By PETER H. MILLIKEN
Every summer, Mahoning County sheriff’s deputies conduct a marine patrol on the Berlin Reservoir to educate the public about water safety, enforce laws, and, if necessary, rescue people in distress.
Patrolling the 18.6-mile-long, federally owned lake, which spans three counties, is a formidable task shared by Mahoning and Portage county sheriffs’ boat patrols, state watercraft and fish and wildlife officers and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“Our primary goal is to make sure that everyone has a safe and fun boating experience on the lake,” said Sgt. Charles Van Dyke of the Mahoning County Sheriff’s Office.
“Just like the laws of the road, if you don’t have laws, you have chaos” on the water, said Lt. Kenneth Kountz, Mahoning County boat-patrol commander.
“The buoys on the lake are actually road signs telling you what you can and cannot do, just like the streets have speed-limit signs,” Van Dyke said.
For example, buoys may designate no-wake zones, electric-motor-only zones, navigation channels, hazardous areas or areas where boats are prohibited.
“We look for anything out of the ordinary. We look for people in distress. We look for obvious violations,” Van Dyke said.
The Mahoning County deputies patrol the entire Corps of Engineers-owned lake in a 21-foot, state-owned aluminum boat that is permanently docked at the lake, unlike other law-enforcement boats that are towed to and from the lake.
The MCSO boat is fully equipped with law enforcement and marine radios, tow-and-throw ropes, water-rescue poles and hooks, fire extinguishers and first-aid kits.
With an average depth of 10 feet to 15 feet and a maximum depth of more than 50 feet, the Berlin Reservoir spreads across portions of Mahoning, Stark and Portage counties.
Last year, Kountz said, Mahoning County deputies pulled alongside and spot-checked 180 boats on the Berlin Reservoir, checking for required safety equipment, including enough life jackets for everyone on board.
They also made 27 citations and arrests, issued 94 warnings, inspected 152 boats on the water and 17 at launch ramps and assisted 14 vessels and 24 people, including boaters whose engines failed.
“Any marine officer can stop any vessel on the water at any time, without probable cause, to do a safety inspection,” and board it if necessary, Van Dyke said.
Alcohol possession and consumption and jumping or diving from bridges, rock formations or rope swings are prohibited at Berlin.
Last year, the Mahoning County boat patrollers arrested two jumpers at a former railroad trestle over the lake on criminal trespassing charges and on warrants from other counties.
Because the Berlin Reservoir’s primary purpose is water storage for flood control and maintenance of Ohio and Mississippi river navigation depths, its water levels fluctuate without notice as the outflow from its dam is adjusted, Van Dyke said.
“If it gets low, you’re going to run into the sandbars and rocks and other things out there,” Kountz said, warning of unseen underwater boating hazards.
Because of the lack of snow melt and a dry spring, the lake’s surface recently has been about 4 feet below its normal summer level, he said.
Because low water presents boating hazards and because the warmer water associated with it drives fish to cooler bottom water with more dissolved oxygen, boat traffic is down this season, said Deputy Steve Morlan. “This is exceptionally low this year,” he said of the water level.
The lake’s surface elevation is seasonally adjusted, with the off-season water level normally being 11.5 feet lower than the normal summer level.
During a recent patrol on a warm and sunny Friday afternoon, which was staffed by Morlan and Kountz, with a Vindicator reporter and photographer aboard, boat traffic was light.
The patrol began slowly in a no-wake zone near the Bedell Road campground and Dutch Harbor Marina, where Kountz and Morlan checked for rope swings tied to trees and found none, returned a stray inflatable turtle to a family with children swimming around a pontoon boat, and stopped and inspected a 21-foot motor boat, which had the necessary registration and life jackets.
“I’ve never seen one person drown in this lake that had a life jacket on,” Morlan said.
The patrol accelerated north under the U.S. Route 224 bridge to check the electric-motor-only zone by the dam and then south to the former railroad trestle, which now carries a bicycle trail over the water.
A pontoon boat passed its inspection with flying colors after its occupants displayed upon request a current registration, life jackets for all aboard, an anchor, a fire extinguisher and an orange distress flag and sounded the boat’s horn.
Morlan told the two adults and three children occupying it: “You’re safe boaters. You’ve got all the equipment necessary. I hope you catch some fish.”
Besides inspecting boats, Morlan and Kountz observed boats from a distance, some of them towing water skiers and occupants of inflatable tubes, but they found no serious violations and issued no citations during the two-hour patrol.
Mahoning County’s boat patrol is funded this year by $21,846 from the state and $7,282 in county funds.
To be compensated by state funds, boat-patrol deputies must complete a state-taught, 40-hour hands-on, marine-training program.