As part of a trend apparently spurred by increased visits during the pandemic, 2021 on Lake Conroe was marked by five drownings and a fatal boating wreck. The six fatalities led to the deadliest of recent years on the lake.

July 10’s wreck, the first in at least four years, added to deaths from drownings. Those fatal drownings matched a 2020 spike. The Montgomery County Precinct 1 Constable’s office points to a boost in visits to the lake in the past two years as a likely contributing factor to the climb in deaths.

The north county agency’s marine division is remaining steadfast on upholding measures it has used to prevent loss of life and are urging visitors follow safety guidelines.

“We try to cultivate a safe culture for the lake,” said Pct. 1 Constable’s spokesman Capt. Joe Sclider. “It is a partnership between law enforcement and the people that use the lake in maintaining a safe enviornment.”

The summer boat crash left a 56-year-old father from Buda dead, and seriously injured his son and another man.

In that incident, Montgomery resident Robert Brad Rice, 53, is charged with six felonies, including manslaughter and intoxicated manslaughter, court records show. He is also facing two aggravated assualt and two intoxication assault charges, according to court documents.

Rice’s “reckless operation of his watercraft after having consumed alcohol to the point of intoxication, the excessive and unsafe speed he operated his watercraft for the then existing conditions, and his use of lights on his watercraft that inhibited his ability to see around him, caused the death of Earl Schneider and caused serious bodily injury to” two others, read a probable cause affidavit filed Aug. 27 by a Texas Parks and Wildlife game warden.

He is out on a combined $100,000 bond, according to court records. Rice’s attorney did not return a request for comment.

The rise in fatalities on Lake Conroe began last summer. The number of fatal 2020 drownings — five — exceeded by one the total number of fatal 2017-2019 drownings. Just in 2019, officials had said Lake Conroe enjoyed one of its safest years.

The lake parol has previously discussed how the surge in visits to the lake during the earlier part of the pandemic was likely due to its accessibility. Many public indoor settings were still limited by COVID-19 mitigation efforts as late as the early part of 2021, for instance.

“Because of our close promiximity to Houston, (Lake Conroe) is one of the more highly trafficked lakes,” Sclider said. “It was probably a COVID stop for activities when people couldn’t get to normal businesses or out and about with their families.”

As a likely indicator of how dire the situation got at the lake amid the height of the pandemic-caused closures, all but one of the five drownings in 2021 were before Memorial Day. The first drownings of 2019 and 2020 did not occur until summer’s unofficial kickoff or after.

Drownings began early in 2021 with a man losing his life in February upon falling off a deck into the water. This would have been during a time of year which, the constable’s marine division in 2020 said, the lake attracts less traffic due to cold or inclement weather.

A man then died in March after jumping out of a boat on the lake. Then in the first double drowning to hit Lake Conroe in years, a couple went missing in early May with their bodies being recovered five days later.

At least the three victims in March and May were not wearing life vests, according to the constable’s office. The agency advocates for life vests, arguing most drowning deaths could be prevented by their use.

On every major summer holiday on the lake, the lake patrol does free voluntary boat safety checks identifying the six items required by Texas state law. These include life jackets, a fire extinguisher, a Class IV throwable life preserver, a sounding device, a state-issued registration card and a cut-off switch lanyard.

In addition to pressing the need for life vests at all times on the lake, be it on boat or deck, and greater patroling during higher trafficked times, the constable’s office is reminding lake visitors of steps they can take to help further a culture of safety on Lake Conroe.

Designating a captain on a boat, not unlike a designated driver, is something Sclider said Precinct 1 Constable Philip Cash has pushed. This at-all-times sober captain will be responsible for the boat and its passengers throughout the visit to the lake, Sclider explained.

Precinct 1 has often noted that Lake Conroe welcomes visitors looking for recreation and enjoyment. Just as often, it has warned against ignoring dangers on its black waters.

“When people get complacent in that environment, unfortunately people lose their lives,” Sclider said.

jose.gonzalez@chron.com

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