The Collegian
Thursday, May 23, 2024

UR Curious: Is Westhampton Lake actually unsafe to swim in?

UR Curious is back! We asked readers to send in their questions about the University of Richmond. We picked five of them, and our reporters have found the answers for you. One question and answer will be published each day this week. Read the other stories in the series here. And keep being curious.

People are unable to swim in or recreationally use Westhampton Lake because it contains levels of E. coli and total coliform bacteria that are above the Environmental Protection Agency's limits for recreational use, David McCoy, the chief of police and associate vice president of public safety, said in an email.

According to the Washington State Department of Health, total coliform bacteria is common in the environment, and E. coli is a subgroup of fecal coliform. 

The presence of E. coli implies that there is an untreated sewage source, Chris Stevenson, the chair of the chemistry department, said. If there is raw sewage, then there would be high levels of E. coli, he said. 

“What I heard was that it was actually human coliform -- not necessarily from dog poop,” Stevenson said. 

No one from University Facilities could be contacted to confirm if human fecal matter was the cause of the total coliform bacteria.

The Westhampton Lake is impacted by a geographical runoff from the area, McCoy said in the email. 

“On a regular basis we test water samples from the lake,” he said. 

Stevenson began working at the university in 1993, and he recalled a time when kayak races took place in the lake during parents weekend in the 1990s. 

Peter Smallwood, an associate professor of biology who started at the university in 1997, did not remember a time when people could swim in the Westhampton Lake. 

“I’m sure that they do a good job of trying to manage our little ecosystem there,” Stevenson said about University Facilities. 

The university started dredging and using aerators to improve the quality of the lake, Stevenson said. 

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“The problem they are trying to address is a common water pollution problem: eutrophication,” he said. 

Eutrophication occurs when the decomposition of nutrients uses a lot of oxygen in a body of water, resulting in decreased oxygen levels. It is caused by nutrient pollution like pesticides and sewage, Stevenson said. 

In the summer when it is warm, the lake stratifies and divides into two layers. The bottom layer does not come into contact with the oxygen in the air, and the algae begins to die and decompose at the bottom of the lake, which uses the oxygen and causes the oxygen levels to fall. This cycle can cause the lake to smell, Stevenson said. 

“So what the aerator does is try to keep the oxygen levels up and tries to mix the lake so that it won’t stratify,” he explained. 

One of the effects of eutrophication is an increase in sediment at the bottom of the lake, he said. Dredging, which scoops mud and sediment up from the bottom of the lake, helps keep the lake from filling in, Stevenson said. The dredging process used to happen every three years, then every other year, and now it happens every year, Smallwood said. Without dredging, the Westhampton Lake would eventually turn into a swamp, he said. 

“The struggle to keep the lake clear is getting worse and worse,” Smallwood said. 

Smallwood thought the increase in algae and duckweed growth could be related to fertilization, and the longer and hotter summers in Richmond, he said. 

“Things like aerators, or anything even that kills algae, are just sort of treating the symptoms,” Stevenson said. “The ultimate cause is nutrient pollution. … Of course if the university doesn’t control the source of nutrient pollution, then that’s all they can do.”

Contact senior news writer Victoria Davis at

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