Swimmers daring enough to wade into the frigid water of Flathead Lake have a new ally in finding the clearest and cleanest swimming holes as a local swim coach and researcher work together to test water quality.
The project began last July with three testing locations in Polson.
Volunteer Mark Johnston with Flathead Lake Open Water Swimmers collects samples from each site and takes them back to the Flathead Lake Biological Station for testing.
Once in the hands of Freshwater Research Lab manager Adam Baumann, the samples undergo testing for E. coli, a hazardous bacteria that can enter the water from feces of any warm-blooded animal, including the waterfowl and other species that call the lake home.
The results are then uploaded to a website and app called Swim Guide, where anyone can view them when deciding where to swim.
According to Baumann, E. coli is one of the most common bacteria found in water bodies and poses one of the greatest risks to human health when present in large quantities. It is also, he said, one of the easiest bacteria to test for and serves as an indicator of the potential presence of other harmful bacteria.
Over the 2017 summer, Johnston and his team collected water samples from three locations 10 times, uploading the results to the app each time.
“I have a vested interest down here because I live here and I swim at one of the beaches, so it’s super relevant to me,” Johnston said.
This year, Johnston and a couple other volunteers have doubled the number of testing sites with permission and help from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes to test on tribal beaches.
Testing now takes place in Elmo, Blue Bay, King’s Point, Salish Point, Boettcher Park and Riverside Park.
Though Johnston and Baumann have only completed two rounds of testing so far this year, results from all six sites are available on Swim Guide.
Swim Guide displays up-to-date information, including not only the water quality for those six locations but also the water temperature, level, depth and other useful statistics in real time.
Johnston said within the first season of the project, the number of Montanans who had downloaded the app jumped from two to 400.
With such information readily available and interest in the project growing, Johnston said he hopes it will one day allow people to compare Flathead Lake to lakes in other regions and draw more people to the area.
“I would like to know that the places I’m swimming and am recommending people swim, I can be confident that it is clean and safe,” Johnston said.
“And then I would like to be able to say compared to other lakes, how does Flathead rate? I’d like to be able to say that, in fact, this is the cleanest lake in the world or the cleanest lake west of the Mississippi,” he added.
One issue the project faces, however, is the lack of state standards for water quality in swimming areas and how much E. coli must be present before an area can be labeled unsafe for public recreation.
Most coastal states and states bordering the Great Lakes maintain their own strict standards of water quality and safety in swimming areas in accordance with federal law. However, a landlocked state like Montana must take it upon itself to set and regulate its own standards.
Montana, so far, has none.
However, by comparing the results of tests taken over the last year from swimming areas in Polson to those standards held by other states, Johnston said Flathead Lake is “incredibly safe” for swimming.
Of the 50 tests done so far in six locations, Johnston said around 90 percent came back with good results. The 10 percent that showed signs of potentially concerning of E. coli, he said, were consistent with warm, low-wind conditions and a higher population of waterfowl in the area.
Once the wind picked up and mixed the water, however, those same places came back as almost 100 percent clean and clear.
Still, those results have no official grounds for comparison in Montana and come from only a handful of testing sites due to a lack of funding and volunteers for the project.
Baumann said that is where citizen participation has the potential to change the game.
Anyone can take a sample, he said. All it takes is an interest from the public in the quality of water in the lake and an investment in its protection.
As more people come forward with an interest in helping collect water samples from various locations, Johnston said he hopes to expand the testing sites to other popular swimming areas around the lake, including Somers, Lakeside and Woods Bay.
Johnston hopes that with continued testing in more places, lawmakers will one day look to their results and implement a set of water quality standards for Montana.
First, however, Johnston said it’s going to take some public buy-in.
Though sample collection takes around two minutes to complete, it takes Johnston around two hours to make the rounds between the six sites by himself.
Samples must then be tested within four to five hours after collection to ensure accurate results, limiting the range of Johnston’s collection base.
Each sample costs around $35 and 24 hours to complete, according to Baumann, meaning more funding will also be needed to further expand the project.
“If you get people interested and excited and teach them how, you have a lot of people working together on something they care about,” Baumann said.
Those interested in donating or volunteering with the project can contact Johnston at email@example.com or (303) 887-3930. Visit the Swim Guide online at www.theswimguide.org.
Reporter Mary Cloud Taylor can be reached at 758-4459 or firstname.lastname@example.org.