As if 2020 hadn’t thrown enough at Coloradans already, consider this: Drowning deaths in Colorado just hit a record high.

As of September 1, the state has reported 29 drowning deaths this year, making it one of the deadliest years in Colorado history, says Grant Brown, Colorado Parks and Wildlife boating safety program manager. Most of these deaths can be attributed to novices being on the water. “With the pandemic, more people are getting outside, which is great, but they’re getting into activities that are new to them,” he says.

The previous record was set last year with 24 drowning deaths. Brown says it’s hard to speak to years past because there’s no statewide database tracking drownings. Search and rescue operations can be handled by a number of different agencies, depending on the incident.

Brown’s department typically tracks drowning accidents caused by boating. However, the department has begun tracking overall drowning cases, including river drownings. Brown says the department does this by tracking incidents where CPW helps recovery a body or if a case is brought to their attention via police records and news outlets.

Of the 29 drowning deaths this year, 16 were caused by boating accidents and 13 by non-boating accidents, including one person who drowned when tubing in the Colorado River. Brown says lack of experience and easy access to kayaks, rafts, and stand-up paddle boards are to blame for the increase in non-boating drownings. Last year, 10 deaths were caused by non-boating accidents.

Ahead of Labor Day weekend, Brown and Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) are urging those recreating to use caution when on the water:

  • Know before you go: Do some research about where you’re going by visiting the park’s website, looking at a map of the area, and reading what other recreationists are saying online. Brown also suggests outdoor enthusiasts be aware of water currents and conditions before setting sail or plopping on a tube to float down a river.
  • Wear a life jacket: Everyone must have a personal flotation device present when on the water. On Colorado waters, children 12 and under have to wear a life jacket at all times, as do people on Jet Skis. “We encourage everyone to wear one,” Brown says. “I would say that’s the leading thing that would have saved the majority of folks in these drownings.”
  • Always boat and paddle with a friend.
  • Don’t boat outside your skill level.
  • Expect to swim even if you’re just wading in water.
  • Take a boating or paddling safety course, which can be found on CPW’s website.

More information about water safety can be found on CPW’s website or on social media with the hashtags #CareForColorado and #RecreateResponsibly. “Respect the water and have fun, but do it mindfully,” Brown says.