At 401 feet long and 200 feet wide, Sunlite Pool is considered the largest re-circulating swimming vessel in the world.
It’s one of the main attractions at Coney Island Park in Cincinnati.
In fall 2008, operators of the park undertook a truly gargantuan task — locating a new drain cover to bring the pre-Depression-era pool into compliance with the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act.
“Replacing that grate cost us $35,000,” says Vic Nolting, president of Coney Island Inc. “It had to be custom-made, because there aren’t too many people around who manufacture a 175-foot-by-24-foot drain cover. That complicated things.”
The grate was installed and the job completed in May. And Nolting reports that all the park’s pools and spas are fully up to the requirements outlined in VGB, which mandates various standards to address the risk of suction entrapment.
To bring Sunlite into compliance, Nolting also had to change out the pool’s water return lines, in addition to hiring an engineer, getting the plans certified, and having his custom drain cover designed.
He believes the law didn’t have to be applied as broadly as it was.
“If you understand the physics of the flow of water around these drains, you realize they weren’t a danger to anyone,” he says. “In essence, we were fixing an issue that didn’t exist.”
Others agree. Across the country, historic and landmark pools, some even dating beyond Sunlite’s 1925 construction, have faced similar issues relating to VGB compliance. The requirements have left some operators questioning both the wisdom and ultimate effectiveness of the law.
Liberty Bell Pool
Roosevelt State Park in Pine Mountain, Ga., attracts almost a quarter of a million visitors each year. Among them, 15,000 use the Liberty Bell Pool — a 68-year-old landmark built by the Civilian Conservation Corps and named by FDR himself on a stopover during construction.
The pool is traditionally used in the spring and summer by local youth groups, and swim lessons are also taught here. Liberty Bell is the only public pool within a 30-mile radius spanning four counties.
But in May officials with the Georgia Parks System had a decision to make — find $15,000 in the budget for renovations, or close the pool.
Though seemingly unthinkable, the department simply couldn’t locate the funds necessary for the required fixes, which included raising the pool’s floor to meet sump requirements, according to an engineer who examined the vessel. And despite efforts by the concessionaire to collect donations to save it, the Liberty Bell Pool was closed for the year.
“I get why the law was made — believe me, being a father I understand,” says Don McGhee, park superintendent. “But what’s interesting is that a lot of people learn to swim at Georgia’s state park pools. And it’s a way to teach kids to love the water.
“But now you’re not getting that,” he adds, “and you just wonder if this is a case where they’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater.”
City Pools, Columbus, Ohio
The city of Columbus, Ohio operates nine public pools, all built around the 1950s, according to the Recreation and Parks Department.
Two years ago department officials decided to stop charging admission.
“Most of our pools are in central urban areas, and even charging $1 was impacting our participation,” says Terri Leist, assistant director of the Recreation and Parks Department.
Most of the pools are single main-drain, and all are gravity-fed, she adds, “so there’s no chance anyone could get sucked in. Still, we had no choice but to comply with the law.”
Because of when they were built, each of the drain grates had to be custom-made at a cost of $5,000 to $15,000 per pool. The repairs ran the department upwards of $45,000.
“This money came out of the city’s fund for capital expenditures,” says Rick Miller, design manager for the Recreation and Parks Department. “[Those funds] would have gone toward other pool or park improvements, like repairing pool leaks, maintenance of bath houses and fixing lifeguard chairs.”
McIntire Park Wading Pool
Parks and recreation officials say the 67,000-gallon shallow-water McIntire pool dates to the 1930s.
But in early spring the Charlottesville, Va., City Council voted to close the vessel due to VGB-compliance costs of around $17,000. In addition, city officials feared the required drainage fixes would create both safety and sanitation hazards during construction.
The decision resulted in disappointed residents flooding city hall with phone calls and e-mails, an outcry so loud that councilmembers quickly scheduled a work session to revisit the matter.
“People came out to protest,” says Ric Barrick, spokesman for the city of Charlottesville. “They said this was a part of our culture.”
During that public hearing, citizens spoke of both the charm and usefulness of the old facility. And members of the council were clearly convinced, calling the pool an asset to the community that should be preserved despite economic concerns.
In a subsequent re-vote, the council unanimously decided to save the pool and undertake the necessary improvements.
“There were initial offers of donations,” Barrick says, “but ultimately that money came out of the city budget.”
The Riviera Club
The swimming pool at The Riviera Club broke ground within days of the stock market crash of 1929. It hosted Olympic swimmers in the 1960s, and through the 1970s it was considered the premier swim club in Indianapolis.
Opened in 1933, the large outdoor pool contains five drains and a suction gutter — each of which had to be fitted for new grates.
The price tag totaled at least $10,000, according to pool manager Ed Ahlbrand.
“It’s a crazy law, but there’s really nothing I can do about it,” he says. “All of our drains are gravity-fed, and we’ve never had any problems with people getting sucked in. “This is just another example of government gone crazy.”
What’s more, he says the local health department isn’t enforcing the law because it hasn’t been adopted at the state level. Other states like Oklahoma and California have taken similar stances, calling VGB an unfunded federal mandate that they simply don’t have the resources to implement.