PENTICTON - The drowning in the Okanagan River Channel at Green Mountain Road bridge in Penticton yesterday brought home the realities of this year’s high and fast flowing water and the need for caution when engaging in river activities this summer.
While this year’s risk is higher, it’s not something channel tubers haven’t dealt with before - but people should be fully aware of this year's increased risk.
Shaun Reimer, the head of public safety with the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, expects the Okanagan River system from Penticton down to Osoyoos will be running high all summer.
“You’re always going to be at risk around the water, and the faster the water, the higher the flow, the greater the risk, and we’re seeing a tragic consequence of that right now,” Reimer says. He and his staff were hit hard by news of the drowing yesterday, June 28.
“It’s impossible to provide a blanket answer with respect to how much force the man was pinned against the bridge pier by because it depends on things like the size of the object that was hitting the pier - the bigger the object, the more pressure there is going to be,” he says.
Water is flowing at the rate of just under two metres per second at the Green Mountain Bridge this week.
He says the flow rate can vary somewhat throughout the channel.
“It might have been faster upstream, and it definitely would have been slower downstream because the channel’s bigger,” Reimer says.
The velocity in the channel at Green Mountain Road today, June 29, is only slightly higher than values seen in the past.
“When I think back to 1997, when the flow volumes were in the 70 cubic metre per second range, a similar range to today’s, there were lots of tubers that went down that summer. I can’t say for certain, but don’t recall any major incidents,” he says.
“Bridge piers are an issue, and disembarking - you’re going to have more difficulty disembarking at higher flows,” Reimer says, adding
Anyone tubing the Okanagan River Channel needs to be aware of strong, unwieldy currents at the mouth of Skaha Lake, and ensure they get out of the river before the Highway 97 bridge at the south end of the channel, he says. Another potential trouble spot is at the beginning of the channel run where people are just getting onto their rafts and familiarizing themselves with the experience.
As far as closing the channel to tubers completely, there isn't any legislation to do that.
Reimer says they've never policed tubers on the channel, although they have put out high flow advisories and warmed people to stay off the river, just like they have done this year.
Penticton RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Don Wrigglesworth says in an email that closing the channel isn't a viable option because of "enforcement issues" envisioning a hot summer day with hundreds of people disregarding the rules and calls to the RCMP for enforcement.
Wrigglesworth does not know of any legislation that would allow police to close the channel.
Penticton fire chief Larry Watkinson says the channel is a very dangerous place to play in right now.
"It took some great skill levels from our swiftwater rescue team to recover the victim yesterday. Manuevering those jet skiis on the channel right now, to be able to get up to the bridge pier the way our team did takes a high degree of training. The power of the water moving through the channel is incredible, the volume more than you can comprehend" Watkinson says.
"I don't want to spoil people's fun floating down the channel, but right now, because of the high water, it is dangerous," Watkinson says.
If you decide to take the risk, he says, never tie yourself off to your raft or tube.
"If you want to stay alive, wear a lifejacket," he says. "You can't get up the channel banks right now. There's nothing to grab hold of or climb out. If you're in there, you're in until you get to Skaha Lake."
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