Each summer, Pierce County’s lakes and rivers become pools of temptation for those who want to cool off.
Many underestimate the dangers lurking beneath the surface.
Swift-water rescue and marine services teams respond hundreds of times each year to calls of people stranded or missing in the water.
May and June typically are the busiest months for searchers, but the uptick started later this year because of a delay in the arrival summer temperatures.
So far this year, three people have drowned in Pierce County lakes, and a fourth is presumed dead on the Puyallup River. The most recent death was Saturday, when a young man trying to swim across Lake Tapps went under and drowned.
On average, 11 people have drowned in Pierce County each year over the last decade, so if the trend continues, another seven will die in county waters before the year ends.
“With the rivers being up higher, which means more flow and more power, it becomes that much more dangerous, and people are not used to that,” said sheriff’s Sgt. Trent Stevens, who supervises one of the department’s three search and rescue teams. “People are overestimating their abilities and underestimating the water.”
Rivers are 2 feet above normal now. And because temperatures this year have been lower than normal and snow pack higher, the glacier-fed the lakes and rivers are colder than normal, he said.
Rescuers caution that the water might feel tepid on top, but a few feet beneath the surface, the temperature drops about 10 degrees and can affect even strong swimmers. Water below 70 degrees can cause problems for swimmers, officials say.
That’s part of the problem at Lake Tapps, which claimed 16-year-old Quentin Boggan on June 21 and 20-year-old Marcus Henderson on Saturday.
Officials said Boggan slipped under the water while swimming in a designated swimming area, and Henderson, who was visiting from Minnesota, became distressed and went under while trying to swim across the lake from a county park.
“People underestimate the effect that the cold water has on you,” said Lt. Matt Jewitt with East Pierce Fire & Rescue. “Because it’s a roped off swim area, it’s a false sense of security.”
No lifeguards are on duty at Pierce County parks, but in hopes of staving off some tragedies, a self-service kiosk is set up at Lake Tapps where people can borrow flotation devices before splashing into the water.
The kiosk can be a costly endeavor, because the devices often end up stolen or vandalized, but officials said it’s worth it to prevent even one drowning.
“Not once have we had to go after somebody wearing a life jacket,” said Jewitt, who has been on the sheriff’s dive team for 11 years. “We push life jackets really, really hard.”
None of the victims in this year’s four drowning deaths was wearing a life jacket, authorities noted.
After Boggan died, his parents asked the Bonney Lake City Council to warn others of potential dangers by hiring lifeguards or adding signage at Lake Tapps.
Mayor Neil Johnson said the city’s public safety committee will consider the issue of lifeguards because swimming season would end before a rescue program could be implemented.
The city is, however, making several additions to Allan Yorke Park to increase safety for swimmers.
Among the changes coming in the next month: a telephone that connects directly to 911; three new metallic orange signs warning that no lifeguard is on duty; and removal of a floating dock that people often swim to and congregate.
The council also will consider launching an educational program aimed at local schoolchildren and adding two $5,000 signs that will gauge the lake’s temperature and warn visitors of potential dangers related to the cold water.
Johnson said one would be placed at the boat launch and the other would be at the designated swim area.
“We want people to be careful and be smart,” Johnson said. “If we can get people to talk about (water safety) and remember every year, I think that will go a long way.”
In addition to the Lake Tapps drownings, 24-year-old Nickolas Munson drowned April 22 on Lake Steilacoom after his canoe overturned. Police said alcohol played a role in Munson’s death, which came after he and a friend were singing and rocking in the canoe until it capsized.
The fourth presumed drowning death occurred July 8 when a Buckley man became separated from friends while inner tubing on the Puyallup River. His body has not been recovered.