Our Voice: Brush up on water safety before summer starts in Mid-Columbia

It's about time our famous sunshine began to make a regular appearance.

And with warmer temperatures and sunny days comes the ever-increasing appeal of the water.

Law enforcement officers from around the state recently gathered at Clover Island to brush up on their knowledge of boating safety.

The training was part of a course required to become certified in marine law enforcement by the Washington State Parks Department.

The class includes classroom work and mock scenarios on the water. The officers learned to tow and dock vessels, inspect them, operate boats, execute high-speed maneuvers and rescue boaters.

Most of those officers had a few years of recreational boating experience but little in a law enforcement capacity.

The goal of the training is to reduce the number of recreational boating deaths in the state.

"Our goal is to stop fatalities," said one of the instructors. "Across the nation, Washington ranks uncomfortably high as far as water-related fatalities go."

Thirty-two people died last year in boating accidents, and more than half of the victims were not wearing life vests.

When you look at overall statistics, almost 90 percent of those who drown in our state are not wearing life vests.

One way to change that behavior is for officers to make boaters accountable for the rules.

Another is for us all to take personal responsibility when it comes to water safety.

State law requires boat operators to carry a Washington State Boater Education card when operating motorboats with 15 horsepower or greater (including personal watercraft or any motorized watercraft).

If you're under age 50, you need to have that card this year. It's easy enough to take the course online and it's a good refresher no matter how many years you've spent on the water. The state also provides good boating safety information at www.parks.wa.gov/boating/safety.

While boats may be our region's most visible form of water access, they are certainly not the only way people enjoy our rivers and waterways.

Unfortunately, every year we read about people who drown on hot days. The water is always colder than one would think and can take a toll on a body quickly. Quite often those stories are about people who don't know how to swim and who weren't wearing flotation devices.

We understand the appeal of cool water on a hot day. It's the epitome of summertime. But it's also a lot more dangerous than it looks.

If you're not a strong swimmer, there's no shame in wearing a life vest, even if you're just wading the shoreline. The river bottoms are slippery with hidden drop-offs and the currents are fast.

As for the water that surrounds us in networks of irrigation canals, stay out of it. Teach your kids about the dangers and keep your pets contained so they can't jump in a fast moving canal.

Swimming is a great life skill and we encourage everyone regardless of age to take some classes.

We lose far too many people each year to the waters that sustain our region. A little knowledge, increased awareness and some swimming skills would go a long way toward lowering the number of deaths.

Recreational use of our waters should be fun, not a day that ends in tragedy.