Urban waterways offer fun with risks from bacteria

Scott Mcfetridge
Associated Press

Des Moines, Iowa – As someone who has spent countless hours rowing along the Des Moines River, Tonya Logan appreciates the city’s vision to create a whitewater course that would draw kayakers to the Iowa capital.

But there’s a dirty secret for Des Moines and many other U.S. cities that want to upgrade their urban waterways into scenic destinations: Much of the water is so polluted with manure that people fear it’s not safe to dip their hands in the current, let alone to swim in it.

“I won’t,” said Logan, who doesn’t touch the water that passes inches beneath her narrow rowboat, known as a scull, even on blistering hot days. “The last time I went into the water, I took a long shower and then scrubbed myself with peroxide.” Others have complained of intestinal problems, skin rashes and infections.

The unseen but potentially dangerous pollutants threaten to undermine the efforts of dozens of communities seeking to turn rivers into urban amenities that will attract tourists and businesses and become centerpieces of downtown life.

“It’s an issue in any city trying to do this,” said Rick Tollakson, a Des Moines developer who is leading the push to remove small dams along the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers to create whitewater courses as part of a larger regional “water trail” plan. “The rivers are not as clean as people would like them to be.”

In fact, most U.S. rivers are far cleaner than in decades past, largely because of the federal Clean Water Act, which was approved in 1972. But many waterways still carry farm runoff and city sewage that contain nitrates, ammonia and E.coli bacteria, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

In Des Moines, the problem comes mainly from animal waste and chemical fertilizers that drain into the rivers from farmland. The city treats the water to make it drinkable, but that doesn’t help paddlers and swimmers who could be exposed to high bacteria levels, especially after heavy rains.

“There are times you’re out there and it’s so beautiful, and then you smell the pig manure from upstream and it’s just disgusting,” said longtime kayaker Scott Bandstra, who uses antiseptic wipes liberally and has experienced only the occasional mild rash.

■In Columbus, Georgia, thousands of people flock to a 2½-mile whitewater course built in 2013 even though raw sewage still occasionally flows into the Chattahoochee River during big rainstorms.

■In Los Angeles, officials are open about bacteria in the LA River, even as they encourage residents to canoe or kayak through stretches of a 51-mile waterway better known as a movie backdrop.

■In Denver, where the South Platte River flows out of the Rocky Mountains and through a city-built whitewater course, officials acknowledge the water at times exceeds standards for E. coli.