: How Safe is White Rock Lake’s Water?

A recent request by windsurfers caused the city to test the lake’s water quality. But bacteria concerns may keep a ban in place.

By Lauren Lewis

Shana Wilcox has lived near White Rock Lake her entire life. She has biked there, kayaked there, and is pleased to see the waters dotted with sailboats and fishermen along the lake’s edge.

However, for 34-year-old Wilcox, those sailors and kayakers and fishermen reminder her that one group is missing.

Her group — windsurfers.

Unless it’s a special event, you won’t see any windsurfers on White Rock Lake. Why? Because, officials say, windsurfers have more direct contact with the water than other lake users — and the lake’s water may not be safe enough for that much contact.

City officials say they can’t be sure how much bacteria is harbored in the lake, particularly a bacteria called fecal coliform, which is derived from the intestines of warm-blooded animals. Exposure to this bacteria (such as swallowing significant amounts of lake water or having water come in contact with an open cut on skin) could result in viral infection and other illnesses such as typhoid fever and Hepatitis A. Airborne and incidental water contact aren’t considered high risk, city officials say.

So windsurfing — and any other activity involving direct contact with the water, such as swimming — is banned at White Rock Lake.

Currently, Wilcox and other area enthusiasts windsurf at far-away lakes such as Ray Hubbard in Rockwall. But they would prefer to be at White Rock.

“I’ve been a resident of White Rock Lake since I was four years old. My parents live there. I would love to see it [windsurfing] added to the sports that we already enjoy there now,” Wilcox says.

So this summer, with the support of several other windsurfers, she brought a presentation to city officials, including Councilman Gary Griffith and Park Board leader Paul Dyer, to convince them to permit the sport on the lake.

But what about the water quality?

Wilcox admits she has concerns about bacteria levels, but she and other windsurfers believe contact with the water would be comparable with those kayaking on White Rock Lake.

“We don’t want to put ourselves in harm’s way,” says Amy Tsamis, a fellow windsurfer. “If we didn’t think there was a reason for us to be there, we wouldn’t push for it. With windsurfing, there is no more incidental contact with water than with kayaking or fishing. Windsurfing is sailing — not swimming.”

Although Wilcox’s presentation didn’t persuade officials to permit windsurfing on White Rock Lake, her efforts did get them to commit to a series of water quality tests.

“We’re hoping these tests will give us what’s needed to lift the ban,” says Willis Winters of the Parks Department.

Since June, the Dallas Water Department has been conducting monthly tests for fecal coliform at six points in the lake — sites city employees believe are most representative of the entire body of water, from the best to the worst in terms of quality.

The samples are being taken at the spillway, Tokalon Park, mid-lake, the Bath House, Mockingbird Lane and Northwest Highway.

Officials have discovered the northern portions of the lake yield a higher content of coliform; this was expected because of a floodplain that attracts more wildlife such as squirrels and raccoons.

To obtain a better picture of the overall situation, the water tests had to be conducted for several months, says Water Department Assistant Director Charles Stringer.

“One sample doesn’t give you the answer you’re looking for,” Stringer says.

In warmer months there is less rainfall, he says, which leaves the water stagnant, yielding higher pollution levels. However, he says, this year because of the higher-than-usual rainfall, the results may not be typical.

“If there is a lot of rain — prolonged rain — it flushes out [the bacteria] and cleanses the water. But if there is a drought and then heavy rainfall — that might degrade the water quality because of runoff,” Stringer says. “This year, we had one day after the other [of rain].”

So far the results from June through October show relatively low levels of fecal coliform overall, with numbers a little higher in the summer months. Although the numbers are low, they still show the bacteria present, which is enough to concern the city, Stringer says.

“The water quality is not great, but it’s not terrible either. From what I saw, the southern region is better than the northern. The question is: Is it good enough? I’m not sure I want to come into contact with it.”

Officials plan to meet again this month to discuss the results.

Wilcox says she and other windsurfers are willing to compromise, depending on the results, adding that they wouldn’t be opposed to windsurfing parts of the lake where water quality is acceptable. She has also suggested that if the levels fluctuate throughout the months, that White Rock might follow the practice of places such as the Great Lakes in the Midwest and close the lake for contact recreation if the bacteria levels are high.

Stringer says restricting windsurfers to the southern region of the lake, as well as regulating the months that the sport is allowed, are both items that should be considered.

Stringer says a compromise with the windsurfers might be reached, especially if the surfers take personal responsibility.

“If [windsurfers] use a wetsuit and take precautions with water contact — try to minimize their exposure — the risks are minimal, but not zero. I don’t know anywhere where the risks are zero. But that [fecal coliform] bacteria — it can be very bad.”

Stringer says that steps could be taken to improve the water quality upstream — but the area’s natural wildlife contributes greatly to the fecal coliform levels.

“And you don’t want to eradicate those species,” Stringer says.

Another option, he says, is to introduce an aeration system to the lake, which helps purify the water.

“I don’t know about the cost-effect of a treatment system, but it would help with the water quality.”

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