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A couple lost their son to an infection after he swam in Lake Lanier. Now, they are trying to raise awareness of harmful bacteria
Lake lanier signs
The South Hall Rotary Club meets Wednesday, April 20, 2022, at River Forks Park for the unveiling of the first of seven new signs being installed around Lake Lanier spreading awareness about water quality hazards. South Hall Rotary Club President Jeff Williams' child Justus Teal Williams died of a bacterial infection from the lake. - photo by Scott Rogers

Three years ago this May, Jeff and Jess Williams were enjoying Don Carter State Park and swimming in Lake Lanier with their three sons, including their youngest, Justus. 

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Jess Williams releases a butterfly along with members of the South Hall Rotary Club Wednesday, April 20, 2022, at River Forks Park during an unveiling of the first of seven new signs being installed around Lake Lanier spreading awareness about water quality hazards. Williams and husband Jeff had a child, Justus Williams, die of a bacterial infection after swimming in the lake. - photo by Scott Rogers

In the days following, Justus started to get sick and doctors told them that the illness should pass. But the boy’s condition worsened. He developed an infection and died less than two weeks later. 

The couple didn’t know how it happened until they saw a news report in June that River Forks Park was shut down for high E. coli levels, and they realized that their 2-year-old son must have been swimming in risky waters. 

“I was in a snowglobe of grief in the days and weeks following his death,” Jess Williams said. 

It took her husband’s nudging to inspire them both to turn their story into something that could help others. 

“I myself am from right outside of Atlanta and did not grow up around the lake,” Williams said at a ceremony for the first new sign at River Forks Park Wednesday. “The risks associated with its water safety were nowhere near the forefront of my mind until several weeks after May 17, 2019 — the day that Justus was called home to be with the Lord.” 

Jeff Williams is the president-elect of South Hall Rotary, and the couple raised $8,500 through the Rotary to install the signs at parks around Lake Lanier including Laurel Park, Cherokee Bluffs Park, Williams Mill Greenspace, Cedar Creek Reservoir and Wahoo Creek Park. 

The artwork and design was based on Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention guidelines and it states park guests should avoid the lake after heavy rain, that wildlife such as geese can mean increased bacteria and people with autoimmune issues should use extra caution. 

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The South Hall Rotary Club meets Wednesday, April 20, 2022, at River Forks Park for the unveiling of the first of seven new signs being installed around Lake Lanier spreading awareness about water quality hazards. - photo by Scott Rogers

There is a scannable QR code on the back of the sign that allows people to see the latest E. coli levels at their park, and parks are tested weekly during the summer months when E. coli levels can rise due to warmer temperatures, said Riverkeeper Jason Ulseth. 

“As a whole we test about 200 locations throughout the Chattahoochee basin weekly,” Ulseth said. 

“Stormwater runoff is the most significant source of pollution to the Chattahoochee water shed,” Ulseth said. “Most of the time when we’re testing here, we get very safe levels. But in certain areas following heavy rains we do see elevated levels of E. coli, which could exceed (Environmental Protection Agency’s) recommended value for recreation.” 

People should avoid swimming in the lake when it appears muddy or brownish, he said. Infections are rare, but they are also hard to track. When people get an infection and receive care, they often can’t tell if the lake was the source of the issue, just as happened initially with the Williamses. 

“Most of our samples are collected by volunteers and we could certainly use a lot more,” he said. 

Cases like Justus’s are very rare, Ulseth said, but the people most susceptible to an infection are very young children, elderly people and those with autoimmune issues. 

In honor of Justus, attendees released dozens of butterflies over Lake Lanier out of yellow envelopes. 

This story was originally published in the Gainesville Times, a sister publication of the Dawson County News.