Tahlequah Daily Press

Local News

July 17, 2013

OSRC under fire for safety alerts

Local float operators say warnings issued over Memorial Day weekend cost them $250K, and river conditions were fine.

TAHLEQUAH — Several area float operators admonished Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission Administrator Ed Fite Tuesday evening, saying safety warnings issued during the Memorial Day weekend resulted in a massive loss of revenue.

Jack Spears, owner of Arrowhead Resort, spoke to OSRC board members during the meeting. He presented a new T-shirt, touting Arrowhead’s 25th anniversary. He said the river recreation industry is a vital part of the local and state economy, through user fees and licensing paid by operators.

“We accommodate about 130,000 guests each season, which in turn pumps about $20 million into the local economy,” said Spears. “We also provide about 250 jobs to local high school and college students each season. Three things affect our business: water temperature, water levels, and the media. The erroneous report made by Ed Fite on television Memorial Day weekend killed us.”

Just prior to the holiday weekend, the area experienced several days of heavy rainfall. Fite recommended visitors not float the river at all on Thursday, and downgraded the warning for Friday through Monday, saying rafting would be appropriate.

“But the river levels that weekend were some of the best we’d ever seen,” said Spears. “The level was up at first, but dropped dramatically in less than 24 hours. The Illinois River Association [a consortium of float operators] met and OSRC Administrator Ed Fite agreed to not be a part of media information [with regard to floating safety] in the future.”

Commissioner Randy Corp asked who, if not Fite, should be the point person when it comes to water safety and floating.

“Water safety is crucial,” said Corp. “We can’t just neglect it.”

Spears said the float operators have devised rules for safety, agreeing to only float certain types of crafts under certain conditions.

Archie Peyton, owner of Peyton’s Place, has been a float operator for 46 years, and is considered by many in the business to be an authority on river conditions.

He pointed out the gauge at Tahlequah measures the level at cubic feet per second, which is the rate at which the river is flowing, instead of actual depth of the water. He also said the gauge is often wrong.

“We have a gentleman’s agreement, that we float certain boats at certain levels,” said Peyton. “I checked the Tahlequah gauge, and it was wrong.”

OSRC Chairman Riley Needham asked Peyton what sort of standard was used to establish the rules for safety.

“Forty-six years’ experience,” sad Peyton. “At 6 feet, we call off running kayaks and canoes and float rafts only. Rafts were designed for high water. As a matter of fact, we have more drownings during lower river levels than high levels.”

Peyton stressed operators assume the responsibility and liability for those who choose to float.

“When we lose a weekend like Memorial Day weekend, we can’t make it up,” said Peyton.

Spears agreed, saying not only do they care about saving lives, they can’t afford to lose equipment in flood situations.

“One of those rafts costs about $11,000,” said Spears.

Commissioner Gerald Hilsher said the board received a letter from an area couple who floated that weekend.

“They were novices, and they felt they’d been misled about the water conditions,” said Hilsher. “Don’t you think the speed of the current is as important as the height of the water?”

Hilsher said the commission would take the issue under advisement.

“We need to figure out what our role is,” said Hilsher. “If we assume no risk, then we need to put on our website to call the outfitter to inquire about water conditions. But I will say this: When someone drowns, it’s Ed Fite and the OSRC team pulling them out of the river. If we assume this role, shouldn’t we have some say about safety and floating?”

Fite said he regrets the way the holiday weekend played out.

“I don’t want to go through another Memorial Day like this one,” said Fite. “I don’t want to be on TV talking about river levels. None of us were quoted like we wanted to be. Archie is my friend. He taught me a lot and saved me from drowning once.”

Fite said several errors were made that holiday weekend and afterward. Spears complained to Fite about a logjam that needed to be removed, and Fite recommended he talk to Peyton and get back to him.

“Jack told me, ‘If there’s a drowning on the river, it’s on your shoulders,’” said Fite.

 “I put out a press release as a safety warning. I wish we’d done things differently. This situation has caused some strain and I want to prevent it in the future.”

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