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Fire Dept. on Barton Creek drownings: There’s only so much we can do

Thursday, July 7, 2016 by Jack Craver

There is only so much the city can do to prevent people from putting themselves at risk in Barton Creek or other area waterways, an Austin Fire Department official told members of the Public Safety Commission on Tuesday.

“Water is always dangerous,” said Assistant Fire Department Chief Brian Tanzola.

Tanzola had been requested to brief the commission in response to recent tragedy. In a span of two weeks between May 30 and June 12, three people drowned in three separate incidents in Barton Creek. A fourth person died on Monday after falling from a cliff on the Barton Creek Greenbelt.

The fire department is authorized to close access to city waterways when it determines that use is too dangerous because of any number of factors, including water flow, debris or the anticipated rise of the water level.

However, explained Tanzola, for more than a decade after the department was given that power by City Council in 1993, it found itself frequently encountering pushback from recreational water users over closures they perceived as “premature.”

“Obviously the waterways here in Austin are a treasured commodity. Barton Creek is something that many people like to go and take part in,” he said. “So you can imagine that when we close (Barton Creek), that brings about a certain amount of angst.”

In an attempt to strike a balance between safety and recreation, Tanzola said, the fire department met in 2005 with water experts as well as groups representing a number of recreational interests and developed an agreement that the creek should never be accessible when it is flowing at more than 1,500 cubic feet per minute.

However, he noted, the recent deaths took place at water flows well below that level.

“It’s up to individuals to determine their capacity for swimming and whether alcohol has been used, and there are so many different factors involved when somebody is at risk in the waterways,” Tanzola said.

He added, “This summer so far we’ve had four drownings in Lake Travis, which is not flowing water at all.”

Although the fire department has not closed access to Barton Creek since April, two of the three deaths in the creek this year were the result of illegal access. That’s because the only way to access the creek is through the Barton Creek Greenbelt, which the Parks and Recreation Department closed due to safety concerns between May 20 and June 8.

Public Safety Commissioner Ed Scruggs, who had requested the briefing, said the fact that the greenbelt might be closed but not the creek could be confusing. He wondered whether parks and fire officials would consider “unifying these two decisions.”

Tanzola said there has “absolutely” been such discussion occurring.

“After any unfortunate incident or event such as this, we go back and we talk about it and we look at ways that we can improve the current situation and make it better for everybody in the future,” he said.

Tanzola noted, however, that despite the closure of the greenbelt, there was even TV coverage showing that “individuals were circumventing the sign that said the greenbelt is closed.”

“The city can take only so many steps to say, ‘Hey, this is a situation you should not enter,’” he said. “But individuals in Austin enjoy the greenbelt. If it’s sunny, even if it has been two weeks of steady rain, they’re going to want to take advantage of that opportunity.”

The multiple access points to the 8-mile creek, Tanzola said, would make it a challenge for the city to quickly put up enough signage to alert any potential swimmer to the dangers ahead. Furthermore, the creek flow can shift dramatically in a matter of hours. One potential solution, he said, would be electronic signs, whose message can be quickly switched based on the conditions.

Still courtesy of YouTube.

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