Dangers rising along with rivers as the heaviest snowpack in recent years melts

Fire captain describes rising river dangers

Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District Captain Jeff Frye describes river dangers on the Stanislaus River Friday morning March 22, 2019 in Knights Ferry, Calif.. Currents will get stronger and levels will rise as snow continues to melt.
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Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District Captain Jeff Frye describes river dangers on the Stanislaus River Friday morning March 22, 2019 in Knights Ferry, Calif.. Currents will get stronger and levels will rise as snow continues to melt.

Water levels and flows on area rivers are looking similar to conditions in 2017 when there were more than double the water rescues compared to average years.

“Everyone should treat the river like a wild animal,” said Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District Captain Jeff Frye. “Enjoy it from afar.”

A strong current on the Stanislaus River took the lives of two people in 2017’ last Sunday, it swept 5-year-old Matilda Ortiz downstream and out of the grasp of a bystander who briefly had a hold of her. Her body was recovered Wednesday after river flows were slowed and the water level dropped about two feet to aid in the search.

The river was flowing at 4,200 cubic feet per second when Matilda fell in. Average for this time of year is 800 to 1,000 cubic feet per second, said David Voortman, owner of River Journey Adventures. He was among eight river guides who located Matilda’s body on Wednesday.

Voortman said the river is only going to get higher and stronger over the next few months as snow in the Sierra Nevada starts to melt and pour into reservoirs that feed rivers in the region. Other rivers in the area are in for the same increased dangers.

The state’s Division of Boating and Waterways this week advised people to simply stay away from cold rivers during the spring thaw.

Frye said good swimming abilities are no match against a current that pulls a person’s feet from underneath them and crushes their body against underwater obstacles.

Even with a life jacket, currents as strong as they are now can pull people under.

In June 2017 a 22-year-old Sonora woman was wearing a life jacket while floating in inner tubes that were tied together with rope. The rope got caught on a tree in the river, causing two of the inner tubes to swing around the other side and hit each other. The woman became caught up in the ropes, was pushed under water by the current and drowned.

“With strainers — a collection of debris and trees is piled up above and underwater — water flows through but a body gets stuck against them,” Frye said.

There are more strainers and underwater obstacles like trees and bushes that normally would be on the shore as the water level rises during snowmelt in the spring.

This year, the Sierra Nevada snowpack is estimated at 153 percent of the average for this time of year. Officials said most of the state’s major reservoirs are at or above their historical averages for this time of year. San Luis Reservoir, for example, is 99 percent full, or 111 percent higher than average for this time of year. And Don Pedro, which feeds the Tuolumne River, is 82 percent full, or 113 percent of average.

With the Sierra snowmelt swelling rivers with cold, rapid water, Auburn State Recreation Area's Supervising State Park Ranger Scott Liske explains how to self rescue if you unexpectedly fall in.

As it gets warmer outside people want to go to the rivers to cool down. But the cold water, which is in the 50s in the Stanislaus, also instantly inhibits a person’s swimming ability by causing muscle cramps and fatigue and the initial shock could result in inhaling water, Frye said.

State parks officials say water temperature is an important factor during the snowmelt. The water temperature in some rivers can be as cold as 35 degrees, triggering paralysis in the muscles. Officials say a rescue is extremely unlikely by the time a person is struggling in the water, and it can put rescuers at risk.

“You can have a child easily slip and fall, and then the parents could drown trying to rescue the child,” said Adeline Yee, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Parks and Recreation.

Drownings can be avoided by being aware of water conditions and taking some simple precautions. Some of those tips include wearing a life jacket when you’re within 20 feet of a waterway, especially children, and appointing adults in your group to watch children near or in water at all times.

Frye said even the trained firefighters on Stanislaus Consolidated’s swift water rescue team are required to wear life jackets and helmets when working within 10 feet of the water.

How cold rivers are and how fast they move this spring will depend — in part — on the weather, said Chris Orrock, a DWR spokesman. The region could continue to receive sporadic rain this spring as the snowpack melts.

“So, that’s going to continue to add more water into the system,” Orrock told The Bee.

He said cold winter storms brought along more snow this year. If the snow melts gradually, conditions in the region’s rivers can be more easily managed.

If there’s a sudden warm weather trend, Orrock said the snow will melt rapidly and could produce even higher, faster-moving rivers, “and there’s always the chance for flooding.”

Voortman said he doesn’t even anticipate opening his business for raft rentals until well into summer after river levels have dropped and flows have slowed.

“Just based on previous experience, whether it was 1997 or 2007, I don’t see flows dropping to what I consider a family float until at least July,” he said. “We like the water levels anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 cfs depending on the group and their experience level.”

Frye said everyone should take a cue from the rafting companies, utilize their rafts when they deem the river is safe and never use the cheep inflatable rafts sold at stores.

He doesn’t advise entering the river to swim, even with life jackets, until it is running less than 500 cubic feet per second.

“The lower flows where it seems like it is just trickling down that is where we start backing off of our soapbox, but we still want to make sure people are safe,” he said.

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Rosalio Ahumada writes news stories about criminal court cases in Stanislaus County for The Modesto Bee, issues related to immigration and immigrant communities and breaking news related to crime and public safety. From time to time, he covers the Modesto City Council meetings. He has worked as a news reporter in the Northern San Joaquin Valley since 2004.