Wrangell’s pool sits empty, waiting for repairs to the foundation.
(Sage Smiley / KSTK)

Wrangell’s popular community pool has been empty and dry since late November. It’s a problem with the foundation. Although the borough has wanted to fix it, they’ve had difficulty finding a contractor to do the work. 

Listen to the radio version of this story here.

Outgoing Parks & Rec Director Kate Thomas stands in the second lane of the shallow end in Wrangell’s community pool. 

“Quite different than when it’s full, isn’t it?” Thomas asks, gesturing to the empty pool. “Sometimes we lap swim here together. When there’s water in the pool,” she adds with a laugh. 

The pool is bone dry – just an expanse of tiny blue and white tiles.

Walking towards the center of the empty pool, where the floor dips at a 45-degree angle toward the deep end, she gestures to the floor: “You can see this fissure sort of right along this edge, and you can see where the old tile from right here to right here was replaced in 2014. And you can kind of start to see where the break and the tile starts to run along the width of the pool.”

Some of the tiny tiles have been pulled up already to examine a fracture in the concrete foundation of the pool, just before the floor drops to the deep end. 

The pool maintenance project was originally scheduled to last about a month and a half, from after Thanksgiving to early January. One major goal was to replace a valve that can only be done when the pool is empty – the pool hadn’t been drained since 2018. Another goal was to repair some tile. 

But Thomas says draining the pool became a bigger priority last year when they noticed they were losing water. It went from the normal 500 gallons per day to 1,000 in late summer, to 3,000 gallons a day in September. To investigate, a diver squirted dye around vulnerable parts of the pool floor to see if they could find the leak. And they did. 

Tiles pulled from the bottom of the pool follow the crack in the concrete foundation of the pool.
(Sage Smiley / KSTK)

“The concern is that when the water leeches through the foundation and goes into the substrate that the pool is sitting on, that you can wash out the fine sediment and rock and create unstable ground,” Thomas explains, “And if you have unstable ground, you could have a collapse of the pool’s foundation, which would be a catastrophic repair. Maybe one that we would or wouldn’t be able to afford at this time.”

And as Thomas mentioned, the problem isn’t an entirely new one. In 2014, water loss through the same part of the foundation topped 10,000 gallons per day: “We know that this is a vulnerable point in the pool, not for any other reason than the style of construction that originally took place in ‘85, ‘86,” she says. 

Because the concrete has needed repairs in that exact spot before, Thomas says the Parks & Rec department wants a longer-term, more in-depth fix, which would include breaking apart some of the concrete floor and rebuilding it. The proposed solution will cut out a chunk of the concrete to install a plastic water stop that will have concrete poured over it to make the concrete less permeable. It should extend the life of the pool by 15 or 20 years.

The problem is, because it’s a more involved project, Parks & Rec’s maintenance crew can’t do it themselves. After putting out a request for contractor bids twice, Parks & Rec came up empty

“There’s just a finite amount of people on the island, and everyone’s experiencing high volumes of need and low workforce to do things,” Thomas says, “So there’s just not always availability to do everything at one time. And that’s not just Wrangell. That’s Southeast, that’s Alaska, that’s the nation right now.”

Parks & Rec has pivoted to a different type of contract that would pay a contractor for their time and materials rather than require a lump-sum bid. And they’ve pre-ordered the materials with the hope it’ll help secure a contractor and shorten the remaining time the pool is closed. 

But there isn’t a timeline yet. 

“I have felt the weight of [repeatedly] changing the date for reopening and creating expectations, dreams, hopes to get back into the pool, and then having to extend that further,” Thomas says, explaining why there isn’t an exact reopening date yet: “And I think that’s pretty disappointing for folks.”

But if the repairs are done right this go around, Thomas says, it’ll be years before the pool has to be shut down again. 

“This pool is 40 years old,” she says, “It’s unlikely that the borough is in the position to replace it in-kind if there was a need to do that in the near to distant future. So we need to take care of it as best we can, and this is one of those things that we just simply can’t ignore. For all the right reasons.”

Thomas says that the bright side of the extended closure is it’s giving Parks & Rec’s maintenance team the chance to check off a huge amount of smaller maintenance tasks on their list. That includes everything from circulating pumps and replacing piping to doing the once-a-decade replacement of the sand filters that keep the water clean to maintenance on the systems that heat the water and monitor chemicals to re-grouting the entire basin of the pool.

“If we didn’t extend the project this far, there’s no way we would have tackled all of this stuff,” Thomas explains. “It takes weeks to regrout out the entire swimming pool, and the grout is the first layer of protectant to the substrate, the integrity below the tile and then the concrete and so on and so forth. […] So we’re just gonna keep on grouting until this puppy’s done.”

There’s certainly an impact to Parks & Rec’s revenues with the extended closure, although Thomas says she doesn’t have exact numbers. But she says that’s not her primary worry. 

“Take the money out of the equation,” Thomas says, “It’s affecting people’s physical health, mental health and sense of community because they don’t have their congregate setting to engage with their friends and with the staff here, whether that’s the arthritis class, or the water aerobics class or swim club, or our open swims that have dozens and dozens of kids and families that come in. All those folks are probably suffering more than anybody else.”

Thomas says she feels especially for the Wrangell Swim Club, whose swimmers haven’t been able to train since before the holidays. 

But like the maintenance crew trying to tackle every task in the interim, Parks & Rec has tried to make programming on land a priority during the extended pool closure. The community gym has shuttled through hundreds of participants for archery, pickleball, and pop-up classes to keep bodies moving. 

Eventually, swimming will once again be an option. After construction is done, it’ll take about a week for the pool to be filled back up, properly treated with chemicals, and warmed up to swimming temperature. 

The timing of the extended pool closure is somewhat peculiar, Thomas adds: “It’s kind of funny that I started [as Parks & Rec Director] when the pool was empty in February of 2015, and reopened it in May of 2015. And now I’m leaving when it’s empty, and leaving the next person and the same situation I found myself in. The irony of that is absurd. But nevertheless, here we are.”

While Thomas is leaving, her replacement is secured – Lucy Robinson will move from Recreation Coordinator position to Director in mid-March. 

It’s a frustrating predicament to be in, Thomas says. Addressing the community, she says: “Please know, as a community, that we as Parks and Rec staff, as a borough, are just as eager as those who participate in our programs to see this baby back up and running.” 

“We really do value the swimming pool,” she continues. “It’s the gem of our department. And it definitely changes the dynamic of the department when it’s not going, and this is not a great time of year to be down,” Thomas concludes: “So know we love you, we miss you, we can’t wait to get you back in here. And we’re doing all that we can to ensure that we’re getting it done as fast as possible, but also that we do it right so that we don’t have to do this for a very long time.”

Get in touch with KSTK at news@kstk.org or (907) 874-2345.