Saving the sand-bottom poolby Bob Kelleher, Minnesota Public Radio
Minnesota's sand-bottom pools nearly became extinct this year. There are maybe a dozen of the pools, which resemble ponds or small lakes. State lawmakers were considering new pool regulations that were likely to shut down the popular community swimming ponds. But it now appears a compromise is likely to keep the sand-bottom pools in business, at least in the short term.
Cloquet, Minn. — Jerry Olson is leafing through a stack of papers -- the stuff accumulated over a two-year campaign to save Cloquet's aged sand-bottom swimming pool.
"This is a proposal that we gave to the parks commission, and also to the city," Olson said as he displayed a multi-page information packet.
Olson's proposal was a way to help the city out of a quandary.
Cloquet's sand-bottom pool had become too much to maintain and it closed in 2005. Now, residents have to decide whether to invest in something much more expensive, like a concrete pool or even a water park.
A sand-bottom pool is a kind of a hybrid between a conventional swimming pool and the lake, usually with some kind of water refreshment and filtering, even typical pool chemical treatment.
Jerry Olson considers the old sand-bottom pool across the street from his house something of a jewel. It's been a summertime fixture in Cloquet's Pinehurst Park for more than 30 years.
"A sand-bottom pool is like going to the lake," Olson said. "You have a sandy beach. You have a gradient of depth, so the little kids can play on the beach area and build their sand castles and play in the sand and do whatever they want to do, and yet those that are older of course have the opportunity to swim in the pond."
A typical sand pond in Minnesota, he said, has a depth from zero to six feet.
Eventually, Cloquet officials were convinced it was best to repair the pool. That only cost $1 million, while a water park could cost four times that. And, until recently, there was no conflict with state health officials. Municipal pools were outside the state's licensing and permitting authority.
But the picture was changing this spring. State lawmakers took up a pool safety bill in response to a young girl's fatal injuries from the suction of a pool drain.
The bill expands the reach of state officials to enforce both safety and health rules. Sand-bottom pools were going to have a hard time complying. City Administrator Brian Fritsinger got the bad news.
"We had asked for some clarification as to how their rules did or didn't apply to this facility, and were surprised at that point when they say their rules did apply, and this facility could not be repaired as currently sits," Fritsinger said.
Health officials say sand-bottom pools have issues. The water tends to be murky, which could hide a swimmer in trouble. There are questions about filters and chemicals and just how effective they are at keeping bad organisms out of pool water.
But the Health Department's new threat to keep the pool closed was too much for some Cloquet officials. In the words of one City Council member, it was time to "draw a line in the sand."
Fritsinger said the council voted in February to defy the Health Department and proceed with rebuilding plans.
"I think the frustration over a long and lengthy process that had been put together, trying to come to a conclusion, was very much short-circuited. And I think people were a little bit taken aback by that position that the Department of Health had," Fritsinger said.
Clearly there was a standoff brewing, and Cloquet wasn't necessarily standing alone. There are at least 11 of the pools in Minnesota, some in state parks. The pool in Washington County's Lake Elmo Park Reserve is the biggest. It draws some 80,000 visitors a season.
Instead of picking a fight, maybe it was best to reconsider the pools, according to John Stine, with the Minnesota Department of Health.
"They're kind of in a little bit of a grey zone in terms of definition of whether it's a pool or not a pool, or a pond, or a basin," Stine said.
So health officials agreed to a compromise. Language inserted into the pool bill gives sand-bottom pools at least a temporary reprieve.
"[It's] a three-year period of time to work with some of these facilities that are owned by communities and park systems, to look into what we might be able to learn over that period of time, and then develop an appropriate plan or strategy for either licensing or exemption from licensing," Stine said.
That's the green light Cloquet was looking for. If plans and cost estimates look good, they hope to have their sand-bottom pool back in service as soon as next year.
- Morning Edition, 05/02/2008, 7:50 a.m.