Each day, four times a day, John Huggins tests and retests the water quality at the 130,000-gallon outdoor pool at Hart Ranch in Rapid City.
Despite the pool supervisor's best efforts, his pool, along with more than a dozen of the city's hotels', continually fail to meet bacteria standards set by the state health department.
The Journal obtained hundreds of pages of records through a public information request. Of the 36 establishments in Rapid City with pools, about half had tests come back as "bacteriologically unsafe for swimming" this summer.
The 18 failing Rapid City hotels and motels house 36 individual pools, hot tubs or water parks. Of those, about half had tests come back positive for pseudomonas, a nasty bacteria that causes swimmer's itch and other skin or ear infections.
Huggins said this year has been particularly bad for the bacteria that can cause a rash underneath swimsuits.
"As soon as I know it's there I'm correcting all the time. I'm correcting all the time. I'm chlorinating this pool a lot," Huggins said. "What was there one day is probably not there the next. It's a very sneaky bug."
Huggins said the weekly samples are well worth the $15 paid by the resort. They then are submitted to the state Department of Health, which regulates hotel pools as part of its hotel, motel and campground licensing procedure. The health department has the authority to close pools until quality can be restored by operators.
"We've temporarily closed pools in the past that were cloudy or couldn't pass the tests," said Clark Hepper, administrator for the state's office of health protection. "Either they're from a complaint we receive or after an inspection if we find the chlorine is way out of whack."
Kate Shreves, a lab technician at Mid-Continent Testing in Rapid City, said about 10 percent of the pools tested in the region come back as bad, earning the "unsafe" rating. Most of those ratings come from the pseudomonas presence.
"Pseudomonas is ubiquitous; we all have it on our skin, that's why you should take a shower first before swimming. 99 out of 100 people do not," Shreves said. "Sometimes a pool or spa will have a problem especially the pseudomonas because it's resilient to chlorine."
Although the lab rates the pools unsafe Shreves said they are still OK to swim in, so long as the pool is aware of the problem.
"What those reports are for is to know there is a problem, and it's time to shock and do extra work," Shreves said. "I think the pools and spas in this town are safe to swim in."
Still, state epidemiologist Lon Kightlinger said the psedudomonas outbreaks can lead to serious ear infections and other problems. He said balancing a pools pH and chlorine levels to prevent the bacteria is a full-time job that can't be just "for the weekend warriors."
Records show that for many of the pools, repeated tests week after week reveal the same problem.
Joan Rose, a pool quality expert and microbiologist at Michigan State University, described pseudomonas as "an opportunistic pathogen" that likes water.
While most states test for the bacteria, most, including South Dakota, have no metric for determining what level is safe. They only report if it is present, or absent, leaving treatment up to pool operators.
"The real question is what kind of pseudomonas is it, and what is concentration," Rose said. "If you have cystic fibrosis, pseudomonas is awful. Even mild pseudomonas gets in their lungs and can cause serious illness and death. If you're a normal person, you'll get a quick infection or you'll be just fine."
Rich Dunkelberger, chief executive officer of ISIS Hospitality in Rapid City, said the indoor water park WaTiki recently installed a $100,000 UV light filtration system that zaps bacteria.
"It's an amazing way to eliminate bacteria without chemicals. We used to have to use chlorine much more and now we don't," Dunkelberger said. "It's like an insurance policy that the water will be clean and people won't get sick. In New York State it's a requirement to have UV treatment."
New York installed the law as an emergency code in response to a cryptosporidium outbreak at a Seneca Lake State Park water park in Geneva N.Y. in 2005. The outbreak reportedly sickened 4,000 people and led to a class action lawsuit.
Dunkelberger applauded the South Dakota's weekly testing rule, but said the frequent pseudomonas results around the city are likely due in part to strict testing requirements.
"The water testing protocol is the most stringent in the state I've ever seen," Dunkelberger said. "The presence of pseudomonas does not mean it's an unhealthy water body to swim in. We have never had any incidents of anyone getting sick from the water at an ISIS establishment."
The 18 establishments in Rapid City that routinely pass the tests have found a way to keep levels steady, but it takes daily maintenance, said Monte Metzger, manager of Holiday Inn Express on Cathedral Drive. Its pool inspections came back "safe," according to state records.
"The guy that does maintenance has it down to a fine science. It's the balancing, keeping the chemicals where they need to be-you can't take days off," Metzger said. "When you're in the business the pool is extremely important the last thing you want is any health issues."
Hotels and motels could be particularly susceptible to the bacteria that require massive disinfectant efforts.
A 2010 Center for Disease Control and Prevention study surveyed 121,000 pool inspections. In the industry-wide sample, hotels and motels were behind just child-care pool inspections that called for the most immediate closures.
"In pool settings where swimming is not the primary activity, the person responsible for pool operation likely has other competing responsibilities," the report said.
The report also called for more transparency and standardization of electronic inspection data.
State Department of Health data is all collected on paper, and stored in an antiquated database in Pierre. There are no laws requiring disclosure at individual hotels of their pool safety records.
"I think if we had to post the records of public and hotel pools we'd be a lot better off," Rose said. "People pay attention to that sort of thing. Hotels might also wonder ‘where do I fall compared to somebody else.' I think it would help the industry and not just the public."
Contact Nick Penzenstadler at 394-8415 or email@example.com.