A year and a half after two teens took a deadly rafting trip down a raging Walnut Creek channel, county officials and concerned residents continue to look for ways to prevent more deaths there.
In February 2011, Las Lomas High School students Gavin Powell and Matt Miller drowned when they tried to raft down Walnut Creek. The creek, a 50-foot-wide concrete channel, has 15-foot-high walls in some areas; when full, the current can move as fast as 19 miles per hour.
Soon after the boys' deaths, the county -- which operates the channel -- launched a safety program and hired an engineering firm to investigate safety improvements.
The draft report is now available, and officials with the County Flood Control and Water Conservation District on Tuesday presented the findings and gave updates on what has been done to make the creek safer. There are no easy fixes, the information shows, and more work must be done.
"It can be a raging river," said Tim Jensen with county flood control on Tuesday. "It's a really dangerous situation and much different than trying to kayak or raft on the American River."
One difference is that downstream of Bancroft Road there is a "drop structure" where the water flows over a 20-foot drop, through a stilling basin and then up 8-foot wells. A person can get trapped in the stilling well with water circulation that literally "holds them underwater," said Doug Moore, with West Yost Associates, the engineering
The channels were built in the 1960s and 1970s to stop flooding, slowing down the water as it heads out to Suisun Bay. There have been 10 deaths in those channels since then; in April 2010, two men were killed and one woman rescued after the driver crashed their family's car into the creek.
The safety measures studied by engineers range from installing racks, nets, cables and additional escape ladders to complete stream channel restoration. But
For example, more escape ladders may not be helpful because the water moves so fast that a person would not be able to grab the ladder and hoist himself or herself out of the channel.
"We think it would be essentially impossible to do," Moore said.
Safety nets and racks are a concern because people would get stuck on them and debris could also build up over time, causing backups and flooding. Safety cables -- heavy metal ropes -- could be useful but would cost around $8,000.
Overall, the engineering report finds that the channel's fast flow limits many safety measures. It concludes that keeping people out of the creeks and channels is necessary, as is giving emergency crews access to areas for both training and rescues.
Already the county launched a creek safety campaign, "Stay Out, Stay Alive," aimed at local schools, with signs stating that message posted along the channel.
The Contra Costa Fire Protection District's swift water rescue team was recently given access to the gates that surround the waterway. The report agrees with suggestions from the fire district to install a horizontal bar and anchor points above the channel where rescuers could attach ropes making it easier to pull someone out.
But Benoit McVeigh, who attended Tuesday's meeting, said relying solely on education and rescuers doesn't give someone in the water a "fighting chance" on their own. He and others in the audience agreed that gates or cables should get more study.
"It could mean a couple of cracked ribs as opposed to getting killed," McVeigh said.
County leaders said they will continue to gather public feedback and test theories. They hope to have some improvements in place within the next five to 10 years.
For more information on the county creek safety plan, go to www.cccounty.us/creekandchannelsafety
Contact Elisabeth Nardi at 925-952-2617. Follow her at Twitter.com/enardi10.