Water safety is a priority, Utah officials say

River rafters float down the Provo river. Utah law states that everyone must wear a life jacket when recreating on rivers, regardless of age. (Ethan Pack)

As more people are enjoying water activities such as boating and rafting during the summer, safety professionals shared tips to stay safe on the water.

Organizations such as the Utah Drowning Prevention Coalition, Utah Division of Outdoor Recreation and recreation centers provided guidelines for staying safe in the water.

For lakes and rivers, wearing a lifejacket is the biggest preventative action a person can take to stay safe, according to Steve Bullock, chief of law enforcement for the Utah Division of Outdoor Recreation.

“My message really is the life jackets only work if you wear them. So we want adults and parents, even though their kids are wearing them, to also wear them and to find one that’s comfortable,” Bullock said.

Boating accident data is sent to the U.S. Coast Guard who compiles it into a yearly report. In 2023, 75% of fatal boating accident victims drowned, and of those victims, 87% were not wearing a life jacket.

In addition, a Utah speed and proximity law mandates that boats traveling fast enough to make a wake should give everyone 150 feet of space or slow down, which can help prevent collisions and capsizing, Bullock said.

Rivers specifically can be more dangerous than lakes due to the faster current and rapidly changing depths, he said.

“There’s a constant current pulling you down, across rocks, across bends, different depths where the river could be wide and make just a couple feet deep in one area, and then you come across a bend and suddenly it’s over your head,” Bullock said. “Or there’s branches and trees, snags that can hold you down under the water.”

While Utah law mandates everyone 12 and under to wear a life jacket on a lake, everyone floating on a river has to wear a life jacket.

“Whether you’re just going down the Provo River or the Weber river, or you’re going down Skull Rapid on the Colorado River, life jackets are just a requirement and it’ll keep you afloat and give you a chance to save yourself and others,” Bullock said.

BYU student Weston Smith floated down a Utah River in May and said he could understand why life jackets are a requirement.

“It constantly goes from deep to shallow and scraping up your knees. It’s super murky. You can’t see the depth, no depth perception of the water,” Smith said.

Smith has also gone river rafting in Moab and was kept afloat by his life jacket.

“It was a struggle as I was being pulled under by the current, but in the end the life jacket clutched up,” he said. “The life jacket did help me despite the current.”

The Provo River experiences significantly higher water levels on June 11. Provo city recently issued a warning, asking citizens to stay at least 40 feet away from the river. (Dylan Eubank)

In pools and recreational centers, life jackets are less of a requirement but awareness and good decision making are keys to staying safe, Kathleen Steadman, aquatic operations manager at South Davis Recreation District, said.

“Children five and under need to have a parent within arm’s reach of them at all times,” Steadman said. “Children eight and under still need to have a parent in the aquatic area with them.”

Swimming in a pool, lake or river is similar to driving or operating a firearm, Steadman said. Staying aware of hazards and not getting complacent is important to having a safe, enjoyable time.

“The pool or the lake is the same thing. You can’t just take it for granted and just assume, ‘Hey, we’re good to have fun and nothing’s going to happen,'” she said.

Underestimating hazards like deep water, exhaustion, cramps, shock from cold water or waves generated by weather on a waterfront can result in tragedy, but staying aware of your own limitations and planning accordingly can prepare you for an enjoyable time on the water, Steadman said.

“Approach it with that more cautious mindset of, ‘If we’re going to go have a fun day at the pool, the best way to have this fun day and not end in tragedy is to be overly cautious and take steps to make sure that those things don’t happen.'”

Both the UDPC and the Utah Division of Natural Resources websites have more information on laws, best practices and water conditions.

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