and a new fence had been installed without approved plans.

Day, Fox and Baruti agreed that whether a public pool at a park, apartment complex, school or water park is open or closed, parents must keep an eye on their children to ensure their safety.

“They can have all the safety equipment, all the fences up, all the chemistry balanced, but if you’re not watching your kid, someone can drown,” Fox said. “If you get 20 or 30 kids splashing around and someone’s in distress, you may not be able to see that kid in the crowd. … Keep an eye on your kid, make sure they’re safe, and you won’t have a tragedy.”

Is there pee in the water?

Now – about that urine in the water. A 2012 research survey found that about one out of five adults admitted to peeing in a swimming pool. Children may have even less self-control. Baruti said there’s no wonder chemical that turns telltale blue or red when someone pees in the pool. Nor is there a test – or even a threshold – for urine to justify closing a pool.

But, Beruti added, scientists a few years ago demonstrated a way to calculate how much pee is in a pool by measuring the chemical by-products of an artificial sweetener found in sugar-free soft drinks and myriad other food products that are excreted by humans in urine.

Canadian and Chinese researchers determined, by testing public pools for the excreted sweetener for three weeks, that a pool of 110,000 gallons could contain as much as 8 gallons of urine, while a pool of 220,000 gallons may have as much as 20 gallons of urine.

“It’s amazing,” Day added. “It’s overwhelming how much urine can be in there.”

Lifelong Valley resident Tim Sheehan has worked in the Valley as a reporter and editor since 1986, and has been at The Fresno Bee since 1998. He is currently The Bee’s data reporter and covers California’s high-speed rail project and other transportation issues. He grew up in Madera, has a journalism degree from Fresno State and a master’s degree in leadership studies from Fresno Pacific University.