If and when those counts grow, either this year or in years to come, the city will no longer close the beach, but instead raise a flag.
“It is a simple red flag or green flag,” said Rob Baumgarn, Willmar Parks and Recreation Director.
The flag system may be implemented sometime this season but will be in use for certain in 2021.
City staff from the Wastewater Treatment Plant test the water of Foot Lake weekly from Memorial Day to Labor Day for the bacteria, which comes from the digestive tract of all warm-blooded animals, such as humans, dogs and geese. Fecal matter that reaches the lake water, usually washed in by rainfall, causes the bacterial count to rise.
If the fecal bacteria count is higher than 200 colonies per 100 milliliters of water, the city would close the beach. Under the new system, it will raise a red flag, alerting the public of the possible health risk of swimming in the water.
“The beach isn’t closed, the fecal count is high,” Baumgarn said.
While the bacteria is not harmful, it could indicate more harmful bacteria and pathogens are likely present in the water, since those too come from fecal matter. Symptoms of recreational water illness from such germs include diarrhea, vomiting and stomach cramps.
When the fecal bacteria is above 200 in Foot Lake, the city will test the water daily until it is again under the threshold. Once the count drops below 200, a green flag will be raised at the beach, alerting the public that the water is again safe to swim in, based on Environmental Protection Agency guidelines.
Permanent signage will be installed at the beach, instructing visitors on what the flags mean as well as sharing other water safety tips. Staff will also update the city’s website and social media channels regarding the water quality at the lake.
Willmar is one of only a handful of Minnesota cities that test its lake water as a public health service, Baumgarn said. The city is also looking into other ways to improve the beach and lake. This could include installing geese deterrents such as silhouettes of dogs that move, which should scare geese away. Underbrush around the beach has also been cut back.
But what has helped the most this year has been park users themselves. The highest fecal count reported this year has been 61, most weeks it’s in the single digits.
“The geese have stayed away because of the increased traffic there,” along with the construction of the new fishing pier and four-season shelter, Baumgarn said.
Keeping the beach and lake clean is just part of the city’s vision for Robbin Island Regional Park. In August, construction will begin on the sales tax-funded project that will bring improvements to the park’s road and parking lots.
Baumgarn said the Invest in Willmar local option sales tax Robbins Island subcommittee is continuing discussions on what other improvements might find their way to the Island.
“It is going to be a destination,” Baumgarn said. “It is going to look really good in a couple of years.”