River Safety

I recently wrote a couple paragraphs in support of the new King County ordinance requiring life vest use in unincorporated areas of King County. I was asked to do this because the ordinance was coming up for a vote by the King County Council.

I am an advocate for river safety. When I float the river, I hand an inflatable live vest to every friend or client on every trip. My insurance requires it. Most people put it on and note how comfortable the vests are. Very few choose not to wear it.

The history behind the King County life vest ordinance goes back at least two years. It started with a small group of people that believe all rivers in King County should be safe for people using canoes and inner tubes, young and old, drunk or not. (I don't include myself in that group.) Historically, King County removed wood from the rivers to make the rivers safe for users. In the last 10 to 20 years, biologists have come to realize that large wood in the rivers is beneficial to fish, especially in high flows to slow the current, and low flows to provide cover.

Civil engineers and biologists have also learned that using large pieces of wood in engineered log jams is more effective at bank stabilization and slowing the flow of water than rip-rap (large jagged rock). However, these same people that think the rivers should be safe want the practice of using wood in engineered log jams stopped. They want trees that fall in the river removed and they want large natural log jams removed from the river. This small group of people were speaking out loudly at council meeting trying to force a change.

Two years ago, King County formed a working group consisting of the people that want wood out of the river in addition to representatives from the white water rafters, specifically American White Water, biologists, and a couple fly fishing guides. I was one of the guides. There were many recommendations that came out of the group. One was to educate the public of the dangers of the rivers in King County using public service announcements and posting signs at boat launches. The other recommendation was requiring the use of life vests for people floating the river. BTW, at the same time our group was coming up with recommendations, King County adopted a policy that states the river safety is the County Council's number one priority. This means that when the county engineers design engineered log jams, they have to consider safety over functionality. I don't agree with this.

Note: I donít remember the discussions ever involved people swimming or wading. If I remember correctly, the recommendations and discussions were directly related to people floating the river in boats, canoes, and inner tubes.

If the choice is between more wood in the river and requiring people to wear PFD's or less wood and no PFD's, I'll take more wood. If people choose not to float the river in an inner tube because they have to wear a life vest, it leaves more open water for me to fish. Once again, I am all for it.

I recently received an email asking if I thought is was necessary to wear a life vest on the Yakima River. I gave the following response: Two years ago, I was on the upper Yakima with a friend. I handed him a life vest and he stuffed it under the cubby at the front of the boat. I asked him if his wife would prefer that I recover his body or if I should stuff it under a log jam so he could feed the fish. He just laughed. Later in the morning he wanted to row so I could fish. He claimed to know how to row a drift boat. He could operate a pontoon boat just fine, so I let him take the oars. When we came to a narrow section with a log jam, he managed to get the boat through the corner, then stopped paying attention. The water was too shallow on one side to get the oar to grab and the back of the boat started swinging in to the log jam. I had to grab on to an overhanging tree to keep us out of the jam. I was glad I had my vest on.

In mid June, the Yakima river was flowing at 5600 cfs and the water temps were in the low to mid 40's. If you were to fall in the water, I would give you about two minutes before your muscles seize up and you drown. So yes, I would highly recommend a life vest for the Yakima.

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