A summit held Friday at Aspinwall Riverfront Park focused on raising awareness about how to safely navigate the region’s rivers, particularly near fixed-crest dams: long concrete barriers that hold back the water.
The morning began with a moment of silence to remember the two young women who were killed when their kayaks went over the Dashields Lock and Dam on the Ohio River about a month ago.
Colonel John Lloyd is commander of the Pittsburgh District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which organized the event. After the accident, he told his team to come up with everything they could to improve water safety. Everything, he said.
“I am absolutely committed to take this issue on, so that we lose zero lives on the river system, right? That should be our goal,” he said, addressing the audience. “Can we all agree to that? Zero.”
There are 23 locks and dams in the Pittsburgh district, 11 of which are fixed crest dams. From the vantage point of the average boater, they’re hard to see, said John Dilla, chief of the Corps’ locks and dams branch. He pointed to a photo of Dashields in his presentation.
“There’s a dam right there in the middle of that picture. Really can’t tell. Again, just looks like a big pool,” he said. “But what you can see are those little white dots.”
Those little white dots are the warning buoys the Corps uses to let boaters and paddlers know when they’re approaching the dam. They progress from warning, to danger, then restricted. The restricted zone is where the current begins to pick up as it nears the dam, and can pull boaters in. The Corps will be extending the restricted areas upstream of the dams, as well as adding more buoys.
But educating the public about risks on the water, and how to recreate safely is not just a Corps problem, said Lloyd.
“I don’t have all the solutions. I need a larger body of people that can help me solve this,” he said. “Get good ideas across the community from people to be able to address the concerns that we all have.”
Suggestions from other officials and the audience included requiring all recreational boats to have a license and broadcasting water conditions. Though Pittsburgh is surrounded with rivers, residents aren’t particularly in touch with how it changes from day to day unlike, say, an ocean town where people might be aware of tide schedules.
Water Sadauskas, a retired raft guide, said many boaters aren’t aware of how powerful the rivers can be.
“They don’t understand that the river has the potential to always bite you,” he said. “Always.”
But no matter how much you know and respect the river, accidents happen, said Sadauskas.
The Corps’ charter requires them to keep the rivers open for commercial navigation, that’s why they were authorized, said Lloyd. But representatives from every agency and organization—the Corps, U.S. Coast Guard, Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, the Allegheny County Swiftwater/Flood Response Team, the City of Pittsburgh River Rescue Unit, the Waterways Association of Pittsburgh and Venture Outdoors—said they want people to enjoy the rivers for boating, paddling and fishing. Safely.
Local officials at the event stressed the importance of always wearing a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket.