Stormwater Ponds and Irrigation Canals

sugarhous park pond

Sugarhouse Park Retention Pond, Salt Lake City. Photo by Stephanie Young Merzel

A local pond or irrigation canal that looks inviting for a quick swim on a hot summer day may contain waterborne pathogens that can make people sick. The public, particularly children, often view urban and suburban ponds and irrigation canals as play areas, but they aren’t.

Stormwater Ponds

Stormwater detention and retention ponds control flooding, provide additional storage capacity during rain events, and treat stormwater runoff through the slow release of pollutants into the ground. Stormwater runoff picks up everything it contacts, including:

  • Bacteria
  • Chemicals
  • Pet waste
  • Oil
  • Dirt
  • Fertilizer

Stormwater detention and retention ponds are engineered to trap stormwater runoff and give pollutants and sediment an opportunity to settle into the soils below. Since these ponds trap runoff and release pollutants slowly, they can accumulate unhealthy concentrations of pathogens and chemicals. Waterborne pathogens found in these ponds may originate from the runoff or come from urban wildlife and waterfowl that introduce additional fecal contamination.

Retention (wet) ponds, in particular, are not intended for recreational use. These ponds may appear as decorative features in urban parks or suburban developments, but their primary purpose isn’t to beautify the landscape. Some stormwater ponds are stocked with fish and include boat ramps, but that doesn’t mean they are safe for swimming or water play.

Irrigation Canals

Children sometimes use irrigation canals for swimming and water play during the warmer summer months. Unfortunately, the water in these canals contains bacteria, agricultural runoff (fertilizers, pesticides, and manure) and other contaminants that can cause serious illness. They were never meant for swimming and pose a significant threat of drowning. As suburban areas have encroached on farmlands, once isolated irrigation canals are becoming more common in and near residential neighborhoods.

Health and Safety

While some stormwater ponds are monitored and sampled for waterborne pathogens, the public should avoid them anyway–they are not designed for recreational use. People can protect themselves from the health hazards of stormwater runoff and irrigation water by following these simple steps:

  • Never swim in a stormwater pond or irrigation canal.
  • Avoid contact with water in stormwater ponds.
  • Wash hands with clean water after coming into contact with pond water.
  • Use caution when boating or fishing in stormwater ponds.
  • Check with the local health department before consuming fish caught from stormwater retention ponds. If consuming fish from these ponds, clean well and discard the guts.
  • Teach children to not swim or play in irrigation canals.
  • Never use canal water to fill swimming pools or kiddie pools.