In other states, swimming pools are the most common place for drownings of children 5 years and under. But not in Utah.
According to statistics kept by the Childhood Accidental Injury Prevention Program, irrigation canals are the No. 1 site for drownings of children up to the age of 5 in Utah. Out of 47 drownings between 1985 and 1989, 17 occurred in an irrigation canal or ditch, followed by 10 bathtub drownings and eight in a pool or hot tub."Canals have always been a danger," said Charlie Wilson, chairman of the Metropolitan Water District. "There's no question about that. Youngsters have to be trained. My mother raised five children with a big ditch running through our back yard. The older children watched the younger children."
Canals are a danger in Utah, especially as it becomes more urbanized, with families moving into areas that once were solely agricultural. But who is responsible for making them safer?
Some parents say the irrigation canal companies should take responsibility for fencing irrigation canals. But the Utah Supreme Court has said in various opinions that these companies in no way are liable for accidental drownings.
In one such case, Loveland vs. Orem City Corp., the parents of a drowned child filed suit against the city, the land developer and the canal operator for the wrongful death of their child in a canal-bordering property. The Utah Supreme Court said the developer who had subdivided the land and sold it to the house builder had no duty to disclose the canal, that the canal operator owed no duty to the drowning child and that the city was immune from any liability.
"The canals were there first," said Assistant City Attorney Ray Montgomery. "Man encroached upon them with subdivisions. The companies should not be responsible for the increased hazard of humans living next to canals. If we make the companies liable, it would kill the state."
LeRoy W. Hooton Jr., director of the Salt Lake City Department of Public Utilities, said it would be financially impossible for irrigation companies to fence or cover all open canals. But he said many developers will place the canals in underground conduits to increase the area on which they can develop. Other developers have been known to put up fences when building apartments near a canal.
"It's a parental responsibility," said Bill Marco-vecchio, an area farmer. "That just about sums it up. If parents can't teach a child about dangers, then they're awfully poor parents. Even chain-link fences are not childproof."
Because Utah has a unique network of canals, parents have an added responsibility, said Patricia Keller, director of the Childhood Accidental Prevention Program. The program focuses on educating parents to the dangers surrounding their homes or apartments, including canals and ditches. Keller said they emphasize the parents' sole responsibility for watching the child. "Part of childproofing the home is making sure you have a safe yard to play in," said Keller. "When you are looking to purchase a home, you need to take that into consideration. If I was living in a home near a canal, I would have my yard fenced."
Calvert F. Cazier, program coordinator, said there are two main ways to prevent injuries. One is through education, the other is by changing the surrounding environment.
"The least effective means is education," Cazier said. "The most effective is changing the environment. Unfortunately, that is the most costly and the one least often done. Of course, we can't downplay the importance of education, but we also can't put all the marbles in the education basket." Parents unconsciously tend to ignore education and think, `That can't happen to me.' We need to alert them that, `Hey, there's a real danger here.' "
Cazier said although the number of drownings may seem insignificant, parents need to become aware of dangers for the protection of their own children. Unfortunately, the number only becomes significant when the tragedy strikes someone close to them, he said.
"Too many times people think of injuries as accidental - it was fate or something out of their control. But in most cases, there is something we can do. We try to help people realize that injury is predictable, and if predicted, we can avoid it."
The danger of canals is that they are an attractive place for children to play. Floating a homemade boat down the ditch or just playing in the water may seem like harmless activities, but children often slip and then can easily drown. Some parents teach their children to swim at a young age, but they do not teach them also to respect the water, Keller said. She emphasized canals are not a safe place to swim or play.
The physical characteristics of canals make them as dangerous as a lake or stream, even for adults. The muddy bottom and slippery sides make it hard to stand up and canals lack handholds. Canals also are often deeper than they look and the current - especially during spring - is swift enough to carry a small child away. There also is a danger of children getting wedged in culverts often found in the ditches.
Canal water reaches bitter cold temperatures at times and may cause cramps and other complications associated with cold water.