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How to make Housatonic River recreation safer?

Warning signs about the dangers of swimming or diving in the Housatonic River are often small and posted high in trees. Photo by Cynthia Hochswender

Especially during the heat of the summer, we can all understand the desire for those who live in the city to leave it all behind for a day or two and escape to the country, where the air is fresh and the water is cool. But such excursions have twice this summer ended in terrible tragedy, with a 40-year-old Brooklyn man perishing in the Housatonic River at Great Falls in Falls Village July 30, and, as reported by Executive Editor Cynthia Hochswender this week, a 25-year-old Bronx woman drowning at Bull’s Bridge in New Milford  on Aug. 12. 

What can be done to help prevent such innocent fun turning into accidental loss of life? As Hochswender notes in her story, the signage at each location warns, in English and Spanish, about the dangers of eating the fish caught in the Housatonic; however, the signs about swimming and bathing in the river are small, high on trees and in English only. What will it take for new signs to be erected that are more prominent, are in both English and Spanish, and that directly warn of the drowning danger, rather than just referring to fast moving water?    

Because if people are unfamiliar with the Housatonic River in the Northwest Corner, they could look at the surface of the water and think it’s quite calm and will be shallow, so also easy to navigate. Those who have more familiarity with the river may also have more respect for its power, but of course nothing will stop some from venturing into the rushing water, whether it is high or low. There is no way to control all situations, but more can be done to warn those who come into the Northwest Hills to appreciate nature.

Bearing in mind the lives lost over recent years, it surely is worth the trouble for towns, concerned citizens and emergency responders to lobby those who should take responsibility for new, larger and clearer signs and take the initiative to put them up in more obvious, hard to miss locations. Near the Great Falls and Bull’s Bridge, that would be First Light, which operates the hydroelectric plants in Falls Village and Kent/New Milford, as well as eight more plants along the Housatonic River, and owns the property in the immediate vicinity of each. 

First Light promotes on its website, www.firstlightpower.com, free access to the recreation areas at six of the locations, including Falls Village and Bull’s Bridge, as well as more in Massachusetts, as part of the company’s “commitment to environmental awareness and sustainability.” The company also says there that, “First Light’s authority to manage shoreline property comes from its Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) licenses, which are required to operate hydropower stations (also called FERC projects.)”

The website information is clear on each area’s available activities, such as boating, hiking, fishing, paddlesports, picnicking and wildlife viewing, but there is no mention of the negatives, that is, what is not allowed at these locations. That could help as a first step toward alerting newcomers to the harsher side of nature in the Northwest Hills and along the Housatonic. And much greater clarity would be achieved with bilingual “Danger of drowning” signage at each recreation area where drownings have occurred. If you agree, contact First Light’s management team through the website above, feel free to include a link to this editorial, and let them know your ideas on how to make their recreation areas safer. They must be saddened themselves by these drownings, and should welcome your input.