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Back in 2005, when Dallas installed the first of seven sprayparks, Jerry Foote knew next to nothing about them. The park and recreation department facility manager thought he was simply getting something fun for kids that was easy to operate.

A cryptosporidium outbreak that sickened approximately 1,000 in the Dallas metroplex area this summer forced Foote to look at spray features in a whole new way. About one-fourth of the crypto cases were linked to sprayparks, also known as spraypads or splashpads. So Foote's team developed a maintenance checklist to ensure that aquatics professionals are diligently completing all essential daily tasks. "[Early on], we probably wouldn't have thought about that," he says.

Foote isn't alone. Operators at Seneca Lake spraypark in Geneva, N.Y., also apparently didn't think much about water quality when it was installed in 2002. Three years later, it was linked to nearly 3,000 potential cases of crypto across 35 counties. An investigation by Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention later revealed "that recycled water was not adequately filtered and disinfected."

Today the victims of that mistake are in the midst of a class action lawsuit against the state the first such lawsuit in aquatics history. Meanwhile, new spraypark-related outbreaks continue to make headlines. In addition to the Texas outbreak, the Arizona cities of Tempe and Phoenix also were hit. All three of those were the dreaded crypto, the same bug that infected the New York spraypark.

Crypto, a particularly nasty parasite that's resistant to chlorine, causes diarrhea, vomiting and intestinal distress. For those with compromised immune systems, an infection can, and has been, deadly. Nationally, such outbreaks are at record levels. This year's numbers still are being finalized, but preliminary data from the agency shows 10,423 reported cases of crypto. In 2005, that number was just under 5,000; in 2000, it was less than 3,000.

Like many recreational water illnesses, or RWIs, crypto is transmitted through fecal matter. In recreational water settings, the scenario goes like this: A person (often a child with diarrhea) infected with crypto has an accident. Fecal matter gets in the water system. As the water is recirculated, others inadvertently, or overtly as is sometimes the case with sprayparks, ingest the water. Those patrons then are infected; soon an outbreak develops.

By their very nature, sprayparks are particularly vulnerable to such incidents. It is not uncommon to see diapered children squatting over fountains. The park's geysers, guns and gizmos all but invite kids to swallow water; some even think it's drinkable. In fact, nearly 40 percent of operators in a 2008 Aquatics International survey say they have witnessed such behavior. The danger is compounded because in sprayparks, so little water is being circulated that it's even harder to keep it properly disinfected. In short, sprayparks are the perfect delivery systems for RWIs such as crypto.

So if any aquatic element should have careful water quality maintenance, it's sprayparks. Yet experts say these are typically the least-well maintained, most unsupervised aquatic elements. Inherent design flaws, lack of government codes and inadequate education are a few of the causes.

And the effects are only now beginning to be realized.

It seems the problem is not that no one knows what to do, but rather, that no one knows how to do it. Even operators who realize something must be done say they can't afford the tens of thousands it costs to address the problem. As a result, what was supposed to be a fun, low-cost alternative to pools has become a health threat the public and the aquatics industry can ill afford.

Selling sprayparks

To understand this turn of events, you have to go back to the 1980s, when sprayparks first came on the scene. Back then, manufacturers began touting the new amenities as virtually maintenance-free. Best of all, the sales pitch went, because they had no standing water, cities could operate them without one of the largest overhead costs: lifeguards.

Not surprisingly, municipalities bought the spiel and bought it big. In a relatively short time, spraypads became the must-have aquatic amenity. While no verifiable statistics exist on the actual numbers, industry estimates suggest approximately 7,000 to 10,000 spraypads are up and running. The survey of more than 300 Aquatics International readers found 37 percent now have sprayparks. A number of them were installed in nonpool venues, with little or no input from aquatics professionals.

Now many are beginning to wonder if these amenities really are as safe and maintenance-free as they were led to believe.

"The vendors represented [the spraypark] as an inexpensive alternative to pools, that is, less money, less maintenance, less oversight," says David Bucher, supervisor of Tempe Parks and Recreation, who experienced a crypto case at one of his sprayparks this summer. "It's very similar to the [PC industry] concept of 'plug and play' in that this apparatus is so simple, anyone can have one for less money and less investment of time and resources. Well, we [now] know that is not true."

Larry Foos, superintendent of Parks and Recreation for the city of Wichita Kan., hasn't had to deal with an RWI incident, but he echoes the same sentiments about his 3-year-old spraypark. "Our vendor was less than forthcoming on the potential problems," Foos says. "We definitely asked, and [in discussing] clogging, filtration, tank size, etc. with our vendor, all issues were downplayed by them. I don't know what the motivation was for them to say what they said. It could be an issue of learning as they go for them. All I know is that we relied on "experts" and we had problems."

