Public pools serve as community resources, local leaders and residents said, but the city not prioritizing funding for them can take away opportunities to socialize and keep cool, especially as temperatures rise with climate change.

The city closed Southside Park Pool last summer after several swimmers reported rashes, said Council member Katie Valenzuela, who represents the area. Staff initially thought they could fix it in the offseason, but then discovered it would cost closer to $1 million — an amount that could take a couple of years to amass from park fees.

The pool at Southside Park is closed for summer, pictured Wednesday, May 17, 2023.Andrew Nixon / CapRadio

“I think Southside Park is like the warning of, if we don't start thinking more strategically about sustainable funding for these facilities, you end up in situations like this,” Valenzuela said.

The city has more than $130 million in deferred park maintenance, Youth, Parks and Community Enrichment Director Jackie Beecham said in a May 16 council meeting. Beecham did not give a breakdown of swimming pool costs, but a staff report said a 2017 study found there was $17.2 million in deferred maintenance for them. Recent work on pools includes resurfacing McClatchy Pool in Oak Park, which is expected to open next month.

Valenzuela said the city believes it is on track to reopen Southside Park Pool in summer 2024. But the continued closure leaves the immediate neighborhood and nearby public housing communities — Alder Grove and Marina Vista — without a public pool.

About 39% of residents living in the area where the pool is located live at or below the poverty level, according to the California Healthy Places Index.

Angela Shortt at North Natomas Aquatic Complex in Sacramento, Calif., Saturday, May 20, 2023.Andrew Nixon / CapRadio

Not all units in Alder Grove and Marina Vista have central air conditioning, Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency flyers indicate. Sarah Cox, president of the board of the Southside Park Neighborhood Association, said some households don’t have many alternatives.

“We don't have big yards that we can put a sprinkler on,” Cox said. “We don't have a whole bunch of private pools in people's backyards. And so there aren't that many options for splash pads or other sort of water play to stay cool when it's 103 degrees.”

Taking a bus to the closest open pool near her house could take more than 40 minutes, Cox said. In the future, Cox said she would like the city to take a more proactive approach to maintaining pools to prevent closures, especially with inflation.

To help people get through this summer, Cox said the neighborhood association is planning a park activity day with a bounce house.

Disparities in public pool access

Grant Union High School Principal Darris Hinson sees similarities between the situations in Southside Park and Del Paso Heights. Both underserved neighborhoods currently lack access to a nearby city pool and haven’t received the same historic investment as higher-income communities, Hinson said.

The North Sacramento area has one city pool, Johnston Pool, but Hinson said it’s difficult for Del Paso Heights residents to get there. Some older homes don’t have air conditioning, heightening the need for ways to cool down in the summer.

Grant Union High fills the gap by opening its swimming pool to the public during the summer, Hinson said. But unlike the Grant pool Hinson grew up going to, he said the new one completed in 2017 is designed for water polo and competitive swimming. Most of the pool is 7 feet deep, meaning many younger children need to stay in a small wading area or wear life vests.

The city building a family-oriented aquatics center in Del Paso Heights could better serve the neighborhood, Hinson added.

“I don't believe that enough pressure is put on having equitable facilities like other communities that might be a little bit more affluent,” Hinson said. “And because that same kind of political pressure is not put, we tend to fall short when it comes to things like having a viable aquatic facility for a community of this nature.”

Historically, local governments across the nation did not build pools in poor or redlined areas, said Helene Margolis, an associate adjunct professor in the UC Davis Department of Internal Medicine who also works in the university’s Climate Adaptation Research Center.

At pools cities did build, Margolis said governments excluded Black people for generations. White swimmers attacked Black swimmers who entered municipal pools, according to the book Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America by Jeff Wiltse. Wiltse, a history professor at University of Montana, declined an interview request, saying he is taking a break from interviews about his pool research.

“[Black people] could not use those pools and it’s a problem that still exists because of the legacy,” Margolis said. “So, you have just geographically, the pools aren’t available.”

Besides where neighborhood public pools are located, Margolis said other lasting effects include disparities in swimming ability. According to a 2017 study that included Houston, Jacksonville, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Memphis, 64% of Black, 45% of Latino and 40% of white children have little to no swimming ability. The study also found 79% of children in households with annual incomes less than $50,000 have low swimming ability.

Investment in Natomas Aquatics Complex

Margolis pointed to the North Natomas Aquatics Complex as an example of where local cities currently invest in pools. Sacramento opened the $40-million complex last year in an area where 15% of residents live at or below the poverty line, according to the California Healthy Places Index.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, roughly 100 people swam in the 25-yard recreational pool and more played in the splash pool. Mary Lopez brought her 10 and eight-year-old children to enjoy the water.

The complex is about five to seven minutes from where they live in Natomas, Lopez said. Before the complex opened last year, the closest public pool was a 20-minute drive away at McKinley Park.

“It's really convenient for our children to have something to look forward to and, you know, get some exercise and everything,” Lopez said.

At another end of the poolside, Carmichael resident Angela Shortt sat on her walker with friends. Swimming allows her to get out of the heat, exercise without putting pressure on her hip that was injured in a car accident and have fun, Shortt said.

Some friends brought her to the pool to get out of her apartment and because management has not fixed the pool at their complex. But Shortt said she worried about people who don’t have access to a car or can’t drive to a public pool. She grew up in South Sacramento and said she walked to a swimming pool as a teenager.

“Maybe the City Council doesn’t have enough money, I understand politics, but they know how hot it gets,” Shortt said. “They may have pools in their backyards, but everybody else doesn’t.”

Overall, Margolis said public pools can help communities adapt to climate change, as well as serve as a place to exercise and socialize. Public pools can benefit people’s mental and physical health, she added, but she cautioned that swimming outdoors during extreme temperatures can contribute to heat-related illness.

Swimmers need to stay hydrated, Margolis said, and keep in mind sunburns can reduce ability to both sweat and cool down. If pool water gets too warm, she said bodies can also overheat. Depending on how extreme the heat is, Margolis added it can be appropriate for outdoor pools, without any shade, to close in the early afternoon.

Scheduled dates and hours for Sacramento’s public pools can be found on the city website. The Grant Union High School pool is set to open Monday through Friday from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. June 15 through Aug. 11, a Twin Rivers Unified School District spokesperson said in an email.

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