When it comes to child drownings, most people think of a swimming pool or a bath.
But in Arizona, there is an additional danger: canals.
Two weeks ago, Cisco Mesquita, 2, wandered out of his Guadalupe home, under a fence and into a canal. The young boy drowned in two feet of water.
In January, brothers Anthony, 10, and Calib Love, 6, drowned in a canal outside of Maricopa. Six-year-old Gilbert resident Brenan Thomson died April 9, 2011, when he and his brother went into a canal near their home after a bike ride.
Last week, drowning prevention experts and public safety officials gathered near the location of that tragedy to talk about the safety issues of canals and raise awareness.
“Parents need to talk about the dangers of the canals,” said Mike Connor, the Gilbert Fire Department spokesman who was at the scene in 2011 when public safety officials were called about two boys missing in Gilbert.
“We’d had a torrential downpour, the day of and day prior. The canal was at a high level and moving fast,” Connor recalled. “We don’t know exactly what happened. We know both boys ended up in the canal. Not sure if one went in and the other went in to help. We just don’t know what happened. The fire department was called. By the time we got there, a bystander was there trying to pull them out, 60 to 80 yards down from where they went in.”
Arizona has an intricate system of canals to get water to the desert. And while there are nice pathways for walking and biking around many of the canals, there are few — if any — barriers to keep people out of the water.
Arizona natives who grew up with the message, “Stay out of the canals,” may be able to transfer that to their own children. But the thousands of people who move to the Valley every year may be completely unaware, Connor said.
“I am a transplant here. I didn’t know anything about the canals. Our communities are not brought-up-and-raised Arizonans who have that. We have people from all over,” he said.
During the public event last week, residents told Connor they didn’t even know there was canal access in the San Tan Ranch neighborhood until Brenan’s death.
Samantha Ostby, who lives in the same neighborhood as the Thomson’s, has made it her personal mission to get word out about canal safety.
She wants drowning prevention officials in the Valley to make sure and mention “canals” when talking about the other water hazards, like pools and bathtubs.
Ostby is working with the Lori Schmidt, Drowning Prevention Coalition of Arizona president and a public education officer for Scottsdale Fire Department, to help get the word out.
“We are partnering with media. We are also working with SRP to develop educational materials. We also want to reach out to all of the agencies who own canals to standardize signage and encourage safety measures,” Schmidt said.
SRP has 130 miles of canals in the Valley.
Ostby praised Schmidt’s work and SRP’s safety information on its website, adding that it’s time the public takes notice.
“We become complacent when it comes to water safety. We’ve been too naive,” she said, speaking about the issue of canals. “You can’t do better until you know better. I’m trying to get families to know better.”
Parents need not only ask themselves, “Do I have a fence around my pool?” but, “Do I live by a canal?”
“I live next door to a sidewalk that leads to a canal. For almost 10 years it never donned on me,” that it was a safety issue, she said.
Ostby’s own children are now 10 and 12, sparking another reason for her to get involved.
“I didn’t want anyone else like me to not think about something like that and have another tragedy hit another family,” she said.