Bucher is more charitable, but also sees problems with the way sprayparks were introduced. "I believe they were honorable in their sales approaches; however, for whatever reason, they failed to see the current implications that [owners/operators] are currently dealing with from maintenance, liability and health and hygiene issues," he says. "[Attending] a recent trade show] was the first time that I observed a general discussion between manufacturers and end users on the care and maintenance of them. "That tells me this aspect was an afterthought to the process. It's only arising now due to aftermarket issues, accidents and litigation. When one purchases a dry playground, there is much more discussion on [maintenance and safety] covering everyone involved in the process. That is not yet apparent in the spraypark industry."

In addition to communication troubles between manufacturers and operators, Bucher says that talk among operators also may lead to misunderstandings. "Communication between the procurement department, capital budget staff and those responsible for the day-to-day operations of the sprayparks is fraught with communication breakdowns. General input from the operators/maintenance staff often is not solicited until the plans are drawn and equipment decisions have been made and, at times, not until the equipment is in the ground. Then the equipment maintenance book is plopped down on the operator's desk with a directive that 'you are now responsible to maintain this spray playground.'"

For their part, manufacturers say they're as surprised as anyone at how much maintenance sprayparks actually require.

"I've been in the aquatics industry for 22 years, and [as recently as] five years ago, some manufacturers would have pushed [the idea of a spraypark] aside and said, 'That's not really an aquatics thing,'" says Stephen Votta, regional sales manager for Vortex Aquatic Structures International, based in Montreal. He adds that since those early days, manufacturers have awakened to the fact that sprayparks need the same considerations for water treatment as pools. "Now [there's] a greater understanding] of how much of an aquatics piece it is."

Jim Cox, president/CEO of Rain Drop Products, LLC, in Ashland, Ohio, agrees. "I think sprayparks are not sold with the 'low maintenance' angle as often as they used to be," he says. "While certain operational costs differ between pools and sprayparks, and there are true capital cost differences to replace a pool vs. a spraypark, water-chemistry maintenance should be seen as very comparable. Regarding education for our customers, we send out equipment operation manuals, train operators on maintenance and answer questions."

Reducing the risk

But given the continued outbreaks associated with sprayparks, that information appears to be slow in getting to operators. That worries government experts such as Michele Hlavsa.

"Even though there's no standing water, sprayparks are like pools, except that the 'pool' [surge tank] is underground," says Hlavsa, CDC epidemiologist. "Given that even in sprayparks, we're immersing ourselves in shared water, we need to be very careful with the water we're in and the chemical reactions involved in treating it. I think sometimes we forget that shared aspect of swimming, and underestimate the amount of education and knowledge it takes to maintain a healthy pool or spraypark."

A CDC report that examined waterborne diseases and outbreaks put it another way: "Certain treated water venues (e.g., interactive fountains, which also are called wet decks or sprayparks) might be overlooked as potential sites for transmission of infection or pool regulation because they do not have standing water as is traditionally found in swimming pools. Contaminants can potentially drain into the water reservoir and be sprayed back on users, increasing the likelihood of contaminated water ingestion."

As mentioned, contaminated water typically is the result of a fecal accident, to which sprayparks are prone. The Aquatics International survey shows that 17 percent of respondents have dealt with fecal accidents at their sprayparks; 1 percent have seen guests using the spray to rinse children off during diaper changing. Many public pool operators reduce the risk of fecal accidents by scheduling regular rest periods that force children out of the water for a snack and/or bathroom break. But that policy often isn't in place at sprayparks. They also have little supervision to stop unhealthy behaviors, such as diaper changing on the spraypad.

Another risk factor is the design of the sprayparks themselves, according to Randy Mendioroz, principal and founder of Aquatic Design Group in Carlsbad, Calif. Currently, operators have three main options for water treatment in a spraypark. The choice depends on their commitment to maintenance and the availability and cost of water.

Type 1, flow-through systems, work like any tap-water faucet, taking in clean well water, cycling it through the play structure and out into a sewage drain. In terms of RWIs, flow-through systems pose the least threat because like any home faucet or shower, water simply flows in from the source, through the spray features, down drains and out to a water-treatment facility. Nothing gets recycled, which means these systems use a tremendous volume of water as much as 300,000 gallons per day. For operators looking to conserve resources, that's not an option.

Type 2, flow-through systems with water recovery, have appeared as a viable alternative for some. This design includes an underground collection tank that stores the wastewater for rudimentary treatment before it gets diverted for use in irrigating adjacent sports fields or gardens. These also have a low risk for RWIs because the water is not recirculated. But these systems can be costly.

While most early sprayparks were one of the two types of flow-through systems, today Votta estimates that close to 50 percent or more of the sprayparks in operation are Type 3 some type of recycled water system.

