Who's responsible for safety on the Fox River? After accident, the answer is unclear

Who's responsible for the safety of swimmers and boaters on the Fox River? The answer is unclear.

It's a question sparked by a serious accident Sunday on the river just off a beach at Picnic Grove Park in Fox River Grove.

A 19-year-old man was approaching the beach to dock when he struck a 6-year-old boy, who had just dived beneath the murky water. The boy was unconscious when he was found floating next to the 18-foot Bayliner boat. Paramedics rushed the child by helicopter to the hospital with life-threatening injuries, but he's expected to recover.

Meanwhile, investigators with the McHenry County sheriff's office marine unit determined the boater will not be ticketed because he piloted the vessel slowly and cautiously into an area apparently open to watercraft, despite use by swimmers.

There are no markers or buoys to separate swimmers and boats at the beach, where Fox River Grove Police Chief Eric Waitrovich said the jurisdiction changes once a person steps from the sand into the water.

On Wednesday, a motorboat and a personal watercraft were pulled up in the shallow water just off the beach as a woman stood in waist-deep water nearby.

Waitrovich, speaking earlier this week, said the McHenry County sheriff's office enforces rules on the water; anything beyond the shoreline isn't the village's jurisdiction.

The Fox Waterway Agency and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources also have oversight.

"There's a lot of different agencies involved," McHenry County sheriff's deputy Sandra Rogers said.

Signs posted in the village's park leave questions about what uses are allowed.

One sign says "Ice/water access prohibited." Another sign near a boat ramp and three small docks states, "Nonmotorized watercraft only. $500 fine maximum. No parking on boat ramp."

Waitrovich didn't return a phone message Wednesday inquiring about the signs.

McHenry County officials said the Fox Waterway Agency creates many of the regulations for swimming and boating on the river while sheriff's deputies act as law enforcement. Their investigation concluded that the boater didn't break any rules.

County Administrator Peter Austin said the county will examine what changes, if any, the county can or should make as a result of the accident.

He pointed out that the beach at the village's park encourages swimming in the area.

"We're all going to learn about this," he said.

The Fox Waterway Agency maintains the Fox River and Chain O' Lakes for "recreational uses, to restore environmental quality, manage flooding, promote tourism and enhance the quality of life," according to its website.

Executive Director Joe Keller said the agency will be discussing measures to preserve safety on the river as a result of the accident.

But he said the agency's budget of $2 million to handle extensive responsibilities creates a difficult problem.

"Can we as an agency solve all the problems? No, our funding isn't there to do it," Keller said. "Can we be a party to the solution? The answer is yes."

Keller said the Illinois Department of Natural Resources is responsible for buoys on the river that designate swimming and boating areas. He called the IDNR a "big brother" to the Fox Waterway Agency when it comes to safety on the river.

No buoys are in the area off the beach where the accident happened.

A spokesman for the IDNR did not provide answers Wednesday about safety on the river.

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Tragedy on the water Painful reminders of the fragility of life and the perils of nature

  A sign at Picnic Grove Park in Fox River Grove prohibits motorboats from the boat ramp and docks, but motorboats sometimes pull up in shallow water along the beach. Rick West/
  Though there's a beach, a sign indicates access to the water is prohibited at Picnic Grove Park beach in Fox River Grove. Rick West/
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