We receive many questions from the public about water quality monitoring, advisories and what they [the community] can do to improve the water quality at their favorite beaches and lakes.
Below is a list of some of our most frequently asked questions.
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Clark County routinely monitors water quality at public, designated swimming beaches. Beaches monitored for E.coli are Vancouver Lake Regional Park, Klineline Pond, and Battle Ground Lake. Any lake that receives a report of an algae bloom will be investigated.
Lakes with a confirmed a harmful algal bloom will be monitored weekly until the bloom dissipates. For a list of current advisories, see the Current Advisories page.
The Public Health monitoring program focuses on high-use beaches designated for swimming because they are used by the greatest number of people, especially young children who have the highest risk of getting sick. Unfortunately, it is not feasible to monitor every lake and stream throughout the county where people swim or have access to water.
Designated Swim Beaches are sampled every other week for E.coli, on Monday or Tuesday mornings. If a beach is closed due to high bacteria concentrations, it is sampled twice a week (Monday and Thursday) until the bacteria levels have reached a safe level. Results are updated online one to two days after sampling. Routine bacteria sampling begins in mid-May and ends in early September.
Algal toxin sampling begins in Spring and ends in Fall. Note, King County labs only accept samples within this timeframe. Blooms reported outside the summer months will continue to be monitored; however, toxicity will not be evaluated. Public Health relies on notifications from the public to report algae blooms. Once a report is received, weekly monitoring of the bloom will begin.
Testing water for E.coli or algal toxins requires specialized equipment and trained lab technicians, Clark County Public Health contracts with accredited laboratories to ensure that sample analysis results are accurate and validated. Clark County contracts with a local lab to analyze water samples for E.coli with results reported within 1 to 3 business days from sample date.
When testing for algal toxins, we contract with King County Environmental Lab as apart of the WA Department of Ecology's Freshwater Algae Program that allows local health jurisdictions in Washington the ability to submit one water sample per week for each lake that has a confirmed harmful algal bloom to inform advisory decisions. For algal toxins, samples are overnighted to the lab and tested. Results are reported within 2 to 4 business days from sample date.
If high concentrations of bacteria or algal toxins are detected, Public Health will make an advisory recommendation to the city, county, or state park department that manages the beach and/or public access points.
Regular monitoring of the hazard will occur. Once water quality improves, Public Health will provide a reopening recommendation to the managing park department.
Please visit the Advisory Protocol webpage for more information on when an advisory is issued, downgraded or removed.
If there is E.coli (poop) in the water, you can get sick from swimming or wading there. The most common symptoms are diarrhea (watery poop), throwing up or feeling nauseous, stomachaches, headaches, or fever. It is also possible to get infections in your eyes, ears, nose, throat, or skin. Children, elderly people, and people with weakened immune systems have a higher risk of getting sick.
If there are algal toxins present, you can get sick from coming into contact with water either through recreation or drinking. Symptoms are dependent upon route of exposure whether through skin contact, inhalation, or ingestion of water and type of toxin present. For more information for sources of exposure and risk factors of algal toxins go here to the CDC’s website with information on Harmful Algal Bloom – Associated Illnesses.
If you are concerned about your health, please call your doctor and let them know where you were swimming.
Not necessarily. If a Beach Warning or Beach Closure advisory related to high levels of E. coli bacteria is posted these are not visible to the naked eye, so you cannot tell by looking if the water is safe. If a Warning or Danger advisory related to harmful algae blooms is posted, it’s slightly more complicated. Advisories are posted based primarily on the amount of toxins the bloom is producing which is not directly correlated to the intensity of the bloom itself. Even if no bloom is visible there can still be toxins in the water leftover from when a bloom was present. Additionally, algae advisories will remain in place until toxin levels are below threshold for 2 consecutive weeks.
If an advisory is posted it’s safest to stay out of the water even if it looks clear.
When issuing advisories for E.coli, the closure only affects the specified beach. Bacteria results can be very different over short distances (50 feet or less), so water quality in the rest of the lake is unknown.
Historical sampling from open waters in these large lakes has generally had low bacteria. Bacteria comes from poop getting into the water, usually from people, pets, or wildlife on land. In these large lakes, the poop problems from land generally do not affect the open waters of the lake. In smaller lakes, however, poop problems from land can cause high bacteria in the open waters.
Please remember to follow the safety recommendations when swimming or boating, drowning is still the greatest risk when recreating in water: Clark County Public Works: Swimming and Centers for Disease Control: Swimmers Drowning, Injury, & Sun Protection.
