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CPW emphasizes importance of life jackets amid high rate of drowning deaths

‘When drownings do happen, you see the loved ones left behind,’ Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesman says
Team Outdoor Exchange fights off team DoubleTree in 2019 to take the “Battle of the Animas” championship near Santa Rita Park. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Eighteen water-related deaths have occurred in Colorado’s lakes, rivers, reservoirs and streams since late March, putting the state on track to break the record number of water deaths set in 2022.

Given the high number of deaths, John Livingston, spokesman for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, wants to remind Colorado residents that wearing a life jacket is the most effective way to prevent water deaths.

“I hope people don’t think of it as just a personal responsibility thing when they make that choice to wear it or not, but that they think of everybody in their life and everyone they’re recreating with and just make the choice to go ahead and put in on,” Livingston said.

Before the official start of summer, Colorado has already reached almost half the record-setting 42 deaths that occurred in 2022. Water deaths have been ticking up in Colorado since the end of the pandemic when water recreation experienced an upshoot in popularity, Livingston said.

Of this year’s 18 water deaths, 11 occurred in lakes and reservoirs, six in rivers and streams, and one in an irrigation canal. The nearest water death to La Plata County this year occurred on Trout Lake near Ophir, where a man drowned in mid-May.

Livingston said the death of Daniel Roman, 25, on Trout Lake is emblematic of many risks associated with water recreation in Colorado. Trout Lake is over 9,000 feet in elevation and was only recently free of ice when Roman and his two companions’ canoe capsized and they clung to their rescuer's kayak as he paddled back to shore. Roman’s two hypothermic companions managed to survive but he succumbed to the frigid waters and let go of the kayak before reaching land.

“The air temperature is warm but the reality is the water temperatures are still really cold, like in the 40s and 50s,” Livingston said. “And when the body hits that cold water, a lot of various things can happen that lead to swim failure.”

Colorado Parks and Wildlife Boating Safety Program Manager Grant Brown promotes life jacket use at Miramonte Reservoir south of Norwood. (Courtesy of Colorado Parks and Wildlife)

The shock of sudden immersion in cold water can cause involuntary gasping and hyperventilating which can result in water inhalation. The body also begins redirecting blood flow toward the vital organs and away from the limbs, weakening the ability to swim, Livingston said.

Livingston said water temperatures can be dangerously deceiving. Water remains cooler than the air for most of the summer. It’s also usually colder in the middle of a body of water compared to near the shore, and there can be an almost 10-degree difference in temperature between the surface of a body of water and just 5 feet down.

It’s also often windy in the middle of water bodies, especially in the afternoon during this time of year in Colorado, Livingston said. That makes it easier to capsize, but also harder to get back to a vessel once in the water.

Situations like that can often be made more dangerous because while there must be a personal flotation device for every person on board a vessel, it is not required to wear them per Colorado law except for children under 12 years old.

“Another big thing that we’re seeing is paddle boarders (and other water recreators) having a PFD with them on their paddle boards but not wearing them,” Livingston said. “When they go into the water, it’s pretty much impossible if you’re not tethered to your board and there’s wind.”

Life jackets can be purchased at a number of gear stores in downtown Durango and rented from 4Corners River Sports located on South Camino del Rio for $5 a day.

Livingston said one of the most common reasons people choose not to wear life jackets is because they think of them as ugly and inconvenient, without knowing there are now cheap available alternatives to the bulky life jackets they grew up with.

Some personal flotation devices go around the waist like a fanny pack or neck like a scarf, and some inflate automatically once a person hits the water or after manually pulling a cord.

Another common reason people choose not to wear life jackets is because they think they are strong swimmers, but as Livingston points out, no one is strong enough to out swim hypothermia or a raging counter current.

“So many people think, ‘I can swim, it’s not a big deal,’” Livingston said. “But when drownings do happen, you see the loved ones left behind and it has an impact on all of your family and all of your friends. I just don’t want to see that situation.”


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