DNR Offers Water Safety Tips


Iowa rivers will soon be busy with paddlers, swimmers and people wading to search for fossils, rocks and driftwood or to clean up litter or explore a sandbar.

Rivers are dynamic systems that change with high flows and have obstacles hidden just beneath the water surface. Iowa rivers can have sudden drop-offs, holes, submerged shelves, foot holds and rock ledges. Current strength is often deceiving even for strong swimmers.

Some rivers in northwest, north-central  and central Iowa are swollen and swift with recent consistent rainfall. Stay on lakes and flat-water while the rivers are high.

Air temperatures may feel like summer but water temperatures are much cooler, especially below the surface. Cold water (below 70 degrees) reduces body heat 25 to 30 times faster than air does at the same temperature. Once your body is submerged in the cold water, your initial instinct is to survive. Within the first three to five minutes, your breathing becomes involuntarily uncontrollable. You begin gasping for air, hyperventilation starts, and panic sets in. You start to inhale water; it only takes half a cup of water for somebody to drown.

Water is refreshing and fun, but it’s essential to know how to stay safe in and around water to prevent accidental drownings. Drowning is swift and silent — there may be little splashing or cries for help. 

Follow these tips and precautions to keep you and your friends and family safe while having fun on the water this summer.

Swimming Safety

  • Don’t dive in; ease into the water slowly. 
  • Swim with a buddy.
  • If you haven’t swam in a long time, refresh your abilities. All children should learn to swim with formal lessons.
  • Always wear a life jacket. Make sure kids wear their life jackets before getting in the water. 
  • Keep a close eye on others, especially children. Assign a designated adult to watch over children, and never assume someone else is watching them. Be close enough to touch the child at all times. Even in ankle-deep water, the current can be strong enough to sweep you off your feet and out into deeper water.
  • Know the early symptoms of hypothermia, including shivering, blue lips, slurred speech or mumbling, drowsiness or very low energy or confusion.
  • Learn how to perform CPR. If you are already certified, learn the latest techniques and refresh your skills by recertifying. Check with your local hospital, workplace or doctor’s office for training opportunities.
  • Take a water bottle with you and keep it nearby throughout the day. It’s easy to get dehydrated in the sun, particularly if you’re active and sweating. Drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration. Early signs of dehydration can include dizziness, feeling lightheaded or nausea.

Paddling Safety

  • Always wear a properly fitted life jacket. Kids under age 13 must wear a life jacket at all times. The vessel must have enough life jackets for all members on board. 
  • Paddle with a group, not by yourself
  • Tell a friend or loved one where you will be paddling, including what access to what access, and when you are expected to return. It will be easier to find you if you need help.
  • Avoid swimming, wading, paddling, or boating near low-head dams. Often difficult to see from upstream, low-head dams have deadly recirculating currents. Watch for warning signs, listen for rushing water, and get out and scout when in doubt.
  • Stay clear of downed trees, bridge piers, scrap metal, or clusters of rocks or concrete. Avoid wading in fast water. Pack plenty of water to stay hydrated. Wear light, loose fitting clothing that dries quickly. Wear a hat, sunglasses and plenty of sunscreen.

Find individual water trail maps, including access points at www.iowadnr.gov/Things-to-Do/Canoeing-Kayaking/Water-Trail-Maps-Brochures

Look for known hazards that have been reported to DNR through their interactive river map at www.iowadnr.gov/Things-to-Do/Canoeing-Kayaking/Where-to-Paddle.

Always know your river conditions before you go paddling. For the latest river conditions, contact Iowa DNR Customer Service at 515-725-8200 or your local county conservation board for updates.

Bring along a dry bag with a set of extra clothes you can change into if you get wet, a first-aid kit and a protected cell phone or weather radio. 

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