On September 29, 2018, news broke that the Center for Disease Control was investigating the death of 29-year old Fabrizio Stabile from a brain-eating amoeba known as Naegleria fowleri. Investigators had reason to believe the New Jersey surfer had contracted the very rare amoeba during a visit to the brand new BSR Cable Park earlier in the month in Waco, Texas. It was devastating news for the Stabile family and potentially a massive blow to the wave park industry.
In 2011, the first images were leaked of Wavegarden’s full-sized wave pool prototype in San Sebastian, Spain. Four years later Wavegarden opened its first public facility at Surf Snowdonia in North Wales. That same year the world saw the Surf Ranch for the first time. NLand Surf Park opened its doors in Austin, Texas in 2016 with plans for several more Wavegarden parks to open across the world. And BSR Surf Park opened earlier this year with an American Wave Machines system. Different locations, different technologies, and different companies making them. Man-made surfing experienced a revolution in less than a decade and there was no reason to think it would slow down.
Until, perhaps, now.
Could the man-made wave industry implode with the risk of water-borne illnesses? What are these facilities doing to protect the public, and who, perhaps most importantly, is overseeing this industry and ensuring the water quality?
Guests of the BSR park flooded social media and our inboxes at The Inertia with stories of entering BSR after some news outlets had already reported it was closed due to inspection. Eventually, the park did voluntarily close its doors over the weekend, days after the first CDC inspection had started to make national headlines. But if this were a potentially deadly health risk, why the “voluntary” closure?
The Waco-McLennan County Public Health District is the body that was first contacted to inspect the pool on September 27, according to the district’s spokesperson Kelly Craine. They requested the CDC visit that day and inspect the pool for Naegleria fowleri, which the CDC completed at around 5 p.m. that afternoon. “They did more than just take a sampling,” she says. “They learned how the park was operated on an engineering level.” From there, park officials were clued in on what was happening and she confirmed BSR had volunteered to close to the public. “It was our expectation that it would be closed to the public on Friday, but there was a private event,” she said, adding this was a mutual agreement between the department and the owner of the park, Stuart Parsons. “We went back on Saturday to share with them what was occurring so they could make that decision on their own.” Craine explained that because it was a private event with a limited number of people, it was her understanding that surfers were told about the inspection and the risk, but no closure was required by the county’s Public Health District.
“We can’t just walk in and say ‘Shut it down,’” Craine explained over the phone. “We can’t do that.”
Stuart Parsons disputed that timeline given from the CPHD, telling local ABC News 13 that he met with the health department on Friday before shutting the park down to the public on Saturday.
According to some park users, there are contradictions on the timeline.
“I was there on Thursday when the CDC was testing the water,” one surfer who asked to remain anonymous due to professional ties in the surf industry wrote The Inertia via email. “[They] didn’t say a word and the CDC guys (all 10-15 of them) were 50 feet from me… I was literally clueless. I would have been stoked to be informed of the situation regardless of findings. Knowing the potential risks, I would have likely passed on the surfing that day.”
“This is a public health hazard and should be dealt with appropriately,” Kristi Taylor, a mother who took her family to BSR on Friday, told The Inertia. “There was well over 15 staff members throughout the park on Friday and not one stopped to mention that we should keep the children out of the water due the possible deadly issue at hand.”
But whether or not guests were actually put at risk, or at least knowingly put at risk once the CDC inspection had brought health concerns to light, isn’t clear. And the real crux of it all seems to be that without precedence in a brand new industry, how these matters are “dealt with appropriately” may have yet to be determined.
The money alone riding on the water of a wave park is staggering. BSR is a full resort, with a 120-foot water slide, new cabins, a restaurant, and a 3,600-foot lazy river. It opened in 2012 as a cable-driven wakeboard course. In 2017, the park reportedly drew 8,000 to 12,000 visitors a week throughout all those attractions, which range from $20 for a Lazy River day pass to now, as much as $90 an hour for surf. Renting the surf pool privately is $22,500 a day. In May Parsons told The Waco Tribune he “wouldn’t be suprised” if the monthly power bill alone at the park was in the $20,000-range. Keeping the water clean and doors open is obviously big business.
Parsons explained that BSR tests and chlorinates its water. “The health dept. required us to have waivers signed Saturday,” he told The Inertia in an email. “We made it clear Sat. that we were being tested. The surfers had to sign the waiver before entering.”
“We are in compliance with the CDC guidelines and recommendations concerning Naegleria fowleri,” Parsons wrote. “We are waiting on the results. Either way, we will do what CDC recommends. We were planning to close for the winter at end of Oct. anyways. We will implement all recommendations then. We will continue to test and put chlorine in our water as we have been.”
Meanwhile, closer to Austin, Texas, NLand Surf park uses rainwater that “is channeled to a wet pond and bio-filtered by algae and fish before it moves to a deep reservoir and through the filtration system for treatment.” Why is it relevant to acknowledge a different park and a different method of water treatment in a different part of the same state? Because prior to opening in 2016, Travis County officials actually sued NLand concerning the potential for this exact problem, citing an inability to meet the minimum safety requirements of a public pool under state law and delaying the park’s opening. In Travis County, specifically, swimming pools must be filtered every six hours. NLand officials argued that shouldn’t apply to their 14-acre lagoon, which is 45-times larger than an Olympic swimming pool. So they countersued, fighting to have their facility’s main attraction classified as a lagoon instead. In fact, there was even a mention of amoebas when they defended their stance.
