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Guest Column: The River is Closed

August 18, 2010

By Tom Lindblade
The Illinois Paddling Council

With little fanfare on Sept. 27, 2005, the Illinois General Assembly gave the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) the right to designate restricted boating areas on Illinois bodies of water when “conditions make navigation significantly dangerous to the public.”

In their subsequent implementation of the regulation over the past four years, the DNR seems to be using two criteria. The first is that hazardous conditions exist, which apparently involves the lowest common denominator in which if any member of the “Public” might have difficulty “navigating” a waterway, if it should be closed; and second, that restrictions should be put in place if “treacherous conditions for emergency service personnel exist.”

The result has been an increasing number and duration of closures using the highly subjective aforementioned criteria. These standards do not take into account either the fact that many boaters are quite capable of safely “navigating” water that is well over flood stage (indeed, they await such conditions with anticipation), or the fact that with training, rescue personnel can be taught how to function safely and effectively in high-water conditions, as they do in many other states.

Randy Hetfield of the Chicago whitewater association uses the analogy of ski hills, where runs of various levels of difficulty are rated and skiers self-select their runs based on their ability. The mountain is not closed because beginners might hurt themselves on the expert run. And ski rescue personnel are trained for all conditions. Similarly, when gale conditions exist on the ocean or the Great Lakes, small-craft advisories are issued, and individuals must make a judgment as to their ability to navigate. The ocean or the lake is not closed. Instead, individuals must take responsibility for their own decisions.

The Illinois Paddling Council (IPC) is opposed to a one-size-fits-all approach to safety regulation. The IPC demonstrated this in our successful opposition to the dam safety rules DNR proposed last year. To address the subjective and sometimes irrational criteria being used to deny paddlers, and other boaters, access to public waters, the IPC has created a Restricted Waters Task Force, which will work with DNR and local authorities to create more rational criteria for closures.

The new Restricted Waters Task Force, headed by Scott Fairity of Geneva Kayak, is beginning the process of creating general guidelines for river closures that take into account the unique conditions found on each river. We will advocate for the concept of closures based on actual hazards (such as low bridges) and differential levels of skill.

The DNR, which is in a severe budget crisis, has indicated support for the work of such a task force. But since such closures are requested by local authorities, and are generally issued on a county-by-county basis, there is clearly a long way to go before customized closure guidelines for each waterway are developed and accepted by all stakeholders.

From the Aug. 18-24, 2010 issue

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