A tale of three counties, and of Right vs. Wrong

hagglakeresponse“There is a right way and a wrong way to do this, to educate and outreach.” Those are the words of a Washington County official while having deputies cite a citizen for posting warning signs 12 days after three generations of a family drowned at Henry Hagg Lake. The police action came two years after eight people were saved at the same spot by the actions of a heroic family. The action came eight years after the county created an official policy of not warning swimmers of danger, 24 years after a county official went on record stating the same sentiment, and nearly 40 years after the first of nearly two dozen drownings at the reservoir.

The sheriff and parks official made it clear that the citizen had chosen the wrong way to “educate and outreach.” They gave no indication of what might constitute the right way. For years they have done nothing, citing uncertainty whether anything can be done. The answer to their uncertainty is apparent in the other two metropolitan counties, where direct action saves lives every summer.

Clackamas County has High Rocks, a series of very high cliffs along the shallow Clackamas River. For years, drownings were an annual occurrence. The danger is obvious, but the county has chosen to post very clear warning signs anyway, and has done much more. Trained rescue swimmers are stationed along the banks in summer months to rescue people who disobey the warning signs. Clackamas County decided years ago that saving lives was better than blaming people who die diving into the treacherous water.

Multnomah County has Glenn Otto Community Park, on the banks of the Sandy River. The danger is less obvious than at High Rocks, but just as real. For many years, the park was the site of drownings every summer. Officials put up many signs warning of the sometimes hidden dangers of the roiling currents. Officials also have done much. Highly trained rescuers are stationed at the park to save lives of people who disobey the warning signs. Officials in Multnomah County decided that blaming people who die is not acceptable public policy.

Since officials in those counties took action, drownings have ceased. Officials blame many of those they rescue for acting carelessly, but at least the person is alive to be chastised.

The dangers at Henry Hagg Lake are not obvious. Unlike at High Rocks and Glenn Otto Park, families are encourage to wade and swim at the areas designated for such activities, including the Sain Creek Picnic Area. On any hot afternoon, the beach is crowded with young children playing in the calm, shallow water. Until later August, Sain Creek is perhaps the safest wading area in metropolitan Portland. Drownings in the early summer are virtually non-existent.

That all changes as the reservoir is drawn down to the point that a steep, vertical drop-off created by Sain Creek in the winter, is hidden under just a few inches of the calm water. There are no warning signs of any kind to prevent people from walking into this hidden abyss. Every year, people need to be pulled to safety by friends or bystanders. Sometimes there’s no one around to help, however, such as on August 25, 2014, when three generations of a family died, trying to save each other.

After every case, park and public safety officials in Washington County blame the victims of these incidents for the behavior, however innocent, that precipitated their peril. In the days following the most recent deaths, park officials and at least one local fire chief went public to say that the victims bore sole responsibility for being aware of the hidden danger at the wading area in Scoggins Valley Park, operated by the Washington County Parks Department, along the calm waters of Henry Hagg Lake.

I think that everyone agrees that there is a right way to “educate and outreach.” I submit that there are many right ways to do it, but doing absolutely nothing is not one of them. Examples of right ways are evident at High Rocks, Glenn Otto Park and at nearly every other body water in Oregon where people gather to wade or swim.