Waikato River deaths spark water safety debate

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Twelve people drowned in Waikato in 2021, including three in area rivers.

Christel Yardley / Stuff

Twelve people drowned in Waikato in 2021, including three in area rivers.

The toll of summer drownings has prompted city leaders to step up safety initiatives along the Waikato River.

Twelve people drowned in Waikato in 2021, with rivers in the area killing three.

Creating opportunities for people to engage and enjoy the Waikato River is a key part of the council’s Flagship River Plan, but its popularity has also led to tensions between different users of the river.

In January, Hamilton’s fledgling water taxi service was mothballed, with its operator blaming safety issues at the city’s piers. Captains have reported incidents of swimmers getting too close to the ferry and deliberately jumping off the banks of the river to splash passengers.

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Councilor Mark Bunting said the river is a key part of Hamilton’s bids as a “water city”, but horrific deaths continue to occur there.

It’s time for Hamilton City Council to take a more proactive approach to water safety along the river, he said.

Councilor Mark Bunting wants to explore ways the council can make popular river swimming spots safer (file photo)

Christel Yardley / Stuff

Councilor Mark Bunting wants to explore ways the council can make popular river swimming spots safer (file photo)

“The other day we were walking past the lovely new pier in Pukete and there was a group of young boys all jumping around, having a great time,” Bunting told members of the council’s community committee this week.

“Between them and me, there was a big sign saying that it is not advisable to swim here. So obviously it doesn’t work.

Committee members unanimously backed a call by Bunting for council staff to prepare an investigative report on river safety measures and possible funding partners. The report will be delivered in April.

Councilor Maxine van Oosten said a discussion of river safety initiatives is “absolutely timely” given Hamilton’s hot summer.

Council safety signs near popular swimming spots need improvement, says Hamilton Mayor Paula Southgate.

Christel Yardley / Stuff

Council safety signs near popular swimming spots need improvement, says Hamilton Mayor Paula Southgate.

“Climate change, the summer we just had, really proves the desire of Hamiltonians to … look for a cool place and a place to have fun,” van Oosten said.

“I assure you that our summer will…remain long and hot.” We have this climate change happening around us, so only more work will be needed around it.

Van Oosten said Waikato River Explorer operator Darren Mills was right to point out concerns about swimmer behavior at the city’s piers.

“Avoid this kind of [conflicts] really going to help us all be able to use the river in the best possible way,” she said.

Hamilton Mayor Paula Southgate said river safety signs at popular spots needed improvement. Educating people about the safe use of the river is also crucial, as swimming in a natural waterway is different from swimming in a pool.

Depending on costs, cleaning up swimming spots and providing lifebuoys could be an option, Bunting said.

Having the council partner with other organizations such as the ACC and Water Safety New Zealand makes financial sense.

“I don’t want to see us spending a lot of money on this immediately, even though I’m watching this greedily. [council] money that we will set aside, I think next year, for infrastructure around the river,” Bunting said.

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