River drownings, the Sacramento region’s traditional summer tragedies, started early this year when a young man died swimming in the Sacramento River in the second week of May.
In the weeks since, at least three recreational users have drowned in the American and Sacramento rivers, including two at the same popular swimming area at the rivers’ confluence earlier this month. And Sacramento County officials are bracing for more potential casualties at Saturday’s Rafting Gone Wild event on the American River. They’ve banned alcohol to help prevent drunken antics and an increased body count.
The region has an average of eight drowning deaths each year on its major waterways. The vast majority of drownings are concentrated in a handful of locations, including at Tiscornia Park – a well-known swimming beach where the cold, clear American River enters the murky Sacramento River – and where the shallow shoreline can drop off abruptly.
By comparison, all of California’s major ocean beaches, guarded and unguarded, saw a combined 32 drownings last year, while most had none, according to the the United States Lifesaving Association.
With such high numbers, some Sacramento officials are asking what else can be done to limit the all-too predictable accidents.
“It’s something that comes and goes annually. Every year should be a reminder that people are losing their lives,” said Niko King, assistant chief of the Sacramento Fire Department.
King became a leading water-safety advocate after witnessing dozens of drowning rescue efforts and trying to comfort grief-stricken families, often at the same beach where someone had drowned days before.
“It just tore on me,” King said. “It was so upsetting to be standing in the exact same spot a couple days apart and watching another person suffer.”
In 2008, King helped get county and city ordinances passed that require children under 13 to wear life vests to enter the rivers. The American River Parkway Foundation now supplies free life vests at six major river access points. The vests hang on large signs that say “Kids Don’t Float.”
King also pushed for yellow traffic-style signs at popular swimming spots that warn of river hazards, including strong currents, steep drop-offs and underwater snags. Some signs warning of dangers in the river are visible at beaches, but at Tiscornia , the warning is surrounded by a jumble of other signs.
Though helpful, the measures aren’t enough, he contends. Lifeguards and designated swimming areas marked by strings of buoys are needed at the most popular and deadly spots, he said.
“Do we need lifeguards? I would say yes. Having someone right there to watch the behavior – to see a person starting to struggle in the water or to swim across the river – a lifeguard would be able to watch that and intervene.”
Ocean beaches with lifeguards in California had four drownings last year, while unguarded beaches had 28, the lifesaving association reported.
On Tuesday afternoon at Tiscornia Park, dozens of people frolicked in the water. Many of the children wore life vests. Most adults did not.
A middle-aged man, who was not wearing a life vest, reached for a young girl, who was wearing one, as she floated past him on the swift current. As the man stepped toward the girl, he suddenly plunged from knee-deep to chest-high water and struggled to maintain his footing.
A day before, near the same spot, a 27-year-old woman, Aasha Sharma, sank beneath the surface and drowned. Her husband, Purna Paudel, said he was wading with his wife and friends when they accidentally stepped into a deep section with a strong current.
In the absence of lifeguards, bystanders jumped in and helped rescue five of her companions but weren’t able to save Sharma.
That scenario, of the sudden disappearance of a wader who can’t swim, is common on the American River. Others who drown are would-be rescuers of swimmers in trouble. The most common victims are young men, in their teens and twenties, who try to swim across the river and are overwhelmed by the strong current.
Drowning victims generally don’t splash and cry for help; they disappear beneath the river’s dark, deceptively smooth surface without a sound, experts said.
They are quickly swept away by a current that can carry a body the length of a football field in three minutes, said John Mohamed a team leader with the Drowning Accident Rescue Team, whose divers are called to rescue and recovery operations in the Sacramento area.
The width and swiftness of the American River where it enters the Sacramento River would make lifeguard rescues extremely difficult, he said. “Even when someone’s right there, you can’t get to them,” Mohamed said.
Sacramento County’s Chief Park Ranger Michael Doane said hiring lifeguards trained in swift-water rescue would be a significant expense for the county’s parks system.
“They’ve never had lifeguards along the American River,” he said.
Ropes of buoys marking shallower areas could be misleading because rivers rise and fall based on releases from Folsom Dam upstream, Doane said. “The river is a very changing environment,” he said.
King said he understands providing greater river safety is problematic but argued that the difficulties could be overcome.
“They have lifeguards posted all along the Southern California coast at the most dangerous beaches. People can be trained in swift-water rescues,” King said. “The level of drownings we continue to have is unacceptable, and we have to do something else.”