All-American deathtrap

IT’S HARD TO IMAGINE a less aptly named water project than the All American Canal in Imperial County. There’s nothing American about watching people drown by the hundreds while doing next to nothing to save them, but that is precisely what managers of the canal have been doing for decades.

The 82-mile canal carries water from the Colorado River to the Imperial Valley and runs parallel to the U.S.-Mexico border. That makes it a barrier for illegal immigrants, one that many are desperate enough to cross. More than 500 people have drowned in the canal since 1942, and it is about to become a lot more dangerous. About 23 miles of the waterway along a route particularly popular with migrants is being lined with concrete to prevent water seepage. As a result, the water will flow faster, while the canal sides will become nearly impossible to scale.

A study by state and federal public health officials concluded that steps should be built into the canal sides to avoid drownings of humans and large mammals, but the federal Bureau of Reclamation refuses to include them, saying they would cause structural instability and leakage. Meanwhile, the Imperial Irrigation District, which operates the canal, has refused to add even such basic safety measures as lifelines — cables with buoys that cross the canal, which people can grab to avoid being swept away. The district’s bizarre justification is that adding lifelines would increase its liability, which is like saying you shouldn’t throw a buoy to a drowning man because he might sue you if he survives. Other parts of the canal have lifelines to protect district workers.

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the water district’s board is more concerned about illegal immigration than about human lives. Border security is a good thing, but crossing shouldn’t be a death sentence. Even Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter of El Cajon, who is no friend to illegal immigrants, is appalled by the drownings; last month he wrote a letter to water officials calling the deaths “a costly consequence to past indifference.”

The Bureau of Reclamation’s sole concession to safety is to add ladders up the canal sides at 375-foot intervals. Past experience with such ladders has shown they aren’t very effective. Unless more safety features are added, water officials will have more deaths on their consciences.