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Drownings are on the rise nationwide. Here are some steps for Utahns to stay safe

Snowcapped peaks seen in the distance at Sand Hollow State Park in southern Utah, Feb. 10, 2024
David Condos
Snowcapped peaks seen in the distance at Sand Hollow State Park in southern Utah, Feb. 10, 2024

In early May, an 18 year old male drowned at Sand Hollow State Park, an extremely popular spot in southwest Utah. A group of four was swimming in the park’s “dive area” when one of them noticed the victim struggle and slip under the water.

Rescue attempts were unsuccessful and the group went ashore for help. The body was found 2 hours later.

In Utah, state numbers say 31 people drown per year. Nationally, drowning-related deaths have been on the rise with more than 4,500 people per year between 2020-2022, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That is 500 more per year compared to 2019. “A heartbreaking statistic you may not be aware of, drowning is the number one cause of death for young children ages one to four,” said the CDC’s Chief Medical Officer and Deputy Director for Program and Science, Debra Hourey. “As an emergency physician, I saw firsthand the devastating effects of drowning. Families are torn apart and lives are cut short.”

Nearly a third of drowning deaths in Utah happen under the age of 18. Ryan Clerico of Salt Lake County Search and Rescue said families can take simple precautions to help prevent drowning incidents.

“Don't swim beyond your ability,” he said. “And that's one of the things we encourage people to know is what their ability is.”

Entering cold water without prior preparation can cause the body to go into shock, losing control of muscles and breathing. While Utah reservoirs are generally safe from swift currents, runoff can increase the flow of Utah’s rivers, swiftly taking swimmers hundreds of feet down the river in an instant.

“If you know, you're not a confident swimmer, if you don't do well in cold water, just avoid it all together.”

Clerico also pointed to the adoption of lifejackets and signs at Blackridge Reservoir in Herriman as a simple way to curb drowning incidents at popular swimming areas.

The runoff affects more than the rivers, reservoirs across the state are 30% higher than the previous year, with most sitting around 88%. The higher water levels can create deeper than expected bodies of water that swimmers should take notice of.

Clerico also advised calling for help first rather than jumping in after a drowning victim, which can prevent further injuries during an emergency.

According to the CDC, around 15% of adults in the U.S. are unable to swim and more than half have never even taken a swim lesson. Given that, basic water safety courses are encouraged for all age groups.

As outdoor swimming season begins, adoption of basic water safety skills can significantly decrease the risk of drowning and help save lives.

Elle Cowley is a junior at the University of Utah currently pursuing a degree in communications. A wearer of many hats, when they aren’t in the KUER office you can find them working as an editorial intern for SLUG Magazine and multimedia managing editor for the University of Utah’s student newspaper, "The Daily Utah Chronicle." On the weekends, they love reading pulpy sci-fi and visiting local record stores.
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