“If they’re concerned about amoebas, we invite them to look at the studies or talk to us about our water treatment systems,” they wrote. “Blindly applying regulations for public swimming pools would waste millions of gallons of water and endanger our guests.”
“The six-hour turnover requirement is based on the capacity allowances and requirements for public swimming pools,” the NLand suit read. “Those capacity regulations would allow for 17,000 people to swim at one time in the NLand Surf Park lagoon. As it is currently designed and scheduled to operate, no more than 200 people will be in the lagoon at once. That occupancy — approximately one percent of what the regulations were designed to accommodate — abrogates the need to turn over the water so quickly.” Park officials went on to argue that the filtration pumps would have to be so large in order to meet those requirements that they’d have the potential to suck swimmers into the water intakes, creating an entirely new (and horrifying) set of dangers to their patrons.
Eventually, the county dropped their suit against NLAND, agreeing to a compromise that the park would open in exchange for a stricter water quality monitoring program. State Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston) authored House Bill 1468, which passed the House and Senate by wide margins before Gov. Greg Abbott signed it. The new law put into place legally defined an “artificial swimming lagoon” as any recreational, man-made body of water larger than 20,000 square feet of surface area.
So years ago, before a single ticket had even been purchased to surf a man-made wave in Texas, the precedent had been set that the people building and operating these multimillion dollar facilities needed to be very clear on how to classify their “pool.” Water quality standards and/or filtration procedures and systems are entirely dependent on something as simple as getting the permit to build a pool versus acquiring a permit for a lagoon, an important technicality.
“It is a loophole,” says Jeff Brown, an instructor for the National Swimming Pool Foundation. Brown’s job involves instructing what are known as Certified Pool Operators, who oversee water sanitation and filtration processes for pools in the state of Texas. But as he points out in reference to the technical distinction of each body of water, “If it doesn’t classify as a body of water (or) park we teach, they’re probably not even required to be certified.”
Trying to understand who regulates these bodies of water in Texas, the only U.S. state with publicly-accessible wave parks to this point, is pretty mind-boggling. It “does not meet the definition of a pool so we wouldn’t regulate it at a local level,” Craine said in a phone conversation, referring to BSR and Waco-McLennan County Public Health District’s ability to regulate it. Phone calls and emails to three local and state health departments, wave park officials, the Texas Department of Insurance, a foundation responsible for certifying engineers to maintain water quality, and the CDC itself couldn’t supply a direct answer to one question: What entity has the authority to walk onto the grounds of a wave park and shut it down in the event of a risk to the public’s health?
“So there’s no precedence for this?” we asked Craine.
“That’s a good statement,” she said. “Our last case in the state was in 2016, and that was in a lake.”
It makes sense at this early stage that rules and regulations would either not be fully formed to govern wave pools and/or the officials tasked with overseeing them are stepping into uncharted waters themselves.
On October 4, a week after the reported initial inspection, the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District emailed an official statement in response:
“The health and safety of our community is our highest priority. Amenities such as the BSR Surf Resort are a relatively new form of water entertainment. The Health District is working with the Texas Department of State Health Services to address the best way to regulate these types of water parks. We are presently awaiting additional information from the CDC and we will be working closely with state regulators and the county to determine how to move forward to best protect the public.”
According to Blake Hess, general manager of NLand Surf Park, NLand is regulated by the Texas Department of State Health Services and also Texas Department of Insurance. While this is technically true, according to Chris Van Deusen from the Texas State Department of Health, it’s actually just that state body’s responsibility to review and approve alternative methods for disinfecting the water. Hess explained that if a body of water doesn’t qualify as a pool, there’s no local ordinance that would even cause it to be regulated at all. The water quality standards are written and venues do have protocol but exactly how they’re being held accountable isn’t clear.
“If there’s not a law saying you can’t do something, generally speaking, you can do it,” one unassociated committee spokesperson said, summarizing the state of regulation in Texas.
As of that same day of the local Health District’s statement, the CDC had yet to report its official findings from the inspection. However, Brittany Behm, Public Affairs Specialist for the CDC told The Inertia in an email that the “CDC confirmed a Naegleria fowleri infection in a New Jersey resident, who later died. The patient was most likely exposed to Naegleria fowleri at an aquatic venue in Texas. CDC is testing water samples for Naegleria fowleri and will be working with the local and state health departments on recommendations to provide the facility on how to reduce potential exposures.”
Texas, it seems, might just be the Wild West of the wave park revolution.
“Florida and California lead the way for safety,” Brown says. “L.A. County and Southern Nevada are pretty strict on public pools as well. I would like to see the state of Texas be a little more strict on their inspection and requirements.”
Alexander Haro contributed to this report.