Recent drowning raises safety questions at Hagg Lake
Henry Hagg Lake is a staple of outdoor recreation in Washington County.
But the lake has seen its share of tragedies over the years. And a tranquil summer scene turned fatal again on Aug. 14.
Authorities say 61-year-old Satoru Kamoshita of Beaverton was kayaking off Boat Ramp C when he stopped and got out of his watercraft to swim in the lake. He never resurfaced. A dive team discovered his body that evening, drowned in the lake.
Not far from that same spot, in 2017, a 68-year-old man drowned. A few hundred yards down the shore at the Sain Creek Picnic Area, a family of four drowned in 2014. During a family reunion in 2012, eight children between the ages of 6 and 13 nearly drowned at Sain Creek before being rescued by family members.
"You will walk out waist-high, and all of a sudden, it drops off like a miniature Grand Canyon," said local safety advocate Michael Medill. "There's mud at the bottom, and you can get stuck and drown."
Medill was threatened with fines in 2014 for putting up warning signs about the drop-off, after the 2014 drowning deaths of Jova Ixtacua-Castano, Gabriela Garcia-Ixtacua, Michael Garcia-Ixtacua and Jeremy Scholl at Sain Creek. The following summer, in 2015, Medill paid for a lifeguard out of his own pocket to patrol the lake.
Medill's homemade signs were removed, replaced in summer 2016 with official signage put up by Washington County. The signs alert lake users to the drop-offs and urge them to wear life jackets.
Medill says the warning signs currently posted around the lake are sufficient, but a lifeguard would help.
"It's a small stretch of shoreline around Sain Creek that is both the most popular and the most dangerous stretch," Medill said. "They collect money from everyone who enters. I don't think it's too much to ask to pay $125 a day for a lifeguard."
Washington County parks manager Carl Switzer, who has a full-time staff of 10 park managers, administrative assistants, park rangers and grounds keepers, said Hagg Lake had over 1 million visitors in 2020.
Switzer said the most effective precaution along the lake's 14-mile shoreline are life jackets or flotation devices, which have been available for free throughout the park since 2009.
According to Switzer, the county has explored the idea of hiring lifeguards in the past.
"It would be really hard to patrol 14 miles of shoreline. If people want to get in, they can get in. Patrolling that much shoreline would require a lot of resources," Switzer said. "I don't think the public is asking for that."
The lake is monitored by the Washington County Sheriff's Office, which has a marine patrol unit there, Switzer noted.
There are no designated swimming spots anywhere along Hagg Lake's 14-mile shoreline. Technically, the body of water is a reservoir, the water level of which changes regularly.
"A designated swimming area can offer a false sense of security. There is such a huge distinction between natural water and a swimming pool," Switzer said. "You can be a really accomplished indoor swimmer and find yourself in trouble in natural area. The water level changes. A tree can fall in and be swept along the bottom. We don't want to give anyone the impression that we know for sure a particular area is safe."
In 2017, a Washington County Circuit Court judge threw out a wrongful death lawsuit filed by a family member of the 2014 drowning victims seeking $4 million. The court cited a state law protecting landowners who offer use of their land to the public, free of charge, for recreational purposes from liability.
Hagg Lake and the land surrounding it are owned by the federal Bureau of Reclamation and leased by Washington County, which controls access to and maintains the lake.
Ashley Massey, communications director for the Oregon State Marine Board, said the board urges state and local tourism departments to always portray life jackets in their print and digital media.
"We've got to normalize life jackets," Massey said. "That's our biggest hurdle when it comes to water safety. Lots of people think, 'I know how to swim, I'm fine,' but our lakes and rivers can be so, so dangerous."
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