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OUR OPINION: Must dikes be entirely off-limits?

Come rain, wind or fog in San Francisco, pedestrians can stroll across the Golden Gate Bridge -- and they do so by the thousands, a full 220 feet above San Francisco Bay.

Sightseers
Sightseers stroll on top of the dike in downwtown Grand Forks during the noon hour Tuesday. Herald photo by John Stennes.

Come rain, wind or fog in San Francisco, pedestrians can stroll across the Golden Gate Bridge -- and they do so by the thousands, a full 220 feet above San Francisco Bay.

In America's national parks, countless roads and switchback trails delight tourists with their spectacular views -- and the fact that there often are no guardrails.

Come to think of it, a routine stroll along any urban sidewalk involves dozens of near-misses with fast-moving hulks of steel.

So, why can't Grand Forks and East Grand Forks residents walk up to the top of their cities' broad and stable dikes?

There is some risk involved in every activity of daily life, including eating and sleeping. So, society calculates those risks, and usually does a reasonable job of minimizing them. (Think air bags in cars, warning labels on household products and electrical and fire-safety codes in homes.)

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But the now-annual command to stay off of the dikes at times of high water seems like a pedestrian bridge too far.

Would it really be so dangerous to let people stand on top of the dikes to enjoy the view?

By now, almost everyone in the Grand Cities has had the experience of standing on top of the dikes. In winter, children spend hours climbing up and sliding down the dikes at Lincoln Park.

Notably, sliding is safe along only one side of that dike: the side that faces Belmont Road. Sliding down the other side toward the river is a dicey proposition.

But rather than shut down the popular slope, the city just uses warning signs and other mild means to discourage sliding down the more-dangerous side. It's a reasonable and successful solution, one that rightly depends on authorities trusting residents to act appropriately.

In the summer, meanwhile, walking up and over the dikes to get to the Greenway is entirely routine.

When was the last time anyone slipped or fell off? It's hard even to imagine how it could happen. You'd basically have to work at it: The sides of the dikes are very gently sloped, meaning there's no precipice or edge that could induce a fear of heights.

Moreover, the top of the dikes are broad and prairie-flat.

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What would be so risky about letting people stand or even stroll there to take in the river view?

Sure, there's a chance that pushing or horseplay could send someone into the water. There are all kinds of things that "could" happen -- in schools and shops and on playgrounds, highways and everywhere else.

But we don't bar people from those places on pain of $1,000 fines. At Niagara Falls, tourists by the millions walk up to the edge and stand close enough to the cataract that they get wet from the mist. Why is that encouraged, but watching the Red River from a fine wide platform is go-to-jail denied?

This is a layman's view; maybe there are more serious risks that police officers foresee. But it seems telling that in order to deter river-watching, the city has to set its fines so high.

Clearly, a great many people want to see the river and have no safety worries whatsoever about doing so from the dikes. In years to come, maybe Grand Forks and East Grand Forks should consider accommodating that impulse in some way rather than hammering it.

-- Tom Dennis for the Herald

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