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‘Ditch the ditches’ campaign targets childhood drownings

Fire Chief Paul Dow is flanked by “Leroyo,” left, the mascot for the Ditch and Water Safety Task Force, and “Sparky,” the fire prevention mascot for Albuquerque Fire Rescue.(Rick Nathanson/Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Drownings are among the leading causes of unintentional death for children age 4 and younger, but enrolling children in a program to teach swimming “reduces the chance of a child drowning by 88 percent,” said Josh Herbert, aquatics manager for the City Parks and Recreation Department, and the chair of the Ditch and Water Safety Task Force.

The task force, which has been operating for about 35 years, he said, works to reduce the risk of drowning by educating people about water safety, “and promoting safer places to swim and play.”

Toward that end, the City of Albuquerque and Bernalillo County are making available 70,000 free one-day swimming passes to a city or county swimming pool as part of its “Swim and Play Pass Program,” and as part of the task force’s “Ditch the Ditches” campaign.

The kickoff of the summer swimming program was announced Thursday during a news conference against the backdrop of a water slide at the West Mesa Aquatic Center, and attended by “Leroyo,” the mascot for the Ditch and Water Safety Task Force, and “Sparky,” the fire prevention mascot for Albuquerque Fire Rescue.

The passes, for kids 17 and younger, will be available May 28 through Sept. 1, at Albuquerque Fire Rescue and Bernalillo County fire stations, and at Albuquerque police and Bernalillo County sheriff’s stations.

“It’s cool outside now, but it’s going to get hot and kids are going to want to go out and play in the water, in the ditches, channels and in the river,” Fire Chief Paul Dow said, noting that the Rio Grande is particularly dangerous at the moment because it is flowing at 10 times its normal rate.

“We want kids to go out and have a good time, but pools are the best place to do that,” he said.

Water flows through a Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District ditch gate in the North Valley. Irrigation ditches, which generally contain water from March 1 to Oct. 31, can be deadly.(Dean Hanson/Journal)

The task force defines ditches as mud-lined waterways that in the Albuquerque area generally run north to south, parallel to the Rio Grande, and are primarily used for irrigation. They are usually filled with water from March 1 to Oct. 31. Arroyos are described as cement or dirt-lined flood channels that generally run east to west, carrying water from the mountains to the river.

Both can be deadly when they fill up and start running, and they can do that suddenly and without warning during a flash flood, Herbert said.

“The flood channels move very quickly,” Dow added. “It doesn’t have to be raining overhead, it can be raining several miles away and the flood channels can fill up very quickly. We want to make sure everybody understands how dangerous they are.”

The water in ditches can move up to 20 mph and some have undertows. Water in an arroyo during a flash flood can move at 40 mph.

For information on the locations of the pools and their hours of operation, go online to, and click on the “swim pass info” button.

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