As drownings show, rivers low but still cold, dangerous

Published: Tuesday, May. 7, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 2B
Last Modified: Tuesday, May. 7, 2013 - 8:04 am

Despite an unusually warm spring and lower-than-normal river flows, waterways in the Sacramento region remain cold and dangerous.

The drownings of two young men in separate incidents in the American River over the weekend should serve as a reminder to swimmers and boaters to use caution, water safety experts say.

Christopher Harris, 23, of Rancho Cordova apparently drowned while swimming near Lake Natoma about 5:25 p.m. Saturday. Officials said Harris wasn't wearing a life jacket when he attempted to swim across an inlet to a Willow Creek recreation area beach. Divers recovered his body about 9:30 p.m.

Shortly after 5 p.m. Sunday, a 25-year-old man drowned while swimming in the river east of the Howe Avenue boat launch. He was identified by the Sacramento County Coroner's Office as Demorea Rafael Benton-Davis of Elk Grove. Authorities said he began to struggle and slipped under water. He had been swimming with another man and a minor, who were rescued from a nearby island.

In cases like these, drowning typically is the result of fatigue from swimming in cold water, said Kelly McFarlane, a spokeswoman and volunteer with the Sacramento County Sheriff's Drowning Accident Rescue Team.

"People overestimate their swimming ability," McFarlane said. "Even those of us who are decent swimmers put wet suits on if we're going to be swimming more than 10 minutes."

The temperature outside may be warm, but area rivers remain cold even during the summer.

"Except for the first foot or two, it's 55 degrees or colder," McFarlane said.

Hypothermia causes loss of muscle function and self-awareness, which can result in poor judgment. People suffering from hypothermia often become combative, creating a danger for rescuers, McFarlane said.

Alcohol consumption accelerates the onset of hypothermia, she noted, but people who have been drinking typically feel warmer and don't realize the effect the cold water is having on them.

Water levels are lower this year than they often are in the spring due to diminished snow runoff. Although currents may not be as strong, unseen hazards such as rocks and tree branches are closer to the surface.

"Foot entrapments rise as the water gets lower," McFarlane said.

Swimmers should not try to stand up in the water, she said, noting that people often get their feet caught and the force of the moving water then pushes them over.

Water-safety experts urge swimmers and boaters to wear life jackets. If people experience hypothermia, McFarlane said, a life jacket can keep them from immediately going underwater and drowning.

Gloria Sandoval, spokeswoman for the California Department of Boating and Waterways, said that of the 53 boating fatalities in California in 2012 in which drowning was the cause of death, 33 of the victims were not wearing life jackets.

People should make sure that life jackets fit properly and are serviceable. A life jacket that is too big can easily come off in the water.

The Department of Boating and Waterways is partnering with businesses and volunteers to sponsor the 14th annual Life Jacket Trade-In later this month. In the Sacramento region, it will be held at eight Kohl's department stores from 4 to 6 p.m. May 24.

Volunteers will inspect the life jackets, show people how to properly fit them and exchange those that are no longer serviceable.

In addition, volunteer groups offer loaner life vests at popular recreation sites on the Sacramento and American rivers during the summer. Several fire stations in the region also have life jackets available for loan.

• Always wear a life jacket during water activities.

• Keep a close eye on children in or near water.

• Avoid alcohol consumption, which accelerates the onset and progression of hypothermia.

• To prevent becoming entrapped in rocks or branches, avoid standing up in rivers or streams. Float on your back or in a reclining position with feet raised and pointed downstream. Turn at a 45-degree angle to the shore you want to reach and allow the current to push you in that direction.

14th Annual Life Jacket Trade-In Locations:

Life jacket inspections and trade-ins will be held from 4 to 6 p.m. May 24.

Sacramento and Placer counties: Kohl's department stores

Antelope: 5030 Antelope Road

Natomas: 4700 Natomas Blvd.

Elk Grove: 8810 Calvine Road and 9650 Bruceville Road

PointWest-Arden: 1896 Arden Way

Folsom: 1013 Riley St.

Rancho Cordova: 11051 Olson Drive

Citrus Heights: 6135 San Juan Ave.

Roseville: 10375 Fairway Drive

Life Jacket Loan Program:

(Some participants have life jacket use requirements. Contact participating locations for specifics.)

Fire stations:

El Dorado Hills – El Dorado Hills Fire Department

Station 84: (916) 933-3471

Station 85: (916) 933-6623

Elk Grove – Cosumnes Community Services District Fire Department

Stations 71 and 75: (916) 405-7100

Folsom – Folsom Fire Department

Station 35 (916) 984-2280

Galt – Cosumnes Community Services District Fire Department

Station 45: (916) 405-7100

Granite Bay – South Placer County Fire Department

Stations 1 and 6: (916) 791-7059

Loomis – South Placer County Fire Department

Stations 3 and 5: (916) 791-7059

Meadow Vista – Placer Hills Fire District

Station 1: (530) 878-0405

Roseville – Roseville Fire Department

Station 1 (916) 774-5800

Sacramento – Sacramento Fire Department

Stations 5, 8, 11, 15, 60: (916) 808-1300

Sacramento County – Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District

Stations 31, 32, 59, 61, 63, 65, 110: (916) 859-4300

West Sacramento – West Sacramento Fire Department

Station 41: (916) 617-4741

Station 42: (916) 617-4742

Station 43: (916) 617-4743

Station 44: (916) 617-4744

Station 45: (916) 617-4600

Other locations:

Sacramento State Aquatic Center, Lake Natoma: (916) 278-2842

Grass Valley – Gold Country Yacht Club: (530) 265-8090

Smartville – Englebright Lake: (530) 432-6427

Winters – Lake Solano Park: (530) 795-2990

Call The Bee's Cathy Locke, (916) 321-5287.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Cathy Locke



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