For more information on toxic algae advisories visit our advisory protocol page.
No. When a beach is closed due to high bacteria or when toxic algae is present, it is not safe for people or pets. Dogs drink more lake water than most people do, so they are even more likely to get sick.
In fact, dogs can be restricted from certain areas such as public swimming beaches. For example, only trained service dogs are allowed at Klineline Pond. Before taking your dog, check out their online park rules to ensure that dogs are allowed.
Clark County manages watersheds to protect lakes, rivers, streams and wetlands. Monitoring allows the county to understand if a waterway is degraded and if its overall condition is improving, deteriorating, or not changing. Monitoring activities are conducted throughout Clark County’s watershed. More information is available at the Stream Health and Monitoring website. Clark County evaluates watershed health to assess watershed conditions, identify problems and opportunities for projects, and recommend strategies to improve watersheds that were deteriorating. Maps and data are available at the Explore Your Watershed StoryMap. Please note that Public Health does not issue advisories from these monitoring results unless there is a major problem like a sewage spill.
Algal blooms can be tested for toxins on any lake in Washington. Maps and data, as well as information on how you can report a visible algal bloom, are available at the Northwest Toxic Algae website.
If there is a high bacteria concentration in the water at a swimming beach, it very likely means that some type of poop is getting into the water. This could be from people, dogs, geese, or other animals.
People often assume that poop in the water comes from a sewage spill. Sewage is one possible source of poop, and we always work with local sewage utilities to investigate this. Most of the time, however, poop in the water at a swimming beach is not from sewage. Common causes of poop in the water at a swimming beach include:
- People carry poop into the water. To reduce the amount of poop carried into the water, adults and children should shower before swimming and wash well after using the bathroom. Children that are not yet potty trained should avoid natural waterbodies and swim in treated chlorinated water.
- Dogs also carry poop into the water. If the dogs poop on or near the beach, the poop can wash into the water. This is one reason why dogs are not allowed at most designated swimming beaches.
- Geese and ducks poop on and near the beach, and the poop washes into the water. Swimming beaches often have open grassy areas with an open shoreline, an ideal environment for geese and ducks. Do not feed geese or ducks. Feeding them attracts them to the beach area, which increases the amount of poop washing into the water.
- Streams can also carry poop from upstream areas to a swimming beach. People, pets, livestock, geese, and ducks in upstream areas can impact a downstream swimming beach.
When a beach is closed due to high bacteria levels, we first try to identify the source of the poop. We talk with the field staff who sample the beaches, parks staff who manage the park, and the lifeguards to understand what has been going on at and near the beach. We also notify local utilities about the possibility of a spill.
Once we understand more about the potential sources, we work with beach managers and local agencies to help them keep poop out of the water.
Here are some examples or what we and other organizations are doing:
- Keeping designated beaches healthy by ensuring areas have restrooms, diaper changing and rinse off stations. More information on healthy swimming found here.
- Preventing human exposure to sewage by ensuring operation and maintenance of On-Site Septic Systems.
- Reduce dog poop getting into streams by providing trash cans in parks to dispose of dog waste and resources from Canines for Clean Water program to help residents address pet waste issues.
- Reduce runoff from agriculture through land and animal management resources such as WSU Extension’s Small Acreage Program, Clark Conservation District and Healthy Horses, Clean Water.
- To find out what you can do for clean water around your home, community, school, or business check out Stormwater Partners of SW Washington.
Algae and phytoplankton are a natural part of the lake ecosystem, but too much can cause problems. Harmful algal blooms are caused by a combination of excess nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus), sunlight, and slow-moving water. Nitrogen and phosphorus can come from many sources such as lawn fertilizer, pet or livestock waste or sediment from erosion that gets picked up in stormwater around your home. These nutrients can wash directly into lakes from lakeshore properties but also from properties throughout a watershed as stormwater carries nutrients into streams that flow into lakes. Phosphorus can also build up in lake sediments and continue to add nutrients that contribute to algal blooms today.
If a lake has frequent toxic algal blooms, reducing these is a long-term project. We work with residents, park managers, and other local and state agencies to understand harmful algal blooms and what research needs to be done to develop a lake-management plan.
To find out what you can do for clean water around your home, community, school, or business check out Stormwater Partners of SW Washington.
For more information about toxic algae in Washington, please visit the Northwest Toxic Algae website.
For more information about harmful algal blooms across the United States, please visit the Environmental Protection Agency website.