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Over the past seven decades, hundreds of people have failed to survive their trips across an irrigation aqueduct in Imperial County. The number of drownings, including countless illegal migrants on cross-border journeys, has grown by 17 over the past 16 months.

Now, activists are stepping up their demands for action and targeting an unusual suspect: the San Diego County Water Authority.

Until recently, our local water authority had nothing to do with the 84-mile-long All-American Canal, which provides water to farmers in the fertile Imperial Valley.

But then the authority helped pay to line 23 miles of the canal in order to get more water to San Diego. Now, it finds itself in the thick of a debate over whether it should push for safety measures to prevent drownings.

The controversy is certain to garner media attention Wednesday morning thanks to a press conference featuring some arresting visuals. Protesters, including representatives of the local chapter of the ACLU and the American Friends Service Committee, will gather at the offices of the water authority and display 17 body bags to represent the drowning victims since August 2008.

I’ve been looking into the controversy over the drownings with an eye toward writing a story about the role played by the water authority. I learned about the deaths from an Imperial County newspaper article about a recent protest in which activists — including the brother of former local Congressman Duncan Hunter — were cited after jumping into the canal in a protest. A crew from “60 Minutes” was in attendance during the protest.

In brief, the San Diego water authority is involved because it helped to pay $300 million to stop leaks by lining 23 miles of the canal. This prevents water from being lost by seeping into the earth around the canal. Since more water from the canal is heading into Imperial County than before as a result, the water authority can take a greater share at the source — the Colorado River — for San Diego water users.

The problem, say activists, is that the canal remains unsafe. And now, they say, the water authority has a responsibility to prevent drowning.

The water authority hasn’t taken action since being alerted about safety issues in August 2008, activists say.

“No one is being responsible,” said John Hunter, an Escondido resident who took part in last month’s protest and is helping lead the anti-drowning efforts. “We’ve had this massive amount of drowning deaths there, and they’ve been swept under the rug because they weren’t American citizens.”

Hunter wants the various agencies to work together and line the canal with fencing to keep people out. He also wants them to install more safety lines across the canal to catch people before they are swept to their deaths by the fast-moving water.

But fences could be easily vandalized, San Diego County Water Authority official Halla Razak told me this week. And more safety lines could make the canal more appealing to immigrants who want to cross, she said.

“We were afraid those would entice people by giving them a false sense of security and getting to them to think, ‘I’ll just hold onto this and cross,’” she said.

The activists claim this belief shows officials are more concerned about stopping illegal immigration than halting deaths.

The various agencies are considering adding more safety lines to the 23-mile lined section of the canal. Under the current plan under consideration, Razak said, the section would end up having six steel safety lines. People who cling to the lines would be able to get out by climbing ladders on the south side of the canal.

This means people could be swept away for miles before being caught by a safety line. Still, “we definitely don’t want to put them up very frequently,” Razak said, because of the concerns about making the idea of crossing more appealing.

Instead of more safety measures, officials have focused on educational efforts, including a DVD that’s shown to illegal border crossers, she said.

The activists say the education efforts have failed.

— RANDY DOTINGA

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