State, Coast Guard to step up enforcement of safety on Navajo Lake

The high number of fatalities in region prompts new scrutiny

Law-enforcement officials plan to beef up patrols this summer at Navajo Lake in an effort to reverse water-related fatalities in the Four Corners. Enlargephoto

Durango Herald file photo

Law-enforcement officials plan to beef up patrols this summer at Navajo Lake in an effort to reverse water-related fatalities in the Four Corners.

Water-sport enthusiasts are being put on notice that their conduct is going to be scrutinized this summer at Navajo Lake in an effort to avoid water-related deaths.

“There are too many water-related fatalities,” Robert Hedges, commander of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary’s Flotilla 23 Navajo Lake in Arboles, said Sunday. “In 2011, we had 11 fatalities in the Four Corners, which is what raised the red flag.”

The Coast Guard and Colorado Parks and Recreation maintain records on boating accidents and deaths. Their latest statistics, from 2011, don’t include nonboating water-related fatalities.

That’s where the local auxiliary comes in, Art Olson, also with Flotilla 23, said. He recalled fatal incidents on the Pine, Animas, Piedra and Dolores rivers and Navajo Lake involving diving, rafting and swimming.

“We had 11 water-related death within 100 miles of Durango,” Olson said. “That’s way beyond what you see elsewhere.”

The mission of the auxiliary is boating education, training and safety, Olson said. The effects of cold water can’t be emphasized enough, he said, because a person becomes incapacitated within minutes in frigid water, he said.

“We promote safe recreational boating,” Olson said. “We want people to learn how to keep themselves and their children safe.”

Boating regulations will be aggressively enforced at Navajo Lake, Hedges said.

Colorado and New Mexico state park rangers, New Mexico state police and members of the auxiliary will be on the alert for:

Lack of safety equipment.

Erratic behavior that can signal intoxication.

Young people, because a law on the books for three years – but laxly enforced – requires that anyone born after Jan. 1, 1989, have a boating safety certificate.

Lack of current registration.

The auxiliary monitors boating activity only by request, Hedges said. The U.S. Forest Service and Colorado Parks and Wildlife have requested its presence at McPhee Reservoir in anticipation of the near-empty reservoir filling. The auxiliary also checks Totten Reservoir east of Cortez and Lake Capote on the Southern Ute Indian Tribe Reservation.

No request has been received regarding Vallecito Reservoir.

Auxiliary members can’t issue citations but they do report violators to authorities, Hedges said.

The amount of safety equipment depends on the size and type of boat, Hedges said. The list of items ranges from 24 to 38 and can include a flotation device, a sound producer (whistle or horn), fire extinguishers and a length of rope three times the length of the craft.

A Colorado Parks and Recreation safety report says in 2011, the last year for which statistics are available, the state recorded 85 boating accidents accounting for nine deaths, one in San Juan County.

In the same year in the Four Corners, there were 249 boating accidents resulting in 28 fatalities. Nationally, 4,558 accidents caused 758 deaths.

The Colorado Parks and Recreation report said lack of attention and excessive speed cause most accidents. Alcohol consumption is the leading cause of boating fatalities.

Boating regulations cover power boats, sailboats, jet skis, sea kayaks and canoes, he said.

“Safety is paramount,” Hedges said. “A power boat has gears but no brakes, so it’s hard to stop once it gets moving.”

A citation can result in the impoundment of the craft, the recovery of which requires an appearance before a magistrate in Aztec, Hedges said.

“There will be a storage fee for the craft,” Hedges said.