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After Auke Lake death, call for more restrictions

Posted: June 26, 2012 - 11:01pm  |  Updated: June 27, 2012 - 6:11am

A fatal collision on Auke Lake last weekend prompted some renewed calls Monday and Tuesday for changes to how the lake can legally be used.

Sixteen-year-old Juneau-Douglas High School student Savannah Cayce was critically injured Saturday afternoon when a jet ski collided with the inner tube in which she and another 16-year-old girl were being towed by another jet ski, according to a police statement. Cayce died from her injuries at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle Monday morning. A police investigation into the incident is ongoing.

Speaking at a City and Borough of Juneau Assembly meeting Monday night as a member of the public, Michael Williams said his 16-year-old daughter had witnessed the incident. He read out what he said was a list of suggestions on how to improve safety at Auke Lake from an anonymous friend he said used to live there.

“Establish clear legal authority for regulation of the lake,” read Williams, who sits on Juneau Docks and Harbors’ board of directors but said he was only “speaking for myself,” not in an official capacity. “Develop motorized, non-motorized and swimming areas and hours of operations — has been done, but not enforced. Limit size, speed and horsepower of motorized vessels. Within the motorized area, have defined directions of travel. Prohibit float planes on the lake.”

Some who weren’t at the meeting also had concerns. Among them is Tom Rutecki, a research biologist who serves on the Juneau Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee, Rutecki said Tuesday that he has had safety concerns about Auke Lake for years. He said he thinks the most important issue is “density” and that the number of vehicles allowed on the lake at any given time should be limited.

“I just think right now, it’s totally unsafe to go swimming in that lake on a nice day,” said Rutecki.

Rutecki also sat on PRAC in 2006 when its then-chairwoman, Joan O’Keefe, drafted a letter to the CBJ Assembly Lands Committee recommending motor boats and jet skis be prohibited on Auke Lake due to the “small size” of the body of water. That letter, Rutecki said, was never entered into the record, despite PRAC’s efforts.

Rutecki said the regulations that do govern vehicle use on Auke Lake, including separate use areas marked by buoys, are not widely understood and not consistently enforced.

“There’s absolutely no enforcement … and people don’t even know what the rules are,” Rutecki said. “The Assembly, they hold all the cards in this. I think they have to come up with better rules than they have now. And it doesn’t matter what the rules are — they have to be enforced.”

Mayor Bruce Botelho said he wants to wait for the results of investigation by police and the Parks and Recreation Department, which administers the area, to decide what action he thinks the Assembly should take in response to the incident.

“I think any tragedy like this will trigger, should trigger review of our practices there,” Botelho said.

A state expert from the Anchorage-based Office of Boating Safety, part of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, said accidents like the on that happened Saturday are more common elsewhere.

State boating law administrator Jeff Johnson, said that collisions involving a vehicle striking an object being towed behind another vehicle are “very rare” in Alaskan waters, though relatively common in the Lower 48.

“We’ve got plenty of room in most cases… in Alaska,” said Johnson, who has held his position since 1998 and said he has never heard of another towing-related fatality in that time.

“Because I’m not familiar with Auke Lake, I would hesitate to opine whether the lake is big enough for different kinds of uses,” said Johnson.

Lt. David Campbell of the Juneau Police Department said that while Auke Lake is under his department’s jurisdiction, as it is within the CBJ’s boundaries, the JPD does not regularly patrol the lake and is rarely called out to respond to incidents there.

“We primarily wait until we get a call from someone complaining about the issue before we look into it,” said Campbell. He said the JPD does not have its own boat or dive team.

CBJ code prohibits motorized vehicles on Auke Lake from operating between the shore and a buoy line, which is roughly 100 feet from the shore in most parts of the lake. It also sets hours for vehicle usage, restricts boat length on the lake to 16 feet, prohibits vehicle refueling on the lake and limits wake height to six inches in places. Restrictions are posted on a large sign at the lake.

• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 523-2279 or at mark.d.miller@juneauempire.com.

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