It’s a fecal matter

People use Jenkinson Lake as a toilet, so why is that where El Dorado Irrigation District customers get their drinking water?

Jenkinson Lake, a drinking-water reservoir for customers of El Dorado Irrigation District, is now exempt from a health-code ban on boaters and swimmers in the water. <p></p>

Jenkinson Lake, a drinking-water reservoir for customers of El Dorado Irrigation District, is now exempt from a health-code ban on boaters and swimmers in the water.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Once in a while, all of us have eaten a little crap, but 30,000 El Dorado County residents may swallow it all the time—literally.

Jenkinson Lake, a reservoir near Placerville, recently became exempt from a California health code that says drinking-water reservoirs cannot be used for human recreation. The code exists because humans have been known to release excrement and urine into the water.

Traditionally, it has been considered unacceptable to allow swimming and boating in a drinking-water reservoir for fear of contamination and illness. But Jenkinson Lake at Sly Park has flown under the health-code radar for the past 40 years, and, despite critics’ concerns, a decision was made in October to allow people to continue to swim, boat and, yes, crap in El Dorado County residents’ drinking water.

“I had no idea people drank this water,” said David Manning, a Folsom resident who takes his kids to Sly Park to swim in the summer and play in the snow in the winter. “I’m glad it’s not our drinking water.”

For about 50 years, Jenkinson Lake has been a popular swimming, skiing and boating destination. That’s about the same amount of time the health code has been in effect.

The El Dorado Irrigation District treats and tests the water reularly, and there has never been a problem with contamination.

According to officials at the State of California Health Department, about 90 drinking-water reservoirs in California are subject to the code. One might assume that modern advancements in water treatment could make it possible to remove any hazardous stuff, including feces, from water before it is drawn into cooking pots. However, not everyone agrees that it is possible to remove all contaminants.

“If it were our water supply, I’d have to stick to bottled water,” said Manning. “And that’s expensive. My wife is really big on health, and she would be horrified that people could pee in there.”

Dave Herman, co-manager of the El Dorado Irrigation District’s drinking water division, said pee is not really the problem, though.

“The concern is fecal contamination could get into the water and ultimately end up at the customer’s tap. If someone has cryptosporidium in their system, they could pass it through the water and create an outbreak.”

Cryptosporidium is a parasite that causes cryptosporidosis, a diarrheal disease that is passed through excrement and that causes diarrhea, stomach cramps and fever. Cryptosporidium is difficult to detect and is resistant to standard water disinfectants like chlorine. According to the Centers for Disease Control, millions of cryptosporidia can be released in a single bowel movement.

Despite this knowledge, the El Dorado Irrigation District’s board overwhelmingly supported Senate Bill 1093, which called for Jenkinson Lake to be exempt from the health code. The bill was passed through quickly and quietly, according to district board member Al Vargas, the only member who opposed the exemption. Vargas, a renegade of sorts, has been at odds with the rest of the district’s board since this issue arose earlier this year and has publicly and politically has fought against the exemption. Vargas, who said the board is very political, has a number of theories to explain why his fellow board members were so eager to see Sly Park remain open. One is that board members wanted to please the local business community.

Vargas even went so far as to write a letter to Assemblywoman Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, in which he asked that the exemption not be approved without further study of the effects on the drinking water and the cost of filtration upgrades. Ultimately, though, the letter did not help Vargas’ case; it caused the other board members to reaffirm their support of the exemption. Vargas still maintains that the decision to allow the exemption was shady at best. He believes the legislative process failed.

“The fact is if you have a general law, and you want an exemption, you have to have justification. There is no justification for this exemption here, but it went through anyway. It was slick,” he said.

If Sly Park had not received an exemption, local business owners could have lost revenue from the 200,000 visitors the lake brings to the area each year. Nearby residents were nervous that the loss would drive down their property values, as well. These residents and business people, who may be part of the reason El Dorado Irrigation District sought the exemption, are voters in the district. They may not have known the details relating to the exemption or its potential consequences for their health, though. The district held a public meeting before pursuing the exemption but did not send out notices to all customers explaining the issues involved.

