Splashpad a poor design, not the best investment

Lexington water-feature designer raises construction and sanitary concerns about splashpad built in Lexington’s Northeastern Park.
Lexington water-feature designer raises construction and sanitary concerns about splashpad built in Lexington’s Northeastern Park. Photo provided

Now that the public swimming season has ended, I want to reflect what the Gehl Institute of San Francisco, Lexington Downtown Development Authority and the Blue Grass Community Foundation installed in Northeastern Park.

According to their own press release, the “#SplashJam” was intended as a splashpad with a beach theme. After weeks of use, what existed in that park displayed more of a swamp theme.

Back in July, the Herald-Leader reported on a delay opening the SplashJam. As a water feature designer, my professional curiosity took me down there to inquire about it.

What the Northeastern Park neighborhood got was a temporary wooden splashpad built for $160,000 that opened three weeks late. It was built by a contractor who told me that he’d never constructed a public splashpad.

Indeed, how was he to know what codes and regulations would be enforced here in Fayette County?

The splashpad that was built had some inherent design flaws that became problematic. One day there, I was shocked to witness a man washing a child’s bottom in the splashing water when afterward he drank from that same water only moment’s later.

I saw loose boards, mud and algae surrounding the water feature and, as an independant water analysis confirmed, it was recycling unchlorinated water.

The lack of chlorine sanitizer in a splashpad is a serious health risk.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, “People may not realize that although there is no standing water in these attractions, the spray water will rinse any contaminants (for example, diarrhea, vomit, and dirt) down into the water holding area and be sprayed again. In other words, the water is recycled through the system. As a result, it is possible for the water to become contaminated and make people sick.”

The reason this SplashJam was built, according to the foundation and Gehl, was that people can’t afford to visit Lexington’s public swimming pools for $5 per head. They also claimed that Louisville has 30 splashpads and Lexington had none, which is false.

Splashpad water features already existed at some of Lexington’s family aquatic centers, and the foundation’s SplashJam would be be the fourth stand-alone splashpad built in Lexington since 2003 and the third within a five-block radius.

As for the complaint that the $5 fee for an entire day of activity at a professionally supervised family aquatic center is out of reach for neighborhood children, the project’s budget could have been spent on 4,000 season pool passes, 2,000 swimming lessons or perhaps 7,000 Slip ’n Slides.

Splashpads are the fastest-growing segment of the aquatics industry. Because they are basically interactive fountains, utilize newer equipment and different construction methods, swimming pool codes haven’t kept up.

What should health department officials do if they can’t say what’s permissible and what isn’t? When construction materials and sanitizing methods become arbitrary, not only is a lot of time and money wasted but potential errors can impact public health.

Kentucky’s adoption of the CDC’s Model Aquatic Health Code would help address some different types of splashpad technologies. And as new facilities are planned, the city’s parks and recreation department needs to pay close attention to what went wrong in Northeastern Park.

Russell Sitter is owner of The Fountaineer LLC in Lexington.

Related: Aug. 4 Herald-Leader article, “Splash park to extend its summer season in downtown Lexington