As swimming weather arrives, local officials say they’re hoping to avoid a repeat of last summer, when more than a dozen people drowned on the American and Sacramento rivers – twice the average yearly toll.
Rescuers said the drought and dropping water levels opened up new sections of beach, luring some people farther out into river channels and toward sudden drop-offs, where strong currents swept them to their deaths.
That was especially true at a small section of Tiscornia Beach, a popular swimming area at the confluence of the region’s two big rivers.
Now, after seasonal rains and water releases from Folsom Dam, the Sacramento and American rivers have surged, running deeper and faster than last year. That poses a threat, too, said John Mohamed, a training officer and team leader for the Drowning Accident Rescue Team, commonly called DART.
“With less beach, more people are going to be pushed into the water,” Mohamed said. “As soon as you increase the number of people in water, you increase the chance for a problem.”
The all-volunteer group took up regular safety patrols near Tiscornia Beach last summer after pulling too many bodies from the river. Drownings stopped once the patrols started. The team intends to do it again this year, beginning Memorial Day.
DART is planning for a busy season.
Two people already have drowned in the region’s rivers this year, including a teen whose body was recovered from the north fork of the American River west of Auburn, a day after the young man went underwater amid the bustle of an Earth Day cleanup.
As soon as you increase the number of people in water, you increase the chance for a problem.
John Mohamed, training officer and team leader for the Drowning Accident Rescue Team
Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna, who helped lead last year’s anti-drowning efforts, has promised a renewed focus on preventing river deaths this year.
Past publicity campaigns centered on getting children to use life jackets. This year, county officials will push adults to use life vests as well, unveiling a campaign called: “Life looks good on you.”
Serna noted that many of the drowning victims were male adults who knew how to swim.
“We’re leaving no stone unturned as far as I’m concerned about providing a very effective message,” Serna said.
The county will upgrade signage and restock life jackets that are available to the public for free at Tiscornia Beach. However, Serna said closing beaches outright – even the 250-foot section of Sacramento River frontage at Tiscornia Beach responsible for almost half of last year’s drowning deaths – isn’t feasible. People will just find other places to swim, he said.
Finding drowning victims in murky river water more quickly, perhaps still alive, is another goal this season.
The Sacramento Fire Department will bring a new tool to the table, after the Sacramento Fire Reserve Association donated $3,500 to purchase a side-scan sonar device. The new sonar equipment can be deployed in minutes. It sends out sound waves that bounce off objects in the water and transmit an image to a screen.
“It gives you a pretty accurate representation of what the bottom of the river looks like as well as any objects that are floating,” said Chris Harvey, Fire Department spokesman. “When those sound waves bounce off of the victim, it gives an accurate representation of where the person is.”
Harvey said the upgrade will improve response times because, in the past, the Fire Department had to rely mainly on DART volunteers to deploy their sonar-equipped boat.
“Sometimes it was more time-consuming,” he said. “They weren’t always able to get on scene so quickly.”
On a recent weekday afternoon, only a few swimmers were out at Tiscornia Beach under a cloudy sky. None of the three swimmers was wearing a life jacket, despite nearby signs that read: “Rivers can kill, always wear a life jacket.”