So, the question remains: If the district’s 30,000 customers had been informed ahead of time that their drinking water potentially was being contaminated with feces, would they have supported the exemption? That brings us to another question: Why didn’t they know it was a health hazard in the first place? If the law has been on the books for 50 years, why didn’t the health department bring Sly Park to code a long time ago?

Jenkinson Lake’s 640 acres are nestled in the coniferous foothills off Highway 50 in the Pollock Pines area. Some locals say the reservoir originally was used for agricultural irrigation, so the violation went unnoticed. El Dorado Irrigation District officials say that because the reservoir has been the property of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, a federal institution, it was not subject to state laws until recently, when the district began the process of purchasing the lake. The health department’s bureau chief of Northern California drinking-water field operations, Carl Lischeske, said he brought the code violation to everyone’s attention in 2000. Lischeske became aware that people were improperly using Jenkinson Lake and potentially spreading illnesses, so he chose to enforce the code.

Don Pearson, recreation director for the district, said he was surprised to find out that people were breaking a health code; after all, Jenkinson Lake has been a popular recreation area for a long time. Pearson admitted the idea of swimming and boating in drinking water is disturbing to some people. “People are a little set back when they find out that it is our drinking water,” he said.

In June, Pearson began to enforce a preliminary ban on dogs and young children wearing diapers in the lake. Though general recreation will continue, kids in diapers and dogs are still supposed to stay out of the water, something Pearson admitted is not easy to enforce despite the district’s posted signs about the rules. He said the staff at Sly Park tries to let visitors know the rules, but that it’s difficult to enforce them when there are so many people. And, despite the ban on dogs and babies, older children and adults may continue to go to the bathroom in the water.

“How do you prevent adults or people in general from [urinating and defecating in the reservoir]?” asked Pearson. “It’s a tough one. We know people do it. The state knows people do it. What can you do?”

SB 1093 requires the district to bring its water-treatment practices to levels that comply with state health-department regulations by June 2005. But, despite the fact that the district will continue to allow people to swim in its drinking water, the district will not be required to implement any additional treatment—just meet requirements that are mandatory already.

Vargas said he believes that, ultimately, the district’s customers will pay for the decision. He said the cost for water-treatment upgrades would be in the millions of dollars and that a hike in district rates would eventually pay for those costs. He said the district’s customers should not be required to pay for Sly Park visitors’ privileges.

Additionally, Vargas said the Senate Committee on Environmental Quality commissioned a study that was overlooked in the decision about the exemption.

“It just shows how these things can get pushed through at the last minute,” he said.

The study, compiled by consultant Randy Pestor, looks at the Modesto Reservoir, one of three other exempted reservoirs in California. In 1998, the Modesto Irrigation District was granted a temporary exemption until 2004, when a study of the environmental effects will be evaluated thoroughly. Pestor pointed out that the Sly Park exemption allows for permanent recreation without any kind of evaluation and without waiting for the Modesto study to be reviewed.

Pestor also noted that the bill has no provisions for filtering gasoline or methyl tertiary butyl ether, commonly known as MTBE. Both are deposited in the water by motorboats and other watercrafts. Pestor also mentioned a study done by the Metropolitan Water District that showed an increased risk to cryptosporidia in drinking water where human immersion is allowed. The normal risk of cryptosporidium infection is one in 28,000 people; subjecting reservoirs to human feces may make the risk 20 to 140 times greater. The El Dorado Irrigation District’s customers may not be at as great a risk right now, though, because the possibility of an impending ban was publicized. Pearson said Sly Park has lost a large amount of business despite the recent exemption.

“People seemed to think we were closed, and they still aren’t coming back. Now that we have the exemption, we are dedicated to letting everyone know that we are open for business.”

Despite the fact that nearly every other drinking-water reservoir in California acknowledges the risks of contamination from human excrement, Sly Park is open for recreation—for better or for worse.

In a lighter moment, Pearson might consider posting one of those signs: “We don’t swim in your toilet; please don’t crap in our drinking water.”