Tulsa RiverParks Stresses Boater Safety After Monday's Arkansas River Drowning

Tuesday, May 25th 2010, 4:53 pm
By: News On 6

By Jeffrey Smith, The News On 6   

TULSA, OK -- Despite Monday's drowning in the Arkansas River, Tulsa RiverParks officials say they're doing everything they can to keep boaters safe.

Derreck Richardson, 31, from Tulsa, died when he was pulled out of his kayak after going over the low water dam near 31st and Riverside.

5/25/2010 Related Story: Authorities Release ID Of Arkansas River Drowning Victim

RiverParks officials say that dam is an antiquated design, and it produces a vortex that's extremely dangerous. They have signs all over the place, but ultimately, they say kayakers should know not to be anywhere near the dam.

"They're known to us as drowning machines, said Judy Fichtl, kayak instructor with the American Canoe Association. "Because you don't come out of them."

Tulsa's boating community is in disbelief that a kayaker was anywhere near the low water dam. Witnesses say Derrick Richardson got caught in the current, fell over the dam, and out of his kayak.

"It's the most dangerous feature of the river," she said. "Of any river."

Judy Fichtl is a certified instructor with the American Canoe Association. And she's been kayaking in the Arkansas more times than she can count.

"I don't get near a dam," she said.

The RiverParks Authority has several flashing warning signs. There's a city ordinance banning boating in the River within 150 feet of the dam.

"It's called an OG Weir, it has kind of like an S shape," said Matt Meyer, RiverParks Director. "So when the water goes over, it just curls back, and then you get pushed over."

There's also a last-ditch safety cable that runs the length of the river.

"Frequently we get high flows, we get trees and debris that can wipe it out," Meyer said. "And it's a constant maintenance challenge to keep it up there."

Recent storms have made the river extra dangerous. The Army Corps of Engineers says the current from May 18th to May 20th was a safe 12,000 cubic feet per second. The last few days the current has averaged more than 40 thousand cubic feet per second.

"Even if you're an Olympic swimmer, if you get caught in that, you're really gonna be in trouble," Meyer said.

Ultimately, Meyer says the dam needs to be redesigned. But there's no funding to do it.

To retrofit this low water dam as a safer, cascading dam would cost an estimated $25 million. It would have been included in the massive river tax package that was voted down a few years ago.