Boaters end their evening along the Wapsipinicon River at Wapsipinicon State Park near Anamosa. Boating and fishing are popular activities on the river, known locally as the Wapsi. (photo/Cindy Hadish)

With three drownings in two days in Eastern Iowa alone, officials are advising Iowans to follow water safety guidelines.

Recent heavy rains can make rivers and other waterways particularly turbulent, and dangerous for paddlers and tubers, and with some cities closing municipal pools this summer due to the coronavirus pandemic, more Iowans may be cooling off at outdoor recreation areas.

Aaron Batchelder, Wapsipinicon District Resource Manager for Linn County Conservation, said last summer, Linn County Conservation staff performed six river rescues involving kayakers and people using floats.

“Every time, it was when the river was high and people should have refrained from being on it,” Batchelder said in an email, adding that so far this year, Linn County Conservation has already performed three river rescues. “In all of the rescues, no one was wearing their life jackets.”

The Johnson County Sheriff’s Office received a call June 7 about a possible drowning at Lake Macbride. The body of Makeda Scott, 21, of Iowa City, was recovered the next day.

On June 8, the Fayette County Sheriff’s Office received a report of two people who had gone over the dam near Clermont on the Turkey River, who were in distress. A rescue was initiated, but despite efforts, both victims were pronounced dead at Palmer Hospital in West Union. The sheriff’s office identified them as Sharon Kahn, 64, of West Union and Vicki K. Hodges, 44, of West Union.

Batchelder pointed to an ongoing trend for river levels to run higher than normal due to changing weather patterns.

“Rivers start with watersheds and while we may not have had significant rainfall locally, we always have to watch what has happened in the upper part of the watershed,” he wrote.

For example, even on a sunny day in Linn County, if northern Iowa received heavy rainfall, where the watershed starts, the water that fell there can reach downstream with significant volume and velocity, “making it extremely unsafe to be on.”

Batchelder cited log jams as one of the major obstacles people encounter on rivers.

Log jams are a natural element, and are important to the ecology of the river, serving as  habitat for species like fish and turtles, while slowing the current of the river.

“Unfortunately, they also serve as ‘strainers’ and collect everything that runs into them, such as floating debris and from time to time, floating people,” Batchelder wrote. “Once you are in a log jam, it is extremely hard to get out of as the force of the river does not stop – it just keeps coming.”

In the wake of five drownings across Iowa this month, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources urged everyone on Iowa waterways and at public beaches to use caution and exercise safety measures to ensure a safe and enjoyable time.

Iowans are urged to use caution around waterways. (photo/Cindy Hadish)

They noted that initial reports indicated most of the victims were not wearing life jackets.

Citing other recent trends in more paddling and inflatable tube floating, Batchelder said while many people are aware of the dangers of natural bodies of waters, “many first-time users are not and think it may be no different than a ‘lazy-river-float’ like amusement parks offer.”

“The reality is they are quite different,” he wrote. “They provide a wonderful, relaxing experience and a way to connect with a different part of nature, but we have to give them the respect they deserve.”

The Iowa DNR provided the following safety advice for boating, paddling and swimming:

Boating safety tips

— Wear your life jacket, it floats, you don’t! Any children 12 and under must wear a life jacket at all times on a vessel underway in Iowa.
— Every boat or vessel must have a wearable life jacket for everyone on board; a USCG approved throw-able flotation device is also required on vessels 16’ or longer.
— Alcohol and boating don’t mix. Wind, sun glare and heat can enhance the effects of alcohol, hindering the operator’s ability to make necessary decisions. The same limit of .08 for operating a vehicle under the influence applies to boating. Always have a designated operator that avoids consuming alcohol.
— Make sure there is a charged fire extinguisher on board, as well as a horn/whistle.
— Slow down and watch for other boaters or personal watercraft, have patience.
— Avoid dams and other hazards on waterways.
— Obey all posted warning signs and rules.
— Drain plugs and other water draining devices must be removed and/or remain open during transport to avoid spreading of invasive species.

Swimming/beach safety tips

With many city pools closed for the summer, people are flocking to public beaches across the state to keep cool, as well as on lakes and rivers. DNR Parks staff remind visitors to keep their physical distance from others, not gather in groups of larger than 10, and obey all posted signage and rules. Alcohol is prohibited at some public beaches.

— Stay within the roped in area.
— Swim with a buddy.
— Obey posted signs and flags.
— Wear a life jacket or some kind of personal flotation device if needed.
— Use sunscreen and drink plenty of water as needed.
— Iowa’s public beaches do not have lifeguards on duty

Paddling safety tips

— Always wear your life jacket. Kids 12 and under must wear a life jacket at all times. The vessel must have enough life jackets for all members on board.
— Let others know where you will be paddling, including what access to what access, and when you are expected to return.
— Avoid sandbar crowds and “rafting” up together. Tubers are reminded not to go in groups larger than 10 and don’t tie tubes to one another.
— Always know your river conditions before you go paddling. For the latest river conditions, visit this link.
— Check the Iowa DNR’s interactive paddler’s map at for updates on real-time hazards like downed trees and log jams, strainers and bridge construction. Pay attention to the dam warning signs and know where dams are located before you head out on the water.

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