Stay Out, Stay Alive: Irrigation Ditches and Canals

California Irrigation Canal

California is blessed with an abundance of water this year. As the temperature heats up, it might be tempting to swim and cool off in irrigation ditches and canals full of cold water. However, you are taking a real safety risk, especially if you don’t know how to swim.

Fast underwater currents, especially in irrigation canals, can knock people down and quickly sweep them away. Irrigation canals often have steep, slippery sides that are almost impossible to climb. Some canals have culverts and gratings that might trap a person.

Farmworkers have drowned on the job when accidently falling into canals. In the state of Washington, two farmworkers were killed when a 17-year-old orchard worker fell into an irrigation canal. The canal was only 3 feet wide with 2-1⁄2 foot vertical walls and had about a foot of fast moving water in it. He was swept down the chute. A 31-year-old co-worker tried to rescue him, and they both drowned in a pool meant to slow the water with cement pillars. These types of structures can easily trap people as powerful water rushes by.

While not as large, irrigation ditches are also hazardous, because they may contain trash or debris like glass that you cannot see from the surface. Pesticides, herbicides, and other pollutants are found in irrigation ditch water, and it is definitely not safe to drink!

Children are especially at risk for drowning. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drowning is a leading cause of unintentional injury death for those 1 to 14 years of age. It is sobering to realize that children can drown in as little as 2 inches of water.

How can you protect yourself and family from drowning or accidents in irrigation canals and ditches?

  • Never let young children go near irrigation canals or ditches without a personal flotation device and adult supervision.
  • Never swim in canals or ditches or play around them.
  • Never walk closely along the edge of a canal or ditch.
  • Never jump in to rescue pets or objects, such as toys. Instead, call for help.


  • Learn how to swim and understand water safety.
  • Always have a responsible adult watching children.
  • Use good judgment and be aware of canals and ditches when working or recreating.
  • Call 911 for help if someone falls in and can’t get out.

These "Come Back Alive" English and Spanish videos developed by the California Department of Water Resources explain how to safely get out of an irrigation canal by looking for safety ladders or float lines or to help someone who has fallen in by throwing them an object that floats, like a cooler. 


Disclaimer:  The facts and information provided above are suggestions for your safety. They are not comprehensive or an exhaustive list of all actions needed to ensure your safety.