Erika D. Smith

2016 proves river drownings are entirely preventable

Paddleboarder Dana Thompson competes in the solo race portion of the second annual Paddle 4 DART fundraiser in June. The event benefited the volunteer divers who patrol the American and Sacramento rivers in the summer.
Paddleboarder Dana Thompson competes in the solo race portion of the second annual Paddle 4 DART fundraiser in June. The event benefited the volunteer divers who patrol the American and Sacramento rivers in the summer. aseng@sacbee.com

For more summers than we’d care to count, Sacramentans believed it was inevitable that people would drown in the Sacramento and American rivers.

Between 1962 and 1973, those waterways claimed 71 lives. Warning signs were posted on the riverbanks, but few read them. Free life jackets were provided, but few put them on. Hiring lifeguards was often discussed, but never acted upon.

And so, last year, another 13 swimmers drowned, including at least 11 during the hot months – more than twice as many as in an average year of the past decade.

What a difference a year can make. This summer, no one swimming or playing in the water appears to have drowned between Memorial Day and Labor Day along the rivers, according to preliminary coroner’s statistics. That’s right. Zero.

Driven by the headlines of last summer, including the tragic story of 19-year-old Jagjit Basra, who died valiantly trying to save his nephews, Sacramento County supervisors finally deployed an effective strategy against drowning.

“There was a lot of thought to figure out what we were going to do differently after the tragic circumstances of last year,” Supervisor Phil Serna said. “We weren’t going to do nothing.”

They spent $25,000 to have volunteer Drowning Accident Rescue Teams patrol the waterways in boats in case someone went under, particularly near Tiscornia Beach, where the American and Sacramento rivers converge. And a dozen people did go under, but they were rescued.

Given that many of those who drowned last year were drinking, the county also instituted several alcohol bans over the summer to discourage stupid behavior and reduce the number of calls for emergency rescues.

For the sober, supervisors paid to erect more signs warning people of the dangers, supply 2,500 additional life jackets, and deploy park rangers along riverbanks to prod adults into wearing life jackets and tell parents that children are legally required to do the same.

“Last year, we’d go out and no one would have a life vest on,” Jim Remick, chief logistician and a rescue diver, told The Bee’s Nashelly Chavez. “This year, people were a lot more cooperative and had them on without even having to be prompted to.”

But perhaps the most dramatic change was the “Life Looks Good on You” marketing campaign aimed at young men – the demographic that had dominated last year’s drowning statistics. The county also revived its “Kids Don’t Float” campaign, which targets parents of young children.

“This year, looking back, it paid off for the community,” Serna said. “It’s not often we can say well, ‘We thought carefully about an intervention and the intervention, it seems, was a clear success.’ So how do we capitalize on that success?”

Indeed, the trick will be to keep it going next summer. Now that Sacramento County has proved it’s possible to prevent drownings, the challenge will be to make sure swimmers don’t slide back into old habits.

So far, so good. In the county budget passed this week, the Board of Supervisors allocated another $25,000 for the same marketing campaigns next summer. Serna also chipped in an additional $25,000 from his district’s discretionary fund. That money could be used to add divers to the DART rescue teams, expand the number of days they operate per week or maybe to purchase better equipment.

Whatever it takes to save lives.

By the numbers

An annual tally of people who have drowned in Sacramento County rivers:

2013

  • Sacramento River: 2
  • American River: 4

2014

  • Sacramento River: 4
  • American River: 7

2015

  • Sacramento River: 7
  • American River: 6

Source: Sacramento County Coroner’s Office

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