The water was clear from where Jim Marx stood inside a rowboat just off the shore of Collins Lake.
But when his college-age summer workers started to flail their arms and swim about, the water turned turbid.
“It didn’t look too good,” said Marx, the village’s parks superintendent. “We had a good 4 feet until they started to move around, and then we went down to 2, and it wasn’t settling out very quickly.”
After using a Secchi disc to test the water and enlisting five employees to mimic 50 swimmers Friday afternoon, Marx wasn’t optimistic the beach would open this summer for the first time since Tropical Storm Irene flooded it in August 2011.
To pass the county Health Department’s inspections and open it to swimmers, the water must yield 4 feet of visibility at all times. That’s to ensure lifeguards can see swimmers when they’re underwater.
Marx stopped short of saying the beach wouldn’t open for a fourth straight year because he still has to go over the results with the Health Department next week.
“But it doesn't look good at all,” he said. “I'd say it's unlikely that it'll happen this year. … I don't know what options are available at this point, other than not opening.”
Marx said Friday’s testing yielded similar results as last year’s, which kept the beach closed for a third straight summer. The water looked clear at first then, but as soon as swimmers started moving the water around, it became cloudy, he said.
“That’s not adequate,” he said. “The visibility has to be adequate while people are swimming, the busiest time of the day.”
Technically, according to Health Departments regulations, the beach could open, but as soon as the water got murky, it would have to close again.
“And that makes no sense,” Marx said. “You can’t have a bunch of people swimming in here, have them start swimming for a half hour, and then say everybody leave.”
Friday’s testing targeted about 1,600 square feet of the 11,250-square-foot swimming area. Last winter, village crews spread four inches of sand, or 25 tons, over the ice in that spot in an effort to subdue the clay sediment that’s making the lake too cloudy for public use. The sand melted to the bottom as planned, but the sediment particles were so fine, they easily migrated up through the sand when the parks workers started swimming Friday, Marx said.
“So that experiment really was not successful,” he said.
It wasn’t the village’s first experiment in clearing up the swimming area, which became inundated with the sediment when Irene sent the Mohawk River’s waters flooding into the lake and throughout the park. In 2012, the village treated the lake with alum, a chemical compound that clumps sediment particles together and pushes them to the bottom of the lake. In 2013, it stopped treating the lake with a weed-killing chemical called Sonar in hopes the plants would grow and tie up some of the sediment.
Marx said a Union College geology professor, Don Rodbell, took a core sample from the lake after Irene and found the storm historically troublesome for the water’s clarity. Using the sample, he was able to go back 700 years and found 100-year floods would typically deposit one to two centimeters of sediment in the lake, Marx said.
“Irene deposited 14 centimeters,” he said, “so this is unprecedented in 700 years, and we’re trying to do what we can, but sometimes you’re just not going to win this battle. You have to let Mother Nature run its course.”
And that’s not always easy, Marx said.
Village Mayor Kris Kastberg said Thursday he hoped the testing might yield better results. He said then if the water was clear enough, the village would hire lifeguards and the beach could be open in time for the Fourth of July holiday weekend.
“We’d love to be open,” said Marx as the sun beat down on Schenectady County’s only public beach. “You come down here on an evening, on a night like this, I mean, where else are you going to go in this area and find something like this?”