After three years of litigation, a jury recently found five government entities were at fault for the August 2010 deaths of two kayakers on the Jordan River, Joe and Kelly Glasser, who drowned while attempting to paddle through a well-known navigational hazard at Winchester Street in Murray.
The location where the Glassers drowned involved a concrete spillway that formed a deceptively dangerous drop-off and recirculating current. The danger level of the spillway was compounded by the lack of adequate hazard mitigation features, such as portage boat ramps, preventative barriers or clearly visible warning signs.
Dangerous conditions at Winchester Street were well-known to experienced local boaters. The government defendants were also aware of the dangers associated with the spillway through information provided in a 2000-01 navigational hazards study, and the publication of a water trail plan published in 2008. The Glassers were apparently novices and not familiar with the hazard at Winchester Street.
In determining damages of $2.4 million, the jury concluded that the government defendants were 90 percent responsible for the couple’s drowning deaths because they knew about the dangers associated with the spillway, and further, that the government defendants failed to take appropriate steps to mitigate the risk to boaters. All but one of the defendants had settled the case before trial.
In its settlement agreement, Murray City agreed to implement various hazard mitigation measures, including construction of a portage boat ramp and installation of improved warning signs. Apart from the settlement agreements, the state of Utah, Salt Lake County and Murray City have voluntarily agreed to remove and re-engineer the spillway hazard.
The hazard at Winchester Street is not unique. There are numerous unmitigated navigational hazards scattered throughout the Jordan River corridor, making the river generally unsafe for recreational boating. These navigational hazards have limited and discouraged public recreational use of the river for decades. As a result, only a few discrete sections of the river are accessible and safe for recreational boating. Simply stated, conditions for recreational boating along the Jordan River are deplorable and inexcusable.
Since statehood, the Jordan River has been designated as a “navigable, sovereign waterway,” which means the river is a publicly owned waterway with legal guarantees for unhindered navigational use by all Utahns. By law, the state is responsible for management of the Jordan River and protection of the public’s right to freely navigate the river. The state is also responsible for regulating and permitting any structure constructed in or over the river channel. These legal responsibilities for managing and regulating the Jordan River have been delegated to Utah’s Department of Natural Resources.
Therefore, the state of Utah, and more specifically Utah’s Department of Natural Resources, is squarely responsible for the deplorable and mostly unsafe recreational boating conditions along the Jordan River. The existence of so many navigational hazards along the Jordan River speaks for itself. The state has failed to protect the public’s right to freely navigate the river by allowing construction of hazardous structures without regard to navigability, public safety or recreational boating interests.
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It is extremely frustrating that it took a serious accident and the deaths of two people to finally motivate government to address navigational hazards along the Jordan River. Clearly, the Glassers' drowning deaths could have been avoided had the state taken the issue of navigational hazards along the Jordan River more seriously and used its legal authority to prevent construction of unsafe structures like the Winchester Street spillway.
Hopefully, the Glassers' drowning deaths will not be in vain. We must use this tragedy to improve recreational boating conditions along the Jordan River and build a strong grass-roots river constituency.
Jeff Salt is the executive director of Great Salt Lakekeeper, a local watershed and recreational boating advocacy organization. He was responsible for the 2000-01 Jordan River Navigational Hazards Assessment.