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'It's not enough': Kootenai County marine patrols gear up for summer with short staff

Seven deputies will patrol the miles of waterway but it's still around half the optimal staffing for a busy season.

COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho — There are about 27,000 registered boaters, including Kootenai County residents and visitors from out of the area or state, who may hit north Idaho waters this summer. 

There are also only seven deputies in Kootenai County who'll be out to make sure they're doing so safely.

Sgt. Ryan Miller is the recreation safety supervisor responsible for the marine patrol unit, along with the diver and SONAR teams and back country unit. On a Friday morning, he's cruising Lake Coeur d'Alene looking for safety hazards.

"It has its days like most things," he laughed. "It is nice to be out on the water sometimes, I will say that."

While it's nice, it's also a big job for Kootenai County. The marine unit patrols 18 lakes and 56 miles of waterway.

A lot they're now doing with less.

"Staffing's not where we want it for sure," Sgt. Miller said. "We're seeing our applicant pool drop down. We used to have about 100 people apply for a season and this year we saw about ten applicants."

He guesses it has to do with pay. Marine deputies earn $20 an hour, up from a little more than $18 last year. Miller hopes to throttle it up to $23 an hour next season to stay competitive with local businesses.

This season, two teams will watch the shores and open water of Coeur d'Alene's lake and the Spokane River. A third roving team will hit other busy spots like Hayden Lake.

"I currently have seven deputies that are helping me out," Sgt. Miller said.

However, that's still about half the optimal staffing he'd like. Sgt. Miller had hoped to have 12 deputies to provide full coverage. He says as it stands now, there will be some gaps, including days with no patrols.

Former marine deputies from the jail or patrol will cover overtime shifts. There will only be one full-time deputy on the water where Sgt. Miller hoped to have two.

"It's just not enough for the amount of activity we're seeing out here," he said. "I do fear our dive and sonar teams are gonna be busy this year. I hope I'm wrong."

The trends, though, aren't encouraging.

Sgt. Miller says more people are hitting the water and more people are breaking the law.

One common violation he sees is people riding on the bow or along the sides of the boat, which could cause serious injuries or worse.

"We'll make about 20,000 or so contacts throughout a season," he said, noting that may be someone waving them down or a phone call. Not all of those contacts are for reckless or unlawful behavior.

The unit sees about 5,000 violations every season, Sgt. Miller says, though last year only handed out citations about 7% of the time. Miller says they try to educate instead of punish.

"We're not out here to ruin peoples' fun. We want them to have a good time," he said. "We want them to have fun, we just need and want them to do it safely."

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