PG&E help on way for Auburn’s Wise Canal Death Zone

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Responding to safety concerns in the wake of five recent deaths, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. announced plans today to string potentially life-saving grab cables across Auburn’s Wise Canal next week. Three cables will be positioned at strategic points along the 3-mile canal, which snakes from Bell Road in North Auburn west to Mount Vernon Road. The bodies of five men have been recovered from that stretch of canal since January 2009. The causes of their deaths remain a mystery. And more measures to improve the chances of getting out for people who fall into the canal are also being considered by PG&E, including grab handles and footholds built into slippery concrete canal linings. A PG&E spokesman said the cables installed next week will lie in the water with floats attached. The thick wire cables will be placed in areas where it will be easier for someone being swept downstream to pull himself or herself out. The floats will keep the cable visible and on the surface of the water when depths in the current change. Brian Swanson, PG&E company spokesman, said PG&E continues to emphasize that people need to keep safety as an uppermost concern when they’re near canals. While Auburn Police have said no signs of foul play have turned up in the investigation into the deaths of any of the five canal victims, causes have yet to be determined. And no witnesses have come forward in any of them. The last body to be recovered was 39-year-old homeless man Matthew Templeman on May 5. On Monday, well-known Meadow Vista ultramarathoner Gordy Ainsleigh told his own story to the Journal of falling into a canal east of Auburn May 25 and surviving through a combination of fitness, composure and rock-climbing skills. Returning to the site along a Meadow Vista Canal to show how he was tossed from his bicycle and managed to find a handhold to safety after about a minute in the icy water, Ainsleigh called on PG&E to install handholds and foot ledges to prevent more deaths. Swanson outlined today a series of steps that PG&E is instituting or seriously looking at to increase canal safety. The immediate action will be installation of the three cables, he said. Swanson said the San Francisco-based power corporation is reviewing its public safety plan for the canal system with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. He said that could mean handholds and steps – measures PG&E doesn’t now take on what are smooth canal linings kept that way to ensure the unhindered flow of water. Handholds and ladders could be built into the canal this fall, when water is cut off to allow maintenance work, Swanson said. The review also includes proposals to add more fencing and signage, Swanson said. Additionally, PG&E will be stepping up public awareness efforts similar to patrols it now has two times weekly on the canal, he said. Ainsleigh said he thought the cables will help save lives and that he’d like to work with PG&E to make handholds and footholds a reality. “I’m very glad they’re going to adopt some practical solutions,” Ainsleigh said. Ainsleigh said he believes a psychopath pushed the five men into the water and that new safety measures would allow a potential sixth victim to survive by getting out of the canal on the other side. Otherwise, a murderer would be able to continue to push the victim back into the water on one side, he said. The deaths should stop with the safety measures in place and a murderer aware of them, Ainsleigh said. “The thing is, if it’s murder, all they have to do to stop it is to make it so people can get out of both sides of the ditch,” he said. “And it looks as though they’re moving toward doing it.” Riding a mountain bike, Ainsleigh had fallen into the Meadow Vista canal after attempting to negotiate a small opening between the edge of the waterway and a tree. Swanson said PG&E would be working with the property owner the canal is on to cut it down. “I don’t like cutting trees down but this may be one that needs to,” Ainsleigh said. Swanson also addressed comments made by Ainsleigh and Meadow Vista resident Tyrone Gorre about possible increases in the height and slope due to maintenance or changes in canal walls in recent years. Both had expressed concerns that those increases would make it harder for people to get out of the canal. “The slope and height of the canal walls have not changed from their original configurations,” Swanson said. Spray-on concrete is only applied to areas where canal deterioration has been found, he said. “This is a critically important safety measure to prevent canals from leaking or failing,” Swanson said.