Despite sewage spills, popular Oakland lake reopens for swimming

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The sun is shining. School is out. And nothing says summer solstice better than a swim in a lake.

One of Oakland’s most popular lakes – Lake Temescal – is now open for enjoyment and East Bay Regional Park District officials are hoping for a great season.

“It’s a gem to be able to be so close to a large urban area and be able to go swimming in a lake,” said Becky Tuden, environmental services manager for the East Bay Regional Park District.

Despite the optimistic outlook, the lake – first opened to the public in 1936 – has had its share of troubles: Four years of closures because of high levels cyanobacteria, caused mostly by warming waters and an excess of urban runoff, such as oil, gas, fertilizers and pesticides. Even on Friday, there was a cautionary advisory that the toxins were present in the lake.

But other problems, not so well publicized, have also plagued the lake that sits along highways 24 and 13 and which has been a favorite spot for locals to splash, swim laps and hold birthday parties. Between 80,000 to 120,000 gallons of sewage has spewed into the lake over the last half decade, according to an analysis by 2 Investigates and numbers tallied by an Alameda County Grand Jury. 

Lake Temesecal isn’t the only victim of Oakland’s aging sewer system. 2 Investigates found that nearly 250,000 gallons of sewage overflowed  onto Oakland city streets and into waterways in 2016-17, the most recent data available.  That was a 729 percent increase from the previous fiscal year.  In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency fined Oakland $226,500 last year for violating a consent decree and letting untreated sewage flow – containing E. coli and other toxins -- into San Francisco Bay over a roughly three-year period.  

And the sewage issues persist.

In April, 22,500 gallons of fecal matter and coliform bacteria flowed from the 7000 block of Thorndale Drive down into Lake Temescal for five days, according to state water records. The cause was an act of vandalism, according to Oakland’s Department of Public Works, when someone removed a pole, leaving the main sewer line fully exposed, allowing the system to plug and discharge.

Oakland’s Department of Public Works spokesmen Sean Maher said that as soon as the city was aware of the issue on April 14, crews began to repair the broken pipe and put up required “raw sewage” signs across the park. But the excavation took five days, he explained, because it was all done by hand digging and the location was inaccessible by vehicles and equipment. 

Interactive map: Significant sewage spills

Then, in mid-June, high levels of E. coli appeared for an unknown reason, causing the park district to close the lake again for several days. On June 14, the E. coli levels reached as high as 4600 in some parts of the lake. The state water quality maximum is 235 per 100 ml for safe swimming. On June 19, however, the levels dropped to below the maximum and park district officials felt it was safe to open the lake. 

"We have a rigorous testing program,” Tuden said. “We take safety very seriously and we have a very robust testing program. "If the lake is open and there are lifeguards there -- it is definitely safe to swim."

She said that crews do a visual inspection every day and conduct water tests twice a week. And although plenty of people have complained of rashes after swimming in the lake, Tuden insists that there have been no major illnesses reported from people who have used the lake in recent history. 

Tuden added: “This is a beautiful lake. This is a gem. I don't want to do it a disservice by telling the people of the city of Oakland that they shouldn't swim here because they absolutely should. It's a beautiful public resource."

Despite all this, a few people were out enjoying the lake on Thursday. 

Catherine Symens-Bucher took the children in her care for a dip in the water. “We are super excited,” she said. “It’s really useful for me just to be able to pack up the car and drive down here and have a place that feels safe where they can come and swim and have fun."

She said she isn’t particular worried about the raw sewage, and she also “trusts that the park system is on top of that and they let us know when it's not safe."

Seasoned swimmer Bill Ahern of Piedmont was fearless as he headed into the lake, adding that he was unphased by news of the contamination.

“This is the best public swimming place in the area in my book,” he said. “It's beautiful."

As for the earlier sewage? No biggie. 

"I've had a rash or two,” Ahern acknowledged. “So as long as you just shower, I've been OK."