by Tom Heineman
I attended the two day Risk Assessment of the Chicago River waterway sponsored by the U.S. Coast Guard. I officially represented CASKA and unofficially represented the non-commercial paddling community using the Chicago River. Dave Olson (Chicago Kayak) and Charles Portis (Water Riders) represented the commercial tour and kayak rental businesses operating on the River. Susan Urbas represented the nonprofit Chicago River Rowing and Paddling Center and the Port Development Safety Council.
Other stakeholders included representatives of the passenger tour boats, passenger ferries, barge operators, private yacht associations as well as the Friends of the River and the Friends of the Parks. On the regulatory/governmental side were representatives from the U.S. Coast Guard, the Army Corp of Engineers, the Chicago Police Marine Unit, the EPA, the National Weather Service, the Chicago Department of Transportation and the Chicago Park District. In total there were 30 participants.
The U.S. Coast Guard uses a private contractor to conduct these risk assessments. They use a methodology to document and score risks related to vessels, traffic conditions, navigational conditions and the potential consequences related to these risks. All participants were involved with determining risks and assigning weights to these risks.
The second day was devoted to determining and assigning weights to various mitigations related to the highest areas of risk. Not surprising, the biggest risks were related to small craft (this would include yachts as well as kayaks) and the projected increases in traffic volumes, especially, but not limited to human powered watercraft.
There was a sense that the commercial traffic on the river presented relatively low risk considering the highly regulated nature of their business and the certification requirements of the pilots of these boats.
The passenger tour boats, ferries and barge operators explained the challenges they faced with the increasing kayak traffic. Visibility issues at sunrise, sunset and also after dark were mentioned. Waterway conditions that presented challenges were mentioned: 45 degree bends in the river, glare off of buildings, narrow channels, etc. All of the stakeholders had concerns about the competence of some of the paddlers who rented kayaks. Some of the stakeholders had concerns about groups of kayaks on the river that didn't seem to be well managed. Concerns were expressed about the increasing numbers of paddlers on the river with the new paddling centers coming on line and additional vendors.
Concerns were expressed about private powerboats as well. Most concerns were shared by both the kayak community and the large commercial boat operators. There were particular concerns about the high traffic areas from Wolf Point to the locks; in particular the area east of Michigan Avenue.
On the plus side, the stakeholders at this event did recognize the safety efforts that some of the kayak vendors and rowing and paddling clubs were making. They appreciated the use of VHF radios for communications with the kayak groups on the river. There seemed to be an acceptance of the need to share the river with all types of watercraft.
Some of the mitigations that were proposed were:
- better screening of clients renting kayaks
- education of renters as to the rules of the river and the hazards inherent in paddling on the Chicago River
- classification of sections of the river by color code (similar to ski runs - green, blue, black)
- signage at access points with safety considerations and hazards inherent in different sections of the river
- signage at critical points on the river oriented towards kayak safety
- maps with hazard identifications at both access points and to be handed out by vendors to their clients
- safety discussions with renters of kayaks as well as those on guided trips
- better enforcement of wake laws
- better lighting on night paddles
- better DNR screening of vendors being licensed to rent kayaks and non-renewal of licenses of problem vendors
- emergency egress points along the river (such as ladders) in sections of the river where escape from the water is nearly impossible
- formalization of the Port Development Safety Council so they can exercise more influence in addressing continuing concerns on the river
You should know that most of these mitigations were proposed by the kayak community representatives.
There will be a follow-up meeting in about a month with conclusions from this assessment. There will be an opportunity for stakeholders to influence the final report and recommendations at that time.
Thanks go to Keith Heger, Gary Mechanic, Tom Lindblade, Jim Des Jardin and others who gave me ideas to bring to the meeting. I shared all of your ideas and concerns.