Authorities are postponing tests that could pave the way for new safety measures at an Imperial County irrigation canal where hundreds of immigrants have drowned. Activists accuse government agencies, including the San Diego County Water Authority, of being apathy toward the deaths and have been calling for action to prevent more.

The tests, scheduled to be performed by the Border Patrol, would have evaluated the use of more safety lines to catch people as they’re swept away in a 23-mile-long section of the All-American Canal. The section currently has three safety lines.

But the Border Patrol decided not to take part, at least for now, because of concerns about liability, said Halla Razak, a water authority official. “We’re scrambling for other options,” she said.

The water authority is a member of a coalition of government agencies that oversees the 23-mile section of the 84-mile canal. The authority paid part of the $300 million cost to line the section to prevent leakage; in return, it gets a larger allotment of water from the Colorado River.

I reported on the safety issue last week before activists protested at the water authority offices in Kearny Mesa. They’re demanding safety measures, including fencing and more safety lines, to protect illegal immigrants who cross the canal on their way into the United States.

“It should be off limits, but if they do get in the damn thing, they should be able to survive it,” said John Hunter of Escondido, who jumped into the canal last month and tried to string a safety line across it before getting a misdemeanor citation.

Hunter thinks safety lines should be installed every 250 feet. Since they run about $2,000 each, the cost should be less than $1 million for the entire 23 miles, he said.

“This stuff is pathetically simple, and it’s not new: The idea of fencing to keep people out of canals is as old as canals,” he said. So too are safety lines, he said.

But Razak told me that fencing could be vandalized and numerous safety lines could make the canal appealing to immigrants. “The big thing that we’re concentrating on is making sure that this not an enticement for someone to jump in,” she said.

Currently, three safety lines are installed in the 23-mile renovated section of the canal. That means someone who tries to cross the 18-foot-deep canal might drift for miles before being caught by a safety line.

Safety lines work this way: A person in the canal would grab hold of the line, pull himself or herself to the side of the canal, and then climb a ladder to the ground above. This week, Border Patrol workers were to conduct tests of different configurations to make sure the lines would catch people, Razak said, but were concerned about what would happen if they made a recommendation and someone still drowned.

The costs of safety improvements are unclear, she said, and it’s not known how long it will take before the delayed tests take place. However, she hopes they’ll begin within a few weeks.


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