Fewer Lake Washington beaches closed so far this year
Several beaches along Lake Washington are currently closed due to fecal contamination — but so far, King County’s beaches are doing better than they have during other recent summers in terms of closures.
This summer, there have been 10 closures among seven beaches on Lake Washington. Last year, there were a total of 16 closures, and in 2019, there were 21 closures. Closures tend to last a couple of weeks, on average.
Currently, Meydenbauer and Newcastle Beaches in Bellevue, Gene Coulon Beach in Renton, and Matthews, Madrona, and Howell Park Beaches in Seattle are all closed. The City of Seattle had already closed Madrona Beach to swimming for the season because of a lifeguard shortage.
While Madrona and Howell Park Beaches closed this week because of a sewage spill, the other beaches closed for what is a much more common reason — high bacteria levels detected during routine weekly testing.
Daniel Nidzgorski, an ecologist with the King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks, said the bacteria is due to fecal contamination, which usually comes from people, pets, or wildlife, such as ducks and geese near the beach. Closing a beach is something the county does out of extreme caution when the numbers during regular testing get over the safety threshold — but it does not mean that if you were at that beach just before the closure, you will get sick.
“When we’re closing down a beach, if it’s just over thresholds, for example, a person going swimming probably has around a 5% chance of getting sick with a tummy bug,” Nidzgorski said.
Still, it is a good idea to watch for symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or a new rash.
The county tests the water at 28 popular beaches. If you are going swimming at a smaller beach that is not on that list, Nidzgorski recommends looking at your surroundings and smelling the air. If there are a lot of critters about, it might be best to pick a different swimming spot.
“Look right around the beach — often times, there’s a lot of goose and duck poop on the beach, and that’s a pretty obvious culprit. Sometimes there is dog poop around as well,” he said. “So it’s usually something right on or near the beach.”
If you are going swimming a mile down the road from a beach that is closed, it does not mean that your beach is unsafe; but likewise, just because the surrounding beaches are open does not mean that your beach is free of high bacteria levels. That is why it is always a good idea to check your beach for sources of potential contamination.
“Each beach is really independent. We’ve done some studies where we’ve sampled at a beach and found really high bacteria — took another sample two houses down and found really low bacteria, really excellent water quality,” Nidzgorski said.
The contamination tends to come from very local sources, such as a dog or ducks on a single beach.
“Because these problems are usually coming from a small poop source right on or near the beach, they’re not affecting a giant swath of the lake,” Nidzgorski said. “When there’s a sewage spell, those can affect a giant swath, but those are, fortunately, extremely rare.”
Nidzgorski added that there is no evidence the contamination is connected to homeless encampments, because the closed beaches are not near streams that could potentially carry fecal matter in runoff.
“We’ve never had any good evidence that people living unsheltered are causing poop problems at the beach … we’ve never really found a clear problem that we could trace back to an encampment like that, especially not at these swimming beaches,” he said.
To help prevent future problems, it is always a good idea to shower before going to a public swimming area, and to ensure babies and toddlers have well-fitting swim diapers. Additionally, Nidzgorski advises people not to feed geese or ducks along beaches, and to leave Fido and Fluffy at home.
“Most beaches don’t allow [dogs], and even at those that do — you don’t want to bring another poop source to the beach,” he said.