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

People enjoy an evening at Dillon Reservoir on August 4th. According to Colorado Parks and Wildlife documentation, the Dillon Reservoir is among the deadliest waterways in Colorado.
Liz Copan/For the Summit Daily News

Colorado Parks and Wildlife reported a total of 36 drownings nationwide on Tuesday, September 13, setting a new record for Colorado. The previous record was 34 in 2020.

Lake Dillon made up three of those numbers and is among the deadliest waterways in Colorado, according to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife documentary, but officials say its deaths are marginal compared to the number of visitors who visit it.

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

A total of 34 people drowned during recreational activities in Colorado waters that year, and two other people drowned during a flash flood in Larimer County, bringing the total number of drowning deaths to 36. Colorado Parks and Wildlife records show 24 deaths in 2019. 34 in 2020 and 22 in 2021.

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Of the three Summit County deaths, they all shared one common feature — none of the recreational workers were wearing life jackets. The paddleboarder, who drowned on July 16, had a life jacket on his board, but he wasn’t wearing it when a storm picked up and threw him into the frigid waters of the reservoir.

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

To put the drowning of the reservoirs in context, according to Dillon and Frisco Marinas estimates, hundreds of thousands of people visit Dillon Reservoir each year. The Summit County Sheriff’s Office estimates that the reservoir has averaged less than one drowning per year for the past decade and a half.

Dillon Marina Manager Craig Simpson said an exact number of visitors to the marina is incredibly difficult to quantify, as not every visitor rents a vessel or even walks through the marinas – many simply slide their paddleboards into the reservoir and take off for a day Water. But in his experience, Simpson said drowning is incredibly unlikely among those using the marina, thanks in part to many following safety rules and recommendations.

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

Alcohol consumption is the leading factor in recreational boat fatalities, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Summit County Special Operations Division chief Mark Watson agreed that alcohol is often a contributing factor to localized drownings followed by the lack of personal flotation devices.

When MPs were first called to the scene on September 9, they were responding to a call from two men who were said to have been intoxicated and driving around the Heaton Bay area. Wood said a toxicology report takes about five to six weeks, so her blood alcohol content at the time of death is still unknown.

“Some common themes we saw in some of the drownings this year were alcohol consumption and people swimming off shore, tubing, or paddling,” said Grant Brown, Colorado Parks Safety and Registration program manager and Wildlife Boating, in a press release.

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Like many who have drowned this year, the brothers were found not far from shore.

“People tend to think that unless they’re on a boat or near shore, they’re safe, but that’s not always the case,” Livingston said. “Many lakes have steep slopes and become wavy when the wind picks up in the afternoon, so it’s always important to be vigilant when resting near water.”

Additionally, Colorado has had two non-drowning deaths on its waterways this year, with an accident at Lake Pueblo and a “medical situation” at Lake Granby, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife. If you count them, the total number of water-related deaths in Colorado is 38.

With that in mind, Colorado Parks and Wildlife advises people to drive sober, wear a life jacket, and not ride alone, or at least tell someone where they’re going and when they’re returning.

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

Dillon Reservoir is also a high elevation reservoir that presents some unique hazards. Summit County Sheriff’s Office water rangers advise caution, as the water is cold to affect muscle coordination and the weather can be unpredictable and harsh, knocking people off their ship.

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