Those whose job it is to retrieve bodies from our rivers call them “Kmart coffins,” those cheap inflatables some people use to float down lazy rivers. Fine for pools, but not for rivers even during a normal year.
This is not a normal year. The rivers are running furiously fast and cold; trusting your life to a flimsy plastic boat or inner tube is a death wish. Even wading into the rivers – with their incredible currents working below a calm surface – can be taking a terrible risk.
Consider the eight people rescued from the Stanislaus River last weekend. They were on a raft wearing life jackets, but got caught up in low-hanging limbs along the edge of the river. It turned their trip into a life-and-death struggle.
The young man who dove into the Stanislaus near Knights Ferry on Tuesday wasn’t so lucky. Nor was the class valedictorian who drowned in the San Joaquin near Fresno. In all, seven people have died on Valley rivers this year.
“These are preventable deaths,” said Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson.
The best prevention is not to go onto rivers. Water volume on the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced are all five to 10 times normal. The Stan was flowing so fast Wednesday even the sheriff’s dive team wouldn’t go in.
Water is heavy. Rushing water holds you down.
Reservoir currents are weak, but the water is cold – around 51 degrees. That water was snow just a few short hours ago. Taking a plunge is like jumping into ice water; it will take your breath away. Stay in 40 minutes, and you won’t be able to move. Then you slip under.
Rivers are the most pressing danger. High flows mask hidden obstacles. Get trapped on the downriver side of a submerged barrier (big rock or stump) and you’ll never get out from under the water. Rocks just beneath the surface can puncture a cheap raft, or flip you into the water. Chunks of wood and debris rush along with the current. Trees along the bank look life refuge, but those low-hanging limbs are called strainers; get stuck in them and you’ll have to fight for your life. Banks dried during the drought are eroding and loose, with trees slipping into the river.
“Stay off the rivers,” said Christianson. “Right now, if you’re out on the Stanislaus River, you’re crazy; it’s running too high, too fast, too cold. Don’t risk your life by putting yourself in that situation.”
Those responsible for rescuing you – or retrieving your body – will be busy this weekend explaining the dangers and offering loaner life-jackets. Anyone under 13 must wear one on any vessel (including jet skis). But officers here aren’t planning to order anyone off the rivers.
We think they should. Sheriffs in Kings, Tulare and Fresno counties expanded partial closures to ban all activities on the Kings River until the runoff subsides. Anyone caught in the water can be fined up to $225.
South Valley sheriffs at first thought they needed a county ordinance to take such action. But they found a segment of the California penal code that allows them to declare an entire area hazardous. The river is closed to swimmers and boaters, including professional outfitters.
We understand people like the thrill of fast water or find it hard to resist cold water on a hot day. But going onto a river – even one that looks calm – is not safe. Not now.
Officials should consider making our rivers – not the parks around them – off-limits until the rivers are safer. It’s better than watching plastic coffins float past.