Corps of Engineers renews focus on boating safety
APR 28, 2018 12:00 AM
The water temperature in the Allegheny River flowing green and fast past Aspinwall Riverfront Park was somewhere between 45 degrees and “too cold to be in the water” Friday morning.
As a result, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District canceled its scheduled river rescue demonstration and instead focused its second annual “Water Safety Summit” on how a coalition of government, commercial and recreational entities are working to improve waterway safety.
This year’s theme, “Barges, Paddlers & Dams,” took note of the rapidly growing raft of recreational boaters and paddlers and highlighted the dangers posed to inexperienced river users by fixed-crest dams, barge tows and high water.
“We have a beautiful river system in the Pittsburgh region and we’re seeing an increasing number of paddlers on that system,” Col. John Lloyd, commander of the Corps’ Pittsburgh District office, told a crowd of about 50 huddled inside a park pavilion. “We want you to enjoy the day on the rivers, but we want you to go home at the end of the day.”
The Corps renewed its focus on recreational boater safety last year after two women died when their kayaks were swept over the Corps’ Dashields Locks and Dam on the Ohio River in Edgeworth on May 20.
Mr.Lloyd said the Corps is stepping up its recreational boater education programs this year, and will install more buoys and warning signs around at least eight lock and dam locations.
The Corps will also step up enforcement of rules requiring boaters handling ropes in the lock chambers to wear life jackets. Signs to that effect will be posted at all 23 Corps locks and dams in the region.
Jeff Hawk, a Corps spokesman, said 80 percent of the people involved in recreational boating fatalities nationwide in 2016 had not taken a safe boating course, and 83 percent were not wearing life jackets, also known and personal floatation devices or “PFDs.”
There were 15 deaths in 14 separate accidents on Pennsylvania waterways in 2017, said Mike Johnson, a waterways conservation officer with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. More than half of the victims were not wearing life preserver, but had one aboard their boats.
“People need to wear the life jackets or we’re not going to lock them through,” he said. “It’s about taking care of people and it’s the right thing to do.”
Kathy Griffin, Corps operations and regulatory chief in the Pittsburgh District, said 11 of the dams are “fixed crest” dams.
“Those dams are very dangerous because they are difficult to see when you are on the water, especially if you are moving downstream,” Ms. Griffin said. “If you don’t know the structures are there you can get into trouble quickly, and then it quickly gets too late to take action to save yourself. We can put in all the physical buoys and warning signs, but in the end it’s all about boater education.”
High water has shut down commercial barge shipping on the region’s rivers for eight of 13 weeks this spring and could create more conflicts between recreational boaters and commercial barge traffic, said David Podurgiel, navigation chairman for the Waterways Association of Pittsburgh and a tow boat fleet manager with Murray American River Towing.
Dam repairs at the Emsworth and Dashields dams down the Ohio from Pittsburgh also have slowed barge traffic, he said.
“We haven’t been able to move, so we’re way behind on our deliveries,” Mr. Podurgiel said. “You’ll be seeing a lot more commercial traffic on the rivers this spring and summer and more congestion and conflicts.”
Mr. Hawk said the Corps has scheduled its annual “LockFest” celebration from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., May 12 at two locations: on the Allegheny Lock & Dam No. 4 in Harrison Township, 24 miles upriver from Pittsburgh’s Point and on the Monongahela River at Grays Landing in Fayette County.
“People can go to Costco or wherever and buy a boat for less than a bicycle, put it in the river and not know about the locks and dams,” Mr. Hawk said. “We want people to use the river system. But we want them to be safe.”
Don Hopey: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1983, or on Twitter @donhopey
Correction, posted April 28, 2018: In an earlier version of this story an incorrect location was given for the annual LockFest.