The survey found an even greater percentage of recirculation systems. Of respondents who operate sprayparks, 77 percent say they have some type of recycled water system, and 18 percent say they have direct-to-drain sprayparks. (The remaining 5 percent just "don't know.")

Just as in a traditional pool, recirculating water within the spraypark features requires pumps, filtration and water-chemistry control systems. Water must be treated properly to ensure maximum sanitization. But that?s not always easy, according to experts.

"Smaller bodies of water are much harder to balance chemically," says Jim Tanner, director of sales for the Aquatics Division at Siemens Water Technologies, based in Warrendale, Pa.

Besides that challenge, sprayparks have a higher bather load per volume compared with pools, says Alison Osinski, Ph.D., principal of Aquatic Consulting Services in San Diego. "There's not much water [in most spraypark systems] compared with the number of people using them,?"she notes

With less water, sprayparks' internal plumbing systems and hydraulics are built on a much smaller scale. This means to maintain ideal water quality, water treatment must happen very quickly.

All of this can create a significant issue when there is a fecal accident. "If I have crypto, I could potentially release a billion oocyts in a single bowel movement. That becomes a lot more significant in a 10,000-gallon spraypark, compared with a pool that contains millions of gallons of water," Hlavsa says.

Location poses another risk factor, Osinski says. Like those in Dallas and Seneca Lake, spraypads aren't always located in an enclosed aquatics facility. More than half of all respondents in the survey say their spraypads are in municipal park/playground settings. Spraypads in open settings such as parks are susceptible to exposure to animals and other uncontrolled access.

"We don't have the same problems [with spraypads at pools] as with those not located at aquatics centers," Osinski says.

Educating operators

Experts agree that outbreaks such as the one at Seneca Lake have forced the industry to wake up to the risks of RWIs in sprayparks. The solution, they say, is more spraypark-specific education.

"The education of the operators as to the differences in maintaining water quality [in sprayparks vs. traditional swimming pools] is going to be critical to minimize RWIs," says Alex Antoniou, Ph.D., director of educational programs at the National Swimming Pool Foundation in Colorado Springs, Colo.

But less than half of survey respondents say their spraypark operators have any formal certification. And only 41 percent say their spraypark operators have an aquatic certification of any kind.

That situation isn't likely to improve dramatically, given current conditions. The survey reveals that 88 percent of aquatics facilities with spraypads assign aquatics personnel to oversee them. But it's a different story at municipal parks with spraypads. Only 65 percent of respondents at those venues put aquatics personnel in charge of the spraypads.

"That's perhaps the biggest problem," Osinski says. "When you see [a spraypad] at a traditional setting, there are pool people there." Spraypads at aquatics facilities are more likely to be actively managed. When the spraypad is located elsewhere, such as at a playground or sports field, even if there is a trained aquatics person looking after the spray feature, that person may not be stationed there on a daily basis.

But even those actively seeking spraypark-specific training aren't likely to find it.

"I think there are enough [qualified instructors] out there. There's just a lack of educational materials," says Antoniou, who has actively worked to develop more educational offerings through NSPF. This year the organization published the Aquatic Play Feature Handbook and, as of press time, is set to launch a related online course. The World Waterpark Association, based in Overland Park, Kan., also is set to launch a spraypark-specific course online, in conjunction with Human Kinetics of Champaign, Ill.

Manufacturers, too, have stepped up their educational offerings. "Turnover in maintenance staff is often a major issue," Cox says. "Consequently, we will be introducing a very robust 'certification' program that can be accessed easily by operators as needed. This program will incorporate emerging standards as well. We have been planning to introduce [it] for over a year. The growing concern about waterborne disease makes it all the more important."

Teaching patrons

But park operators aren't the only ones in need of better educational materials. There's a clear need for effective patron education.

"I think a lot of [the problems] are completely avoidable with a little bit of education," Mendioroz says. Ultimately, patrons need to be made to understand the same rules that apply to safe, sanitary pool use also apply to sprayparks.

"Parents are not well aware that bringing a child who has had diarrhea within the prior two weeks to a pool or spraypark could pose a public health risk," says Shawn DeRosa, J.D., president of DeRosa Aquatic Consulting in Boston. "So rather than keep their children at home, they bring them to a spraypark [or pool] thinking that once the diarrhea goes away, the child is 'healthy' again. This is untrue because some illnesses for example, crypto can still be spread even after the diarrhea has passed."

DeRosa notes that crypto is likely to spread in sprayparks because kids are likely to sit or climb on features, potentially spreading bacteria to the next child who touches that feature before placing his hands into his mouth, or simply drinking the water. "Even if the water in the spraypark is drained to the sewer rather than recirculated, the large number of kids drinking or spouting the water from their mouths increases the risk of an outbreak," he adds.

