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Cool Waters Can Be a Danger

San Joaquin Valley lakes, rivers and canals have been the scene of 21 summer drownings. Many people ignore safety.

August 24, 2003|Jia-Rui Chong | Times Staff Writer

Scorched by the heat and lured by cool water, 21 people have drowned in lakes, rivers and irrigation canals in parts of the southern Central Valley and nearby foothills this summer. Unfortunately, officials say, this toll is typical.

"The valley heat is driving [people] to the rivers to cool off and get away -- vacation, picnic or whatever," said Matt Scharper, search and rescue coordinator for the state's Office of Emergency Services. "Fatigue, heat, alcohol and a lack of common sense gets them in trouble. They literally get in over their heads."

Swimmers, waders, rafters and inner-tubers get duped by the water's seeming serenity, county officials say. Fatigue and cramps can set in from the cold temperatures. Alcohol can impair judgment.

Although the June melt of heavy late-spring Sierra snow generated powerful currents in some San Joaquin Valley rivers, county officials said the number of drownings this year has not increased significantly from previous years. The water level has dropped since June, but undertows still can sweep people below the surface.

Most recently, a 30-year-old Bakersfield man died Aug. 16 while floating in an inner tube down the Kern River. Just after Robert E. Kanoe unsnagged his friend's son from a tree branch in the water, the river sucked the man and his tube under the surface for about three minutes.

Stan Thompson, Kanoe's best friend, said he wished Kanoe had been a little more cautious before getting into a dangerous river.

"You can be freaking Greg Louganis and still drown in that river," he said, referring to the former Olympic diver.

Three people have died in the Kern this summer. Kern County's search and rescue coordinator John Diederich said the number is about average. Last year no one drowned in the river, but in 1998, eight died.

The county has posted a sign in English and Spanish at the mouth of Kern River Canyon that tallies the deaths in the Kern River since 1968 -- 219 -- but some people don't heed the warning.

Kenny Bushling, who runs the rafting company Kern River Tours, said that every summer he sees several swimmers struggling to get to shore. Most don't know the water level changes from year to year and are unfamiliar with its swirls and rocks.

"The Kern River is very accessible," Bushling said. "There's a road running along a lot of it."

Counties keep independent statistics on recreational drowning deaths, said Scharper, the search and rescue coordinator. He said the state is working on creating a comprehensive database so rescue officials can figure out where the problems are and which parts of the population are most vulnerable.

In the San Joaquin Valley's Kern, Kings, Merced, Tulare and Stanislaus counties, 21 people have drowned this summer. Statistics from Fresno and Madera counties were not available.

But there are safe ways to enjoy the river, county officials added. Wear a flotation vest, swim in groups and talk to rangers and deputies, they advised.

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