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How often do people drown in Minnesota?

Even as Minnesota’s population has grown, drownings and boating fatalities have declined.

Since summer officially starts Monday in the land of 11,842 lakes, there’s a chance you’ll find yourself on a body of water soon.

That’s great, but be careful.

On average in recent years, more than 50 people have died annually in Minnesota by drowning (184 total since the beginning of 2011) or in boat-related accidents (74).

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They’ve died while swimming, boating, snowmobiling or fishing; in rivers, lakes, ponds, sloughs, bathtubs, pools and hot tubs.

The Department of Natural Resources keeps data on water-related deaths not associated with crime or believed to be suicide. The tally separates boating-related deaths, most of them drownings, from non-boat-related drownings.

In the past five years, July has been the worst month, with 23 percent of non-boat related drownings and 22 percent of boat-related fatalities, most of which were also due to drowning.

Drownings and boat-related fatalities by month in Minnesota, 2011-15
In the last five years in Minnesota, July has been the month most prone to drownings and boat-related fatalities, which were mostly also due to drowning.
Source: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

But things are getting better: Even as Minnesota's population has grown, drownings and boating fatalities have declined since the 1960s. In 1961, there were 135 drowning and boat-related fatalities. Last year there were 53.

Drownings and boat-related fatalities in Minnesota by year, 1961-2015
The number of drownings and boat-related fatalities (including drownings) in Minnesota have generally declined since the 1960s.
Source: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

Debbie Munson Badini, outreach coordinator for the DNR’s boat and water safety program, said that drop is thought to be due to a combination of factors, among them, better boater safety education and a 2005 law that requires children under 10 to wear lifejackets while they’re boating.

But drownings still happen.

Who drowns, and where

The age groups with the highest drowning rates in Minnesota are one to four-year-olds, 15 to 24-year-olds and those over 85, all with 1.3 or more drownings per 100,000 people, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control.

Minnesota drowning rates per 100,000 people by age group, 1999-2014
Some age groups have higher drowning rates than others. Note: Drowning rates for children less than one year old are unreliable, according to the CDC.
Source: Centers for Disease Control

“We know that injuries from drowning kill more kids age one to four years than any other cause except birth defects,” said Carrie Carlson-Guest, spokeswoman for the American Red Cross’ Minnesota region.

And it doesn’t just happen in rivers, lakes and pools. Last year in Olmsted County, a one-year-old boy tragically died nearly two weeks after he was found unconscious in six inches of water in a wash basin. He and his siblings had been playing outside for no more than five minutes, the Rochester Post-Bulletin reported.

Non-boat drowning locations, 2011-15
Most drownings occurred in lakes and rivers.
Source: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

Where small children and inexperienced swimmers are concerned, adult supervision is critical, Carlson-Guest said.

“People get distracted — parents on their phones, talking with other people,” she said. “We always encourage parents and caregivers to stay within arm's reach of young children and newer swimmers and always be watching. Even in areas where there are lifeguards.”

If someone is drowning, don’t expect them to yell and flail their arms. Instead, they’re often seen floating at the surface, head tilted back and mouth open, unable to make eye contact.

“It can occur quickly and silently wherever there's water,” Carlson-Guest said.

In Minnesota, as across the United States, the drowning rates for minorities is higher than for white people. The CDC notes less access to swimming pools and water activities, an issue noted in Minneapolis in this MinnPost article, as possible contributors to the differential drowning rates.

According to the USA Swimming Foundation, 70 percent of African American children and 60 percent of Latino children, compared to 40 percent of white children, have limited or no swimming ability.

Boat-related fatalities

Last October, three Baudette men in their twenties died after their motorboat capsized in Lake of the Woods. None were wearing lifejackets, according to the DNR.

Between 2011 and 2015, 74 people died while boating in Minnesota. They fell out of, flipped or capsized boats, or died of carbon monoxide poisoning. Few boat collisions result in death, Badini said. The vast majority of boat-related fatalities were due to drowning.

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Badini stressed that almost all boating fatalities are preventable, offering as evidence the fact that children, who are required to wear lifejackets, rarely die in boat accidents. Instead, most people who die in boating accidents are adults who weren’t wearing a lifejacket.

With new inflatable lifejackets, Badini said, complaints that the vests are bulky, hot or uncomfortable aren’t excuses to not wear them anymore.

“Wear your lifejacket,” she said. “It's not uncomfortable, it's not uncool. If you watch any of the major bass fishing tournaments on TV, all of those guys are wearing inflatable lifejackets.”

The other factor that puts adults at risk in boat accidents is alcohol, Badini said: While the legal blood-alcohol content — 0.08 — for driving a boat is the same as a car, at least when it comes to those of age, it’s legal to drink while operating a boat.

That doesn’ mean people should, Badini said.

Last year, alcohol was a known factor in 12 of 71 non-fatal boating accidents, according to the DNR. Boating accidents caused about $352,800 in damage to boats and nearly $20,000 in damage to other property.

Random Acts of Data is an occasional series by MinnPost data reporter Greta Kaul and news editor Tom Nehil. The goal: to answer questions about all things Minnesota using the vast amount of data at our disposal. If you have a question you’re wondering about, send an email to with the subject line, “Random Acts of Data.”