E. coli found at Smith Mountain Lake sites

Levels at two sites exceed VDH recommendations

SMITH MOUNTAIN LAKE – Before planning your next outing on Smith Mountain Lake there are two areas you may want to avoid due to harmful bacteria that can possibly make you sick.

High E. coli levels were found at the headwaters near a campground and a marina. The levels exceeded the Virginia Department of Health's recommendation.

While the majority of Smith Mountain Lake is safe to swim in, researchers are urging the public to avoid the two areas high levels of E. coli were found in.


Dr. Carolyn Thomas, an environmental Science and Biology professor at Ferrum College has been testing the water quality at Smith Mountain Lake for 30 years.

Her lab is filled with water samples taken from various locations on Smith Mountain Lake. Several of those samples glow under florescent lighting, a tell-tale sign she says of abnormally high levels of E. coli.

"The standard is 126. And we got about 20 times more than that at a few of the sites," Thomas said.

Only two sites exceed the levels recommended by the Virginia Department of Health.
Thomas said the highest levels of E. coli were found at the headwaters of the Roanoke and Blackwater rivers at Bay Roc Marina and Ponderosa Campground.

Thomas said the excess bacteria is due to water runoff, and where that water is coming from.

"Half of the lake, the Blackwater half has primarily agricultural land use. If I was going to say the Blackwater cause, it may be livestock. The Roanoke half, maybe not," Thomas said.

Larry Iceman, chair of the water quality committee with the Smith Mountain Lake Association says while the community shouldn't panic, because levels of bacteria ebb and flow, swimmers need to be cautious when going to those areas.

"The message is, be aware. If you go swimming listen to what the Virginia Department has to say. Take a shower afterwards. Try not to if possible, get water in your mouth and up your nose. Don’t swim when you have open cuts or wounds,” Iceman said.

"I would not swim in those areas,” Thomas said. “Boating is okay, water contact sports is better done not in those areas.” Thomas says while caution should be taken, she still swims in the lake. She went on to say that Smith Mountain Lake is arguably one of the cleanest lakes in the state.
“Use common sense when swimming. Don't swim around lots of Canada geese. Don't swim around cows and there are some cows around the water. We are working on trying to correct that."

Thomas said E. Coli is not uncommon and high levels most likely won't last long.

"The bacteria are not very successful at growing in the lake. They live there for a short time and they either die or float downstream. It's not something that get's worse and worse,” Thomas said.

She said it is important to note that the main beach area around the state park, and other popular beaches are safe to swim in.


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