While the Pamunkey, Mattaponi and York rivers call locals and visitors to enjoy summer water activities, Tidewater area first responders want to remind everyone to take safety precautions before diving into water filled fun.
All of the counties in the Tidewater area have water rescue resources that stay busy during the summer months.
New Kent Sheriff’s Office and Mattaponi Volunteer Rescue Squad (serves King and Queen and King William) both said they have four to five water rescue calls every summer.
West Point Volunteer Fire Department said they have five to 10 water rescue calls every summer, and a few during the winter as well. Volunteer Fire Department Captain Matthew Mitchell said rescues come in all varieties.
“We rescue boats that are stuck, fishermen, people in rip currents and people with medical emergencies out on the water,” he said.
Drowning is a leading cause of injury and death among children ages one to four in Virginia, according to the state Department of Health. It is fifth among the top causes of unintentional injury or death in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Virginia Department of Health waterborne hazards program coordinator Margaret Smigo said that drowning is one of the department’s main concerns.
“People tend to worry about waterborne diseases, which are pretty uncommon,” Smigo said. “… for children under the age of four, drowning is sadly too common.”
Parents should always keep an eye on their children and not put older children in charge of watching their younger siblings, according to Smigo.
“It only takes a second,” Smigo said. “Teaching your kids how to swim and learning CPR can save a lot of lives.”
A lot of drowning incidents occur because of rip currents — strong currents that keep a swimmer from getting to shore — according to Mitchell.
“Rip currents wear people out easily and cause them to drown,” Mitchell said. “It’s highly inadvisable to swim directly toward it. One of the best things you can do is swim along the shoreline at an angle until the rip current wears off.”
Humans are more likely to get sick from bacteria spread via other humans in the water, according to Smigo.
One easy way to prevent the spread of human bacteria is to make sure young children take bathroom breaks outside the water, according to Smigo.
People with underlying health conditions should avoid natural bodies of water, according to Smigo.
“Most of the water is not sterile, there is some sort of bacteria present.”
Common waterborne diseases include Giardia, Legionellosis and Vibriosis (non-cholera), which can come from various bacteria in the water.
Smigo said it’s important to teach children — and pets — not to drink or swallow water.
“Children are smaller and have lower immune systems,” Smigo said. "People also don’t think about their dogs drinking untreated water, but it can be detrimental to their health and even fatal.”
There have been 106 reported cases of Giardia, 59 reported cases of Legionellosis and nine reported cases of Vibriosis (non-cholera) so far this year, according to the Virginia Department of Health.
Pollutants and algae
The department of health recommends waiting a minimum of three days before swimming in a river system after a rain storm to prevent coming in contact with off-shore pollutants.
“The rain is going to move off the land, pick up pollutants and carry it down hill to those natural bodies of water,” Smigo said. “After it rains, river water tends to look murky, which is indicator of sediment and a lot of pollutants will grab onto the sediments.”
A three day wait period is enough time for those pollutants to move far enough down stream, according to Smigo.
Certain types of algae also pose health threats, as they bloom and release toxins into the water.
Blue-green algae, which is actually bacteria, can release toxins and looks like paint on top of the water, according to Smigo.
“People should stay away from algae if they are swimming and report large outbreaks of any kind to the Virginia Health Department,” Smigo said.
Mattaponi Volunteer Rescue Squad said they get most of their calls near the boat landing on the Mattaponi River in King and Queen County and West Point gets most of their calls where the Pamunkey and Mattaponi rivers meet to form the York downtown.
The Virginia Department of Health, as well as all first responders want everyone to stay safe and have fun this summer.
“We are lucky in Virginia to be surrounded by great water resources for people to enjoy,” Smigo said. “Safety comes first, then fun.”
Luck can be reached at 757-291-2038 or firstname.lastname@example.org