MILTON-FREEWATER — At their regular meeting in mid-March, City Council members here directed staff to further explore improving swimming conditions of the public pool.
A group of residents who attended the meeting alerted city officials that the water in the Joe Humbert Family Aquatic Center is too cold for safe and comfortable swimming.
The facility has been the topic of discussions at the city level for several years as problems with the pool’s rubber coating emerged in 2019 and again in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic and smoke from wildfires also contributed to an early closure in the 2020 season.
Repairs and upgrades were made with the lion’s share of a $500,000 Parks and Recreation bond passed in 2018, meaning other targets of that funding were left off the work list.
Milton-Freewater will seek a second, voter-authorized $500,000 on the May 17 ballot.
As part of the aquatic center refresh, last summer the council and city officials presented potential pool-heating options at a public meeting to see how residents wanted to spend money left from the 2018 tax measure.
Options presented then included installation of four heat pumps at a cost of $140,000, adding two heat pumps to be used only during the summer at $72,000 or the purchase of a solar thermal cover that would keep pool water above freezing level.
City Manager Linda Hall reported the thermal cover was considered then to be the best solution for the money.
In February’s City Council meeting, resident Markie McRae raised the issue of the pool water’s too-cold temperature. Two weeks ago, she was joined by several other people who share the concern.
The group’s spokesperson, John Mitchell, stood at the microphone during public comment, telling council members the thermal cover has been inadequate for heating, and Milton-Freewater’s city pool is uninviting to swimmers.
Mitchell referred to city records showing that even when the outdoors heated up in the third week of last July, the pool did not get warmer than 69 degrees and was as low as 56 degrees on one morning.
And that was after water leaks had been fixed, he added.
“We are not asking for bath water but water that is comfortable and healthy,” Mitchell said, noting that swimming in water below 64 degrees can lead to cardiac arrest.
Swimming in water cooler than 70 degrees increases heart rate and blood pressure; temperatures below the 78-86 degrees recommended by experts can lead to muscle spasms and hypothermia.
“I’d be worried about liability issues at letting people swim at 64 degrees,” he said.
Children, with less body mass, are at greater risk for hypothermia. Cold water increases fear of water for beginning swimmers and decreases competency, Mitchell told the council.
When saying yes to the 2018 Parks and Recreation bond, voters understood the money would not only fix leaks but would pay for heat pumps to make the pool more usable, he pointed out.
“We fear for the success of a new levy.”
Mitchell and others encouraged the council to “finish the job” it began with the earlier pool repairs, pointing out that heater prices will continue to rise.
Others echoed Mitchell and added that when voters approved a new pool in 1995, it was community elders ensuring that children could reach swimming competency.
It is “heart wrenching” to drive past the facility and see “virtually no attendance,” said educator Jacque Fox.
Mardi Hagerman minced no words in her presentation.
Hagerman said she grew up in Milton-Freewater and was part of the “extraordinary” swim team here during that era.
The pool is set in Yantis Park, built in the 1960s and dedicated to community leader Dick Yantis. The very first swimming pool built there was heated, Hagerman noted, “and that was a giant step.”
In 1995, Hagerman, who has worked in medicine for decades, chaired the campaign to replace the first facility with a modern one; the community overwhelmingly voted for a new, heated pool that year, she said.
Now the city pool has the same water temperature as Wallowa Lake, which is filled with the water from mountain snow packs, she said.
Hagerman asked the council to consider the guidelines issued by the American Red Cross in determining what water temperature should be for swimmers, saying it does not make sense for the community to not have a heated pool.
The aquatic center bond in 1995 was based on having a such a swimming center, Hagerman added.
“We worked very hard to make that pool a success. Pools do not make money, but they do make communities.”
While a thermal cover can help retain heat, those cannot add heat, the group said.
Hagerman reminded the room that in the summer of 1996, the community had no pool as the current one was being built.
“Three young boys went swimming in the river … One drowned, one was on life support and one survived.”
Hall said Milton-Freewater subsidizes the pool’s operating costs at about $240,000 a year now. As well, other residents are also pushing for things like a dog park and golf course improvements, and the pool people must be ready to defend their interest, the city manager said.
Council President Steve Irving told the pool group that council members would go to work on the issue, including checking if heaters can be found at an accessible price, and that the council is likely to make a decision in its April meeting.
In other council action, members approved measures that include the following:
- A contract with Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation for $84,200 to provide a driver and maintenance for the city-owned bus that runs three daily trips to the Walla Walla area, effective through Dec. 31.
- A request from the Milton-Freewater Kiwanis Club to serve alcohol in Yantis Park for a May 21 fundraiser brew fest that will include family activities and food trucks.
- To accept recent audit findings, which yielded “clean results and accurate statements.”
- Application for a grant of $114,000 from Oregon’s Parks and Recreation for Yantis Park improvements. A successful application would require the city to match it with at least $76,000 in a combination of cash, labor, equipment and supplies.
- Purchase of a 2020 Freightliner dump truck with snow plow capability for $99,059; $25,000 for a fingerprint scanner for the police department; $24,685 for cyber security software; $30,398 for labor costs related to COVID-19.
- Agreement with the Umatilla County Special Library District, potentially resulting in about $55,000 added to city coffers.
- Amending street opening fees from $100 to $150 minimum to facilitate utility work underneath roadways.
All approvals were unanimous. Council member Brad Humbert was absent. The Milton-Freewater City Council meets again at 7 p.m., April 11, in the Albee Room of the public library, 8 SW Eighth Ave.