Prompted by a rise in Potomac River drownings last year, officials from nearly a dozen government agencies and private organizations are collaborating to promote safety on the Potomac, one of the nation's wildest urban rivers.
They hope to raise awareness of the river's dangers in time for summer, when many more people visit its banks.
Five people drowned last year in the Potomac in the Washington region -- more deaths than during the previous three years combined.
In Southern Maryland, the Potomac, Patuxent and other rivers, as well as the Chesapeake Bay, attract thousands of recreational boaters, swimmers and anglers. At least four people drowned last year -- two in the Patuxent and two in the Port Tobacco River.
Meanwhile, the increase in drownings upriver in the Potomac prompted officials from the National Park Service; Maryland Department of Natural Resources; Fairfax, Montgomery and Loudoun counties; the U.S. Park Police; and a number of other agencies to hold an unprecedented series of meetings and workshops to figure out why 2004 was such a deadly year and to propose solutions.
Their conclusions: Nobody can say for sure what led to the upsurge in deaths, but soaring attendance at the C&O Canal National Historical Park, along with what seems to be an increase in recreational fishermen on the riverbanks, may have combined with a drop in awareness of the perils of the Potomac Gorge.
"I think the common perception, or common misperception, is that these [deaths] are all twentysomethings who are kayakers and white-water enthusiasts and thrill-seekers, and that is not the case," said National Park Service spokesman Bill Line. "What typically happens is that it's a fisherman . . . and for some reason, their line gets caught and tangled up or something, and they walk onto rocks, slip and fall in."
Only one of the five people who died last year was a kayaker, officials said. The other four ventured into the river from the shore and fell into the raging waters.
Officials from the agencies with jurisdiction over the Potomac and its banks first met in January. Some subgroups met several times after that, devising strategies to keep people out of the river.
Officials plan to install 25 warning signs along the Potomac Gorge -- 15 on the Maryland side and 10 in Virginia. The signs, in English, Spanish and Vietnamese, urge people not to swim or wade and to stay off rocks at the river's edge. The gorge is a roaring section of the river just above Washington.
The group also agreed to centralize data collection about river incidents so that a more accurate picture can be assembled about when and where drownings or near-drownings occur. And its members plan to use a National Park Service communications center in Hagerstown as an information clearinghouse in the event of an emergency. Because numerous agencies can become involved in an emergency, important information can get lost among them.
In addition, members of the group agreed to seek better ways of coordinating before, during and after incidents and to make training more consistent among agencies.
A mix of agencies and governments has jurisdiction over parts of the river, leading to a hodgepodge of statistics and information about river incidents. Fairfax, Montgomery and Loudoun counties, the National Park Service, the U.S. Park Police and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, among other agencies, have varying degrees of authority on the river.
Even within counties, different agencies have jurisdiction over different types of incidents. Montgomery County police, for example, have authority in the event of a missing-person investigation, and the county's Fire and Rescue Service takes charge during an effort to rescue someone from the river.
The gorge, roughly defined as the 14-mile stretch between Key Bridge and the Aqueduct Dam above Great Falls, features a sweeping rush of water and draws spectators by the thousands each year, along with fishermen and kayakers.
Attendance at the C&O Canal National Historical Park -- a narrow strip of parkland that runs through the Washington region along the Maryland banks of the Potomac -- has doubled since 2000.
Access to the riverbanks also has improved in recent years, said Matthew Logan, president of the Potomac Conservancy, a nonprofit group also involved in the task force meetings.
With the increased foot traffic along the river comes an increased risk, particularly when visitors aren't aware of the river's danger, Logan said.
"We have to remember this isn't just a neighborhood park," Logan said. "It's not just pretty -- it's a dangerous place. There's a lot of volume [of water] going down through a very narrow area. If you get sucked down -- and you will -- just forget it."