Don’t touch the foam: Reducing risk at Falls Park Original

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — As spring dawns, the foam begins to rise. Though pervasive, it can seem harmless; sheets and mounds of off-white bubbly fluff, like snow floating upon the water.

Foam on the water at Falls Park

But beneath that foam lies dangerous water, which has claimed the lives of many.

Since 1982, there have been nine lives lost as a result of drownings at Falls Park.

  • June 11, 1982 A nine-year-old boy drowns while wading about 20 feet below the falls.
  • September 11, 1983 — An escaped inmate drowns attempting to cross the river at night.
  • June 5, 1985 — A 22-year-old man drowns downstream from the Falls Overlook Café.
  • April 26, 1997 — A 43-year-old transient drowns; authorities believe he may have been fishing.
  • June 23, 1997 — A 13-year-old drowns while trying to save their fishing pole.
  • May 29, 1999 — A 26-year-old falls drowns after falling from rocks above the falls.
  • March 14, 2013 — Two rescuers, Lyle Eagle Tail and Madison Wallace drown while trying to save Wallace’s brother, who fell in trying to touch the foam along the river.
  • March 18, 2018 — 5-year-old Maggie Zaiger drowns after falling into the water while trying to touch the foam along the river.

The drownings in 2013 and 2018 led to calls from the families for action to be taken.

In the summer of 2018, the city released the results of its “Falls Park Loss Control Special Review.” Several city departments participated in the review, which listed several measures that were considered, but not recommended.

Staffing Falls Park with park officers

The primary concern with this method is that park officers would not have any authority to restrict access to the rocks or the river. Other issues cited with this proposal were the lack of the officers’ ability to patrol the entire park as well as the cost to have officers at the park around the clock.

Installing permanent fencing

4,298 feet of fencing would be required to enclose the perimeter of the river within the park. In addition to the size of the project, concerns were raised that this would detract from the falls’ scenic beauty, and that visitors could easily climb over the fencing.

Placing rescue devices in the park

It was determined that the placement of life jackets, rescue rings and rescue poles would be ineffective due to the risk of inexperienced and untrained individuals causing accidental harm to the person in need of rescue. Also cited were concerns of theft and vandalism.

Diversion dam gate control

The city already manages the amount of water flowing through the falls during spring runoff and other peak flow times. No data from the review suggested that further control would reduce drownings.

Storage of anti-foam chemical

In 2013, an anti-foam chemical provided by Game, Fish and Parks was used with poor results. Further research into another product, Siloxane, showed that it would only be affective if the chemical was continually injected into the river upstream from the foam.

Adoption of formal Falls Park closure policy

This idea was rejected due to an official closure being difficult to enforce.

The report also provided some recommended courses of action specifically for eliminating the buildup of foam in the river, which a police report following Zaiger’s 2018 drowning states made the water beneath impossible to see or hear.

Construction of a lower falls viewing area

It was recommended that the city build a viewing area with an accessible pathway, viewing platforms and a safety railing, which would allow visitors to view the water and foam from a safe footing.

Additional signage

Two more warning signs were recommended, an addition to the 10 already in place. The signs would warn visitors that foam may obscure the edges of rocks, and to stay on paths and viewing platforms.

Warning sign at Falls Park

A third party risk assessment

It was recommended that the city retain a third-party consulting firm to preform an on-site assessment.

Removal of downstream low head dam

Low head dams, such as the one downstream of the park’s pedestrian bridge are known to be drowning hazards. According to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, low head dams “create strong turbulence and recirculating currents that can push victims underwater, and then pull them back to the face of the dam in a repeating cycle. These structures have been known to trap unsuspecting victims in dangerous conditions. Even the strongest swimmers and rescuers wearing the best personal floatation devices have drown at low-head dams.”

According to the review, removal of the dam could lower the level of the water where the foam builds up.

Consider using various technology

Other recommendations included technology such as geo-fencing, sensor-activated voice warning messages and a safety video at the visitors center.

In February, 2019, the city announced its plans to make the park safer, which included the addition of more railings, fences and gates throughout the park.

In addition to this, the city also constructed new, safer viewing platforms for the lower part of the falls.

Buildup of foam on bodies of water can be caused by many things, ranging from decomposition of organic matter, to pollutants entering the stream. The city has stated that the foam at Falls Park is naturally occurring.

Foam on the water at Falls Park

According to the Bristol Avon Rivers Trust, naturally occurring foam is found where water is agitated by high wind, turbulent water or waves. They say that as water temperatures rise and decay processes accelerate, organic compounds are released. These molecules, which generally float on the surface of the water, are disrupted by turbulent water, causing them to trap small bubbles which make up the foam.

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