Fecal contamination doesn’t keep people away at Gull Lake

Elevated levels of fecal bacteria detected at three central Alberta lakes

Elevated levels of fecal bacteria at Gull Lake’s Aspen Beach didn’t keep people away over the weekend.

Lacombe resident Connie Sage said her family has a permanent camping spot in the area, and has been coming to the beach for more than a decade.

On Sunday evening, she was at the beach, but not in the water.

“I am seeing other people go in the water and it’s crazy,” she said.

At one point, she advised a family not to let their kids go in the water, but the parents didn’t listen.

“I just said, ‘I don’t think you should be letting your kids go in there,’ and their kids were still out there swimming.

“They don’t believe it, I think.”

The Alberta Health Services’ recommendation not to swim in three central Alberta lakes will last at least two weeks.

The advisory is in effect for Gull Lake at Aspen Beach, Buffalo Lake at Rochon Sands and Zeiner Park Beach at Pigeon Lake.

“That’s based on fact that the advisory isn’t rescinded until we get two weeks of normal results. It could be more than a of couple of weeks,” said Digby Horne, one of three medical officers of health for the agency’s central zone.

Sage said she’s never seen such an advisory before.

“There are others, like Pigeon Lake, that have had advisories, but this lake, we have never seen it have one.”

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the usual testing of the lakes has been scaled back in the province. Under normal circumstances, there would be more testing, and probably more advisories, said Horne.

There are no advisories for Sylvan and Pine Lake. Horne said the two lakes have been sampled as well.

The problem is blamed on elevated levels of fecal bacteria.

At the current levels, a gastrointestinal illness may result from contact with the water and there is the possibility of skin, ear and eye infections.

“Those generally aren’t really severe, but nobody wants to get sick unnecessarily,” said Horne.

“In terms of prioritizing the lab’s resources, the priority would have to be COVID at this point.”

If individuals do decide to swim in the water, they should avoid contact with the face and mouth and ensure hands are washed after being in the water, says AHS.

The source of fecal contamination at Gull Lake is undetermined. What’s known is the level of enterococcus bacteria – whether that’s from birds, or animals or people – reached high levels, triggering the advisory.

Buffalo Lake has tested positive for an additional marker, along with enterococcus bacteria: human feces bacteria, which could be due to failing septic systems around the area, or even swimmers.

“This is not unheard of,” said Horne. “When you combine runoff, or warm water, (possibly) failing septic system, sometimes you get the right combination.

“I think if you do have contamination, warm temperatures could also be a factor.

“As testing continues weekly, we will be able to have some kind of idea whether it’s one off or a continuing issue.”

Horne could not be certain whether the entire Buffalo and Gull lakes are contaminated, or just the beach area.

“It may be more the beach area because of more runoff coming into the edges. You may have septic systems at certain places, animal or birds congregating at certain places, or bathers.

“How far out that contamination goes, we don’t know.”

AHS says public health officers will continue to monitor the water, and signage has been posted at the beaches.


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