3 Dillon Reservoir drownings this year makes it one of the deadliest Colorado waterways in 2022, but with high visitation — officials say drownings are rare

Luke Vidic
Summit Daily
People enjoy an evening at the Dillon Reservoir Aug. 4, 2022. The Dillon Reservoir is among the deadliest waterways in Colorado, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife documentation.
Liz Copan/For the Summit Daily News

Colorado Parks and Wildlife has reported 36 total drownings statewide as of Tuesday, Sept. 13, setting a new record for Colorado. The previous record was set at 34 in 2020.

The Dillon Reservoir accounted for three of those tallies, putting it among the deadliest waterways in Colorado according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife documentation, but officials say its deaths are marginal when compared to the number of visitors who frequent it.

Colorado broke 2020’s record on Sept. 9 when two brothers drowned in the Dillon Reservoir. Summit County Coroner Regan Wood confirmed Friday, Sept. 16, that the brothers drowned and said it was accidental. Just a day after the brothers drowned, a man drowned while stand-up paddleboarding without a life jacket on Corn Lake near Grand Junction.

In total, 34 people drowned during recreation activities on Colorado waters this year, and two more people drowned during a flash flood in Larimer County, bringing the total number of drowning deaths to 36. Records from Colorado Parks and Wildlife show 24 fatalities in 2019, 34 in 2020 and 22 in 2021.

Of the three deaths in Summit County, all shared one characteristic — none of the recreationists were wearing a life jacket. The paddleboarder who drowned on July 16 had a life jacket on his board, but he was not wearing it when a storm hit and knocked him into the cold water of the reservoir.

“Most could have been prevented with a life jacket,” Joey Livingston with Colorado Parks and Wildlife said, speaking about all of Colorado’s drownings. “The underlying message we want to convey is that water is dangerous, and people need to take those dangers seriously for the safety of themselves and their families.”

To put the reservoir drownings into context, it’s estimated that hundreds of thousands of people visit the Dillon Reservoir each year, according to estimates provided by the Dillon and Frisco marinas. The Summit County Sheriff’s Office estimates the reservoir averages less than a drowning per year over the last decade and a half.

Dillon Marina Manager Craig Simpson said an exact number of visitors to the marina is incredibly difficult to quantify given that not every visitor rents a vessel or goes through the marinas at all — many simply slip their paddleboards into the reservoir and take off for a day on the water. But in his experience, Simpson said drownings are incredibly unlikely among those using the marina thanks in part to the many who follow safety rules and recommendations.

“Three drownings in one year is a big deal for us here in Summit,” Summit Rescue Group spokesperson Anna DeBattiste wrote in an email.

Alcohol use is the leading contributing factor in recreational boating deaths, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Summit County Special Operations Division leader Mark Watson agreed alcohol is often a contributing factor in local drownings, followed by lack of a personal flotation device.

When deputies were initially called to the scene Sept. 9, they were responding to a call of two men allegedly drinking and driving around the Heaton Bay area. Wood said a toxicology report takes about five to six weeks, so their blood alcohol content at the time of death is still unknown.

“Some common themes we saw in some of the drownings this year was the use of alcohol and people swimming from shore, on inner tubes or paddling,” Colorado Parks and Wildlife Boating Safety and Registrations Program Manager Grant Brown said in a news release.

Like many who drowned this year, the brothers also weren’t found far from shore.

“People tend to think if they are not in a boat or are near shore they are safe, but that is not always the case,” Livingston said. “Many lakes have steep drop-offs and get wavy as the wind picks up in the afternoon, so it is always important to be vigilant when recreating near water.”

Additionally, Colorado has also tallied two nondrowning fatalities on its waterways this year with an accident on Lake Pueblo and a “medical situation” on Lake Granby, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Counting them, the total number of water-related fatalities in Colorado is 38.

With all this in mind, Colorado Parks and Wildlife advises people to boat sober, wear a life jacket and avoid boating alone, or at least tell someone where they are going and when they will return.

Paddleboards are considered vessels in Colorado and require a life jacket on board at all times.

The Dillon Reservoir is also high-altitude reservoir, which brings with it some unique dangers. Water rangers with the Summit County Sheriff’s Office urge caution, as the water is cold to reduce muscle coordination and the weather can be unpredictable and inclement, knocking people from their vessel.

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