FROZEN retention pond rinks offered a popular COVID-19 pandemic reprieve for many Winnipeggers last winter, much to the chagrin of city officials.
A new civic report concludes skating on local frozen retention ponds, rivers or creeks should not be officially permitted. The document calls for council to "not enable" any such recreation activities, despite some clear public enthusiasm for them.
Counter to city warnings, residents shovelled out countless rinks and pathways at the storm drainage areas below some backyards during the 2020-21 winter, after public health orders forced indoor ice rinks, recreation facilities and organized sports to shut down.
As a result, council asked the public service to study safe options to officially allow such activities, such as by regularly testing ice thickness.
Instead, the report finds officials should continue warning residents to stay off those frozen bodies of water, due to safety risks.
"While the risk of a fatality from falling through the ice into (a retention pond) is certainly lesser than the same situation on a river, the risk to safety is nonetheless significant," the report notes.
Coun. Brian Mayes, water and waste chairman, said he will vote to support the staff recommendation at the committee’s June 29 meeting.
"We have so many of these ponds, and the information we’re getting is that the safety concerns outweigh the convenience of having more skating," said Mayes (St. Vital).
Mayes cautioned maintaining pond rinks may sound simple but would require extensive resources, at a "considerable cost" to carry out at all retention ponds.
It is a stance some Winnipeggers support. Others, however, are onside with winter retention pond use and want the city to help ensure it’s done safely.
"We created our own rink and it’s a gathering place for the neighbourhood… There must be a way that they can come check the ice to make sure that it is safe," Mary-Ann Fast said Wednesday at The Forks.
Tim Thiessen agreed: "They could have some general guidelines like they do for all kinds of other outdoor activities… but let people do what they want to do. I think it’s vital for public health, mental health, physical health, just general community well-being."
Two Winnipeggers who told the Free Press skating should not be allowed on the ponds didn’t want their names published.
"The city has very limited access to emergency services and there are multiple retention ponds, so if something goes wrong, it could be a pressure on the city services," one man said.
The city has repeatedly warned the frozen ponds aren’t safe for such use because water from snowmelt or water main breaks can drain into them. This is also often mixed with street salts, which can cause ice to melt and thin, a change that may not be visible from the surface, the city warns.
Michael Jack, Winnipeg deputy chief administrative officer, said the ponds weren’t designed for recreation.
So far, Jack said, he’s not aware of any calls for emergency help due to someone being seriously injured or killed after falling through retention pond ice. "There isn’t a ton of evidence showing extreme danger (but) we’re not really prepared to wait until people start drowning or going through (the ice) to assert that."
If council approves the report, the city will continue to warn Winnipeggers to stay off the ponds.
Those who fail to obey could receive a $200 ticket — though the city opted to focus on education instead last winter.
In a survey of nine municipalities, only Saskatoon was found to allow skating and other recreation on some of its frozen retention ponds, once the ice is at least 20 centimetres thick.
Despite the report’s recommendation, Coun. Janice Lukes plans to lobby the city to let two retention ponds be used for skating in her Waverley West ward next winter, and have officials monitor the ice.
Lukes said recreation options are scarce in the area, which has two pleasure rinks, far fewer than some other neighbourhoods.
"There’s an inequity and I want to try to level it out," said Lukes, adding the city could put up "use at your own risk" signs to address liability issues.
The city report notes permits can provide some use of frozen waterways for events, such as for pop-up restaurants on rivers.
The Forks river trail also attracts many Winnipeggers each year, though that organization is required to ensure it is constructed to winter road standards with frequent ice thickness tests.
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.