Mill creek lake

In this April 2017 photo, mist rises from Mill Creek Lake. The Amherst County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to open the lake to swimming while restricting boating and fishing within an area designated for swimming.

Public swimming at Mill Creek Lake Park in northwestern Amherst County received the go-ahead from the county’s board of supervisors.

The board voted 4-1 during its June 16 meeting, with member David Pugh opposed, to open the lake to swimming while restricting boating and fishing only within an area designated for swimming. Sara Lu Christian, director of recreation and parks, said there is demand for public swimming areas among residents; Mill Creek Lake would become the first of three county-owned lakes to allow it.

The county’s research and coordination with the county’s insurance carrier indicate allowing swimming does not pose a legal liability as long as signage properly indicates doing so is at one’s own risk and no lifeguard is on duty.

Signage could be ready for installation as soon as Aug. 9, Christian said. County Administrator Dean Rodgers said he has received many calls from residents about the matter and told supervisors there is “no legal impediment of any kind” to keep the public from enjoying the property as a swimming spot.

“We do have a duty to warn people of known hazards,” Rodgers said.

Pugh said he was not necessarily opposed to the idea but he felt the county needed to slow down and answer some questions in concerns raised during a public hearing by Dan French, a Monroe resident, on water quality.

“I think a little research needs to be done before we make a decision,” Pugh said.

Supervisor Claudia Tucker, who supports the move, said allowing swimming at Mill Creek Lake has been a topic since she joined the board a decade ago. Her motion to approve the measure included the county having a protocol in place to test water and shut down swimming at the lake for a period if necessary should any issues arise.

“This is a taxpayer property, and I think this is a good day for the county,” Tucker said of allowing swimming at the lake.

The Town of Amherst uses the reservoir for drinking water and has been properly conferred with about the planned use, Christian said.

French, who retired in 2017 as director of the Amherst County Service Authority, a position he held more 35 years, said he’s an avid swimmer and understands the desire for a public swimming spot. However, he said, allowing swimming comes with various concerns on safety and health.

“Because the human body is covered with literally millions of microbes, some of which can be disease-producing, reservoir swimming can increase the microbial loading on any water treatment facility,” French said. “While water treatment plants have adequate disinfection capacity to deal with these matters, it requires more treatment chemicals and drives up the expense to rate payers who then see larger bills to cover these extra expenses.”

He also raised concerns the lake is prone to E. coli, a bacteria, and brought other concerns forward. “Any swimming-related injury, infection or drowning could be disastrous for everyone,” French said.

Bill Peters, a county resident who regularly attends board meetings, urged supervisors to heed French’s warning and said allowing swimming at the lake would be “harmful and foolish.”

Tucker disagreed and didn’t want the matter further delayed.

“We have waited years for this and we’re right there,” she said, adding of French’s comments: “And we just had somebody come in and scare us again.”

Jenny Willow, a county resident who wasn’t at the meeting, wrote a letter supporting the measure presented to board members. She wrote she enjoys swimming in lakes in Virginia state parks and was excited to hear of having the opportunity to do so at Mill Creek Lake, adding fishermen have plenty of areas within the county’s three lakes and public swimming is a need.

“Please let those of us who love to swim be able to enjoy what we love to do as well,” Willow wrote.

The board’s motion directs county staff to confirm E. Coli levels are safe and determine if a policy for further testing should be implemented. The county plans to install sand for the swimming area’s shoreline.

Reach Justin Faulconer at (434) 385-5551.

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Reach Justin Faulconer at (434) 385-5551.

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