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Runoff Means Heightened Drowning Risk

Judy Fahys/KUER
Dogs enjoy a dip on a warm spring day, but cold, often swift runoff waters can be hazardous when rain and snowmelt makes streams swell.

The spring runoff season’s starting for the creeks surrounding the Wasatch Front valleys and beginning  an especially hazardous time around those streams.

The Utah Department of Health says drowning is the third-leading cause of injury-related death for children ages 1 to 14. On average, 12 children lose their lives each year by drowning.

Those are sobering statistics as Utah streams start their annual surge.

“It’s – it’s incredibly cold. It’s incredibly dangerous,” says Brian McInerney, hydrologist for the National Weather Service.

He says runoff poses safety risks for people of all ages – especially toddlers who wander away from their families and anyone trying to cross the fast-moving water.

“You’re hypothermic” almost instantly if you fall in, he says. “And, and in two minutes, you can’t pull yourself out. It kinda knocks you around. And every year we lose somebody in the rivers. In the big years, we lose up to seven to ten people.”

Forecasters expect this year’s runoff to be just 60 percent of normal or lower. And runoff this spring is about a month early in the lower elevations. But that doesn’t mean the hazards around streams are gone, says McInerney.

“So, keep an eye on your kids and use good judgment around the rivers and streams.”

The state health department’s violence and injury web page points out that toddlers and teenage boys are the children most at risk of drowning. It also says that drowning is often silent and takes just seconds.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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