Ask the Truth: Is it safe to swim in the Elkhart and St. Joseph rivers?
One of the more scenic aspects of Elkhart is the rivers that twist and turn through the city’s neighborhoods. On a hot summer day, it’s tempting to head down to Island Park, bask in the sun and take a dip.
However, city officials said there are several reasons why swimming in the Elkhart and St. Joseph rivers is a bad idea.
Debris hidden beneath the water is a major concern, said Battalion Chief Scott Chris of the Elkhart Fire Department.
"There’s just a lot of stuff that gets dumped in there,” Chris said. “Here a few years back when they had to do work on the dam, they lowered it and we found a dozen cars, just in a stretch from McNaughton Park to the water treatment plant. I would imagine there are cars in there now.”
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Broken glass, fishing lures, picnic tables, bottles and cans are common at the rivers’ bottoms as well. Stepping on debris is one concern; another is actually getting caught in it.
Currents, which can be particularly strong in the shallower, narrower Elkhart River, can become deadly when paired with large debris like tree branches and logs. These create “strainers,” said Jerry Good, the Elkhart County Parks and Recreation Department’s current marketing coordinator and former chief naturalist.
The concept is similar to a pasta strainer — only the debris is the strainer, you’re the spaghetti and the quick flow of the river is the faucet. Though water can pass through strainers, people and objects can’t.
"The current will want to push you downstream while you’re attached to this strainer,” Good said. “If you get caught up in those, it can be very serious.”
Though the rivers’ currents don’t look that dangerous while driving past or looking down from a bridge, they can be deceptively strong.
"We went out one time where someone got themselves in a position in the river where they got themselves caught in a current in the deeper water, and they realized they couldn’t get back,” Chris said of an incident that happened near Island Park. ”We had to send a boat out to get them.”
Chris said the fire department responds to calls about people getting into trouble in the rivers about every other month.
Good said swimming near dams in the rivers is particularly dangerous.
"Little whirlpools are created where the water is actually flowing towards the dam instead of downstream,” Good said. “These will not only pull you down, but they’re very hard to get out of.”
The cleanliness of the water also is an occasional safety issue. Gabe Cameron, environmental health supervisor with the Elkhart County Health Department, said rain will often cause the rivers to have high coliform levels due to runoff.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), coliform are bacteria measured as an indicator of the potential for harmful microbes, like E. Coli, in water. High levels of total coliform show there could be a problem, the EPA said.
Cameron said the department usually alerts the media when coliform measures reach dangerous levels. Swimming in the water while coliform levels are high could result in flu-like symptoms, vomiting and diarrhea, Cameron said.
"We always advise not to swallow the water and to wash your hands after being in the water,“ Cameron said.
Though Good said he’s swam in the St. Joseph River before, he would not recommend it. Though swimming east of the St. Joseph River’s dam just off Johnson Street is slightly safer, he said he wouldn’t advocate doing that either. Good said he hopes anyone who tries is a very strong swimmer.
Both Good and Chris said letting children swim in the rivers is definitely a bad idea.
"If it were me, I wouldn’t let my kids swim in the river,” Chris said.