Planning to take a dip in any of King County’s many rivers to cool off once the summer heat arrives? For the many who do each year, a new ordinance passed by a 5-4 vote of the King County Council will require those enjoying any of King County’s rivers to strap on a life vest before swimming, wading, or floating in public waters, regardless of age.

As reported Tuesday by, supporters of the law that will impose an $86 fine for violators suggested the measure was needed for rivers for reasons of preventing tragedy:

The new rule was prompted by safety concerns because excessive mountain snowpack could make area waterways particularly dangerous this summer.

“We are looking at a potentially deadly situation,” Phillips said.

Authorities say there were 17 drowning deaths on major county rivers between 2005 and 2009.

But rivers are not the only waterways available for aquatic recreation in King County. Lakes Washington and Sammamish and dozens of smaller bodies of water exist within county boundaries, many of which are venues for a wide range of boating activity. The NW Daily Marker has requested localized U.S. Coast Guard statistics of boating-related fatalities in King County in which the deceased was not wearing a life vest, but the national death count in such cases was 485 in 2010. The county’s inviting and numerous waterways of hosts a large share of the nation’s recreational boating traffic but the county’s ordinance did not seek to increase life vest usage for boaters on its fresh water lakes. Why not?

Some might suggest that the council’s decision to crack down on rivergoers has more to do with politics than public safety.

On any given summertime Saturday, pluck a random person from the banks of the White River and one from a pleasure boat on Lake Sammamish. The difference will be clear. While King County’s higher earners water ski and cruise, the lower strata float and paddle.

The state life vest law dictates flotation devices must be worn only by children and on boats less than 19 feet in length, and still exempts swimmers and floaters at public beaches. But for those river-bound residents unable to swing the cost of a Chris-Craft 22 to stay out of the reach of the nanny state, the cost of enjoying a day on the river just went up by $25 to $50 per person, the average range for an approved life vest.

The council’s vote broke along familiar lines with Councilmembers Reagan Dunn, Kathy Lambert, Jane Hague, and Pete von Reichbauer voting against the measure. The ‘Flotation Five’—Larry Phillips, Joe McDermott, Bob Ferguson, Julia Patterson, and Larry Gosset—voted “yes,” to push it through.

The “yes” votes came from members whose districts have few to no recreationally available river property; the district territories of those voting “no” encompass the bulk of county rivers.

The ordnance received full support from County Executive Dow Constantine and Sheriff Sue Rahr and will go into effect on October 1st.


[photo credit: flickr]