MILTON-FREEWATER — Linda Hall is very hopeful that the third time will be the proverbial charm.
Hall, city manager, filled out the city council on the status of the public swimming pool last week.
Plans call for the Joe Humbert Family Aquatic Center to open on Memorial Day and remain so through Labor Day, Hall said, but that’s already been said.
The facility, which was rebuilt in 1996 after voters here approved a bond issue, has suffered mostly from age and a little from human error, officials said.
In 2019, the pool closed in late July due to a perplexing, recurring problem that kept the water cloudy. The problem, while not toxic, handicapped lifeguards trying to see swimmers in the water.
Through a process to eliminate possible causes, it was determined that the rubber coating that had been applied to the pool walls as an upgrade this spring was dissolving in the water.
Eventually, city managers and pool experts decided it made best sense to close the aquatic center and reopen next year. Refunds and holdovers have been offered to season pass holders.
Then came 2020, which brought not only a highly contagious, global pandemic, but also ongoing pool issues. The replacement coating was a delicate product, requiring certain outside temperatures for a number of days and no rain, Hall said last June. At the same time, Oregon’s COVID-19 restrictions impacted all recreational facilities and uses.
In just a few weeks, the new coating also began to fail, and smoke from regional wildfires made outdoor recreation unhealthy.
After about three weeks of operation, the pool closed early for a second year.
Water equipment experts eventually determined that the pool surface and much of the equipment had a life expectancy of about a quarter of a century and that further recoating of the plaster was not economical or operationally viable.
Last fall, Superintendent of Public Works Brian Steadman told the city that the old coating would need to be removed entirely, new heat pumps added, and a thermal cover purchased.
This allows the pool to stay filled with water just above freezing all winter to keep the plaster stable.
In fact, it always should have been, Hall would learn, but that was unknown when the pool was built in 1996.
Councilor Ed Chesnut pointed out in September that this information was also not included in the operations manual.
The Milton Freewater pool was routinely emptied after each swim season.
The resulting freezing and thawing did most of the damage to the plaster, Steadman said. Hall noted that the cost of keeping pool water above freezing is “pretty small,” even in very cold weather.
If the pool stays filled, a new coating will last for another 20 years, Steadman predicted.
While council members expressed concern about the cost, they also recognized the importance of the facility in the community and called the pool’s reopening “top priority”.
The repair bill must come from a loan against existing tax revenue, it said.
In December, the city council approved a $149,203 contract with Anderson Perry & Associates Engineering Services for resurfacing work and the replacement of defective and missing tiles.
Addressing the council again last week, Steadman said the inspection showed the grating around all sides of the pool was weakened and broken in several places. Fixing this required an additional $23,491 for an amended total repair contract of $172,694, which the council unanimously agreed to.
The city will once again contract with the Walla Walla YMCA for staffing, allowing the public pool to open earlier in the season and stay open longer, Hall said.
In addition, the facility will be looked after by a certified pool operator for the 2021 bathing season. This person is qualified to perform weekly water tests, inspections and maintenance of pumps, filters and chemical levels.
It makes the most sense to let the YMCA make this adjustment, the city manager said.
The lifeguard and pool operator staffing agreement with the Y totals $81,710 for the 102-day season.
The working budget saves the city about $6,000 per season, Hall said, and the availability of certified lifeguards means the pool can offer more private rentals and generate more revenue.
If COVID-19 or other issues force an early closure again, the city won’t have to pay for services not rendered, she added.
In her report to City Council, Hall stressed that city officials are committed to 2021 being a “full, fun season” and are working to make that a reality.
Pool repairs are expected to be completed by mid-May.