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Local officials stress need for safety on the James River

Person wears life jacket
Water levels on the James River were more than 9 feet high during Memorial Day weekend. The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources and members of the Friends of the James River Park have several suggestions to keep recreationist safe. (Photo: Davis Alcorn/VPM News)

Following the drowning of a woman in the James River over Memorial Day weekend, local officials are offering best practices for water safety during the summer. 

The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, which manages boat safety for all inland waters within Virginia, has devised a “Know Before You Go” campaign. The initiative is intended to promote preparedness for a day on the water.  

According to Paige Pearson, a spokesperson with the department, being prepared for activities around the water should consist of understanding regional weather and water conditions. She advised coming prepared with the proper equipment. 

“Know before you go: Make sure you know what's going on with the weather; make sure you know water levels, tides — all that stuff I mentioned before — for whatever kind of body of water you're [going to be] on. We want you to be safe,” Pearson said. 

The department also urges everyone to wear a life preserver if they go out on the water. 

"Wear your life jacket,” Pearson said, “it could save your life, and 9 times out of 10 it will.” 

Although it is only required for situations when the water level is more than 5 feet high, preparedness remains paramount.  

Water levels on the James River were more than 9 feet high during Memorial Day weekend. For conditions like these, only the most experienced individuals should be on the water, according to Josh Stutz, the executive director of Friends of the James River Park. 

“The friendliest river is not your friend,” Stutz said. “It’s a big river, it moves fast and it’s constantly changing.” 

When arriving at the river, Stutz said, make sure to check the launch point’s signage. At each location along the river, there will be a yellow, orange or red sign that includes information about the daily water level. While the yellow signs indicate the lowest water levels, people should still be cautious. Orange signs indicate a life preserver is required, and red signs indicate that the water is above 9 feet. 

Stutz is frequently at the river but has never been in a tricky situation, he said. This is something that he attributes to his understanding of his own personal limits, as well as a healthy respect for water safety guidelines. 

The Department of Wildlife Resources also advised residents to create a float plan, documenting their route and any planned stops along the shore. This plan, as well as a time when you expect to be back, should be left with a friend or family member on land. 

While the department does not offer its own training for water safety, it advises people to reference the Red Cross’ Water Safety Program and the resources on the National Drowning Prevention Alliance’s website

Finally, Pearson said, it is never advised to drink alcohol before or during water activities, and it is illegal to do so if operating a watercraft. 

For additional information about weather conditions, Pearson recommends checking the Weather Channel or the U.S. Coast Guard websites, as well as NOAA for accurate water level information. More information about boater safety can be found on the Department of Wildlife Resources website.