With sunny skies and temperatures possibly rising toward 80 degrees this weekend, King County officials urge everyone to be careful when heading out for fun on the water.
The cool, wet winter and spring left a heavy mantle of snow across the Cascade Range, and warmer temperatures means rivers will be swift with icy cold snowmelt for weeks to come. Lakes and Puget Sound aren’t much warmer options for a swim: Cold-water shock can set in after a matter of minutes in any body of water.
“I urge everyone to use caution when going into the water,” said King County Sheriff John Urquhart. “Don’t drink, and always wear a life jacket.”
“Rivers can change dramatically from year to year, with trees, rocks and other potential hazards being present this year where there were no such apparent hazards last year,” said Christie True, Director of the King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks.
“Take advantage of local lifeguarded beaches and pools for safer swimming. If you do go on the river, lifejackets should be standard equipment,” said Dr. David Fleming, Director and Health Officer for Public Health – Seattle & King County, who recommended consulting specific cities to know when lifeguards are provided.
A King County study of recreational river use along the Cedar River in 2011 confirmed the widely held notion that summer recreation is largely determined by warmer temperatures.
When temperatures are in the 70s, there are likely to be floaters on the river. When temperatures reach 80 or higher, floating, swimming and other recreational river use along rivers increases dramatically.
While most of those hot days occur in July and August, it is not unprecedented to have 80 degree weather in May and June – and those early months carry the most concern for river managers and emergency responders.
Flows are typically colder in late spring and early summer than later in the recreational use season, increasing the potential for cold-water shock in unprepared river users.
Higher flows in spring and summer increase velocities and decrease a river user’s reaction time to dangerous situations – including potential concealed hazards such as rocks and logs.
Seasonal flooding might have shifted rocks and logs, creating potential hazards this year where there were none last year.
King County, Public Health – Seattle & King County, and the King County Sheriff’s Office encourage kayakers, boaters, rafters, swimmers and other river users to check conditions and scout rivers thoroughly for hazards before entering the water.
- In 2013*, Public Health – Seattle & King County found that 22 people died in preventable drowning incidents – and half of them occurred in open water, such as rivers, lakes, ponds, or Puget Sound.
- Four drowning deaths occurred in August, and three occurred in May.
- Nine of the deaths could have been prevented with lifejacket use.
- Half of all deaths involved alcohol and/or other drugs.
- Drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional injury death for children and teens age 1-17 in Washington.
* The 2013 King County drowning statistics are preliminary and will be made final later this year.
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Editor’s note: Tony Gomez, Manager, Violence and Injury Prevention, Public Health Seattle & King County and Co-Chair Statewide Drowning Prevention Network, is available for interviews. Please contact James Apa (206-263-8698) to arrange an interview.