Members of the region’s volunteer diving rescue team appealed to the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday for funds to help them prevent drownings instead of mostly pulling bodies from the region’s deadly rivers.
The Drowning Accident Rescue Team, one of the busiest volunteer emergency dive teams in the nation, is called out more than 100 times a year to rescue swimmers or recover drowning victims. It covers its $65,000 annual budget entirely through donations and fundraisers.
Those include a July fireworks booth that demands divers’ attention just as the annual summer danger season gets underway. Instead of selling fireworks, team members told supervisors, they would prefer to be out talking to waders and swimmers about river dangers.
“We’d like to shift our volunteer hours from fundraising to proactive patrols on the rivers,” DART board member Bob Erickson, a retired Sacramento County sheriff’s deputy and now chief of the Fulton-El Camino Park Police, told supervisors in their chambers in downtown Sacramento.
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They would also like to be able to purchase equipment, such as a portable sonar device that can be deployed in about 15 minutes to locate drowning victims underwater, Erickson said. Too often, divers searching in murky water have to tell grieving family members onshore that they were unable to locate a drowning victim’s body after hours of effort, he said.
The county used to provide about $25,000 annually through the Sacramento County Coroner’s Office but stopped during the recent economic downturn, Erickson said.
The DART team’s appeal for financial assistance came amid one of the worst river drowning seasons in memory, including two more deaths last weekend on the South Yuba River and on the American near Auburn.
“Unfortunately, it’s been a very tragic summer on the rivers,” Erickson said.
Five of this year’s accidental drownings happened in a three-week span at Tiscornia Park, a popular swimming beach at the confluence of the American and Sacramento rivers, where sharp drop-offs and powerful currents can kill the unwary.
That situation led officials to install prominent signs along Tiscornia’s beach warning, in English and Spanish, of the spot’s numerous dangers, including underwater debris and snags.
Hanging from the signs are an ample supply of adult and child life vests that can be borrowed for free. Previously only a smaller number of children’s life vests were available. Anyone under 13 is required by local law to wear one while swimming in the rivers.
The majority of drowning victims, however, are young men, roughly 16 to 30, who mistakenly think they are strong enough to swim across the rivers, officials said.
Preventing such risky behavior before it goes too far is the reason DART members and park rangers have been out in boats and on the beaches lately, making contact with swimmers.
They warn them to stay closer to shore and away from deep holes and steep shelves in the river bottoms, where waders often sink. In the American River, the current changes abruptly from a relatively gentle flow to a deep channel moving fast enough to sweep a grown man off his feet.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Phil Serna, whose district contains Tiscornia, said he wanted to provide DART with some money for the remainder of this year and to work on a longer-term funding and drowning-prevention strategy over the winter.
“I think it’s high time we had a conversation in public” about how to enhance water safety, Serna said.
Having more of an official presence in popular swimming areas was a good place to start, “especially near Tiscornia, where we’ve had so much tragedy this season,” he said.
Other members of the five-person panel agreed.
“The amount of money vs. the benefit is something we can do,” Supervisor Susan Peters said. But, she told the DART members, “I want to make sure you’re not planning to be lifeguards.” She cited the potential dangers to rescuers.
County officials have generally dismissed the idea of stationing lifeguards at Tiscornia, saying it would be expensive and impractical for lifeguards to attempt rescues in the swift-moving rivers.
District 4 Supervisor Roberta MacGlashan said, “My concern is it will give people a false sense of security that it’s safe to swim out there when in fact it’s not.”
It’s a statement that has been repeated by public officials over the years as a reason not to have lifeguards at Tiscornia, even though a sandy beach, plentiful parking and a row of portable toilets draw hundreds of visitors on hot summer days.
After the meeting, another member of DART, John Mohamed, said if Tiscornia were closed to swimmers they would find other spots that may be even more dangerous. Tiscornia is actually relatively safe if people stay in shallow areas close to shore where the current is slower, he said.
Jim Remick, who drives DART’s rescue boat, said the most dangerous and deadly part of Tiscornia is the small section of beach where the American River curves into the much deeper Sacramento River. A sharp drop-off there is only about 25 feet from shore – compared to up to 75 feet on the American River side of the park – and the current is exceptionally fast, he said. Bodies are often found far downstream from that point, he said.
“If they just put a ‘no swimming’ sign there, I think it would save a lot of lives,” Remick said.
Erickson, who agreed with that assessment, said he’d hate to see drownings lead to even greater beach closures. Tiscornia is a place where many of Sacramento’s lower-income families go to cool off and relax during hot summers, he said.
“This is their backyard. This is their luxury,” he said.
Talking to people face-to-face will help make the rivers’ confluence a safer place to recreate, Erickson said.
“It’s all about education,” he said.
Erickson said he recently rescued a toddler who had sunk beneath the water at Sand Cove Park on the Sacramento River, another popular swimming spot where drownings regularly occur. The water looked smooth and calm, but the current is powerful there, he told the crying mother.
“I said, ‘This river is unforgiving.’”