Editorials

Warning signs aren’t enough at Discovery Park

Purna Paudel of Sacramento sends a wreath into the Sacramento and American River confluence. His wife, Asha Sharma, was among four who have drowned in the same spot near Discovery Park.
Purna Paudel of Sacramento sends a wreath into the Sacramento and American River confluence. His wife, Asha Sharma, was among four who have drowned in the same spot near Discovery Park. aseng@sacbee.con

It’s the most dangerous place to swim in all of Sacramento County. And yet to look at the crowded banks near Discovery Park on any hot afternoon, you wouldn’t know it.

Not with both adults and children wading into the river water and paddling around without fear, many without life jackets and many barely knowing how to swim.

You wouldn’t know that in less than a month, at least four people have drowned in almost the exact same spot, the confluence of the American and Sacramento rivers near Tiscornia Beach.

The fast-moving water claimed its fourth victim on Sunday – a 24-year-old man who entered the Sacramento River side of Tiscornia Beach. Before him, there were Raul Armando Valdez Aquino, 20, of Elk Grove; Sonia Rangel Valencia, 36, of Sunnyvale; and Aasha Sharma, 27, of Sacramento.

Many of their friends would’ve drowned, too, if not for the brave Good Samaritans who jumped into the water and saved them.

Sacramento County officials said Monday that they will put up signs as early as this weekend warning people about the dangers of swimming there. There are signs in Discovery Park now, but not close enough to the water to catch the attention of visitors.

Park rangers and civilian “ranger assistants” also will reiterate that message to swimmers. They’ll remind that life jackets are not only available at stands in the park, but required for kids younger than 13.

While these are steps in the right direction, they aren’t enough. The county should give serious thought to hiring lifeguards who are trained in open-water and swift-water rescue techniques. The state, which has jurisdiction over waterways, needs to engage in the issue, as well.

Although generations of residents have used the park, the confluence of the American and Sacramento rivers is dangerous. So dangerous, in fact, that Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna is loath to risk the lives of lifeguards by putting them there – or to endanger more swimmers by giving them a false sense of security.

The issue is not the cost.

“You put a lifeguard out there,” Serna said, “and it implies a level of safety that doesn’t exist.”

Serna and other county officials have given the issue no small amount of thought, for which they deserve praise. However, data show the mere presence of lifeguards can save lives.

True, guarding a river, especially the confluence of two rivers, is nothing like guarding a pool or an ocean. The water moves fast and is cold. The debris at the bottom shifts quickly, and there’s a 90-degree drop-off about 30 feet from the bank that can pull even the strongest swimmers down in a hurry. And rivers can suddenly get even deeper when water is released from dams upstream.

But it’s also true that the vast majority of drownings happen at locations without lifeguards. In comparison, the United States Lifesaving Association estimates that the chances of drowning at a beach protected by a lifeguard is just 1 in 18 million.

An outright ban on swimming or wading at the park probably is not realistic. Perhaps the county could enter into a one-season contract to test if drownings decrease when lifeguards are on duty.

Warning signs and free use of life jackets can help avoid some tragedies. But current precautions clearly aren’t sufficient.

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