In the cool 61-degree weather yesterday, the clear blue Kendall Ridge swimming pool didn't look very inviting. But the pool staff was busy putting the finishing touches on the facility in anticipation of the Columbia Association's outdoor pool season opening tomorrow.
Under a blanket of clouds, staff members pulled out lawn chairs - arranging them on grass that was still wet from rain the day before - hung awnings and set up beach umbrellas at the pool in Columbia's Long Reach village.
"We'll still be open [tomorrow], unless there's thunder and lightning," said Nicholas Meyer, the Kendall Ridge pool manager.
It may not feel like summer yet, but tomorrow, thousands of Columbians are expected to - weather permitting - slip on their swimsuits, sunblock and shades, and take a plunge into one of the association's 23 outdoor pools in nine of its 10 villages.
More than 600,000 swimmers flock to the homeowners association's pools each summer - from May to September - and the Columbia Association staff has been working for two months to get the pools ready.
That means training 250 lifeguards, painting 16 pools, cleaning lawn furniture and restrooms, and putting about 3.5 million gallons of water into the pools, which will require 50,000 gallons of chlorine throughout the season.
The preparation "is huge, it's a monster," said Rob Goldman, the association's vice president for sport and fitness.
The recent wet weather has made the preparation more challenging because the 16 pools that are painted annually need to be dry for a couple of days to soak up the paint, Goldman said.
The cool weather also makes it difficult for pool staffs to get motivated. Anytime the pool water is 60 degrees, Meyer's reaction to jumping in to clean it is: "No way - it's freezing." But he does it anyway.
On days of inclement weather, the association's aquatics director will decide whether to close pools. But the Swansfield pool in Harper's Choice and the Stevens Forest pool in Oakland Mills - which are both heated - regularly stay open during bad weather, Goldman said.
As the thousands of swimmers stay cool at the pools this summer, the Columbia Association staff and Columbia Council might be developing ways to ensure the pools keep up with the evolving community.
As part of the council's strategic plan - in which it tackled issues it believed were the community's greatest needs - the association is scheduled this fiscal year to focus on pool improvements. Plans include possibly adding an indoor, hot-water therapy pool for aging residents and revitalizing older pools with added services.
All of the facilities are equipped with wading pools and grassy areas with lawn chairs and umbrellas. Most of them have volleyball or water basketball areas. Some have extra amenities, such as whirlpools, mushroom water fountains and beach entries - where swimmers can ease their way into the water via a sloped cement ramp.
The plan also includes having the association examine how to develop a major aquatic center, creating pools for older adults and seasonally enclosing an outdoor pool.
Improving Columbia's pools likely will be a significant undertaking because there are so many of them.
Based on national recreation planning standards, Columbia's 95,000 residents would require only three or four outdoor pools and one or two indoor pools, according to Markey and Associates in Kennesaw, Ga., which studied Columbia's pools in 2001. But the report noted that the pools' usage indicates a demand for the high number.
Even with the abundance of pools, however, some of them prove to be too popular at times. River Hill's only pool has the highest attendance rate - attracting about 20,000 more annual visits than any other pool - resulting in huge crowds and little room to swim.
To dampen that pool's popularity, the Columbia Association is offering monetary incentives for swimmers to use one of the association's other 22 pools.
Households that used the River Hill pool at least three times last year will be sent a $50 gift certificate for any association service or program if they visit some of Columbia's other pools 10 times. A buy-one-get-one-free coupon for a round of miniature golf at the Columbia Association's Sports Park is also included in the deal.
Last year, the association offered a similar discount, which Goldman said helped reduce the pool's usage to 69,810, compared with about 72,000 visits in 2001.
Mohammad Saleem, a member of the River Hill Village Board, said the coupons made a difference in the number of swimmers last summer and encouraged residents to intermingle with other Columbians.
"Villages should not be isolated among their village," he said. "I wish there were more ways to bring people together."