The canal drowning of a 6-year-old Gilbert boy in April has inspired nearly 4,000 people to join a grass-roots effort to raise awareness and boost safety around the Valley’s unprotected waterways.
“Barriers 4 Brenan,” an online group with members in at least a dozen states, wants to help families avoid the tragedy that struck the Thomson home five months ago.
On April 9, Brenan Thomson went out for an afternoon bike ride with his 5-year-old brother, Rylen.
Neither came back.
With both boys missing, their father, Cody, called police and began to search. He found their bikes alongside a nearby canal, next to one pair of shoes.
A bystander found Rylen and pulled him – still breathing – from the water. A police officer found Brenan, who wasn’t breathing and had no pulse. He died that night.
News of Brenan’s death lit a fire within West Valley resident Shawna Phillians, founder of “Barriers 4 Brenan.” Phillians said the boy resembled her youngest son, Brayden.
“It terrifies me,” said Phillians, a mother of three. “I hate water. I hate water with kids.
“I don’t understand why they let people at these canals. You see people fishing in there. You see kids back there, riding their bikes or throwing rocks in the water.”
Although canal drownings are dwarfed by the number of pool-related incidents, they have become an annual occurrence.
In 2009, there were four life-threatening incidents at canals, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services.
There were two incidents in 2008, three in 2007 and eight in 2006, according to the DHS. At least six of those incidents involved children under 15.
Lori Schmidt, president of the Drowning Prevention Coalition in Phoenix, said the public needs to be reminded of the danger posed by unprotected canals.
“There’s not a lot of materials about water safety when it comes to canals,” Schmidt said. “We have a lot of people moving into town who aren’t aware of these hazards, sometimes which are right next to their backyard.”
Terri Marino, a Roswell, N.M., resident who lived near Phoenix’s Grand Canal in the late 1970s, said she nearly drowned while collecting seashells on the canal bank.
When one of her friends fell in, Marino, then 7 years old, reached down to try to pull him out. The boy panicked and pulled Marino into and under the water.
An onlooker dove into the water to help, but the current was too strong for him to swim to the children, Marino said. A few boys walking along the canal with bamboo sticks were finally able to help pull them out.
“I have always looked at all those canals and wondered why they were not more secure,” Marino said.
Most canals around the Valley are owned by Salt River Project, Central Arizona Project and large irrigation districts such as the Roosevelt Water Conservation District.
Roosevelt Associate General Manager Shane Leonard said his district, which owns 110 miles of canals and ditches in the East Valley, can’t afford to put up fences but may consider other safety measures, such as tethers, stairs or slope changes.
For now, the district works with homeowners associations to educate residents and has tried to influence developers to design neighborhoods that draw people away from canals, not toward them.
“We’ve been largely unsuccessful in that,” Leonard said. “Unfortunately, a canal to them (developers) is an amenity.”
SRP owns 1,300 miles of canals and ditches, including the Grand Canal.
Phillians recently wrote to SRP to ask about installing barriers in certain areas and received a letter from Molly Greene, senior government-relations representative.
“While it is tragic that any children get out of their parents’ sight and play in a canal, there are a variety of reasons why we haven’t fenced them in to date,” Greene wrote. “Primarily, we believe that trying to keep everyone out is impossible.”
Greene said the company has “a very robust and substantial educational effort, including posted warnings” at the canals.
SRP partners with teachers across the Valley to enhance water-safety education, spokesman Jeff Lane said. The company provides videos and coloring books about water and canal safety.
In addition, SRP’s “Safety Connection” program includes about 60 events per year and reached an estimated 250,000 people in 2010, Lane said.
“I also can’t help but add that the canals preceded the neighborhoods, so prospective residents have some knowledge of the locations and accessibility of the waterways from their respective homes,” wrote Greene, who declined to comment further when contacted by The Republic.
While “Barriers 4 Brenan” faces an uphill battle in pushing for fences around canals, Phillians hopes her education efforts will help save lives.
“Kids don’t know the dangers of canals. They don’t understand the undercurrents and how deep these canals are,” she said.
Eventually, Phillians said she’d like to get a program into Valley schools to inform kids about the danger of canals.
Gilbert resident Heather Plaza said Brenan’s death has already brought a new level of awareness to her family.
“My son was in Brenan’s class this year. . . . It made us aware that we had not talked with our boys about canals and the dangers associated with them,” Plaza wrote on the “Barriers 4 Brenan” Facebook page.