As Iowans enjoy a relaxing but potentially rainy Memorial Day Weekend, central Iowa authorities have some advice for staying safe: Know what you’re getting into.
The tips from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and Polk County Health Department mostly relate to water safety. High temperatures shouldn’t be a concern as the National Weather Service’s forecast for Des Moines calls for temperatures near 80 degrees and chances of thunderstorms on Saturday, Sunday and Monday.
But the rain could be worrisome. People who intend to be outside this weekend should be on the lookout for swollen rivers, said Todd Roberston, the Iowa DNR’s river programs outreach coordinator.
“Many rivers are too high and filled with debris to be enjoying this weekend,” he said. “Heavy rains have been causing strong current, and trees and wood debris have washed in from the banks, leaving dangerous strainers.”
A strainer — an obstruction in the water that allows water to pass but can block boats or people from getting through — are dangerous in part because they don’t look dangerous from above the water. Anyone who encounters a strainer can drown if a strong current pushes them into an object or tangles them in debris.
Robertson said those taking to the water should not only have a life jacket nearby, but they should be wearing it. One of the most common boating infractions DNR officials see is having too many people on a vessel and not enough life preservers.
“Your kayak and canoe are indeed boats,” he said. “We remind people that having it onboard is not enough. You should be wearing the life jacket at all times while underway (drifting or using power). If you need it and reach for it, it probably will not be there.”
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A demonstration for using a life jacket can be found here.
Children who are 12 years old and younger must wear a life jacket at all times while on the water. A person under 12 can operate a boat if they are accompanied by a “responsible person” who is at least 18 years old.
Anyone 12-17 years old must have a boating education certificate to operate a boat alone.
Another top concern is drinking and boating. Alex Murphy, a spokesman with Iowa DNR, said drinking and driving a boat is just as serious as any other vehicle.
“Just like in a vehicle, the driver of the boat must not be over the .08 legal limit,” he said. “Sometimes, because of the sun/heat mixed with alcohol consumption, boating while intoxicated can be more dangerous than drinking and driving in a vehicle.”
In 2018, 38 people were arrested for boating while intoxicated on Iowa’s waterways. The DNR reports that nearly a fifth (19 percent) of all boating fatalities nationwide involve alcohol.
Staying healthy in public waters
Nola Aigner, a health educator with the Polk County Health Department, said people should be aware of recreational water illnesses (RWI). These bugs are caused by germs and chemicals found in waterways.
“They are spread by swallowing, breathing in mists or aerosols of, or having contact with contaminated water in swimming pools, hot tubs, water parks, water play areas, interactive fountains, lakes, rivers or oceans,” she said.
Cryptosporidiosis is the most common RWI in Polk County, she said. It’s caused parasites and can be prevented by not swallowing swimming water, staying hydrated, and washing your hands often when near food, restrooms or animals. Symptoms, which show up two to 10 days after being infected, include stomach cramps, nausea, fever, vomiting, diarrhea and weight loss. People experiencing any of these symptoms should not swim in public water.
Most people with healthy immune systems recover without medical treatment, Aigner said.
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Avoid extended time in the sun when in the water. People dehydrate faster when in water and in the sun, so limit exposure and drink fluids.
Check water quality. Beach monitoring started this week. The DNR will be sampling from Memorial Day to Labor Day for 15 weeks. Advisories at the state-monitored beaches and the Iowa DNR beach website are updated on Fridays each week. All of the current beach advisories can be found on the Iowa DNR Beach website.
Have a way to contact authorities. Emergency personnel are ready to respond to any water-related incidents.
Report boat accidents. Do this at your local conservation office. Contact information for these offices is on the DNR’s website.
More information about water safety can be found at the Polk County Health Department and Iowa DNR websites.
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