The people who spend time studying Utah's waterways - and rescuing the victims who fall into them - know what many Utahns apparently haven't figured out yet: Creeks and rivers can be deadly.
"People don't realize how strong the water is," says Steve Shumate, hydrologist with the National Weather Service's River Forecast Center. At peak flow this spring - following a winter of the highest snowfall in a decade - Little Cottonwood Creek was running 600 cubic feet a second. That's the equivalent of 500 pounds of pressure ramming against the legs of a person trying to stand up in the water, he says.Add to that the instability of rocks on the creek's floor, the white water that makes floating more difficult, the temperatures that are just above freezing, and the number of boulders to crash into - and it's obvious why so many people have drowned this year.
Surviving water like that, says Dr. Kurt Bernhisel, medical director of the University of Utah Medical Center's emergency de-part-ment, is not so much a matter of being strong but being lucky.
A person who falls into an icy creek should "swim hard right away," advises Gary Nichols, who owns White Water Sports and teaches water rescue at the University of Utah. Because the water is so cold, "there's not a lot of time to waste," he says. Hypothermia can set in after two minutes. Although icy water can help keep a child alive underwater for as long as an hour, adults don't have the same leftover fetal metabolism that can help them survive.
If you can't get out right away, the next best thing is to try to float with your feet straight out in front of you, says Nichols.
People on the shore should not jump in to try to rescue someone who is drowning, he says, or they could be swept away, too. The best bet is to throw the person something buoyant to keep them afloat.
A person caught in a swift current will have a hard time grabbing a rope. "You need to run alongside," says Nichols. It's likely that the victim would yank the rope out of the rescuer's hands, or possibly pull the rescuer in also. If the victim is on his stomach, rather than on his back, there is a danger he would be planed to the bottom when he grabbed the rope.
The best tactic, says Thad Moore, head of search and rescue for the Salt Lake County sheriff's office, is to stay out of creeks like Big and Little Cottonwood. It's illegal to be in them anyway, notes Moore, because they are watershed. This year, with creek banks eroding and unstable, it's best not to even get very close to the water, he says.
Although water levels are down, there is still a "significant danger," says Moore, who has been involved in 13 water rescues this summer.