Water safety remains paramount

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Summer is here and folks are keen to cool off in Lake Berryessa and Putah Creek. As enjoyable as water recreation may be, however, there’s always dangers one should be aware of to keep things fun, not fatal.

On July 10, The Napa County Sheriff’s Office reported a third drowning in two-weeks time at Lake Berryessa this summer. On June 16, a Winters Fire Department crew conducted a water rescue — assisting two paddle boarders stranded in Putah Creek.

Putah Creek certainly draws a crowd in the hotter weather. People come to raft, swim, fish and so on. While the water is docile in many areas, however, Putah Creek also has Class I, II and III rapids. Not to mention, an undercurrent exists in many areas that appear calm on the surface.

For those looking to simply have fun and aren’t knowledgeable of these things, ignorance isn’t bliss, it’s dangerous.

“We have a lot of people with no experience navigating waterways, especially rapids, and not being appropriately supplied with personal floatation devices (PFD’s). We also have a lot of people wanting to get away for the day and cool off and bring rafts that are not appropriate for these waterways because of the hazards. For example, a lot of times these WalMart-bought rafts can get snagged by the vegetation and deflate,” said Winters Fire Chief Brad L. Lopez. “I think the key takeaway for everybody swimming in any public waterway is to have a PFD because they will literally save your life.”

Matthew Schechla, the Winters Fire Captain and Paramedic who was the incident commander for the June 16 rescue, said that it’s important to note that if you don’t see anyone else in the water, it’s for a reason.

“It looks calm, it’s kind of deceiving,” Schechla said.

Schechla said some of the remote areas along Putah Creek have limited to no cell phone coverage, and the foliage and terrain can often be rough to access a situation and make it difficult to see individuals from the road or even from a helicopter in the air.

Along with the white-water rapids and other hazards comprising Putah Creek is the water itself, which is a chilling 53 degrees year-round. This jarring temperature can easily take one’s breath away and diminish motor function quickly. Beyond PFD’s, Lopez recommends communicating with friends and family when and where one will be on the water.

“A relatively safe place on Putah Creek is Lake Solano Park where they have boating and canoes and a roped-off area to swim. I would say everything above Lake Solano Park up to the Monticello Dam has some very dangerous rapids,” Lopez said. “There are definitely strainers in there and have caused people to get trapped navigating through those. We’ve had fatalities in the past as a result of those and people just not being adequately prepared or knowing the river and the different spots there.”

Another variable to consider is alcohol. One can get a DUI if they’re operating a boat, and — in case it needs further emphasis — drinking and operating any motor vehicle substantially increases the danger not only for oneself but everybody else.

“It’s not uncommon to hear about water-related incidents in Putah Creek, Lake Berryessa and the Sacramento River. We regularly train with our local law enforcement and fire department to respond quickly, but unfortunately, the responses turn into recovery operations. A lot of the time wearing a life vest could have been something that played a factor if we could have gotten there quicker,” said Juan Ceja, Yolo County Sheriff Public Information Officer and former Marine Patrol Supervisor. “Being under the influence definitely takes an effect on you as well. With the exposure of the heat, the alcohol, the water, you put all that together and it’s a dangerous mix.”

The common thread in all this is the emphasis on wearing a PFD — which can be purchased at most sporting goods stores. Also, it’s never wise to underestimate the water or to overestimate one’s limitations or swimming ability. Common sense, it would seem, is an excellent tool to use when it comes to water safety.

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