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Colorado sees record number of drownings, many related to alcohol or ignoring life jackets

Recent accidents put 2022 total at 36 water-related deaths
Paddleboarders enjoy the Boulder Reservoir on Thursday. (Olivia Sun/The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Colorado has broken its annual record for deaths from water recreation, with 36 fatalities so far and weeks left to go in the water sports season, Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials said Tuesday.

The total of water recreation-related deaths hit 36 this year including 34 drownings, after recent accidents at Dillon Reservoir and James M. Robb-Colorado River State Park, state officials said. Two of the water recreation-related fatalities were not drownings.

The previous record year was 2020, when 34 people drowned in Colorado.

A large number of this year’s record deaths appear to be related to drinking alcohol, and to paddling or swimming from shore, state officials said. They underlined that life jackets are required even on increasingly popular stand-up paddleboards, and urged people to take them along.

“While it is true that some people don’t know they need a life jacket on a kayak or stand-up paddleboard, many just do not take the risk seriously,” CPW spokesman Joseph Livingston said, in an email. “Legally they are required to have one onboard a vessel. Children under 13 have to wear it at all times.”

Water users who think they have done enough by bringing a life jacket along aren’t realizing it can be impossible to get it on once they have fallen in the water, he said.

Most people think they are good enough swimmers or don’t understand or take water or weather conditions seriously. Many of the drownings from this year involved people swimming near shore, and alcohol was a factor in many more.

“Some common themes we saw in some of the drownings this year was the use of alcohol and people swimming from shore, on innertubes, or paddling,” said CPW boating safety and registrations program manager Grant Brown, in the release.

Cold water shock can always play a part in high country water incidents, but rapidly falling temperatures and high winds can amplify the dangers.

“As we move into fall, please stay vigilant when recreating on the water,” Brown said. “Protect yourself from the dangers of cold water immersion and shock by wearing a life jacket and being aware of weather conditions, and water temperatures where you plan to recreate. Boat sober, enjoy the water, but always do so with a life jacket on – they save lives.”

CPW said 22 water fatalities were recorded in 2021, and 24 in 2019.

Two bodies were found in Dillon Reservoir on Friday in about 15 feet of water after the men were apparently drinking, left their clothes on shore and went swimming at night.

In the accident at James M. Robb – Colorado River State Park in Clifton, officials said they were called to the scene because someone had fallen off their paddleboard into the lake and had not surfaced. According to reports, the victim was not wearing a life jacket, state officials said.

Other safety tips from CPW include checking ice conditions carefully before ice fishing, and remembering that waterfowl hunting with waders adds weight and creates other dangers in an accident.

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.