Utah Lake ‘easy to get in trouble on.’ What you need to know to stay safe

Local News

UTAH COUNTY, Utah (ABC4 News) – Utah Lake is a popular destination for a variety of aquatic activities, but this Memorial Day weekend, deputies warn that a day meant for fun in the sun can turn deadly in a matter of seconds.

At roughly 150 square mils, Utah Lake is the state’s largest freshwater lake, and the often turbulent waters can make for a tragic turn of events.

Earlier this month Priscilla Bienkowski and Sophia Hernandez ventured out onto the lake with pool floats and the two teenage girls never returned home.

 “We have learned through sad experiences that flotation devices that are meant for the pool are not meant for the lake,” said Sgt. Josh Chappell with the Utah County Sheriff’s Office.

RELATED: Kite surfer on Utah Lake at same time as missing teens says ‘swells were at least three to six feet high’

Search and rescue crews believe the friends were pushed out by strong winds.

“You can see we’re 1.1 miles from where they went into the water, but look how vast the area is,” explained Justin Gordon, Sergeant with the Utah County Sheriff’s Office.

It took searchers eight days to find the bodies of the two girls. 

On Thursday, ABC4 News returned to the area by boat, with three Utah County deputies who worked tirelessly to locate them.

“One body was found six-and-a-half miles that way, east, from where they went into the water, and one body was found eight miles that way from when they went into the water,” Sgt. Gordon told ABC4’s Brittany Johnson.

The team of experienced rescuers is still uncertain how the girls ended up separated so far from one another.

“There’s a lot of unknowns with the currents of this lake and how they change with the wind. The wind for those eight days were constantly changing,” said Gordon. 

Those conditions in addition to the dark and murky water make it even difficult for sonar equipment.

“You can only sonar when your boat is not rocking back and forth,” Gordon explained.

“What are some of the challenges someone can face out here on the water?” asked ABC4’s Brittany Johnson.

RELATED: Utah County Search and Rescue trains for water safety as heat hits triple-digit temperatures

“It’s a big lake and it’s easy to get in trouble on,” replied Sgt. Spencer Cannon, Utah County Sheriff’s Office.

The water on Utah Lake is deceiving, and it’s something people need to be aware of. 

“We’re 11 feet and we’re about one mile from shore,” said Gordon.

“What is the most important piece of equipment someone can have out here on the water?” Johnson asked.

“A life jacket,” replied Chappell. “We consider a life jacket very similar to a seatbelt.”

“It’s no different with a life jacket. We know that if people will wear a life jacket it will save their life.”

The Memorial Day holiday is the unofficial start to summer, and Sgt. Cannon, who has seen it all in his 30 years in law enforcement, has one wish:

“If I could get my wish and have one key piece of advice out there, that is to wear a life jacket. In all the drownings I’ve known about or are agency has been involved in, I’ve only known of one that had a life jacket on.”

Gordon said life jackets should also be worn on the river. 

“The runoff is coming out of the mountains, and so, we call it swift water. You need to be prepared for rocks, and dirt loosing up underneath your feet and possibly falling into the water.”

Before you head out on the lake, Utah County Sheriff’s Office suggests you know the weather conditions and be aware of the water’s temperature.

“This lake right now is not bad but in a half hour it can be a monster depending on what the wind does,” said Gordon. “This 60 degree water — if you’re in it for an hour, you’re going to be in bad shape.”

Search and rescue teams are usually called out on incidents that could have been prevented. Because of this, they are reminding people to take the time to plan and prepare before you head out on the water.

“Being ready for the activity you’re engaging in, planning ahead, taking the time to be careful as you get out on the water, being patient. There’s no sense to be in a hurry. You get out on the lake and realize you forgot an important piece of equipment and you’re having too much fun to go back and get it, and that could be a deadly decision.”

For the full list of rules and regulations boaters need to abide by, click here.

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Brittany Johnson
Brittany prides herself on seeking the truth about everyday issues in the community and providing citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions.

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