Decades of inaction and victim-blaming at Hagg Lake as the death toll grows

Read an updated post here. Another update: The man who placed the warning signs is facing a $5,000 fine.

By 1990, the dangers hidden beneath tranquil Hagg Lake at the Sain Creek picnic area were well known to park officials, so when two young men drowned 16 days apart that hot July, reporters asked why there were no signs warning of the submerged perils. A headline in the July 24 edition of The Oregonian summed up their response: “No changes due at Hagg Lake after second drowning.”

drowningjpegPark officials pointed out that it had been nearly four years since there had been a drowning at the lake until those double tragedies. Things were different in the lake’s early years. Between 1977 and 1986, the lake witnessed an average of a death every summer. In those early years, people answered Washington County’s call to use the reservoir for recreation. There were no signs designating danger zones, and the drownings occurred in almost every part of the lake as people learned by trial and error where the safest places to swim were.

Eventually two areas emerged as the primary swimming areas: Boat Ramp C and the Sain Creek picnic area, nestled together on the lake’s west side. Unlike most of the lake’s shoreline, these two idyllic spots offered easy access to the inviting waters of the lake, and gently sloping beaches, making wading and swimming safe for all ages. Until the 1990 drownings, the last death was in 1986. After the two 1990 drownings, the lake had its longest death-free period, lasting nearly eight years. It began to seem that Hagg Lake was a very safe place to swim.

That all started to change in about 2000, when drowning again became a nearly yearly occurrence. Unlike the earlier spate of deaths, however, these drownings fit a pattern. Many were in the inlet where Sain Creek empties into the lake, and most were in the late summer, when the lake was nearing its lowest level. Growing demands of the lake’s water meant that the level was falling more than in earlier years, and even were getting caught by surprise at how close the treacherous trenches were to the water’s edge.

The danger was not unknown to park officials, however. During the dam’s construction, enough water backed up to create danger zones around Scoggins, Sain and Tanner creeks, which feed the reservoir. Warning signs were erected to help keep swimmers safe. After the dam was completed and the lake was opened to water recreation, those warning signs were removed. Park officials said that the signs came down because they wanted people to take responsibility for their own safety, but in the July 24, 1990, Oregonian story, officials let slip the underlying reason: Fear of liability in the event of a lawsuit. Visitors to lakes, rivers and the ocean are familiar with signs warning of drop-offs, sneaker waves and hidden rocks, but Hagg Lake officials felt their park should be immune from such alerts, leaving responsibility on the shoulders of unsuspecting visitors.

As the pace of drownings increased after 2000, emergency responders decided to take action on their own. The Safe Kids Coalition, comprising representatives from local public safety agencies, worked with an Eagle Scout candidate to erect kiosks at Sain Creek and Boat Ramp C and stocked them with life jackets for people to borrow free. I was a member of that group, and had the assignment of maintaining those kiosks.

I was often surprised at how many parents let their children play in the water without a life jacket. I did not buy into the philosophy of letting people sink or swim at their own risk, so I talked to many of the parents about the hidden dangers. Without exception, they put life jackets on their children or made them get out of the water once they knew about the drop-offs. Many asked me why there were no signs to warn them, a question for which I had no good answer.

Finally in September 2012, the crisis came to a head when eight members of a family fell off the steep drop-off in the shallow, murky water of the Sain Creek cove. Fortunately, a heroic family gathered on shore for a reunion witnessed the event and sprang into action, saving all eight people from what was nearly a tragedy of unspeakable magnitude.

Choosing to not remain silent any longer, I worked with a member of the heroic family to get permission to erect signs explaining why the life jackets were so critical. Park officials brushed us off and suggested that we simply work to have more people donate life jackets, leaving responsibility for safety in the hands of park visitors and charitable members of the community.

Frustrated from years of fruitlessly working for change within the system, I left my volunteer position in the spring of 2013. No one drowned at Hagg Lake that summer. No one drowned in the summer of 2014, either, until August, when the lake, straining under demand for its water and under the burden of one of the hottest, driest years ever, was drained to the point that the deadly drop-offs were again hidden beneath the calm water, just feet from the water’s edge.

That’s when a family of four went under. This time there wasn’t a family of heroes there to save them, and they all drowned. Park officials said it was the family’s responsibility to care for their own safety.

I don’t know if warning signs would have prevented this tragedy. I’m certain that no matter how many warnings you post, people will continue to drown in Hagg Lake. However, I reject the position that victims should be held accountable for hidden dangers that are well-known to park officials.

There are plenty of signs inviting people into the lake for water recreation. Is it too much to ask for one more sign at the edge of Hagg Lake where the deep channel of Sain Creek feeds the reservoir and claims lives?

For at least 25 years, park officials have demanded that people take responsibility for their own actions. For four years as a volunteer, I took responsibility for making sure there were flotation devices available. Firefighters and EMTs, most of whom also are volunteers, willingly take on the responsibility for rescuing or recovering those who get into trouble. Everyone, it seems, is taking responsibility for their own actions, with one glaring exception: The park officials whose full-time, paid job is to make Hagg Lake as safe as possible.