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Posted 7/16/2009

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By John Neville

There are close to 5,000 drownings per year in the United States. Drowning is the second leading cause of death in children ages 1 to 14, and males are four times more likely to drown than females.

Fortunately, drowning statistics have not mirrored the steady, annual increase in the number of people taking part in water recreational activities. This is, experts believe, due in large part to the increase in public awareness about water safety.

Beginning in May, the Louisville District was able to dedicate several full-time park rangers to water safety education at the agency’s numerous lakes. The opportunity was made possible using funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, legislation passed earlier this year to stimulate the economy and repair the nation’s infrastructure.

Green River Lake Park Manager George Williams’ first priority was to hire the seasonal park rangers who would be responsible for educating the public about water safety. In May, Lincoln Lawless joined the staff, and a month later, Williams hired Tyler Royse.

The two rangers spend part of their work schedule at the lake’s beaches, passing out Frisbees, coloring books, fishing tackle, and other items inscribed with water safety messages. They also set up educational booths and hold short classes at area fairs. Probably their most important goal is to inform their listeners about the importance of wearing life jackets while in the water or on a boat, especially since there are no lifeguards at Corps lakes.

Children 15 and under must wear a life jacket while they’re in the water. Boaters are not required to wear a vest, but the boat must be equipped with enough personal floatation devices for every passenger. However, Royse recommends wearing a jacket at all times.

“We’re not here to enforce anything, and it’s not against the law not to wear one (while in the boat), but our job is to encourage it,” Royse said. “When you take in all the effects of the lake that make you tired—wind, the sun, the water—and combine them with alcohol it makes for a deadly mix,” he said.

Green River Lake, located in Campbellsville, Ky., has had 36 drownings since opening in 1969. The only drowning at the lake this season involved a man who—according to Lawless—had too much to drink, was likely exerting too much energy, and was probably dehydrated.

“He probably had a cramp,” he said. “The muscle tightens up and limits use. It can happen really fast.”

Despite the one unfortunate incident, Williams believes his rangers’ efforts are making a difference.

“I think we’re doing a much better job with water safety than we’ve ever done before,” Williams said. “The main thrust is to try and capture the younger people. They’re at an age where they’ll listen. They’ll correct mom and dad. They’ll get mom and dad to do something right when we might have to threaten them with a citation to do something. We have to feel like with the number of contracts we’re making and the number of messages we’re making, that we’re having a positive effect.”

Williams’ received $111,000 from ARRA to pay for his rangers’ salaries and water safety supplies such as displays, giveaways, and lifejackets. The money also funded the costume for Bobber—the Corps’ water safety mascot who travels to fairs and other events promoting water safety.

“The kids love Bobber,” Lawless said.

In addition to the stimulus funds Green River Lake received for water safety, the lake received $750,000 for renovations of the visitor center, restrooms, and other facilities, as well as an expanded parking area that will accommodate school and tour busses. Six temporary maintenance workers were also hired. 

The lake got another $677,000 for more frequent mowing and cleaning services and an extension of the contract with the local sheriff’s department for longer patrols throughout the year. This pot of money will also fund other operational repair work, a new patrol boat and money for engineering and design of campsites.

“It’s been a really, really busy year for us, and all that money has allowed us to provide a higher level of service than we’ve ever provided before,” Green River Park Manager George Williams said.

And, according to Williams, taxpayers can take comfort in knowing that the Corps’ oversight of stimulus spending is extensive.

“There is a regulation that recently came out that provides guidance on the execution of economic stimulus or ARRA monies,” he said. “Actually, the whole spending process contains numerous checks and balances to ensure the money is spent properly and for the purpose intended.”