Water Safety for Lakes, Rivers, and Beaches

Know the Water

At any time of year, Washington waters can be appealing and dangerous at the same time:

  • Spring – Rivers are often high and swift from rains and snow melt and can easily overwhelm the strongest swimmer. Even on hot spring days, lakes, ponds, and rivers are still cold and are dangerous for swimmers. Hypothermia can occur quickly in very cold water.
  • Summer – Water that is warm on the surface, may be much colder below. Use caution when swimming and always supervise young children playing in or near the water. Rivers may not be moving as fast, but log jams can trap swimmers and large rocks and logs could tip over rafts, canoes, and kayaks. Illnesses can be prevented by not swallowing the water – learn more about recreational water illnesses.
  • Autumn – Early warm days of autumn can be like summer. But like spring, this time of year is unpredictable - be prepared for sudden weather changes and cold water later in the season.
  • Winter – Waters are always cold and can quickly go from being very calm to very rough, especially during storms. If you are on the water for hunting, fishing, or recreation, wear protective gear and life jackets. Tell someone where you are going and when you plan to return, and be prepared for sudden weather changes.

Know Your Limits

  • Swimming in open water (lakes, rivers, ponds, Puget Sound, and the ocean) is harder than in a pool. People tire faster and get into trouble more quickly. A person can go under water in a murky lake, making them very hard to find, or be swept away in currents. Avoid swimming where two rivers come together – many good swimmers have gotten into trouble or drowned in currents that didn't seem to be moving that fast.
  • Swim in a life-guarded area, especially if you are not a strong swimmer.
  • Be cautious of sudden drop-offs in lakes and rivers. People who can't swim or aren't strong swimmers have slipped into deeper water and drowned.
  • When boating, don't overload the boat and wear a life jacket that fits. Many people have drowned when they fell overboard while fishing, hunting, or pulling up a crab pot.
  • Stay sober when on or in the water. Alcohol and other drugs increase the effects of weather, temperature, and wave action.

Wear a Life Jacket That Fits You

  • Even the best water enthusiasts can misjudge changing water conditions when boating or swimming in open water. Be prepared at all times by wearing a life jacket – you'll never know when you'll be tossed into the water.
  • Have children wear a life jacket that fits them, and watch them closely around water – they can go under water quickly and quietly.
  • A number of water safety laws were passed to improve the use of life jackets and prevent drowning:
    • Children 12 years old and under must wear a life jacket that fits them on moving boats less than 19 feet in length in Washington.
    • Recreational boats must carry one U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket for each person aboard. The life jacket must be available and accessible. This is a nationwide Coast Guard rule.

Be Prepared

  • Check river or stream conditions by contacting the United States Geological Survey at 253-428-3600 ext. 2635.
  • Take life jackets, a rescue device, a cell phone, and someone who knows CPR when you are out on the water.
  • Check beach advisories before you go swimming.
  • Boaters must obtain their Boater Education Card from State Parks.
  • Parents must tell their children about the dangers of open water at rivers, lakes, and beaches. Know where your child is, who they are with, and when they are expected home.
  • Parents are powerful role models – if you wear a life jacket, it's more likely your children will too.

Learn more about water safety and drowning prevention from the Washington State Drowning Prevention Network and Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center.

Content Source: Water Recreation Program