Reader's View: Idaho’s irrigation canals just as dangerous as rivers, lakes


July 26, 2013 

The headline noted that several lives had been lost due to drowning in “Deadly waters….”

All involved rivers and each is a terrible personal tragedy for a family.

But what caught my attention is that not a word was said about Idaho’s other equally deadly waters: irrigation canals. That causes me great concern. Somehow there seems to be a mental disconnect between canals and the idea that they pose a deadly threat of drowning. People just don’t seem to realize that children and adults die every year in what must seem to be benign irrigation ditches and canals that meander for thousands of miles across the Treasure Valley, including through many residential areas.

But those of us who have had the terrible task of recovering the body of a child or young person from a canal know too well the dangers posed by canals. I have helped recover the body of a drowning victim and I pray it will never happen again.

When our weather turns hot, that canal in the neighborhood becomes a recreational attraction. Every year our ditchriders find people swimming and playing in and around our canals. In some cases even being pulled down a canal on an inner tube or boogie board fastened by a rope to an ATV.

People walk with their children along canals, let them play on the plank footbridge over check dams, build slides so they may splash into the canal water, and any of a thousand other variations of deadly risk.

Idaho ranks second in the nation for accidental drowning of children ages 1-5. Statistically, every year three or more of those children will drown in Idaho irrigation canals. To me that conclusively qualifies Idaho irrigation canals as deadly waters.

Loving parents will go to enormous lengths to protect their children. They use child-safety seats in the family car, they would never let them play in a busy street, they teach them not to play with fire, they put safety inserts in electrical outlets to prevent shocks, put up child gates to prevent them falling down stairs.

Yet, they will leave a child unattended in an unfenced backyard next to a canal while they answer a phone call or get something out of the garage; leave gates unlocked that access canals; accompany their children on canal banks, which gives them the idea they can go there by themselves, etc., etc.

Irrigation canals are like rivers. They are not playgrounds, water attractions or recreation areas. They are full of cold, swift and deep water, just like a river. Worse, the steep banks of a canal mean it’s almost impossible to climb out, and that doesn’t even take into account the steel gates and miles of underground pipe into which a struggling child can be swept.

Every year, lives are lost to playing in or around irrigation canals. Way too many Idaho families have learned that dreadful lesson the hard way. Let’s pay attention to the dangers of playing in rivers and irrigation canals, and avoid seeing another loved one lost to drowning. Take advantage of your local pool or health club, where there are trained professionals to protect our loved ones.

My prayer is that you and your family never have to learn the grief-stricken lesson that others tragically learn every year: Irrigation canals are deadly waters.

Mark Zirschky is the water superintendent for Pioneer Irrigation District.

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