Approximately 30 Ithaca residents gathered outside of city hall to protest a movement to expand a ban swimming in Ithaca’s gorges, including Six Mile Creek, before a common council meeting Wednesday.
“As a mother in Ithaca, I have children, and what we do in the summer is swim in our natural gorges,” said protester Carmel Rome. “It’s what Ithaca is all about.”
Many of the protesters were part of ‘Free the Gorges,’ an organization of “concerned citizens advocating for the free use of Ithaca’s natural areas,” according to its Facebook page.
“We were as grassroots as grassroots gets,” said Jeremy Veverka, a co-founder of the advocacy group said of its beginning in May. “[We were] just a few people meeting and realizing that we like to swim and we thought that the city was approaching this [ban] in the wrong way.”
Alisa Blinova, who came to the protest without any prior association with Free the Gorges, advocated for “solution-based” ideas to the problem of increased dangerous activity around the gorges.
“I think a lot of the reckless activity, including littering and climbing, does have to do with the excessive consumption of alcohol,” she said. “That is another issue that should be addressed through education, making signs, talking about it more and bringing awareness to the issues.”
Although the health concerns and dangers associated with the gorges are understandable, given a plethora of accidents at the sites, banning swimming is not the way to address these worries, according to Veverka.
“It’s not about swimming. It’s about cliff jumping, it’s about parties with people being drunk and irresponsible,” Veverka said in front of the common council. “I think the city can deal with those things with the rules that are already on the book, they don’t need to add anything new.”
Rome argued that the issue of water access reveals a deeper problem in Ithaca, complaining that certain citizens, who spend a majority of their time in town and cannot access another body of water, are not allowed to enjoy their natural surroundings.
“Who gets access to the water in this town?” she asked the council. “It always comes down to the fact that the people who don’t own the cars, people who work days … are in lake town without free public lake access.”
She added that swimming in Ithaca’s gorges is a valuable and active outdoor activity for all local people, especially children.
“In times where children are staying home in front of computers and it’s so hard and becoming such a challenge to get children outdoors, I can’t believe that the outdoors, our natural public water and public access, will have a police ban that is something that is so a part of who we are,” she said.
After listening to public comments on the potential swimming ban — most of which advocated against limiting gorge access — the common council voted to focus on outreach, education and harm reduction and the creation of a task force to further investigate gorge safety instead of enforcing the more stringent ban, according to Veverka.
“[Free the Gorges] will continue as an organization any time the city or town or any officials are meeting to make any decisions on this issue,” Veverka said of the ruling. “We want to be a part of that conversation.”