Rash of Auburn canal deaths spark homeless camp safety patrols

Authorities discount rumor of another body found in Wise Canal on weekend
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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A series of unexplained canal deaths in Auburn is sparking Pacific Gas & Electric into action. With five bodies recovered from the Auburn stretch of the Wise Canal in the past 16 months, a contractor hired by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. walked the waterway trail today locating homeless camps and providing safety information. Brian Swanson, PG&E spokesman, said that the informational patrol will vary the hours of the day it will be out in an attempt to make contact with as many homeless as possible. The patrols will take place every day this week. The flows unobstructed between Rock Creek Reservoir near Bell Road and Mount Vernon Road, where it drops into a pipeline at the Wise Forebay. “They’re going to get the word out on how people can stay safe,” Swanson said. Three of the bodies have been discovered in the canal since March 26. Two of the canal victims have been described as homeless, including 39-year-old Matthew Templeman. His corpse was found in the debris trap at the forebay on May 5. None of the five were the apparent victims of foul play but police continue to be open to any new information. Rumors of another body being discovered either late Sunday or early today on the canal were discounted by both the Placer County Sheriff’s Department and Auburn Police. “We have not investigated or been told of another body in the canal,” Auburn Police Capt. John Ruffcorn said. Swanson said PG&E would also be looking at its signage and the condition of fences along the three-mile canal stretch. Signs now along the route warn passersby of “Slippery steep sides, freezing cold water, swift currents and underwater traps.” “There are a lot of signs,” Swanson said. Patrols will continue after this week on a weekly basis, Swanson said. Temperatures in the water, which flows from the snow-fed Lake Spaulding in the Sierra Nevada, are at around 50 degrees, Swanson said. The depth of the canal is around six feet, he added. Meadow Vista resident Tyrone Gorre, a sustainable community advocate, said that now may be a good time to push PG&E for additional safety measures on the canal that could prevent future deaths. Gorre has had a seat in relicensing talks as a stakeholder on native fishery issues. The power company is currently involved in relicensing efforts on its Drum-Spaulding-Bear-River hydroelectric system. The Wise Canal provides water for energy generation at the Wise and Newcastle power plants and is a license-associated facility, he said. The 50-year license is up for renewal in 2013. Gorre said he’d like to see Placer County more involved in re-licensing safety issues because PG&E increases its flows to step up downstream power production, making profits while boosting downstream dangers. “They’re maximizing capacity to sell water but they also sell power,” Gorre said. “It’s profitable.” A group calling for increased safety measures on a larger California canal with many more deaths provides an indicator of possible future measures that could be considered. The All American Canal runs near the Mexico-United States border. More than 500 people have drowned in the canal since it was built in 1940 and it has the reputation as the most deadly canal in the nation. Twelve more people have died so far this year. The All American Canal Safety organization is pressing for fencing to keep people out of the water, a buoy system with steel cables every 250 feet spanning the canal, ladders every 250 feet and solar-powered strobe lights at each ladder to guide anyone who falls in at night.