As weather warms, King County officials urge caution around cold rivers, lakes, Puget Sound

  • Friday, May 19, 2017 1:12pm
  • News

After experiencing the wettest winter on record and the coldest winter in more than 30 years and with a Cascade Range snowpack that is well above average for mid-May, the forecast of sunshine and temperatures nearing 80 degrees early next week might entice people visiting King County’s lakes, rivers or Puget Sound to jump in and cool off.

Warm air temperatures don’t translate to warm water temperatures, and even the strongest swimmers can become incapacitated from cold-water shock after just a few minutes in the water, whether it’s in a river, lake or Puget Sound.

King County officials are on high alert because 22 people died in preventable drownings in the county in 2016 – up from 17 drownings in 2015.*

King County, Public Health – Seattle & King County, and the King County Sheriff’s Office encourage kayakers, boaters, rafters and swimmers to use caution while enjoying the open water.

“Warm weather and cold water can be a deadly combination, and I urge everyone to wear a life jacket and avoid alcohol while on the water,” said King County Sheriff John Urquhart.

“Swimming is a great form of exercise, but safety is critical in the water. For safer swimming, swim at pools and beaches with lifeguards. Always wear a life jacket if you go on the river or in open water,” said Dr. Jeff Duchin, Health Officer for Public Health – Seattle & King County, who recommended consulting specific cities to know when beaches are monitored by lifeguards.

“This warm weather will accelerate melting of a Cascade Range snowpack that is well above average for this time of year, and rivers could be running swift with icy cold runoff for weeks to come,” said Christie True, Director of the King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks.

While the 2016-17 flood season was relatively quiet with only a handful of high-water events, some river stretches will no doubt have changed since last summer, with new submerged trees and rocks in places where they weren’t last year.

For safety information related to boating, swimming, rivers and pools, as well as discounts and information on lifejackets, go to

Quick statistics and facts

King County

• In 2016, Public Health – Seattle & King County found that 22 people died in preventable drowning incidents. Of these, 11 took place in open water, such as rivers, lakes, ponds, or Puget Sound.

• Of the 11 open water deaths, six (55 percent), may have been prevented with lifejacket use.

• 46 (46 percent) of all King County deaths over the last five years involved alcohol and/or other drugs.

*King County 2016 drowning statistics are preliminary and will be made final by midyear.

Washington state

• In 2015, there were 140 unintentional drowning deaths of Washington residents- up from 98 in 2014.

• Drowning continues to be second leading cause of unintentional injury death for children and teens age 1-17 in Washington.

National water safety and facts

• Falls are involved in 19 percent of all water-related fatalities.

• Cold water shock is the involuntary gasp or torso reflex the body experiences in the first minute of being submerged in cold water.

• Cold water incapacitation occurs when a body has been submerged for approximately 10 minutes and impairs the body’s ability to move and swim, regardless of skill level. In the Pacific Northwest, where the water is much colder than in other parts of the nation, incapacitation can occur much more quickly.

• Hypothermia begins to set in when a person has been cold and wet for approximately one hour or more.

• It takes less than a half-cup of water in your lungs to drown.

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