I’ve lived in Sacramento for 25 years and seemingly every summer since my first here, people have drowned in the Sacramento and American rivers. But unless you were close to someone overwhelmed by the currents or the cold, those deaths were background noise.
River deaths are just a part of summer life in Sacramento.
Coming from the Bay Area, I thought this was crazy. Why would anyone think they could swim across the river, especially after drinking alcohol?
In my first few years as a reporter at The Bee, I was dispatched to enough drownings to be haunted by the juxtapositions of the scenes. You’d arrive at the riverbank and be struck by the natural beauty. Then you’d see the families or friends of the victim staring in disbelief or sobbing as they peered at the water, as if searching for signs of life they knew they’d never find.
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In addition to the drownings, I remember a bunch of kids getting paralyzed in the river. A Bee editorial from June 27, 1992, brought it back: “Anyone who dives into the river without first checking the depth of the water risks a broken neck. ... Last year, five young men broke their necks at Discovery Park. All are now quadriplegics.”
Over time, I grew numb to the reports and avoided swimming in the rivers altogether. Each summer brought more stories of river tragedies. They were reported as unique news events, but all that really changed were the victims’ names.
A Bee headline from June 24, 1990, stated: “Drowning’s all too easy.” Columnist Don Stanley described the panic that sets in when swimmers realize too late that the rivers deserved more deference: “... When the body suddenly finds itself totally and unexpectedly submerged in moving water, no sky above and no ground below, when that happens, the mind exits and the body takes over.”
Stanley quoted a drowning expert about what happens in that moment: “Our larynx is designed to let nothing but gas in. No foreign objects, no water,” Jeff Schneider said. “So when water hits it, the larynx closes up. ...You can’t breathe, you can’t stand up and you’re in this fluid. That’s a panic situation. The idea that when you’re drowning – and I think Hollywood started it – that you go up and down three times and you’re yelling and screaming, that’s not really what happens.”
The drownings this summer have evoked particularly bad years from the past. There have been at least five drownings at Tiscornia Beach alone. Most of them have been on the Sacramento River side of Discovery Park.
The hazards posed by this beach have been known for decades.
“On the south side, the beachy side that’s technically Tiscornia Park, there’s what I would call a false channel,” Schneider said in The Bee in 1990. “It comes down and dead-ends against that finger that sticks out. What happens is, parents see people walking out in water up to their waist and they think it’s OK for kids to play in. So they go out, step off and suddenly they’re in 10 feet of water. They panic.”
It’s an idyllic spot and an ideal place for drownings. It’s at the confluence of the two rivers, right near downtown. In past years, normal rain and snowpack brought fast-flowing cold water that was an enemy of swimmers. This summer, because of the drought, the water is invitingly warm but no less dangerous. The law requires kids younger than 13 to wear life jackets. The victims this year at Tiscornia Park have been young adults.
Chris Harvey, spokesman for the Sacramento Fire Department, has been on scene for all the drownings. He said he initially thought it would be a good idea to close Tiscornia Park. As someone who doesn’t use the rivers for swimming or boating, I thought that, too.
So why doesn’t the county just close Tiscornia Beach? Why doesn’t the county hire lifeguards?
The closer you get to the water, the more you realize that neither idea makes sense.
“How far up do you close? Where does the closure begin and end?” said Harvey, who ultimately concluded that closing Tiscornia wasn’t feasible.
Jeff Leatherman, director of regional parks for the county, said that erecting fences to close the beach could simply create more hazards. “You can’t put a fence on a river that changes,” Leatherman said, “At the confluence, you have two rivers changing in elevation. At some point, a fence would be exposed. At some point, it would be submerged and it becomes a hazard itself.”
There have been enough good Samaritans who have drowned trying to help stricken swimmers to discourage the idea of lifeguards at Tiscornia Beach.
Another reason to keep the rivers open for recreation is that not everyone is lucky enough to have a swimming pool. For working families, the rivers are a place where they can cool off in the summer.
“It’s accessible. It’s affordable. It’s right off the freeway,” Leatherman said. Thousands of people use the rivers on hot weekends and don’t drown.
The answer isn’t closing the beaches and giving in to fear. The answer is getting everyone in life vests, which have been available for free use at places such as Tiscornia. There was a time when we drove in cars without seat belts, but that changed when we acknowledged the dangers. It’s the same with the rivers. We could and should enjoy them, but we need to show them much more respect.
Accidents will still happen. Some tragedies can’t be prevented. But many of Sacramento’s drownings could have been avoided.
If we’re going to be in the rivers, we need to get everyone in life vests. Now.
The county will make a major push in this direction next year. It will be about messaging and trying to convince people of the dangers of being caught in a current without a life vest. These deaths can’t be the background noise of summer anymore.