News Releases

Heat wave fuels needless drownings, boating deaths in Oregon

Portland District
Published Aug. 4, 2022
Two men sit on a jet ski in the Columbia River

Two jet ski riders talk with an officer from the Multnomah County Sheriff's office about why they're wearing life jackets while cruising the Columbia River, July 14, 2021. Men make up almost 90% of drowning victims at U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ lakes because they aren’t wearing life jackets.

Drownings and boating-related deaths needlessly continue claiming lives in Oregon, recently fueled by a heat wave. The Oregon State Marine Board (OSMB) reported 19 boating-related fatalities in 2021 and the Oregon Health Authority recorded 57 drownings in natural waters in 2020, which is 160% increase from 2019 (35 drownings). Life jackets may have prevented many of these deaths.

“Heat waves can exacerbate drownings and accidents,” said Tom Conning, Portland District U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokesperson. “More people are out on the water, trying to cool off and they don’t always wear life jackets. Men, especially between 17-65 years of age, are the worst about wearing life jackets due to several things, including their arrogance about swimming abilities.”

Even when the air temperature is hot, water temperatures in the Pacific Northwest can still cause involuntary gasping and hypothermia, according to Melissa Rinehart, Natural Resources Management chief.

“It's already too late if you fall into the water unexpectedly without a life jacket, even if you know how to swim,” said Rinehart. “We want everyone to enjoy their time at Corps parks and head home safely. We have over 20 life jacket loaner stations for those who don’t own a life jacket or forget to bring one.”

Recreational boating-related incidents and deaths are beginning to trend upward with the growth in paddling activities which include kayaks, canoes and stand-up paddleboards. 2020 was a record high number of fatalities, and OSMB staff still note the fatality rate remained higher than the ten-year average. 

"We take safety so seriously, it's written into our mission statement," said Ashley Massey, public information officer for OSMB, the agency that serves recreational boaters in the state. "It makes you wonder, would 11 of the victims who weren't wearing life jackets have survived if they'd been wearing one? For instance, the U.S. Coast Guard's nationwide recreational boating statistics from 2020 show nearly 86% of drowning victims would have survived if they'd worn a properly fitting life jacket."

Portland District reservoirs saw three drownings in 2021 at Fern Ridge, Foster and Fall Creek reservoirs. The district averages more than four million visitors per year at 133 recreation sites across 18 dams and reservoirs in Oregon and Washington. Corps officials urge users to take precautions, such as:

  • Wearing a life jacket: it will help you survive an unexpected fall into the water and can save your life if you become exhausted due to fatigue, waves or current while swimming.
  • Knowing your swimming abilities: swimming in natural waters is different from swimming in a pool, and your swimming ability decreases with age.
  • Expecting the unexpected: if you fall or jump into water that is colder than 70 degrees, you can inhale water from involuntary gasping.
  • Understanding “boater’s hypnosis”: this can slow your reaction time almost as much as if you were legally intoxicated.
  • Eliminating alcohol consumption: Alcohol induces an inner ear condition (caloric labyrinthitis) that can cause you to become disoriented when underwater and not realize which way is up.

District staff stress the importance of water safety year-round, but especially during the summer season because that is when most public recreation fatalities occur.

For more information about recreational boating incident and fatalities in Oregon, visit: To see more information about drownings in Oregon, visit:


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Tom Conning
503-403-9378 (cell)

Release no. 22-044

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