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Officials say Lake Lanier beaches mostly safe for swimming
Corps of Engineers tests for bacteria monthly
Steve White visits the Old Federal Park beach with grandchildren Caleb, 4, and Reagan Bowen, 6, recently. Despite the feelings of some Lake Lanier visitors, experts say theres no reason to fear the quality of the water for swimming. - photo by Scott Rogers

GAINESVILLE — Jessica Braswell sat on the beach at Van Pugh Park on Lake Lanier with a friend earlier this month as her three children played in the water where it hits the sandy shore.

“It’s just a joke — ‘I’ll go to the lake, but I’m not getting in,’” she said. “Everyone says that.”

Farther north on the lake, Jordan Kidd and Savannah Justice sunbathed at Old Federal Park. Kidd said the water is “kind of nasty.” Justice called it “gross.”

“I’m still going to get in because it’s so hot,” Kidd said, but litter and a film of pollen on the water left her less than enthused.

Despite these feelings from some lake visitors, Lanier’s waters draw about 8 million tourists each year. And according to experts, there’s no reason to fear the quality of the water for swimming.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers tests designated swimming beaches for fecal coliform once a month and before each holiday weekend during the recreational season, according to Tim Rainey, operations project manager at the lake.

“If the initial test comes back too high we take a second sampling, have it retested,” he said. “And in my years here, even going back as a ranger, we’ve had very few come back high where we’ve had to retest.”

If a retest does come back high, beaches would be closed for swimming.

Yet Rainey doesn’t remember that ever happening and the “beaches closed” signs remain stacked in a shed.

The state standard for bacteria is 200 colonies per 100 milliliters of water. The federal Environmental Protection Agency estimates those numbers may produce eight illnesses per 1,000 swimmers in fresh water.

Results of the corps’ tests weren’t immediately available.

The Georgia Environmental Protection Division also tests various areas of the lake monthly for fecal coliform. Tests taken at bridges and where tributaries enter the lake mostly showed fewer than 20 colonies for the 2014 swimming season.

The Flat Creek embayment did show a spike in June of 500, according to EPD data. Over the past three years, 85 percent of the samples had no measurable fecal coliform.

The EPD considers Lanier “safe for all primary contact recreational uses including wading, swimming, boating and water skiing.”

Water is tested weekly leading into the swim season at Don Carter State Park, according to Park Manager Will Wagner.

The most recent 2015 results show the water tested at 3 colony-forming units May 18. The month before, which saw frequent heavy rains, tested at 58.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s most recent recommendation to measure bacteria advises looking at E. coli, though Georgia still uses the broader fecal coliform guidelines.

The Chattahoochee Riverkeeper recently performed tests at three popular Lanier swimming areas and found no E. coli.

But it’s ill-advised to draw too many conclusions from a one-time test; heavy rains and a higher water temperature may yield different results, according to Duncan Hughes, headwaters outreach director with the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, who pulled the samples.

Still, it’s all good news for swimmers.

The presence of fecal coliform or E. coli, a subset of fecal coliform, can indicate that other more harmful bacteria are in the water that may lead to gastrointestinal illnesses.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the most common side effects of exposure includes a short period of vomiting and/or acute diarrhea.

Though the lake is likely safe for recreation, those in the water should take certain precautions.

Hughes advised those who have been sick or who have open wounds to beware. He also warned against swimming after heavy rains.

“After heavy rains is when everything from the landscape washes into the lake ... that’s when the levels [of bacteria] are going to be the highest,” he said.

Brittany Hellmeister of Gainesville, who was relaxing recently at Clarks Bridge Park, tells her daughter not to swallow the water.

When the child was younger, she got sick after putting rocks in her mouth when playing in a creek at a Lumpkin County park, her mother said.

“I can only assume it was from putting the water in her mouth that came out of the creek,” she said.

Brian Ransom, head coach of Lake Lanier junior crew Lake Lanier Rowing Club, said a couple of rowers suffered staph infections on their hands where they had developed blisters, though he can’t pinpoint lake water as the cause.

Rowers practice five days a week and they’re advised to tape up wounds.

Those without wounds and who have a healthy immune system are “going to be fine most of the time,” Hughes said.

Jennifer Kyle said she comes to the beach all the time with her daughter. She admits she should think about water quality more than she does, but she has never noticed any problems.