Milton-Freewater aquatic center employees scrub the pool interior as part of a process of elimination. The pool’s water began turning cloudy this month, and city officials have been working to eliminate causes.

MILTON-FREEWATER — As summer weather heats up, city pool users here have faced disappointment.

The Joe Humbert Family Aquatic Center has closed its doors, and the rest of the season is up in the air.

The cause appears to stem from a coating recently used on the inside of the swimming pool, Milton-Freewater city officials said today, adding that staff is working to remedy the situation as quickly as possible.

The problem began more than two weeks ago, when staff noticed the pool’s 500,000 gallons of water appeared cloudy for the first time, City Manager Linda Hall said.

Since that day, the problem resurfaced intermittently. Although the milky-looking water was tested and found safe for swimming, the lack of visibility made the pool unsafe for swimmers, Hall said, noting lifeguards can’t see if a person is in danger in such conditions.

The aquatic center, originally built in the early 1960s, was redesigned and rebuilt more than 20 years ago when residents approved a pool bond. It reopened in 1996 after a one-year closure to complete a revised pool layout, a sand play area and volleyball court, outdoor rinsing stations, water slides and a concession counter.

In 2018, voters again endorsed the community swimming pool in passing a levy equaling 37 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value to do needed repairs. That has so far included repainting the building inside and out, upgrading toilets, changing stalls and baby-changing tables, plus fixing leaks in the pool structure.

The work included putting a new coating on the inside of the pool, Public Works Superintendent Brian Steadman said.

Now, he and others believe the commercial rubber sealant applied this spring has failed and is interacting with pool water, thus creating the milky appearance.

Trying to remedy the situation means scrubbing every inch of the concrete pool with trisodium phosphate — commonly known as TSP — and thoroughly rinsing the surfaces.

Staff has done the procedure twice and is now flushing the pipes between the pool and the mechanical room. The next step is to have the water tested yet again, Steadman said.

As well, he will be communicating with the vendor of the sealant to look at recourse options for the city, he said.

Getting to this answer has been a process of elimination; checking the pool’s large filtration system came first, Hall explained.

“It has two big sand cylinders, each about the size of a home heating propane tank. The water passes through the sand, goes to the chlorination system and is eventually piped back into the pool,” she said.

Earlier this month, a crew scooped out all 8,000 pounds of the filter’s sand by hand, then refilled the tanks — 100-pound bags of new sand — one at a time.

“Then Saturday it started again, and by Sunday it was just too cloudy,” Hall said.

Intervention has included calling local and regional pool experts and material vendors to weigh in.

“Everyone is doing their best to figure this out,” she said. “Our pool manager, Mallory Copeland, she’s been there every step of the way, from power washing the pool to greeting people when they come.”

Steadman has been nearly living at the pool while trying to solve the problem, Hall said.

“I think we’re going to have his mail sent there,” she quipped.

Unless the facility can reopen soon, Hall will be faced with making tough choices. For now, pool staff is getting paid through the current pay period, she said.

“But I need to make a decision what we’re doing going forward and what we’re doing about season passes. We’ll do what is fair and equitable.”

The city already subsidizes the pool at about $200,000 a year, Hall said.

Decisions will come later this week, but for now, Hall and others are holding their breath that things will work out very soon.

“But,” she emphasized, “we will not refill and open that pool until we know everything is safe.”

Updates on the Joe Humbert Family Aquatic Center can be found on the city’s social media page and at mfcity.com.


Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers health, social services and city government in Milton-Freewater, Athena and Weston in the Walla Walla Valley.