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Despite warnings, Vancouver Lake draws swimmers

Vancouver Lake was primarily green — and slimy — Sunday afternoon, but that didn’t leave swimmers feeling blue.

“The water kind of feels like your bathwater after a while,” said Akia O’Malley of Portland. “I didn’t come out looking like the Hulk, so that’s all right.”

Clark County Public Health temporarily closed the lake Tuesday to swimmers and waders after finding elevated levels of E. coli bacteria during routine testing. On Thursday, the lake was reopened after levels had fallen, and an advisory about blue-green algae, which the health department has monitored since June 12, was downgraded from a warning to caution.

On Sunday, people flocked to local beaches as temperatures eclipsed 90 degrees. When prompted about why they chose Vancouver Lake, swimmers acknowledged the state of the water but were either not fully aware or dismissive of the health advisories.

“The only reason I got in the water is because it’s hot and we drove all the way out here,” O’Malley said.

E. coli, a bacteria from human and animal intestines, can cause serious gastrointestinal illness with symptoms such as fever, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, which occasionally can be bloody. County Public Health Officer Dr. Alan Melnick said last week that a microscopic amount of fecal matter in the water can cause illness.

“Yeah, I’ve heard there’s been some E. coli out here before. I’m still not going to drink the water,” Don Wood of Vancouver said while floating on an inner tube.

Blue-green algae, or cyanotoxins, can be harmful to people, especially small children, and deadly for small pets who drink the water. It can cause skin and eye irritation, nausea, vomiting and, in some cases, kidney and liver damage.

Still, the shallow lake was inviting for some.

“It’s real chill,” Elizabeth Watson of Portland said of the lake. “I’m surprised there aren’t more people out here, but maybe that’s why.”

Several signs from the health department cautioned against swimming in scummy areas, drinking the water and letting pets swim. Swimming was allowed for people of all ages, however.

“I didn’t see any of the signs, so I don’t know what I’m swimming in,” Wood said.

Watson, who grew up in Vancouver, played with her daughter Paige, 1, who was one of several children in the lake. Her mother said that after hearing about the advisories, she would be more concerned about effects on dogs than humans.

“First real nice day in a while, so just trying to soak it up before it goes away again,” Watson said. “She loves it. She’s giggling.”

A string of warm, dry weather with temperatures rising above 90 degrees on consecutive days likely accelerated the initial algae growth this year, Melnick said in June. Its presence led to the cancellation of the Paddle for Life Dragon Boat Races in July.

Last year, by contrast, the lake was not placed under a blue-green algae advisory until late July.

The Monahan family of Portland was hoping to go to Frenchman’s Bar Regional Park, but it was crowded. Instead, they drove to the lake and paid the parking fee to enjoy the sunny day in the water.

A few people in the family had been to the lake before, once for a wedding. They said the condition of the lake Sunday was a far cry from where it was just last summer.

“It’s slimy. It’s nasty,” Dawn Monahan said.

Patricia Monahan didn’t seem eager to test that.

“I’m not going into that water,” she said. “They’re charging you to come into this filth. I’m not real happy about it.”

Several people said they would not return to the lake. One of them was O’Malley, who had just learned of the E. coli issue.

“Now I feel all weird when you say that,” O’Malley said. “I’m not coming back here.”


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