Visitors seeking relief from the heat faced swim beach closures recently at five Army Corps of Engineers parks on Beaver Lake because of unsafe levels of E. coli.
The corps on June 17 closed swim beaches at Prairie Creek, Indian Creek and Lost Bridge North parks as well as Dam Site Lake day-use swim beach and Dam Site Lake campground swim beach.
Four other swim beaches –Hickory Creek, War Eagle, Lost Bridge South and Horseshoe Bend day use — are closed because of high water or debris.
It’s the second time this swimming season high E. coli levels have caused swim beach closures. Some were closed in late May, but reopened in time for Memorial Day weekend.
Beaver isn’t the only corps reservoir that faces occasional swim beach closures, said Jay Townsend, public information officer at the corps’ Little Rock District. Moonshine Beach at Table Rock Lake is a popular spot for a dip. It has been closed previously because of E. coli, but closed most recently because of high water.
Lakes Nimrod and Blue Mountain also have faced swim beach closures, he said. E. coli is a bacteria found in the lower intestine of humans and warm-blooded animals.
There is much speculation on what causes occasional unsafe levels of the bacteria at the corps’ Beaver Lake swim beaches. Becky Roark, director of the Beaver Watershed Alliance, said research has shown that large flocks of Canada geese and failing septic systems close to the reservoir are two primary causes.
Signs of a failing septic system are water backing up or gurgling in household drains, an odor around the septic tank and drain field or bright green spongy grass growing on the drain field, according to Ozarks Water Watch (ozarkswaterwatch.org/arseptic).
Townsend pointed out large groups of people congregate and swim at the beaches. There is also more runoff into the reservoir now than there was 10, 20 or more years ago.
“A lot more development in the watershed means there’s less ground to soak up the rain,” he said. Each new housing addition, each new parking lot and street takes away dirt that soaks up moisture and grass that filters runoff.
Warm surface water temperature, in the 80s and 90s, is more ideal for unsafe bacteria levels than when the water is cold, Townsend added.
Joe Neal with the Northwest Arkansas Audubon Society said Canada geese like the corps parks and swim beaches for several reasons. They like the mowed grass close to the water. Dogs aren’t chasing the geese. Trees in the parks drop acorns and other foods for the geese to eat. People sometimes feed them.
Townsend said the corps takes measures to keep geese away, such as treating grass with a substance “that makes their bellies uncomfortable,” he said.
Landon Thurman, the corps’ chief ranger for recreation at Beaver Lake, said swim beaches closed from E. coli reopen after two consecutive tests show safe levels. Test can be done two days in a row, such as Monday and Tuesday. If water samples are taken on those days, results from the Arkansas Department of Health are usually received by Thursday or Friday, Thurman said.
“We have a schedule where we sample at the swim beaches once before the visitor season and before each holiday weekend. If we’re having a good year with safe sample results we won’t do any more. But, if not, we will. We’re doing a lot of testing this year,” he said.
Tests are done only at the corps’ designated swim beaches, not at random areas on the lake. Swim beach closures usually occur during years of spring flooding of the Beaver Lake tributaries, mainly the White and War Eagle rivers, and a resulting high water level in the reservoir.
Swimming is allowed anywhere on Beaver Lake, except at the corps’ swim beaches when they are closed. People like the designated swim beaches because they’re cordoned off with flexible plastic floating pipe to prevent entry by boats. Beach surfaces are gravel pebbles that are easy on bare feet. Picnic tables with pavilions are at some of the swim beaches.
Hunting is a primary tool in keeping game species, such as deer, from overpopulating. Hunting Canada geese is allowed at Beaver Lake during an early Canada goose season in September. The regular Canada geese hunting season is at the same time as Arkansas’ duck season in the fall and winter. Justin Hopper, an avid waterfowl hunter on the lake, said hunting pressure on the geese at Beaver is minimal.
“Those geese hang out in areas where you can’t hunt,” he said, such as at corps parks and back yards. “I’ll bet there aren’t a handful of people who hunt them, or would even take a shot at one. I hope that changes.”
Flip Putthoff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org