The Utah County Health Department issued a temporary water quality advisory for Highland Glen Park after state water quality experts found high levels of waterborne pathogens in the pond at the Utah County park.

Highland city officials announced on Aug. 7 that Utah Division of Water Quality (DWQ) specialists found levels of E. coli above the safe recreation threshold in water samples of the Highland Glen Park pond, which sits behind Lone Peak High School, and warned swimmers and other recreators to take precaution when visiting the park.

“Do NOT ingest the water,” city officials wrote. “Do NOT go swimming or wading in the pond. Wash your hands after handling water or fish.”

On Aug. 5, a team of state water quality specialists took samples at the Highland Glen Park pond and found E. coli levels at 550 most probable number (MPN) of bacterial density per 100 milliliters (mL), which is above the state water quality criteria of 409 MPN per 100 mL, according to Kate Fickas, an aquatic biologist and coordinator of the DWQ’s recreational health advisory program.

When water quality officials took follow-up samples the next day, they found the bacterial density had “more than doubled” to 1,300 MPN per 100 mL, Fickas said in an interview Thursday, at which point the DWR recommended that the Utah County Health Department issue a warning advisory and post signs around the pond.

“Our team was out again two days ago and found that the levels were at 460 (MPN per 100 mL),” said Fickas. “So they had come down some, but they were still above that 409 threshold. So the advisory remains.”

Fickas said the public health concerns with the E. coli found in the Highland Glen Park pond and in other water bodies are “not the same necessarily as foodborne E. coli issues” but said the presence of E. coli in water is an indicator of fecal bacteria that “can cause really severe GI (gastrointestinal) issues like diarrhea, vomiting, fever, cramps, that kind of thing.”

“The type of E. coli that we look for in water bodies is actually not what we’re specifically concerned about,” said Fickas. “It’s called an indicator bacteria, meaning if we find it in a water body, it means there’s likely fecal contamination, because this type of E. coli lives in human intestinal tracts.”

Exposure to fecal bacteria can also cause “severe GI issues” in pets and wild animals, according to Fickas, who added that “dogs generally are not as susceptible to these very severe GI issues that humans have when it comes to these fecal bacterias” but can be the cause of the contamination.

To reduce or prevent exposure to waterborne pathogens, the DWQ recommends on its website to avoid contact with any water bodies where an advisory has been issued and “assume all surface waters contain some E. coli whether or not it has been monitored or an advisory has been issued,” meaning recreators should never swallow water or touch their mouth or eyes after swimming in a reservoir, lake or pond.

“In terms of recreators and people swimming and recreating at the beach and in the water, the biggest thing they can do is making sure they don’t swallow the water while they’re swimming,” Fickas said. “If they’re playing in the water, kids are playing in the water, if they’re eating afterwards and making sure that they wash their hands immediately, and that’s washing hands with clean water, not reservoir water. Using hand sanitizer works as well.

“Unlike HABs (harmful algal blooms), which do present an issue where you can get a rash or worry about exposure just from simply swimming in them, these waterborne pathogens are very preventable from contacting if you don’t swallow the water and you make sure you wash your hands after contact,” she added.

For more information about how to keep safe from E. coli and waterborne pathogens, visit http://deq.utah.gov/water-quality/e-coli-faqs.

Connor Richards covers government, the environment and south Utah County for the Daily Herald. He can be reached at crichards@heraldextra.com and 801-344-2599.

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