"If You Build It . . ." Revisited

Rick Stryker, PE
March 2016

Some years back, I shared a column with the readers here called, "If You Build It, Will They Come?" The premise turned that familiar movie line on its head, asking owners and executives to reconsider the wisdom of installing new features in hopes of building camper enrollment. The bottom line was that only the Disney machine has successfully implemented that model, because only it has the economic mass to take a large part of its park off line and redirect guests while that "something new and really WOW!" is built. Instead, I said, look at what your existing programs need to make them stand above the crowd, and invest your limited capital dollars there. All of that is still true, but we've never returned to the idea of how to imagine improvements that match the program. Recently, a camp colleague and I were talking about water amusements, and it occurred to me that this was a perfect opportunity to illustrate the long-forgotten point. Many camps are fortunate enough to have natural water features like lakes and rivers for their campers to enjoy. As prices for trampolines, climbers, and launches have fallen, more and more programs are seeing an increase in the use of their waterfront for swimming- type activities. Let's consider some critical pieces when introducing these facilities to your waterfront program.

There will be collisions with elbows and knocks and bruises — just like there were when we had chicken fights in the water as kids. Understand that these new attractions are rough-and-tumble by nature; only the impacts of the falls are reduced. Unlike chicken fights, the water must be deeper for safe operation. There are often many participants in a relatively small space. Being able to adequately supervise the activity, identify urgent conditions and distressed swimmers, and respond is paramount. So the very first thing to consider is probably overall water quality: Is the water consistently clear? Any waterfront manager will tell you that's a primary key to water safety. Many camps have added sand to their "beach" for years to provide a more stable, less mucky area in which to play. Unfortunately, the least expensive sand often contains a large amount of clay, which, when agitated by swimmers and shallow play, creates clouds of vision-obscuring sediment. So seeing the bottom in April with no swimmers in the water isn't a reasonable yardstick by which to measure the safety of the play area. You know if the water is murky when camp is in session. An "iceberg" literally crawling with excited youngsters is a very difficult supervisory task. Adding cloudy water is an invitation to catastrophe. To remedy this situation, either the low-grade sand has to be dredged out and replaced with washed quartz sand, or sometimes a filter fabric can be installed over the old material and new washed sand added on top.

If there are any doubts at all about the water's clarity, a Secchi disc is a simple tool used to qualitatively measure water clarity (or alternately it's "turbidity"). It's about the size of a Frisbee and is lowered into the water until it's no longer visible. They're available from $25 online. But once you see what it looks like, you'll rightly say that you can make it yourself from a 12-inches-in-diameter disc of 3/8-inch-thick white plastic (high-density polyethylene, HDPE, works best). Here's a hint: Instead of string, buy a 100-foot cloth measuring tape that comes on its own reel, and use that to lower and recover the disc. That way, the depth is measured directly rather than trying to measure the length of string separately. A turbidimeter is used where more scientific data is required, but for local use, Secchi disc readings can provide a simple and quick understanding of whether the water is clear enough to swim and play safely.

In addition to not being able to see swimmers in the water, low clarity (or high turbidity) often indicates that other concerns may be present. Cloudy water absorbs and holds sunlight and its heat better than clear water. This can create an ideal breeding ground for algae, bacteria, protozoans, and other illness-causing microbes and organisms. In the past few years, several serious situations have been associated with such occurrences at freshwater parks and recreational areas. It's worth mentioning that these incidents have occurred at waterfronts that had received the okay from their local health departments. That's because their water was tested for enterococci, a very common group of bacteria most often associated with rain runoff. These are the most common waterborne-illness-causing microbes; the tests are fairly inexpensive and the results are available quickly. Lakes that receive most of their fresh water supply from surface sources like streams and ditches are more likely to be affected by runoff bacteria. A strong, steady inflow should result in a high turnover, which both dilutes the concentration of any bacteria and washes it downstream from your swimming area. Monitor the outlet for your lake or pond. During extended dry spells when fresh water isn't pushing standing water from the lake, bacteria can multiply and accumulate to illness-causing levels, so bacteria can be a problem when the weather is dry as well as when it is wet.

Good personal hygiene is another aspect of keeping bacteria counts down in your pond or lake. Here's a short history lesson: Most Americans only know of polio. But in 1952 alone, 52,000 cases were reported, with over 2,000 deaths (about 4 percent mortality) and more than 21,000 individuals suffering permanent paralysis to one degree or another. For comparison, the modern U.S. mortality rate for influenza is about 0.00012 percent. Early in the 20th century, researchers discovered a connection between polio outbreaks and public swimming areas, particularly swimming pools, but also natural therapeutic hot springs. It turned out that the virus was found in human feces. Without disinfection and filtration, the virus was being washed from swimmers and invisibly multiplying in the swimming pool water. By mid-summer each year, the pools and hot springs were teeming with the deadly polio virus. This discovery was instrumental in establishing the requirements for swimming pool filtration and disinfection. But open swimming areas don't have chlorinators or filter systems, and this means that it's even more important that swimmers wash thoroughly before entering the water. Yes, it's still true that "dilution is the solution," but often swimming areas are chosen specifically because there is little, if any, current along the swimming space. Without lots of fresh water flowing through, there is no dilution. Even though it's a "natural" area, requiring hot, soapy showers immediately before entering the water will go a long way toward keeping that swimming area microbially safe for everyone.

Before we close our skim of water microbiology, understand that while the lab may not have declared the water to be unsafe, the conditions that precede a closing are no mystery. Your waterfront has a predictable character just like your campers. Intense or long periods of rain will affect the water quality by washing those microbes into warm, cloudy water. Your waterfront manager should be schooled on its history and behavior by people who have seen its response over the course of dozens of summers. And then the manager should abide by the history lesson and take every precaution to protect the swimmers, even when the decision may be unpopular.

Finally, the other pieces of the water attraction safety question involve the physical parameters, opportunities, and constraints of the chosen location. Any piece of equipment you buy should have instructions, requirements, and recommendations about how to install and safely operate the equipment. From anchoring to water depth, and often even describing sun angles for visibility, the manufacturer has gone to great lengths to limit company liability exposure and transfer as much of the risk to you, the owner, as possible. So make sure you follow each and every step, recommendation, and guideline. Document your efforts through pictures at installation, Building Principles continued from page 10 and develop checklists that create a written record that not only documents it was put in correctly, but that the system continued to be operated in accordance with all of the instructions. Invite your insurance agent to visit your site and encourage him or her to bring his or her risk management specialist to help with your project from concept to completion. Let your agent see that it's been installed according to all of the instructions and that it's being operated professionally and competently. Remove from his or her mind any lingering questions about your risk management if you have to make a claim.

"If you build it, will they come?" The answer is still, "Not because you built it." But if you plan, install, operate, and maintain it correctly, and if it fits seamlessly into your program, I bet they'll come back because you did.

Rick Stryker is a professional engineer with a personal passion for the infrastructure and facility support of children's camp programs. He can always be reached with questions or comments at rstryker@reagan.com.