- Associated Press - Monday, May 26, 2014

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) - The stretch of the Big Sioux River that flows through Sioux Falls should be safe for swimming, without fear that diving below the surface would require a visit to a hospital emergency room and a course of antibiotics.

This is called immersion recreation, and it is the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources‘ goal for the river, based on standards established in the federal Clean Water Act.

The DENR also has set a lesser goal for Skunk Creek to become a stream suitable for fishing and limited contact, such as wading.

Skunk Creek, though, provides most of the river’s flow through the city in summer, because much of the Big Sioux upstream is directed to the flood-control diversion channel.

Sioux Falls recently completed extensive recreational and public entertainment improvements to the River Greenway through downtown, and planning has begun for the third phase of that project, Mayor Mike Huether said. It is an effort to enhance the Big Sioux as a valued amenity, and if the river ever does reach the immersion recreation standard, its value to the community will skyrocket, said Teri Schmidt, executive director of the Sioux Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“That would be just another plus about Sioux Falls and the river and the Falls Park area,” she said. “People love water, and a lot of people that travel are looking for areas with water that they can enjoy for recreational activities. One of those is being able to put your foot in it.

“If it ever became the case where it was completely safe for people to swim and we started marketing that, I have a feeling there would be people excited about it.”

While the city’s major use of the river is for drinking water, Huether said, its recreational potential is inviting.

“The goal is to make it look good, second, to be able to float on top of it in canoes and kayaks. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could actually tube down that river and swim in that river?” he asked.

But for that to happen, Skunk Creek needs to change.

The levels of E. coli and fecal coliform bacteria and total suspended solids in Skunk Creek don’t magically drop to immersion recreation standards - a maximum 235 E. coli colonies per 100 milliliters of water on any specific day and no more than an average 126 colonies per 100 ml in a 30-day period. So when the water passes beneath the Interstate 29 bridge on its short transit to the confluence with the river, for the Big Sioux to meet its target, Skunk Creek must exceed its own.

At this point, though, the DENR goals for both the Big Sioux and its tributary, Skunk Creek, are theoretical. DENR monitoring from May and August last year showed Skunk Creek actually had lower E. coli and fecal coliform levels than did the Big Sioux. However, the river and creek both are considered impaired streams, too polluted for their suggested use.

Now, a consortium of city, area and state agencies are trying to reduce the influence of a major source of E. coli - livestock - on Skunk Creek and significantly improve its water quality. The Seasonal Riparian Area Management (SRAM) program is a pilot program in the Central Big Sioux River Watershed project.

In the past, agencies have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to design and build manure-handling facilities for feedlots near Skunk Creek in an effort to lower E. coli levels in the stream.

This time, though, the answer to cleaner water during the recreation season might be as simple as a fence.

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