Because dangerous conditions on the Stanislaus River have hampered efforts to find 5-year-old Matilda Ortiz, presumed drowned when she fell into the water in Knights Ferry on Sunday, officials are reducing the flow from New Melones Dam.
The river flow was about 4,200 cubic foot per second Sunday afternoon when Matilda, who was with her father and friends near the historic covered bridge, slipped off a rock and fell in. Her father and bystanders tried to save her, but she was swept away in the high, fast, cold water.
Just after midnight Tuesday, officials began reducing the flow of water from New Melones, the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department said in a news release Wednesday afternoon. “This will continue steadily throughout the day until sunrise on Thursday, when officials anticipate the river to be just below 2,000 CFS, which is over half of what it has been,” the release says.
The river flow can be reduced only until 4 p.m. Friday, when water authorities will have to begin increasing releases again, the Sheriff’s Department says.
“This window of opportunity with a lower river flow will allow for more resources to help with the search,” Sheriff Jeff Dirkse said in the news release. “We have been working closely with our partners in public safety to put together a plan that will hopefully help us to locate Matilda Ortiz.”
The little girl’s parents, other relatives and family friends have been at the Knights Ferry Recreation Area day and night to assist with the search. Her mother, Oakland resident Marissa Vasquez, said Matilda lived with her weekdays and with her father, Patterson resident Roberto Ortiz, on weekends.
Several deputies will be out on the river, riding personal watercraft, the news release says. In addition, the Sheriff’s Department Dive Team will attempt to check the water as safety allows.
The dangerous conditions so far have not allowed the dive team to enter the water. The fast flow also is stirring up debris, making visibility low, said Sheriff’s Department spokesman and Waterford Police Services Chief Anthony Bejaran at the scene on Monday.
At one point on Monday, a fire boat capsized because of the dangerous river conditions, the Sheriff’s Department reported. No one was injured.
Thursday morning, search teams will meet at 6:30 for a briefing, the news release says. They plan to be actively searching until around 5 p.m. If Matilda still is not found, all of those resources will be deployed again Friday until 4 p.m., when the water release from the dam is increased again.
Sheriff’s Department and fire personnel want the public to stay out of the area as the search continues. Having a well-intended civilian searcher fall in from the riverbank or out of a boat would only complicate matters.
“We have trained personnel utilizing many different resources to find Matilda,” Dirkse said in the news release. “While we appreciate people’s willingness to help, we are also concerned that it could hamper our search efforts.”
Drones and helicopters are being used to search from above. Boats and personal watercraft will work with divers for safety on the water.
The Sheriff’s Department reminds that no motorized craft other than rescue vessels currently are allowed on the Stanislaus River east of the Highway 120 bridge in Oakdale.
Officials also warn people to be prepared for the river to rise significantly after 4 p.m. Friday when the water release from New Melones Dam returns to normal