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King County urges caution near local rivers, lakes, Puget Sound this summer as water is cold, fast from above-normal snowpack

Summary

With a cooler spring and lingering heavy snowpack creating swift-flowing rivers and colder open water temperatures, the King County Sheriff’s Office, Department of Natural Resources and Parks, and Public Health – Seattle & King County urge people to be more vigilant this summer around local lakes, rivers, and beaches.

Story

Summer 2022 in King County is shaping upProject_Splash_Down_2016_(16) to feel more like the cooler summers we’re used to, but even without the record-smashing heat, King County knows people will flock to local rivers, lakes, and beaches and urges caution around open water. Local waterways are especially dangerous this year with colder water temperatures and high river flows from our region’s cold spring and larger than normal snowpack.

With consecutive months of below-normal temperatures and a mid-June central Cascade Range snowpack at more than 300 percent of normal, fresh snowmelt is still being added to river flows.

"We know rivers will run cold and fast well into summer, and lakes will stay cold longer than normal, which can all be deadly for people who are unprepared," Public Health's Violence and Injury Prevention Manager Tony Gomez said. "Washington waters are often cold enough to cause cold water shock, even on a hot summer day. Cold water can quickly weaken even the strongest swimmer."

Preventable drownings in King County have continued to rise over the past five years with 29 fatalities in 2021, including 15 deaths in open water. In two-thirds of those open-water drownings, a lifejacket may have saved the person’s life.

Lifeguards will return to many, but not all, beaches in King County this summer, so it is recommended that everyone venturing into King County waters without lifeguards present wear a life jacket.

Always wear a U.S. Coast Guard approved lifejacket when boating, tubing, rafting, swimming, or participating in other activities in or on lakes, rivers, salt water, or pools without a lifeguard. Lifejackets of the right size and type are required for each person on board the boat, make sure that is set before you go out. 

“A drowning does not look like a drowning you see on TV or in the movies. People are not flailing around or splashing the water. They are doing the dog paddle and not moving or gaining forward momentum. So, if you see this action, do something, reach out to them with anything, a pole, a towel, an ice chest – If they are farther out, throw something to them like a rope or a life jacket of some sort,” said Sgt. Richard Barton of the King County Sheriff’s Marine Rescue Dive Unit. “And please, wear a life jacket – I responded to seven drowning incidents last season; they were all preventable if the person had just worn a lifejacket.”

The drowning trend has hit King County’s BIPOC community especially hard. For example, Black people make up about 6 percent of King County's population but were 15 percent of King County's drowning deaths over those five years. It's the first time Public Health has seen such a wide disparity.

Mother Africa, an organization supporting African refugee and immigrant women and families based in Kent, is confronting this problem directly. On April 15, in partnership with Public Health's Violence and Injury Prevention Program and other organizations, Mother Africa hosted a "Child and Youth Life Jacket Giveaway and Water Safety Awareness" event. Almost 200 life jackets were fitted and given away to infants, children, and youth – they also gave out more than 150 swim lessons at the YMCA. Other organizations are also giving away lifejackets so keep an eye out for those events.

Swimming, boating, and river recreation, by nature, is dangerous. King County’s Department of Natural Resources and Parks and the King County Sheriff’s Office say before boating or floating on local rivers, routes should be scouted from the shore to better understand current conditions. Sometimes that can be difficult, with private property restricting access. Plus, not all hazards are visible above the waterline.

Complicating river conditions can be large wood in the water, which occurs naturally and is sometimes placed as part of flood risk reduction and habitat improvement projects.

“Rivers can be risky year-round, but conditions this year make rivers even more dangerous because they continue running higher and colder than normal,” said Christie True, director of the King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks. “And river systems change seasonally as flooding rearranges the sand, gravel, rock and wood. The swimming hole you remember from last year might be completely different this year because of flooding.”

Best practice for being safe on the water means always telling someone your route and when and where you expect to put in and take out. You should have a back-up plan for emergency contact in case your trip is cut short by an unforeseen obstacle or emergency. Never float the river alone, and if possible, make sure there is at least one oared craft in your group in case a rescue is needed. Bring a dry bag with food, water, and warm clothes.


Relevant links


Quotes

We know rivers will run cold and fast well into summer, and lakes will stay cold longer than normal, which can all be deadly for people who are unprepared. Washington waters are often cold enough to cause cold water shock, even on a hot summer day. Cold water can quickly weaken even the strongest swimmer.

Tony Gomez, Violence and Injury Prevention Manager, Public Health -- Seattle & King County

A drowning does not look like a drowning you see on TV or in the movies. People are not flailing around or splashing the water. They are doing the dog paddle and not moving or gaining forward momentum. So, if you see this action, do something, reach out to them with anything, a pole, a towel, an ice chest – If they are farther out, throw something to them like a rope or a life jacket of some sort. And please, wear a life jacket – I responded to seven drowning incidents last season; they were all preventable if the person had just worn a lifejacket.

Sgt. Richard Barton, King County Sheriff’s Marine Rescue Dive Unit

Rivers can be risky year-round, but conditions this year make rivers even more dangerous because they continue running higher and colder than normal. And river systems change seasonally as flooding rearranges the sand, gravel, rock and wood. The swimming hole you remember from last year might be completely different this year because of flooding.

Christie True, Director, King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks

For more information, contact:

Doug Williams, Department of Natural Resources and Parks, 206-477-4543
Fred Mariscal, Public Health – Seattle & King County, 206-263-4016