Downgrading Mountain Stream Quality Makes Outdoor Recreationists' Heads Swim

Aug 6, 2015

Wyoming DEQ says many alpine streams are too shallow to swim in.
Credit Wyoming Outdoor Council

Outdoor recreation groups are upset about a recent decision by the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality to reduce the minimum quality standard of 87,000 miles of mountain streams in the state. The plan would allow five times more e. coli into the water before the DEQ requires it be cleaned up.

The agency says such streams are too shallow to swim in, but Wyoming Outdoor Council associate director Chris Merrill says people bathe and swim in these mountain streams all the time.

“Backcountry hikers, campers, people use these streams to cool off, for a water source-obviously they treat the water—and to swim and just play. That’s what we do here in Wyoming,” he says, laughing.

DEQ Water Quality Administrator Kevin Frederick says the decision is a work in progress.

“Quite frankly, [the model] isn’t infallible, it’s not perfect. And for that reason there’s a process in place and again we do encourage people to tell us where they think that model has broken down and needs to be modified.”

Originally, people had to comment at a public hearing scheduled for September 16 in Casper. Frederick says now people can also write in, describing swimming destinations they’d like excluded from the downgrade. 

But Outdoor Council’s Merrill says taking letters and hosting a public meeting isn’t enough since it puts the burden on citizens to pinpoint all the state’s favorite swimming holes.

“As a citizen, you’d now have to take photos, give specific information about where the stream is, fill out a two and a half page questionnaire/report, in order to petition that that stream be considered primary recreation.”

Frederick says, as people consider the issue, they should remember that it doesn’t really matter if a stream is categorized as primary or secondary. Even fairly clean water can harbor e. coli.

“It’s important to keep in mind that essentially one organism can make you ill.”