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Is it safe to swim in the river?

There are more than 69,000 of rivers and streams in Minnesota, but they're different than the lakes most are used to.

ST PAUL, Minn. — We may live in the land of 10,000 lakes, but Minnesota is no slouch when it comes to rivers. There are more than 69,000 miles of rivers and streams in our state, and if you plan to swim in them, there are things you need to know.

“Currents in the river are definitely something people should be paying attention to, whether you are swimming or boating, and they do change depending on if we get a heavy rainfall, low water levels,” said Lisa Dugan with the Department of Natural Resources.

The DNR knows a thing or two about it and so does the U.S. Geological Survey. They say the more water, the faster the river moves, with more force. There’s velocity but also turbulence.

“If you were pushed down stream, even from the velocity itself, you might come up a little further but maybe the turbulence keeps you down and you come up way down stream,” said James Fallon, Data Chief for the Minnesota portion of the Upper Midwest Water Science Center.

 “It could be feet. It could be hundreds of feet,” he added.

That speed, James says, could change from day to day, even hour to hour. And it's that's not the only thing that is ever changing in a river. Even areas that you're used to can look different from your last visit, and murky water makes it tough to see what's underneath.

"If we get a heavy rainfall, debris can be brought into the river, float down river and it can create problems for boaters or swimmers,” said Dugan

“Make sure you're entering the water feet first, not diving in headfirst every time you're going into the water for the first time, so you know what's under the water level,” she added.

The depth in a river can be deceiving, too, and surprise even the strongest of swimmers.

“You can go from two or three feet to above somebody's head in really one step,” Dugan said.

While Minnesota is home to more than 6,500 rivers and streams, the 680 miles of the Mississippi are probably the most famous. And if you plan to swim in it this summer, there are things specific to the Mississippi River you should know about. 

“Look for spots that say designated swim area. There may not be a lifeguard there but it's going to be an area that's enclosed, and it's designated for swimmers, so if you're looking to swim on the river, that's going to be a spot you should go towards,” said Dugan.

Here's the kick in the pants on that one, there are not many designated swim areas on the Mississippi. In fact, there are none in the city of Minneapolis, but what there is a lot of are barges. They create a pull when they go by, so don't get too close.

"There's a lot of paddlers that like to be on the river, making sure you're giving those barges a lot of space. They don't have the turning radius, they're not able to stop,” said Dugan.

And if you're wondering if it's safe, meaning healthy, to swim in the Mississippi, well, it depends. While the river is certainly much healthier than it used to be, it's still considered "impaired" for recreational use south of St. Cloud. The water that starts so crystal clear in Itasca collects a lot of pollutants as it makes its way south. It doesn't mean you can't swim in it, it just means there are elevated levels of bacteria like E. coli that could potentially make you sick.  And you should always rinse off after you have been swimming. But the safest thing you can do for yourself is wear a life jacket, even if you're a strong swimmer.

"Across all ages, across all genders, when you look at the lifejacket statistic, I mean each year over and over, its almost 90% of fatalities don't have lifejackets,” said Dugan.

And to leave you with one final thing to think about, we always tell you in the winter there's no such thing as safe ice, right?

“And I guess I would say that's also true for rivers. No rivers are safe rivers to swim in, there's just degrees of risk you assume when you wade into a river or swim in a river,” said Fallon. 

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