California’s epic snowmelt means deadly cold torrents ahead of Memorial Day weekend

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California rivers fed by this winter’s massive Sierra Nevada snowpack have turned into deadly torrents, prompting warnings from public safety officials ahead of the traditional start of Memorial Day weekend in outdoor summer recreation activities.

At least seven people, including two children, were killed or missing this spring by powerful rivers rushing from California’s mighty mountain range, and there have been numerous rescues.

“This year we are seeing higher, faster and colder water,” said Capt. Justin Sylvia, a spokesman for the fire department in Sacramento, which is crossed by the American River.

Sacramento has already had 20 water rescues this year, nearly as many as all of 2022, Sylvia said Tuesday as crews practiced whitewater rescues on the lower American River near its confluence with the Sacramento River.

Memorial Day weekend is typically one of the busiest, if not the busiest, times of the year, and “floating the American River is like a quintessential Sacramento activity,” said Ken Casparis, a spokesman for Sacramento County Regional Parks.

“Probably thousands of people use the river to float, swim or raft, whatever, and conditions this weekend are shaping up to be quite dangerous, so we’ve been urging people to stay away from the river.” , said.

Even simply wading along the bank is discouraged, said Casparis, who hoped the cold weather would discourage use of the river. Forecasters forecast temperate weather in the interior of Northern California, except for the possibility of 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 encounter, including fast-moving water, after months of severe weather.

An extraordinary series of storms last winter buried the Sierra mountain range in deep snow that is now melting, swelling Central Valley rivers that only months ago were drying up from years of extreme drought.

Reservoirs that store water and provide flood control must release large flows into rivers to make room for incoming runoff. That, in turn, changes the rivers. Sandbars and ledges can become steep drop-offs and lead to an unexpected plunge into cold water.

“It can really pack a punch to the body,” said Daniel Bowers, director of emergency management for the city of Sacramento. Experts say that muscle control can be lost in 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 that afternoon and the boy’s body was found nearly 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) downriver Monday, the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office said.

The fatal accident occurred despite the Kings and San Joaquin rivers having been ordered closed to recreational users since March 14.

In the Sierra northeast of Sacramento, a man was swept away by the American River on April 29, two days after Placer County authorities issued the first warnings. His body was found Friday in a lake miles away. Another man who disappeared in the river on Mother’s Day is still missing.

Placer County’s message on risk is strong. “If the public doesn’t heed our warnings this year, people are going to die, more people than we’ve seen in recent years,” said the sheriff’s sergeant. Kevin Griffiths says in a public service announcement video.

The American River has not been closed for 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 Rancho Cordova has temporarily suspended operations on the lower reach of the river because the flow rate is too high, co-owner Kent Hansen said Thursday.

“We definitely understand that this is part of the business and that is why we would never put profit above safety,” Hansen said. “We hope all of our guests will choose a safe time to go soon when water flows are back to normal and navigable.”

Sylvia, the fire captain, stressed that people should immediately call 911 if anyone is in trouble in the water.

“If you have a rope or if you have a life jacket that you can throw to them, do that, but don’t go into the water after them because you will become a second victim,” he said.

In Yosemite National Park, the waterfalls have been thundering with runoff bound for the Merced River. The park has advised visitors to stay out of all waterways and stay away from slippery rocks.

“We shouldn’t have to say it, but please do not attempt to wade, swim or float in any river or stream,” the park said via Facebook.

With the arrival of summer, the Kern County Sheriff’s Office planned Friday to hold a ritual meant to warn people about the notorious southern Sierra Kern River, which country legend Merle Haggard called “a piece of of bad water” in his song “Kern River”.

A sign at the mouth of the Kern River canyon, counting the number of lives lost in the river since 1968, is updated each spring to add deaths that occurred during the previous 12 months. This year, the total would rise from 317 to 325.


Antczak reported from Los Angeles.

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