Boats and Woes

A look at the city of Denver’s ban on swimming through an environmental justice lens

Environmental issues extend beyond simply ensuring that we respect and conserve our habitat. Environmental justice transcends environmental protection to incorporate issues of social justice.  By definition, environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.  In practice this means that all people, regardless of race and class, should have the same access to a clean and healthy environment. Furthermore, this concept imposes a duty on the government to ensure that government policies are in line with environmental justice principles.  Denver has developed a good plan for the city’s arrangement of public parks that is in line with environmental justice principles.  Denver’s guidelines for park accessibility state that each resident should live within six blocks of a park and that there should not be physical barriers between the two.  Nonetheless, close proximity to parks within the city does not guarantee equal enjoyment of Denver city parks.

Particularly troubling is the ban on swimming at a Denver public lake where high cost activities such as boating and water skiing are permitted.  This ban on swimming is reflective of the need for environmental justice across the Denver parks system because it has the repercussion of discriminating against lower income communities who cannot afford boating recreation.  A look at Denver’s history of discrimination and the ban’s illogical justification will demonstrate the need for reconsidering this prohibition.

Denver is an ethnically diverse city with almost an exact split between Non-Hispanic Whites and other ethnic groups.  Historically, the city was largely segregated by ethnicities, but this segregation is becoming less apparent.  In spite of this positive change, there continues to be inadvertent discrimination in not-so apparent ways.  A small, but growing body of research shows that in Denver access to environmental goods and exposure to environmental hazards are unequally distributed across low-income ethnic groups.  In particular, researchers established that in metro Denver, ethnic minority and low-income communities live closer to toxic hazards and that Denver’s wealthier neighborhoods have significantly more vegetation.  Furthermore, a study on a small sample of Denver neighborhoods showed that low-income communities of color have significantly less access to parks and to parks with play amenities, such as playgrounds and other recreational activities, than mid- to high-income white neighborhoods.  This study included a sample of six urban and six suburban neighborhoods, and four neighborhoods for each of the income categories (low, medium, and high).  In addition, the study classified each park based on the presence of formal and informal play opportunities.

Growing research also indicates the importance of access to nature and outdoor activities.  Studies show that access to nature can help reduce stress, induce cognitive development, and improve a community’s health and wellbeing.  Given the positive correlation between access to outdoor activities and the wellbeing of a community, it is important that Denver ensures it affords all communities the same opportunities.  Furthermore, studies show that nearly eighty percent of low-income minorities in Denver Public Schools have never been to Rocky Mountain National Park.  Such a statistic is representative of the need for Denver to provide its citizens with access to outdoor recreation activities, because there is something inherently wrong with living in such a beautiful state and not being able to enjoy the outdoor recreation it has to offer.

Reflective of this inadvertent discrimination are the rules of Sloan’s Lake, a Denver park, which allows water skiing, but bans all swimming.  The Denver municipal code states that it shall be unlawful for any person to wade, swim, or bathe in any river, creek, canal, lake, reservoir, or other stream or body of water in Denver.  The Denver Department of Environmental Health justifies this ban on swimming by stating that Denver’s lakes and streams receive runoff from Denver streets, yards, parks, industry, and wastewater treatment plants that can make people sick.  Nonetheless, the Denver municipal code allows swimming if the manager of environmental health finds that a natural body of water is safe to swim in.  Upon first inspection, the swimming ban at Sloan’s Lake seems necessary to protect park patron’s health, yet the park allows boating activities, such as water skiing, that run contrary to this purpose.  Water skiing entails skiers being submerged in water and subjected to the same pollutants that the city is trying to shield people from when banning swimming.  In addition, the city tests Sloan’s Lake on a bi-weekly basis for contaminants and is consistently found to have water quality levels that surpass state requirements, making it a safe lake to swim in.  Water skiing is an expensive activity that requires the possession of a boat, which many people cannot afford, while swimming is virtually cost free.  The effect of banning swimming but allowing boating is that Denver provides low-income members of the community with fewer amenities and recreation opportunities at Sloan’s Lake.

Sloan’s Lake is near a low-income minority community, who regularly use the park to picnic, relax, and enjoy the outdoors.  Lifting the swimming ban at Sloan’s Lake would allow a larger portion of its neighboring community to enjoy the amenities the park has to offer.  In addition to the safe water quality at the lake, Denver Parks and Recreation will have to consider other mitigating factors when determining whether swimming is appropriate, such as the construction of appropriate infrastructure to swim, the need to hire lifeguards, and other potential liabilities that could come from allowing swimming.  Nonetheless, the city allocated $4 million in 2012 for remodeling the boat marina at Sloan’s lake reflecting the city’s ability to fund projects in the name of recreation.  Denver should continue to work towards ensuring environmental justice across city policies and rules, lifting this swimming ban would serve that purpose well.


The featured image is of Bierstadt Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park. This photo is part of the public domain.


Heidi L. Beattie ET AL., Impact of Urban Nature on Executive Functioning in Early and Middle Childhood Environment and Behavior, SAGE PUBLICATIONS (2015).

DENVER CO. MUN. CODE § 24-9 (2015).

DENVER CO. MUN. CODE § 39 (2015).

Travis L. Flohrm & Alessandro Rigolon,  Access to Parks for Youth as an Environmental Justice Issue: Access Inequalities and Possible Solutions (April 2014).

Barry E. Hill, Environmental Justice: Legal Theory and Practice, 45 Envtl. L. Rep. News & Analysis 10236 (2015).

Alessandro Rigolon, Inequities in young people’s access to urban parks: an environmental justice investigation in Denver (July 24, 2015) (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Bologna) (on file with author).

Joe Vaccarelli, Marina Renovations Complete at Sloan’s Lake Park in Denver, DENVER POST (Nov. 18, 2015),

Nancy M. Wells & Gary W. Evans, Nearby Nature: A Buffer of Life Stress Among Rural Children  Environment and Behavior, SAGE PUBLICATIONS (2003).