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With weather warming, King County officials urge caution around cold rivers, lakes, Sound

Summary

After 17 people died in preventable drownings last year, King County officials are on high alert, urging caution around cold rivers, lakes and in Puget Sound. Swimmers should practice safety by: swimming in lifeguarded areas, wearing life jackets, and avoiding alcohol when swimming.

Story

With temperatures inching toward 80 degrees this weekend, King County officials urge everyone to be careful when heading out for fun on the water.

Warm air temperatures don't translate to warm water temperatures. In fact, unseasonably warm weather will accelerate the typical Cascade Range spring snowmelt, and rivers will be running swift with icy cold runoff for weeks to come. Lakes and Puget Sound are also quite cold this time of year, and swimmers can suffer from cold-water shock after just a few minutes in the water.

King County officials are on high alert because 17 people died in preventable drownings in the county in 2015.*

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.

"I urge everyone to use caution when going into the water, particularly in springtime when warm weather and cold water create a deadly combination," said King County Sheriff John Urquhart. "Don't drink, and always wear a life jacket."
"Swimming is a great way to stay active and fit, but safety is key. Take advantage of local lifeguarded beaches and pools for safer swimming. If you do go on the river or in open water, always wear a life jacket," said Dr. Jeff Duchin, Health Officer for Public Health – Seattle & King County, who recommended consulting specific cities to know when lifeguards are provided.

"Sometimes the best decision is to not go in the water at all, not only due to cold, swift water, but because what was safe a year ago may not be safe now," said Christie True, Director of the King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks. "With an active flood season this past winter, some river stretches have likely changed dramatically since last summer, with hazards such as submerged trees and rocks in places where they weren't last year."

Marta the River OtterThose concerns are partly why King County Parks this year is reaching out to first- and second-grade students with a special river safety presentation, featuring Marta the River Otter.

A King County study of recreational river use along the Cedar River 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 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.

For more information on water safety and drowning prevention, visit the King County Water Safety website.

Details about river safety, visit www.kingcounty.gov/riversafety.

Quick statistics

King County

  • In 2015, Public Health – Seattle & King County found that 17 people died in preventable drowning incidents. Of these, 12 (70 percent) took place in open water, such as rivers, lakes, ponds, or Puget Sound.
  • Of the 12 open water deaths, nine (75 percent), may have been prevented with lifejacket use.
  • Over half (52 percent) of all King County deaths involved alcohol and or other drugs in the last five years.

*King County 2015 drowning statistics are preliminary and will be made final later in the summer.

Washington state

  • In 2014, there were 98 unintentional drowning deaths of Washington residents. 16 of these deaths were children and young adults under 20 years old.
  • Drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional injury death for children and teens age 1-17 in Washington.