Community Columns

School fields become breeding grounds for West Nile

"Smack! Slap!" I was killing mosquitoes by the handful. Being the hypochondriac that I am,

I was sure I'd contracted West Nile virus from at least one of them.

It was dusk -- prime time for the bloodsuckers, I'm told. But with the weather as nice as it's been lately, it was also prime time for people to be outdoors, as well.

I was at my daughter's soccer practice when the creatures started their slaughter. I looked around, wondering from where in the huge field they could be coming from. At home, I'd heeded the summer warnings about standing water providing a breeding ground for mosquitoes. I'd drained all my fountains, and I was careful not to overwater and leave puddles. But I wasn't at home, I was on a field at public school.

Then my eyes fell upon the problem.

Despite blistering-hot temperatures at a time you'd never expect to find puddles, there they were -- huge, sloshy puddles of stagnant, putrid mud at the low points in the field we were playing on. There were even little bubbles of air rising to the surface in each of them, dotting the thick goo like blisters.

It got me thinking. In our common effort to keep West Nile virus under control, shouldn't our public schools be paying more attention to overwatering and drainage issues -- just as we, the homeowners, are encouraged to do? And aren't school fields and play areas a magnet for kids both during and after school?

Last time I checked, it was children and the elderly who are the most vulnerable to the worst effects of a West Nile infection. With people paid specifically to maintain our school grounds, where hordes of kids play daily, this problem should be nonexistent.

I checked it out, and what I found was surprising.

The duration of time that sprinklers water the fields of most public schools isn't modified very often. A change in seasons will cause an increase or decrease in watering times, but aside from that there is no real attempt to balance watering and need. Unless someone registers a complaint, it's unlikely there will be a change.

Newer schools can be even worse.

The fields of certain new schools, like the one my daughters attend in Turlock, have saturation problems, say elementary school groundskeepers. With modern construction as efficient as it is, the ground on which new schools are built is extremely well-compacted. This, in turn, affects the amount of water that can be absorbed into the soil. Water that can't be absorbed puddles, and becomes the primordial ooze we have to play soccer in.

Why aren't drainage systems part of that "modern efficiency" equation? What do we have to look forward to at other new schools, such as the newly opened Enochs High School?

We assume that our schools are going to be well-managed. Sadly, sometimes it isn't true. At least not without our help.

Most public agencies, including schools, rely on citizens to insist that intelligent choices are being made. That includes adjusting the watering schedule as needed.

One thing I'm sure of: If West Nile virus infection could be traced back to a specific place of origin, such as a puddle in a public park or schoolyard, schools and cities would be a lot more motivated to adjust their watering schedules.

Mello is a teacher in Modesto and a former visiting editor with The Bee. E-mail him at