California rivers fed by the Sierra Nevada’s vast snowpack this winter have turned into deadly torrents, prompting warnings from public safety officials ahead of the traditional start of summer vacation on Memorial Day.
At least seven people, including two children, have died or gone missing this spring in powerful rivers flowing from California’s high mountain range, and there have been many rescues.
“This year we’re seeing higher water, faster water and colder water,” said Capt. Justin Silvia, a fire spokesman in Sacramento, where the American River runs.
Sacramento has already had 20 water rescues this year, nearly as many as in all of 2022, Sylvia said Tuesday as crews practiced water rescues on the lower American River near its confluence with the Sacramento River.
Memorial Day weekend is usually one of the busiest times of the year, if not the busiest, and “floating down the American River is like the quintessential Sacramento activity,” said Ken Kasparis, spokesman for Sacramento County Regional Parks.
“There’s probably thousands of people using the river for rafting, swimming or rafting and the conditions are going to be pretty dangerous this weekend, so we’re urging people to stay away from the river,” he said.
Even just wading along the shore is not recommended, said Kasparis, who hoped the cold weather would discourage use of the river. Forecasters are predicting mild weather for inland Northern California, with the exception of possible thunderstorms in the mountains.
With Californians expected to flock outdoors, the governor’s Office of Emergency Services issued a broad warning Thursday about the conditions they could face, including rushing water, after months of severe weather.
An extraordinary series of storms this past winter buried the Sierras in deep snow that is now melting, swelling rivers in the Central Valley that just a few months ago were depleted by years of severe drought.
Reservoirs that store water and provide flood control must release large flows into rivers to maintain room for incoming runoff. This, in turn, changes rivers. Sandbanks and ledges can become steep descents and lead to unexpected immersion in cold water.
“It can really shock the body,” said Daniel Bowers, director of emergency management for the city of Sacramento. Experts say muscle control can be lost within minutes.
Recent tragedies include an 8-year-old girl and her 4-year-old brother who were swept away by the Kings River on Sunday. The girl’s body was found in the afternoon and the boy’s body was found nearly 2 miles downstream on Monday, the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office said.
The fatal accident occurred despite the fact that the Kings and San Joaquin rivers have been closed to recreational users since March 14.
A man was swept away by the American River in the Sierra northeast of Sacramento on April 29, two days after Placer County authorities first issued warnings. His body was found Friday in a lake miles away. Another person who disappeared in the river on Mother’s Day remains missing.
Placer County’s risk reporting is obscene. “If the public doesn’t heed our warnings this year, people are going to die, more people than we’ve seen in the last few years,” said sheriff’s Sgt. says Kevin Griffiths in a public service video.
The American River was not closed to recreation in Sacramento, but Bowers, the emergency management official, urged all river users to wear life jackets, even if they are using another flotation device.
American River Raft Rentals of suburban Cordova Ranch has temporarily suspended operations on the lower river because the current is too fast, co-owner Kent Hansen said Thursday.
“We clearly understand that this is part of the business, and that’s why we will never put profit before safety,” Hansen said. “We hope that all of our guests will choose a safe time to travel soon when the water flows return to a normal, smooth flow.”
Sylvia, the fire captain, stressed that people should call 911 immediately if someone is in distress in the water.
“If you have a rope or you have a life jacket that you can throw to them, do it, but don’t follow them into the water because you’ll be the second victim,” he said.
In Yosemite National Park thundering waterfalls flowed into the Merced River. The park advised visitors to stay away from all waterways and stay away from slippery rocks.
“We don’t need to say this, but please do not attempt to wade, swim or swim in any rivers or streams,” the park said in a Facebook post.
As summer approaches, the Kern County Sheriff’s Office planned a ritual Friday to warn people about the infamous Kern River in the southern Sierra, which country legend Merle Haggard described as an “evil piece of water” in his song “Kern River.”
A sign at the mouth of the Kern River Canyon, showing the number of lives lost in the river since 1968, is updated each spring by adding the number of deaths that occurred in the previous 12 months. This year, they were planned to increase from 317 to 325.