Logjam, debris, cold water pose hazards on Tolt, Snoqualmie River; Executive calls for vest law

King County Executive Dow Constantine, with the backing of a wide range of public safety and health officials, has called for a summer-long requirement for the wearing of life vests this summer by anyone swimming, floating, or boating on major rivers running through unincorporated King County.

Constantine's request came as the county braces for a big spate of river recreation during warm weekends this summer, and as the county deals with logjams and other hazards on local rivers.

Last week, officials identified a series of river spanning logs and a logjam on the Tolt River which pose a hazard to river users. The hazard is located in the half-mile stretch of the Tolt downstream of the SR 203 Bridge to the confluence with the mainstream Snoqualmie River. Standing trees fell into the river as the river bank eroded during the winter 2010-2011 floods.

Boaters, floaters, tubers, swimmers and waders should exit the river using the gravel bar on the right (north) side of the river just below the SR 203 bridge. Signs directing river users to get out of the river have been posted. River users should not attempt to navigate the spanning logs, and should not put in to the Tolt River anywhere downstream of SR 203.

Constantine says river flows are unusually swift and cold this year due to a heavy mountain snowpack that is melting into King County rivers. Rivers are inherently dangerous places to play, but this year is bringing additional risks, and he says the wearing of life jackets is as essential for swimmers and boaters as helmets for cyclists and seat belts for drivers.

If approved by the Council, the proposed vest ordinance would be effective through this year’s summer recreation season, from the date of council adoption until October 31, 2011.

The King County Sheriff would enforce the wearing of a U.S. Coast Guard-approved personal floatation device, or PFD, in the unincorporated portions of the Snoqualmie, Tolt, Cedar, Green, White, Raging and Skykomish Rivers that run outside of cities. First infractions for failure to wear a PFD would carry a warning, while subsequent infractions could result in a fine of up to $86.

“We support this proposal,” said Sheriff Sue Rahr. “The vast majority of river accidents to which our Marine Unit responds could have been prevented if recreationalists had simply worn a PFD, had been sober, or had a better understanding of the dangerous nature of rivers.”

This summer, officials will evaluate the program, along with feedback from emergency first responders and the public, to determine whether changes are appropriate and whether to propose that the requirement should become permanent.

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