A pilot life jacket program implemented this summer at Woodward Reservoir has proved so successful that it will continue next year and even expand.
In eight summer weekends, more than 800 people, from children to adults, checked out life jackets to boat and swim at the reservoir.
The most important statistic, though: There have been no drownings at the lake this summer, compared to two last year.
Sheriff's deputies Eugene Day and Bob Berndt spearheaded the life jacket program with help from Stanislaus County Parks and Recreation Department employees.
A grant from the California Department of Boating and Waterways equipped Woodward with 75 life jackets at the beginning of the summer.
Woodward Manager Cheryl Jackson allowed use of the old Marina Store to house and distribute the life jackets, and inmates from the sheriff's Alternative Work Program cleaned and readied it.
On Memorial Day weekend, sheriff's STARS volunteers began staffing the program every Saturday and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m.
Posters advertising the free life jackets were pinned to all the message boards and — mostly through word of mouth — the program became very popular.
After reporting its immediate success to the Department of Boating and Waterways, Woodward received 30 more life jackets.
With the end of summer approaching, only one loaner life jacket has not made it back to the Marina Store.
"I think that return rate shows the community support of this program," Berndt said. "People want not only to be able to use it again, but for other people to be able to use them, too."
An additional 75 life jackets soon will arrive from the Department of Boating and Waterways in order to expand the program for next summer. Those jackets will be housed and distributed from a mobile building on the back side of Woodard Reservoir, Jackson said.
With coordination from the STARS volunteers, hours of operation might also begin at 10 a.m. instead of noon. Berndt said he and Jackson also are considering lending the life jackets to weekend campers for a period of three days so they can continue to be safe while extending their time in the water.
Berndt and Day have thought of other ways to make Woodward Reservoir more safe and family friendly. The Coast Guard auxiliary, a volunteer program like the Sheriff's Department's STARS, spent several days at the reservoir this year providing free safety inspections of boats and providing suggestions that not only could make boaters safer but save them money on boat insurance.
Deputies at both Woodward and Modesto reservoirs also recently were certified to use a machine to administered breath tests to boaters suspected of driving under the influence. The Department of Justice will be issuing the device to each reservoir in the coming weeks.
Day said he always starts the season making a great effort to educate visitors about the rules of the water, like the speed limit inside the buoys and boating in a counterclockwise direction. He reminds campers to quiet down after 10 p.m. and set up tents only in designated spots.
But as the season progresses, reminders turn into citations for those who don't listen, and the combination of education and enforcement has had a really positive affect on Woodward, Day said.
He and Berndt hope arrests and citations for boating under the influence will decrease the number of accidents, as citations for noise violations have decreased the number of incidents and free access to life jackets presumably will decrease the number of drownings.
"Once we started mixing education with citing people and kicking people not only off the water but out of the park, we seem to be getting a better response," Berndt said. "People like the direction the park is going."
Bee staff writer Erin Tracy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. or (209) 578-2366. Follow her on Twitter @ModestoBeeCrime.