Experts say comprehensive patron education needs to address the general perception that because there's no standing water, the water that comes out of the spray features is fresh, like the water that comes out of a bathroom shower. "You've got to think that if the public [understood that spraypark water is recycled, just like pool water], they would not do some of the risky behaviors like changing a diaper in the spray," says Doug Sackett, assistant director, Bureau of Community Environmental Health and Food Protection at the New York Health Department.

Without effective education, patrons are likely to continue engaging in risky behaviors such as drinking or 'spouting' the water and using the spray for cleaning during a diaper change. Aquatics International found that 36 percent of those surveyed have witnessed patrons drinking spraypark water.

The good news is that operators appear to be trying to inform patrons. Approximately 80 percent of those surveyed have, at minimum, signage reminding guests of good protocol for spraypad use at some, or all, of their spraypads.

"You have to educate the general public on good practices in your park and help them understand that you're asking them to operate in accordance with rules for their own health and safety," says Raymond K. Dunham, president of Raymond K. Dunham and Associates and facilities director of the Greenville County Recreation District in South Carolina.

Strengthening codes

One way to address the design issues and education need is through codes. "The aquatics industry has found great ways to entertain people with water, but legislation doesn't always keep up with these developments, so they're often unregulated," Hlavsa says.

That may be changing.

As a result of the outbreak at Seneca Lake State Park, New York became the first state to have specific regulations for the operation of sprayparks. "We began putting together regulations [immediately]," Sackett says.

The new guidelines first became effective March 28, 2007. They mandate that every spraypark in the state include UV water-treatment systems; foot showers at the entry to the waterfeature; clean, conveniently located restrooms with diaper-changing facilities; and fencing to prevent access when the spraypark is not supervised. Maintenance must be "by qualified swimming pool water-treatment operators" familiar with the equipment; an operations manual must be provided; and operators must keep accurate daily logs and uphold specific water-quality standards.

In terms of design, sprayparks in the state of New York must have automatic controls to maintain water level and regulate chemical feed. Recirculation and treatment systems must operate 24 hours a day, and meet specific flow and turnover rates calculated using mathematical formulas developed by Sackett and his team.

But very few places, if any, have as comprehensive a set of regulations as New York, and that sets the stage for potential problems. The CDC report notes, "Not all states regulate interactive fountains, which might increase [the] chance of improper design, maintenance, or operation in these venues."

Unfortunately, code implementation is unlikely to happen easily. "With more and more parks opening, [RWIs] are going to continue to be a problem," Sackett says. "But with the cost impact on the community, [establishing regulations] becomes a risk assessment vs. needs benefits issue even though, from an illness prevention standpoint, it's the right thing  to do."

New codes mean adhering to new design standards, something CDC experts advocate as a means to prevent further RWI incidents.

According to the CDC report, "Designs that improve water treatment for these interactive fountains are needed to reduce the risk for RWIs."

As in New York, these standards are likely to mandate UV sanitization. At an estimated $30,000 to $40,000 per spraypark, depending on the flow rate, this can be a costly addition. Operators such as Elise Knox, aquatic park manager, city of The Colony, Texas, and John Gloyd, aquatics director, Columbus, Ohio, say they'd like to add UV systems, but the price makes it prohibitive.

"We'd have to install UV in all of our pools. Otherwise, guests would argue, 'Why isn't my pool important enough,'" Knox says.

Other design standards might include larger surge tanks and faster turnover. Most experts recommend that in a typical spraypark, water should turn over at least every 30 minutes. Closer to every 15 or 20 minutes would be ideal, but specifics for each project depend on the size of the spraypark, hours of operation, the number of low-flow features and how user-operated the park is. Other experts suggest adding a second holding tank so that water collected in the surge tank can go through filtration completely and features can draw water from the storage tank of clean water.

"When you do a flat-water pool, there are design criteria that dictate [standards]," Votta  says. "With splashpads, we don't have that across the board yet."

Because of the cost factor, some experts think it may even take dealing with an outbreak to push more state and local officials to draft spraypark codes. "A lot of health departments are playing catch up," Antonio says.

Zachary Thompson, director of Dallas County Health & Human Services in Texas, agrees: "We found that in the current Texas health and safety code, there is no definition for stand-alone interactive waterfeatures. We?re [now] proposing that there be regulations to include these sprayparks. The real issue is whether or not operators of sprayparks that have been installed consulted with a knowledgeable expert to ensure the utmost safety. Codes would ensure that this happens."

Until that occurs, operators must strive to do everything they can to go above and beyond to ensure patron safety, says Dunham, who's currently overseeing an expansion that will include three new spraypads.

From the beginning, Dunham has heavily involved his maintenance crew in the planning process, so they'll have a full understanding of the system and feel invested in maintaining it properly. He plans to see that they remain invested in the future by stressing continuing education. As he puts it, "Because things change so rapidly. I think operators have to have the mind-set of continually being educated."