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Menominee Tribe approves new rules to regulate rafting industry

Published On: Aug 06 2014 08:15:19 AM CDT   Updated On: Jun 26 2014 12:10:04 PM CDT

A Middleton family’s tragedy sparks first-of-its-kind rules to regulate Wisconsin’s rafting industry.

MIDDLETON, Wis. -

A Middleton family's tragedy sparks first-of-its-kind rules to regulate Wisconsin's rafting industry.

In 2013 News 3 discovered rafting is not regulated by the state. Wisconsin's boating laws also don't make rafters wear helmets or life jackets.

Lina Vergara had a jacket on when she was rafting the Wolf River in 2012, but it popped off when she fell in the water, and the 20-year-old drowned. Her family has spoken openly about their fight for safety upgrades.

The new regulations aren't statewide. Rather, they apply to people who rent equipment from outfitters along the Wolf River that flows through the Menominee Indian Tribe Reservation, which governs itself.

Tribal police officers and wardens will enforce the new rules, which are some of the first in recent memory.

"I'm not sure when the last time was they took a hard look at their rafting laws," said Rep. Diane Hesselbein, who partnered with the Vergara family to draft Lina's Law. "I'm grateful the Menominee Nation took it seriously."

Lina was rafting the rain-swollen Wolf River in July 2012 with equipment from Shotgun Eddy Raft Rental. A News 3 Investigation found rafters sign a release to recognize the risks and Shotgun Eddy recommends they wear life jackets.

Until now there were no laws, requirements or regulations to protect rafters.

"She touched so many people's lives when she was alive and now, even after being gone, she continues," said Lina's father, Alejandro Vergara.

The Menominee Indian Tribe adopted the law that in part makes outfitters provide helmets and requires rafters to wear them. The rules also require anyone 16 years old and younger to wear a life jacket at all times.

"People will report when they see things aren't happening that way," Hesselbein said. "I don't really foresee a problem, though, because the Menominee Tribe is very good at following rules."

"To finally get that call that it passed, like I always say, is bittersweet," said Coni Vergara-Duhr, Lina's sister.

The Vergara family's goal started with a petition, then a yearly run in Lina's honor, followed by the new regulations to not only make Wisconsin safer, but keep Lina's memory alive.

The rules also post warning signs at Smokey Falls, a dangerous section of the river, and close the river if it's flowing too fast.

The rules go into effect immediately, just as the summer rafting season ramps up.

Tribal officers can fine people who don't follow the rules anywhere from $250 to $450.

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