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INCOG Working to Get Arkansas River Stretch Reclassified

Water in the river around Tulsa is safe for activities such as swimming, and INCOG is pushing to have it reclassified as such.

Despite being classified as safe only for activities with a low chance of swallowing water, Vernon Seaman with INCOG said the stretch from Sand Springs to Muskogee meets the higher standards.

"I love to canoe and kayak. I'm out on the water a lot, and, you know, people ask me, 'Knowing what you know, do you get in the water?'" Seaman said. "All the time. Absolutely. I've canoed and kayaked the stretch up and down through here a lot. I've flipped. I've rolled."

Seaman said in the 1980s, the city asked for the lower classification because of water quality and safety concerns, but the standards in permits didn’t drop. Reclassifying Tulsa’s stretch could take up to 16 months.

The water is safe even if it looks murky. That’s just turbidity — particles suspended in the water scattering light. It gets worse with increased water flows.

"It's not a threat to swimmers other than if we have more current, there's more velocity and the physical characteristics of the water are more hazardous, but the chemical characteristics really aren't," Seaman said.

Building low-water dams could change water quality, however, at least in the lakes they form. Seaman said the key is instituting a monitoring program to recognize trends before they become full-blown problems.

"In turn, that will help avoid some problems," he said. "If the city is planning an event and they want water in the river, if nobody's testing you may find out two days before the event that water quality has degraded to the point where we have to open the gates and dump all the water, and they've lost their lake for the event."

Sand Springs to Muskogee is the only stretch of the Arkansas River in Oklahoma that is classified as safe for activities where swallowing water is unlikely.

Matt Trotter joined KWGS as a reporter in 2013. Before coming to Public Radio Tulsa, he was the investigative producer at KJRH. His freelance work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and on MSNBC and CNN.