Local officials: Use caution around rivers

While enjoying area streams, keep possible hazards in mind

It’s been five years since three Marshalltown children drowned in the Iowa River, and officials say caution should be used while enjoying the state’s waterways as summer approaches.

“With any moving water, the first thing you want to do is pay attention to the water levels,” said Marshall County Conservation Director Mike Stegmann. “If they’re swollen, re-think your outing for another day.”

Rivers and creeks can rise and their current can quicken after heavy rainfall.

Iowa Department of Natural Resources Recreational Safety Officer Pat Jorgensen said having fun outdoors in the summer is encouraged, but there is potential danger in rivers and streams.

“There are definitely hazards,” he said, listing a stream’s current, snags and floating debris as examples. “Those are things that are reality.”

When an area is in a near-flood situation, or when there are flood warnings or watches, Jorgensen said it’s best to not enter rivers and streams.

“Anytime you’re in a situation like that … it’s advisable to stay out of those rivers and creeks,” he said.

Marshalltown Police Chief Mike Tupper said it’s not safe to play in the Iowa River.

“The undercurrents are dangerous, the depths are deceiving,” he said. “You could be standing in water below your knee and take a step forward, and all the sudden you’re in a big hole.”

Stegmann said even small creeks can have unexpected deep spots. Tupper added there are other options for water enthusiasts.

“We always recommend that, if you’re looking for a place to swim, hit the (Marshalltown) Aquatic Center or go to the Y, they’re safer alternatives,” he said.

Like Jorgensen and Stegmann, Tupper said heavy rain can make streams more dangerous.

“The current picks up when the river level comes up,” he said. “What we’ve noticed is, in areas it can appear to be calm, but just down river it may not be very calm.”

Stegmann said people on boats or tubes floating on a stream need to be careful, even when the water isn’t swollen.

“Even if you’re not capsized, it can still pull a small vessel, like a kayak or a tube down in the water, it’s got that suction,” he said of a current’s undertow. “If you’re tubing or floating, wear life jackets … the name says it, they save lives.”

Strong currents and undertows can be a hazard no matter the stream size or level, Tupper said, adding even strong swimmers need to be careful in moving water.

Stegmann said it’s important to let someone know before heading to the river.

“Let people know where you’re going, how long you’re going to be,” he said.

It is recommended to call 911 in case of an emergency on a river, stream or creek.