ITHACA, N.Y. — At the Ithaca Common Council meeting Wednesday night, city officials will determine the fate of an off-the-grid swimming and hiking area accessible through the affectionately named Ezra’s Tunnel.
Following the deaths of two people in six years in the area, Cornell University and city officials moved a possible resolution forward that would fence off the area to the public. The resolution made it out of the Planning & Economic Development Committee Nov. 16 with a 3-1 vote. If it is passed by Common Council, two steel fences will go up in an attempt to block the area.
First Ward Alderman Cynthia Brock said at the time, “I understand that we want to protect individuals, absolutely…(But) how much are we going to dumb down our environment when people take risks, when people don’t follow instructions, when people don’t listen to (or) look at the signs that are right in front of them, or receive the information that they’re given. And is it our job as a municipality to create bumpers and barriers around everything that could possibly result in an injury?”
Of course not.
The government should not be in the business of strong arming people into using common sense, but it should be in the business of informing the public of the dangers of gorge swimming and enforcing existing laws. Frankly, the City of Ithaca, local police agencies, and Cornell University do an efficient job at the latter.
Signage is posted in swimming areas informing people of the dangers of swimming in the gorges. Incoming Cornell University students are informed of the dangers of gorge swimming. Online campaigns and videos have been released about the issue. And police officers or deputies regularly clear out swimmers from the gorge areas, reminding people that it’s illegal to swim there and doing ticketing stings.
The hard work pays off.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, nationally from 1999-2010, the average annual drowning death rate for males was 2.2 per 100,000 population. For women, it was 0.7 per 100,000 people.
Tompkins County is home to nearly 105,000 people year round, with an increase of 29,000 students when classes at Cornell and Ithaca College are in session.
The data for drowning deaths in local gorges, however, is far below national average.
There have been two drowning deaths in the Ezra’s Tunnel area in the past six years. At least one of those deaths involved a person who did not know how to swim.
Yet to hear city and Cornell University officials discuss the issue, one would think there was an epidemic of fatal or serious injuries happening near the tunnel.
That’s just not the case, and many people who have presented information about Ezra’s Tunnel have hyperbolized the issue.
For instance, Todd Bittner, director of natural areas for Cornell Botanic Gardens, repeatedly told city officials during the committee meeting that first responders “cannot” access the area. This is untrue.
Teenagers clad in bikinis and flipflops manage the short “climb” — less than 10 feet — onto the path to the tunnel. It’s unfair and incorrect to insinuate that police officers and firefighters can’t figure out how to get down there.
In fact, The Ithaca Voice published an article of IPD officers casually clearing swimmers out of the area in 2015. There was no struggle for accessibility by anyone.
Bittner also says that every year, about 4,000 incoming freshmen are warned of the dangers of gorge swimming. Yet he says it’s not fair to assume that all of the students fully grasp the idea of what those dangers are.
But that goes back to Brock’s point: how many warnings should officials be responsible for giving people before they exercise personal responsibility?
To block off the natural area accessible through Ezra’s Tunnel would essentially be an effort by the city to attempt to enforce a trait in people that is unenforceable: common sense.
The City of Ithaca should not pass a resolution based on hyperbolic anecdotes and data that does not support claims that the fencing will somehow prevent accidents from happening.
The proposed resolution will be voted upon Wednesday Dec.6 at 6 p.m. at City Hall, located at 108 E. Green St. As always, there will be a public comment period at the beginning of the meeting.