Sunny skies this time of year have people looking to enjoy the region’s many bodies of water. But warming weather on land can be deceiving: Rivers, lakes and Puget Sound remain dangerously cold.
Anyone venturing out onto a body of water should wear a life vest, tell someone where they’re going and check the marine forecast and water temperatures in addition to the weather, experts say.
Popular rivers for recreation in both Western and Eastern Washington get especially cold in spring because they have snowmelt coursing through them.
For example, the water temperature in rivers originating in the mountains, like the upper reaches of the Green River, are in the upper 30s, while the lower portion temperatures are in the 40s, said meteorologist Ted Buehner.
Jumping into a river or lake this time of year is like getting into a cold shower, Buehner said; it takes your breath away. When that happens while swimming, a person ends up gulping water and quickly finds themselves in a deadly situation.
“Those who survive in cold water long enough to get hypothermia are lucky. A fall into cold water can drown a person within minutes due to cold-water shock,” said Rob Sendak, the boating program manager for Washington State Parks and Recreation.
Many of Washington’s lakes never get warmer than 60 degrees, a temperature that can get a boater or swimmer quickly in trouble, Sendak said.
“People dress for the weather and not the water,” said King County Sheriff’s Deputy Christopher Bedker.
Not being prepared can have devastating consequences. Already this year, seven people have died in Washington waters, double the number from last year at this time. In 2018, 21 people died on the water and 57 people were injured.
Sendak cited U.S. Coast Guard statistics that say 80% of boating fatalities could be prevented if people wore life jackets.
State law requires all vessels, including kayaks, canoes and stand-up paddle boards, to have at least one properly fitted, Coast Guard-approved life jacket for every person on board.
Children 12 and younger are required to wear a life jacket at all times. But life jackets are not only for kids, Bedker said.
Bedker has been stopped on the water by parents who weren’t wearing life jackets, asking him to tell their children why they should be wearing a life jacket.
“It is important for parents to set an example,” he said.