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Effort aims to prevent deaths on the Kaw

posted Nov 30, 2011, 1:25 PM by Ramandeep Dulku   [ updated Nov 30, 2011, 1:26 PM ]
November 25, 2011 - 08:12pm

Ryan Moore by no means was a novice kayaker.

He and David Greene had paddled on Lake Superior, the Gulf Coast and many other rivers.

Still, the 36-year-old Lawrence doctor drowned on the Kansas River in July when his kayak became ensnared in what is known as a keeper hydraulic, a water flow that recirculates objects that get caught in it.

“That current is what’s called a drowning machine,” Greene said.

Such a situation is created by a low-head dam, just like the one used by Topeka’s water treatment facility. Many similar dams exist across the country.

Greene is helping lead a charge with the Friends of the Kaw River to turn the dam into a low-grade rapids to alleviate the dangers, as other cities have done, and allow that portion of the river to become more recreational friendly.

“We aren’t looking to lay blame,” he said. “We’re just trying to prevent another death from another individual that could certainly happen.”

Two people in August 2007 also drowned when the canoe they were in capsized after it went over the spillway at the south end of the weir.

Braxton Copley, director of the office of utilities and transportation for Topeka, said the deaths were tragedies.

The city is open to further improvements to enhance safety, he said, beyond the installation of the two portage ramps in 2010 on the river’s north banks that accompanied the installation of signs to alert oncoming paddlers.

Copley said he has written into the 2012 Capital Improvement Budget a request for a $25,000 project.

The dollars would come from grants, operating funds and private donations to “do a study of the weir,” he said, “and provide design options for improvements to reduce the downstream hydraulic.”

The decision to approve such a project and funding methods would be left to the Topeka City Council.

The Friends of the Kaw pitched the idea in October at a meeting of the Topeka-Shawnee County Riverfront Authority.

Mike Calwell, a longtime member of the Kaw group, estimated the cost of filling the dam with boulders to create the rapids would be less than $250,000.

Calwell told those in attendance the rapids could be designed to be rated Class 2, which means anything — including rafts, canoes and inner tubes — could safely and easily navigate the feature.

Greene, who has navigated the Kaw several times, said paddling to the portage ramps to bypass the water weir is doable, though certain conditions can make the action more difficult.

He said most kayakers avoid the first sandbar island group on the river’s north side because an old 1930s dam remains in the area, which prevents kayakers from paddling up that side of the river to the boat ramps.

Instead, they travel to the south side of the river toward the mouth of the dam in a curve-like fashion, Greene said, and then navigate north to the ramps.

However, in some instances the level of the water is up and the current is stronger, he said.

“If you mis-paddle or anything along that line, you could end up having a bad outcome as my friend Ryan did,” Greene said.

He also points to another hazard, particularly as a person approaches the dam because the water’s rate of speed increases the closer it gets to where it drops off the weir.

“You can’t see that drop-off coming up ahead from the level of a kayake,” Greene said.

Moore, a 36-year-old doctor living in Lawrence, died in July in a drowning accident at the low-head dam. He had been kayaking the river.

Ellen Guthrie, aquatics director for the Jayhawk Area Council, said any river is inherently dangerous. Even farm ponds pose risks, which is why caution and safety practices are paramount when in and around water.

In her work with the Boy Scouts since the late 1990s, Guthrie has come to learn there are “really strong feelings about the Kansas River.”

Many folks have told her they refuse to boat the Kaw, while many others frequently have used it and reported having wonderful experiences.

Guthrie said she has yet to paddle the Kaw, but taking a trip down the river is something she wants to do.

She just can’t convince some of the people she knows to join her.

“People tend to have a definite feeling about it one way or another,” Guthrie said

The Kansas River is known to have shifting sandbars and other potential unknowns, but Guthrie said she didn’t consider those to be reasons to stay off the water.

“Sometimes the fun of canoeing is what you’re going to come across,” she said.

As for turning the water weir into a beginners rapids, Guthrie said she thinks it would be a good idea to develop more recreational activities with the river.

“That could be such a nifty feature,” she said.

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