Should Columbus make the Chattahoochee River safer? Child’s drowning sparks debate.

The week after a 6-year-old boy drowned in the Chattahoochee River, local officials are exploring the best ways to make the area safer.

Mayor Skip Henderson on Tuesday convened a task force of public safety officials on both sides of the river to brainstorm suggestions to help prevent another tragedy. Last week, a boy slipped while playing on the rocks at Waveshaper Island the along RushSouth Whitewater Park and fell into the class IV whitewater rapids.

Leaders of Uptown Columbus, Safe Kids Columbus and Whitewater Express made suggestions that sparked debate centered around safety versus business and recreation.

Henderson started the meeting with this caution: “The No. 1 objective from my perspective is not to react in a way that’s so reactionary that we end up over-legislating or doing something that doesn’t really achieve the desired effect.”

Dan Gilbert, owner of Whitewater Express, the exclusive outfitter at RushSouth, said the donated life jackets at a free loaner station created last week by a Columbus mother and her children have created a dangerous situation because they aren’t suitable for whitewater.

Some visitors have taken the life jackets and used them to swim in the rapids.

“The intentions are certainly good for the loaner jackets out there,” Gilbert said, “but I think it gives a false sense of security and possibly an invitation to do something with inadequate equipment.”

The donated life jackets are Type 2, which retail for less than $6. But the life jackets suitable for whitewater are Type 5, which retail for more than $100.

Columbus Police Chief Ricky Boren and Columbus Fire and EMS Chief Jeff Meyer agreed with Gilbert.

“If people see those flotation devices out there, they assume that is the correct thing to wear,” Boren said.

Meyer added, “I’ve heard tales of homeless folks already borrowing these things to be used for pillows.”

Even when the whitewater course opened six years ago, Meyer said, he wanted to limit access to the river via the island.

“That water looks nice and calm, but the river changes, and if they’re not aware of the Georgia Power warning devices when the water is about to rise...” Meyer wondered aloud, “do they even know what that is?”

Pam Fair, executive director of Safe Kids Columbus, said the key to river safety is education. Among the questions that must have clear answers for the public, she listed, “What does it mean when you generate the water? What do currents do to our river? How do you properly fit a life jacket? Why is it important for it to be the right size? What do our local laws say?”

Ross Horner is president and CEO of Uptown Columbus, the nonprofit that’s the sole member of Whitewater Management LLC, which contracts with Whitewater Express and leases the island property from the city. He balked at reducing access to the area.

“The island is safe,” Horner said. “. . . The island is probably one of the best amenities (in Columbus).”

Meyer countered, “I agree with you, and I know only one child has (drowned) off that (island) so far. But I’m fairly confident that there’s going to be more. … We need to limit access to those rocks from that concrete area.”

Gilbert also defended the island.

“The island is a fantastic centerpiece for the city, and I would hate to limit access down there,” Gilbert said. “I think there’s no substitute for parental supervision, and there’s no substitute for having a proper PFD (personal flotation device) on when you’re around the river, around whitewater.”

Lucy Sheftall, the assistant city attorney, noted the city’s ordinance that mandate a PFD for people in or touching the water, but not near the water.

Richard Bishop, the mayor’s chief assistant and former Uptown president, wondered aloud, “Where would you stop the fence? On the Phenix City side, it’s wide open.”

After the meeting, Henderson told the Ledger-Enquirer said he felt “encouraged” by the discussion.

“We’re going to try to get some better signage that’s a lot more informational and a little easier to look at, instead of the ol’ governmental red-and-white sign,” he said.

No decision was made to remove the donated life jackets from the island, and it was still there as of Wednesday morning. A “NO SWIMMING IN RAPIDS” warning has been added to the station’s sign, which is a few feet from one of the city’s signs mandating a PFD for any water activity.

The donated life jackets are called “Jeremiah’s Jackets,” named in memory of the 6-year-old boy who drowned.

“While they’re probably not ideal for the heavier-flowing water, the whitewater, they certainly could help maybe save a life in calmer water,” Henderson said. “It’s a big river, so we’re going to have some places that those can be utilized.”

“It really kind of makes me feel good about living in this community, when so many people came out and wanted to do something, so what they did is they brought life jackets.”

In the debate about whether the life jacket station should remain, Henderson said he leans toward the opinion voiced by officials from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, who said any life jacket is better than no life jacket, but nobody should swim in whitewater.

“The only problem I think we’ve encountered so far is people thinking they’re maybe more buoyant than they are and taking them out and swimming in the whitewater. So for right now, they’re going to stay where they are.”

The next step is for the leaders to report back with ideas about improving the area’s signage and better educating the public about river safety.

Halfway through this year, three water-related deaths have occurred during 2019 in the Columbus/Phenix City section of the Chattahoochee River, between Lake Oliver and Rotary Park, according to the DNR: two drownings and one fatal boating incident with drowning ruled as the cause of death.

There were five water-related deaths there last year, three in 2017, one in 2016, four in 2015, two in 2014 and one in 2013, when the whitewater course opened.

Ledger-Enquirer staff writer Mark Rice covers education and other issues related to youth. He also writes feature stories about any compelling topic. He has been reporting in Columbus and the Chattahoochee Valley for more than a quarter-century. He welcomes your local news tips and questions.