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Drownings at U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Recreation Facilities, 1986-1990

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Department of the Army, is the largest federal provider of water-based recreation facilities in the United States. Each year, the Corps records more than 2.3 billion visitor hours at its 460 lakes and reservoirs and estimates that 25 million persons visit one of its facilities at least once each year (1). Since 1986, the Corps has promoted water safety through educational campaigns at its facilities nationwide. The Corps, in collaboration with CDC, reviewed information about drownings and water-safety activities for 1986 through 1990 to assist in improving its water-safety programs. This report summarizes the assessment and describes water-safety measures the Corps is implementing to prevent drownings and other injuries.

The Corps compiles data on all deaths that occur at Corps recreation facilities. Data reported by park managers include demographic characteristics and information on the circumstances and locations of deaths.

From 1986 through 1990, 1107 persons drowned at Corps facilities. Of these, 334 (30%) were aged 16-25 years, 140 (13%) were aged 26-30 years, and 65 (6%) were children aged less than or equal to 5 years. Most persons who drowned (981 (89%)) were males. More than half of the drownings (572 (52%)) occurred on Saturday or Sunday (Figure 1). Rates of drowning (number per million visitor-days) were highest in 1986 (1.3) and lowest in 1988 (1.0); the death rate for drowning has remained stable after an initial decline in 1986.

For each year during 1986-1990, most drownings occurred during swimming and wading activities (488 (44%)), followed by boating activities (250 (23%)), and fishing from shore (187 (17%)) (Table 1). Of the swimming/wading-related drownings, 302 (62%) occurred outside the designated swimming areas.

Each Corps facility has at least one designated swimming area, which employs buoys to prohibit boat and personal watercraft entry and signs and markers to inform swimmers of the limits of the designated zone. Designated swimming areas also are cleared of any trees, stumps, and debris and are constructed to achieve maximum depth and slope requirements, to improve swimming safety.

Since 1986, the Corps has promoted water safety nationwide through an annual, unified safety-education campaign, "Your Safety

  • Our Concern." This campaign has included audio and video tapes to be used as radio and television public service announcements and educational posters. In addition, the Corps uses permanent information and advisory posters at each facility to inform visitors to remain in designated swimming areas while swimming and wading.

Reported by: South Atlantic Div, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Atlanta. DW Hewitt, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Headquarters, Washington, DC. Unintentional Injuries Section, Epidemiology Br, Div of Injury Control, National Center for Environmental Health and Injury Control, CDC.

Editorial Note

Editorial Note: The findings in this report are consistent with patterns of drowning described previously for the United States. In particular, the rate of drowning is four times greater for males than for females, and drowning rates are highest for children aged less than 5 years and persons aged 15-24 years (2).

Through its national water-safety program, the Corps has emphasized preventing water-related fatalities at its facilities. By continuing to review and evaluate the causes for water-related deaths, all public and private recreational facilities can improve their water-safety efforts. Additional efforts the Corps can employ at its recreational facilities include 1) restricting swimming and wading to designated swimming areas; 2) engaging park managers to encourage visitors to restrict their swimming and wading to designated areas; 3) enhancing patrolling efforts at beach areas to ensure that visitors are swimming and wading safely; and 4) improving coordination with state agencies to foster more visibility of the enforcement of state boating laws. In addition, the Corps' safety-awareness campaigns can address various topics including 1) warnings against alcohol consumption during water-based recreation activities (e.g., swimming and boating), 2) promoting the use of personal flotation devices, and 3) warnings against swimming alone.


  1. US Army Corps of Engineers. US Army Corps of Engineers Recreation Study: a plan prepared for the Assistant Secretary of the Army (Civil Works). Vol 1: Main report. Washington, DC: US Army Corps of Engineers, September 1990.

  2. CDC. Drownings in the United States, 1978-1984. MMWR 1988;37(no. SS-1):27-33.

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