King County officials on high alert: Beware of high, swift, cold rivers

Rivers are inherently dangerous places to play – especially in the springtime when flows are high, swift and cold – but King County public safety officials and emergency responders are on extra alert for spring and summer of 2011.

That's because an unusually heavy amount of mountain snow is melting into King County rivers this year and a tumultuous winter flood season changed river channels and reoriented logs. And that's a recipe for river recreation tragedy, according to the King County Sheriff's Office, Public Health – Seattle & King County, and the King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks (DNRP).

"King County rivers are running fast and cold and are always extremely dangerous this time of year," said King County Sheriff Sue Rahr (pictured). "But 2011 could bring even higher risks. We want to get the word out ahead of the Memorial Day weekend and before the next hot weather forecast that people should stay out of the rivers at this time."

The Sheriff's Office already has closed a one-mile section of the Cedar River due to a hazardous river-spanning logjam. The Sheriff's Office and King County DNRP stretched a banner upstream of the logs warning recreationalists about the closure.

Christie True, King County DNRP Director, said the winter of 2010-11 had several serious flooding events that reshaped King County river channels, created new undercut banks and moved and reoriented large wood and sediment. The Cedar River was at flood stage for 12 consecutive days in January, and virtually every river system in the county experienced major flooding. True said many new hazards are already identified, but there are likely many others of which King County and river communities remain unaware.

"King County rivers are dynamic systems; the stretch of river you played on last year may be much more dangerous this year," True said. "People should not swim in rivers, and at the very least should exercise great caution and wear a life vest when navigating or doing recreational activities on rivers."

True said snowpack at this time in some Cascade Range river basins is roughly 200 percent of normal, which may mean higher than normal river flows well into the summer recreational season. There is even a possibility of minor flooding on the Snoqualmie River this week; flood season in King County typically ends in March.

Dr. David Fleming, Director for Public Heath – Seattle & King County, urges King County residents to make safer choices for activities in and around the water. On average, there are 23 drowning deaths annually in King County, with 60 percent occurring on open water, including rivers, lakes and the Puget Sound.

"Swimming is a great way to be active, but enjoy our local lifeguarded beaches and pools," Fleming said. "Stay out of rivers, which can be cold, fast and deadly."

Dr. Fleming offered these water safety tips:

• Swim only in areas with lifeguards.

• Swim, boat, tube and raft only when sober.

• Wear a Coast Guard-approved lifejacket or vest when swimming or boating in open water like the ocean, lakes and rivers. For children 12 years old and younger, it's the law on all vessels less than 19 feet.

• Watch children closely when they are in or near any type of water; stay close enough to reach them immediately.

• Ensure all family members know how to swim.

• Learn CPR.

For more information on water safety and drowning prevention, including a listing of local lifeguarded pools and beaches, visit

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