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Utah's abundant spring runoff poses elevated drowning risk, say health officials

Published May 24, 2017 7:28 pm

Safety • Health officials warn residents to keep children away from open bodies of water.
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With warmer temperatures melting winter away, health officials are warning Utahns to tread carefully as the summer swimming season approaches.

Cold and quickly moving spring runoff from this year's above-average snowpack and wet spring has greatly elevated the risk of drowning in open bodies of water, said Cambree Applegate, director of Safe Kids Utah with Utah Department of Health (UDOH).

During the past decade, 43 percent of child drowning deaths in the state happened in rivers, streams, canals, lakes or reservoirs, with the vast majority of those in summer months.

"Even bodies of water that you and your kids are used to playing around might not be safe this time of year with the spring runoff," Applegate said. "We are advising parents to stay away for the time being. Kids are good at getting away quickly and drowning can happen with little warning."

Utah has seen less than a handful of child drownings thus far this season, but UDOH spokeswoman Jenny Johnson said record river flows threaten to push that number higher.

Drowning is the third leading cause of unintentional injury-related death for Utahns under 17, according to UDOH data. Between 2011 and 2015, there were 42 drowning-related deaths for children in that age range, about half of them under 4 years old.

Similarly, half the roughly 10 drownings total in Utah so far this year have involved children, according to UDOH data.

In the past month, two children drowned in incidents specifically tied to swollen rivers, one a 9-year-old boy who fell into the Ogden River in early May and the other a toddler swept away in Cache County's Blacksmith Fork Canyon on Sunday.

Nationally and in Utah, nearly two-thirds of drowning deaths occur between May and August, statistics from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and UDOH indicate.

"It's important this time of year to keep children of all ages safe around water, whether they're younger and don't know the risks or older children who might feel strong in the water," Applegate said.

In urging caution, she said many adults believe they would have time to react after hearing a drowning child call for help or splash, when in reality drowning is mostly silent.

"When you are downing, your effort is just trying to get another breath," Applegate said. "It's not like in the movies when you hear a scream. When a child is drowning, don't expect to know it."

Whether swimming in a lake during a camping trip or taking a bath at home, Applegate said supervision is key for keeping children safe. She suggested having a designated water watcher at public swimming areas, someone who is not distracted by other adults or a smartphone.

Health officials also advise taking swim lessons, using life jackets in open water and getting certified in resuscitation techniques.


Twitter: @kelgiffo —

Water Safety Tips:

Designate a "water watcher" responsible for keeping track of children swimming, someone without distractions. Lifeguards aren't considered water watchers.

Wear a life jacket while boating or in open water.

Keep young children within arms reach of an adult at all times when near water.

Have older children swim with a buddy.

Know the signs of drowning, some of which include difficulty keeping head above water, frequent bobbing and glassy eyes.






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