Bacteria a concern for some swimmers at Woodward Reservoir

Crowds will once again be able to take advantage of the water and shady trees surrounding Woodward Reservoir, as seen in this June 2013 photo.
Crowds will once again be able to take advantage of the water and shady trees surrounding Woodward Reservoir, as seen in this June 2013 photo. Modesto Bee

People who recently swam in Woodward Reservoir near Oakdale said they became sick with severe intestinal illness and claim they were not properly warned about high bacteria content in the water.

Jami Aggers, Stanislaus County’s environmental resources director, said she was aware of only a Stockton man who was hospitalized with a bacterial illness, which is being investigated by San Joaquin County public health. It’s not clear if the man was sickened by bacteria in the water, Aggers said.

Others suggested that social media was stirring up a scare at the reservoir.

“We still don’t have any official report,” Aggers said Tuesday. Her department was not looking into other reports on social media of people suffering from intestinal illness, fever or rashes after swimming at the reservoir.

County officials have placed no additional restrictions on water activity. Signs warn visitors that bacteria in the water is unusually high and to “swim at your own risk.”

Luis Lopez of Stockton was in the hospital for several days with diarrhea, vomiting and high fever after a family outing to the reservoir June 7. “He was the one who did the most swimming,” said Chris Meritt, his mother-in-law, also of Stockton. “He had a 107 degree fever, diarrhea and vomiting. ... I watched a strong, healthy man look like he was about to die.”

Lopez reportedly said he lost 28 pounds in a week. Meritt added that her 37-year-old daughter also had stomach issues and is taking antibiotics.

Other folks contacted by The Modesto Bee said they were sickened after swimming at the reservoir. Steve Magee of the Bay Area said he rode a water scooter, swam and floated on a tube while camping with family at the park last weekend. He came down with severe diarrhea and vomiting.

“All of a sudden, I got sick, and I never have been sick like that before,” Magee said.

He was taken to the emergency room Saturday night at Oak Valley Hospital in Oakdale, where he was given fluids through an intravenous line and released. He said nine members of his group got sick with similar symptoms.

Justin Aguilar, 23, of Modesto said a rash appeared on his thighs after two days of swimming at Woodward Reservoir on Memorial Day weekend. The itchy, red skin rash with bumps quickly spread over his arms, neck and back, he said. He sought medical attention but health care providers were not sure what it was, he said.

“The day we were leaving is when I saw the signs about high bacteria in the water,” said Aguilar, who was with a 15-member group, including a nephew less than a year old. “That water is putrid. The signs should be more visible.”

The warning signs did not keep park visitors from taking to the water over the weekend and this week. Ricky Acuna of Salida said his family had a wonderful time and returned home only with a fond memory of Father’s Day spent at the reservoir. No members of his family have symptoms, he said Tuesday.

“You are more likely to get a bacterial infection from a port-a-potty than from any lake in California,” Acuna said. “We go to a spot where the kids swim all day. They were in the water for four to five hours.”

Acuna suggested that unsubstantiated online postings were smearing the park.

Lopez first was treated at Dameron Hospital in Stockton, released and later was in the Kaiser Permanente hospital in Manteca, where the bacteria that made him sick was identified as Campylobacter, Meritt said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Campylobacter is a common cause of diarrheal illness. In most cases, people get sick from eating undercooked poultry or other tainted food. Outbreaks are associated with contaminated water. Symptoms include diarrhea that may be bloody, vomiting, abdominal pain and fever.

The illness lasts for a week and usually is not fatal, according to the CDC.

Aggers said it’s important to note that it takes two to five days for the bacteria to cause illness. Health officials will want to know what members of the Lopez family ate before and during the outing, as well as their exposure to the reservoir water, she said.

As for the county’s warning signs, they were posted “all over the park” when tests prior to Memorial Day weekend showed elevated coliform bacteria, Aggers said. Coliform is an indicator that other bacteria may be present in water. Tests for the infectious bacteria e. coli were normal, Aggers pointed out.

County officials are not suggesting that visitors take extra precautions if they swim at Woodward, other than swim safely and don’t swallow the water. Reservoir water is not meant for consumption, Aggers stressed.

Stanislaus County made a plea for water recreation at Woodward after the reservoir owner, the South San Joaquin Irrigation District, said in February that it would not fill Woodward for water activities this year because of the drought. County officials stressed that the park system would lose much of the $2 million in revenue projected for Woodward this year.

SSJID agreed to raise the lake level for a shortened season, from May 1 through the July Fourth weekend.

Magee said he wished park officials had done more to inform visitors about the bacteria reading. “They could have rangers at the gate refer to the signs or pass out a notice,” he said. “We all got pretty sick.”