U.S. Forest Service brass has told Wyoming that the state’s plan to reclassify wilderness-area waterways to allow five times more E. coli bacteria than now allowed runs afoul of federal laws.

Regional foresters Nora Rasure and Daniel Jiron, who oversee the federal holdings in Wyoming, made their comments in a Sept. 15 letter (see below) to Wyoming’s Department of Environmental Quality. In addition to wilderness areas, the existing, purer classification should remain in place in wilderness study areas, in wild and scenic rivers, in their tributaries, and in rivers the agency has deemed eligible for wild preservation, they wrote.

E. coli is found in human and animal feces and can cause severe gastrointestinal illnesses.

“A change in recreation use designation of these waters from primary to secondary would conflict with congressional mandates under the Wilderness Act of 1964 and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968….” the foresters’ letter said. “We ask that all waters managed to achieve the objectives of the Wilderness Act … or the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act … remain designated as primary contact recreation use in order to maintain existing water quality in these areas.”

DEQ is seeking to reclassify all waterways that flow at less than an average of 6 cubic feet per second (cfs) a year from the higher “primary recreation” to the lower, “secondary” standard. Lower-flow streams aren’t deep enough to allow swimming and dunking — so-called recreational immersion — that is one of the benchmarks for the higher purity standard, the state says.

But many in the conservation and recreation community say the state’s sweeping reclassification — which shifts 76 percent of all Wyoming waterways from primary to secondary — includes thousands of miles of waterways where people have primary contact with water.

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