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A cold water warning for swimmers, boaters thinking of taking a dip

SEATTLE — The water looks picture-perfect along Lake Washington. Sun glints off the calm surface, but the danger lies in what’s unseen in these waters — the temperatures. Our cold winter and wet spring will likely have long-lasting impacts on heading out to swim or boat as we head into summer.

“I’m really into it,” says Soren Olsen.

Sunning herself with friends at Mount Baker Beach, she’s in town visiting her brother.

“Seattle, when it’s sunny, is pretty ideal.”

Last year this lake reached a high of 73 degrees in August -- but this year the National Weather Service office in Seattle says it could be dangerously cold even into September.

While Olsen is one of many people enjoying this city park on a sunny day in May, only a few brave souls are actually venturing into the water itself.

"I didn't even touch it," says Olsen. "I just got my tan on."

That's probably a good thing. Last year, the month of May was one of the deadliest in King County waters. And the most deadly day of the week was Saturday. This year could be even worse for water temperatures. Our mountains are carrying about 120 percent of normal snowpack from one of the coldest winters in decades.

"All that water as it melts down the watershed is just going to create rivers that are swift, furious, cold and deadly," says Tony Gomez. He's investigated drownings for three decades and works for the Public Health Department and acts as co-chair of the state's drowning prevention commission.

Gomez says warm air temperatures make rivers and lakes a big attraction at a time of year when no lifeguards are on duty.

"Drowning deaths have gone up," says Gomez, "and I think it's combination of climate change driving increased heat and we've got a lot of parks that are no longer going to be able to use lifeguards at their most heavily used beaches."

Washington state averages about 100 deaths a year from drownings, nearly all of them from the cold water. Last year that number spiked to 180 drownings.

Washington has more drownings than any other state except California or Florida. Whether rivers or lakes, the most vulnerable are transplants from warmer places who don't understand the power of our cold waters and kids/teens who don't know how to swim.

"Cold water shock happens when you jump into a lake or river. It's just more cold than you imagined and your muscles just stop working."

The solutions are easy' a few, but not everyone heed the warnings. Wading into the water instead of jumping can reduce the shock of frigid snowmelt waters. Wearing life jackets while in and around bodies of water and attending only life guarded beaches all are other easy ways to stay safe.

But, Gomez says, the most important life-saving decision of all could be deciding not to go in the water at all. Because of limited resources to pay for life guard services, Gomez says, many park districts opt to not have life guards on duty until mid to late June.