This month’s drowning in the Sacramento River was another vivid reminder: A dip in the water can be deadly.
With Memorial Day weekend around the corner and hotter weather ahead, rescuers are bracing for more drownings and urging the public to be careful, especially with kids.
On May 9, the body of 15-year-old Jay Wells was found in the Sacramento River near Sand Cove Park Beach, a popular stretch along the city’s waterway.
The teen, like many drowning victims, was not wearing a life vest and likely got swept away by the river’s current while swimming, said Leslie Robinson, vice president of Sacramento’s Drowning Accident Rescue Team.
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“People underestimate the strength of the current and overestimate their ability to swim,” Robinson said. “The river never gets tired.”
According to official data for 2008, the most recent comprehensive statistics available, Sacramento County’s 32 deaths represented the highest drowning rate per capita among Northern California counties. There were 21 drowning deaths in 2010, according to the county health department.
While the rate of drownings has improved in recent years with the help of safety programs and mandatory county requirements for life vests on all children under 13 in public waters, families always need to stay alert, said Niko King assistant chief of the Sacramento Fire Department.
“We have all these different locations where the water seems really inviting,” King said. “Oftentimes families go out, they’re unprepared and not familiar with the area. They don’t bring life jackets, and oftentimes they’ve had a couple of drinks. … Obviously the problem is still there.”
Drownings mostly occur in two settings: open water and swimming pools. In a two-decade review of child deaths, the Sacramento County Child Death Review Team found that from 1990 to 2009 more than 50 percent of child drownings occurred in residential swimming pools and 20 percent occurred in rivers. More than 60 percent of child drowning victims were under the age of 5, and about half of the children who died were inadequately supervised, according to the team’s report.
Here are some summer swimming do’s and don’ts for those seeking to enjoy water activities.
When near a swimming pool, stick to the ABCs of swim safety: adult supervision, barriers and classes. Most drowning victims are toddlers, who tend to wander if left alone, said Jennifer Rubin of Safe Kids Greater Sacramento.
While newer pools must be built with kidproof fencing, older pools can be more easily accessed by unsupervised children.
Drowning rates in swimming pools for African American children were 5.5 times higher than for white children, according to a 2009-10 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It said children’s drowning deaths could be prevented by more swimming skills, pool barriers and use of life jackets.
Swimming pool drownings sometimes receive less attention but are still a big risk. “Our drownings in the river are often shown on the 5 o’clock news because there’s a lot to see … police and boats and lights,” Rubin said. “But when a child dies in a pool at home, the officials come scoop them up and that’s it.”
▪ Designate an adult “water watcher” to do nothing but supervise kids in 20-minute shifts (that means no texting).
▪ Sign kids up for swim class. Find city of Sacramento classes at www.cityofsacramento.org.
▪ Let children under 5 swim alone. Always keep them within arm’s reach.
▪ Assume inflatable arm bands are enough. They’re a swim aid; only life jackets are designed to save lives.
This year, the American River Parkway Foundation installed its free Kids Don’t Float life jacket stations two months early – in March – due to unseasonably warm temperatures that brought out larger numbers of swimmers, boaters and fishers, said Dianna Poggetto, the foundation’s executive director. Life jackets are also available for loan from local fire stations statewide.
Sacramento rivers can appear calm on the surface, but often contain eddies and entrapments that can snag or drag under even advanced swimmers in an instant, said DART’s Robinson. The river’s floor drop offs suddenly in some places, and swimmers without life jackets can find themselves struggling to stay above water. The river’s cold temperatures also can be a factor.
▪ Buy a life jacket or borrow one from free stations. Anyone under 13 is required to wear one in public waters, but adults should, too.
▪ Watch out for snags and obstacles while boating or swimming. Due to this year’s low water levels, there are often more exposed trees and debris, according to state park officials.
▪ Over-consume alcohol while swimming or boating.
▪ Jump in after someone who is drowning, unless absolutely necessary. Start by giving them an arm, a rope or another flotation device. Call 911.
Swim safety events
- May 26: Placer County Life Jacket Trade-in, Obexer’s Boating Company, 5300 W. Lake Blvd., Homewood. Sponsored by California State Parks Division of Boating and Waterways. Life jackets will be inspected; if found unusable, they can exchanged for new ones. One per family.
- June 1: Sacramento County Life Jacket Trade-in, Sacramento State Aquatic Center, 1901 Hazel Ave., Gold River
- June 27: Free life jacket exchange, sponsored by Kohl’s department stores and Sacramento’s Drowning Accident Rescue Team. 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. at various store locations in Citrus Heights, Antelope, Rancho Cordova, Natomas, Roseville and Folsom.
- June 27: Southgate Safety Day, 1 to 4:30 p.m., Rutter Swim Center, 7350 Palmer House Drive, Sacramento; games, activities and water safety presentations