Increased patrols along Sacramento-area waterways and a new safety campaign have helped lead to no swimmers drowning in the city’s rivers this summer, according to city and county officials. The figure is an about-face from 2015, when the number of swimmers who drowned spiked locally.
But as Labor Day weekend comes to a close and scores of people swarm to the Sacramento and American rivers before the close of summer, Michael Doane, chief ranger at the Sacramento County Regional Parks, said he and the emergency response crews patrolling the river aren’t celebrating.
“We don’t want want to jinx ourselves,” he said.
Last year, 11 swimmers drowned in the American and Sacramento rivers from playing or swimming in the water, said Chris Harvey, a spokesman for the Sacramento Fire Department, adding that that number was greater than in years past.
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Previous reporting by The Sacramento Bee revealed that 2015 saw more than twice as many drownings on the Sacramento and American rivers in Sacramento County as in an average year of the past decade.
That included the death of 20-year-old Raul Armando Valdez Aquino, an Elk Grove resident whose body was found in the Sacramento River near the I Street Bridge in early July 2015. Officials said the man was trying to swim across the American River near Tiscornia Park when he went under.
This year, the number remains at zero, so far. Harvey said it did not include bodies recovered from the river or who drowned in some way other than swimming or playing in the water, such as the Fourth of July drowning of Sacramento-area woman Laurie Hoirup. Family members said Hoirup fell into the Sacramento Marina as she attempted to disembark from a boat and onto the dock while she was in her wheelchair.
County and city officials, emergency response teams and river rafting rental companies in the area were consulted to form a plan, Doane said. Part of their new strategy included the “Life Looks Good On You” safety campaign that kicked off on Memorial Day weekend and targeted the kind of swimmers who had drowned the year before: men ages 18 to 30.
“It was just that focus, that no matter how good of a swimmer you are, to always wear that life jacket,” Doane said. The previous “Kids Don’t Float” campaign, which zeroed in on younger swimmers, was also active this year.
Jim Remick is the chief logistician and a rescue diver for the Drowning Accident Rescue Team, a group of 30 to 40 volunteers whose mission is to rescue people as well as recover bodies from Sacramento’s rivers and lakes.
He said the team decided to take a more proactive approach following the drownings last summer, focusing on face-to-face safety education and providing life jackets to swimmers before they headed into the water.
“Last year, we’d go out and no one would have a life vest on,” Remick said. “This year, people were a lot more cooperative and had them on without even having to be prompted to.”
According to Remick, the county provided his group with $25,000 this year to offset operation costs. The money has helped the team, which operates solely on donations, focus on staying out on the water instead of raising funds. This year, Remick has helped dozens of people get out of potentially life-threatening situations, he said.
“I think the team is feeling very positive about what we are doing out there,” Remick said. “They feel a sense of accomplishment.”
Other strategies in preventing drownings have included increased patrols, especially during busy holiday weekends, according to Harvey. Sacramento County implemented several alcohol bans through out the summer to discourage bad behavior, as well as to decrease the number of emergency rescues called out to the rivers.
“We found that alcohol was a common factor in the drownings last year,” said Harvey from the Fire Department. “People were trying to swim across the river or be out there a little longer than they should when they’ve been drinking too much.”
Though Labor Day weekend will mark the formal end of heightened patrols on the river for both the Sacramento Fire Department and the DART crews, a long Sacramento summer could still draw large crowds out to area waterways. Doane said the county will continue to make life jackets available to the public until the weather cools off. He encouraged people to continue safety precautions while spending time out on the river.
“We haven’t crossed the finish line yet,” Doane said.