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Epic snowmelt into rivers can put visitors in danger

Staying safe along swollen rivers

The manager of Stanislaus River Parks talked about water safety on Tuesday, May 2, 2017, at Knights Ferry, California. (John Holland/jholland@modbee.com)
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The manager of Stanislaus River Parks talked about water safety on Tuesday, May 2, 2017, at Knights Ferry, California. (John Holland/jholland@modbee.com)

The Stanislaus River charged at well above its typical May volume as Lucas Huffman launched his kayak Tuesday at Knights Ferry.

The Oakdale resident made sure to wear a safety vest and helmet in case he got tossed into the water on his three-hour trip downstream.

“If not, you’re going to get in a lot of trouble,” Huffman said before setting out with uncle Sean Calhoun, a river guide based in Auburn. “You’ll be putting yourself at unnecessary risk.”

Most visitors to this and other rivers are not planning to plunge into the rapids. But even a picnicker or angler could slip into trouble in this year of massive runoff from the Sierra Nevada.

The central part of the range has had near-record rain and snow. Temperatures have spiked past 90 degrees, and the snowmelt has sped up.

The good news: Operators of the main reservoirs on the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers have enough space for the melt, which mainly goes through July.

The caveat: The rivers still are running far higher than normal, both upstream and downstream of the dams. The Tuolumne has been especially high since January, as Don Pedro Reservoir was drawn down to create flood-control space.

Knights Ferry is one of 11 parks operated along the lower Stanislaus by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. At one kiosk, the agency notes that Tuesday’s flow of about 4,000 cubic feet per second is about equal to the weight of 25 elephants.

And the water is chilly — about 50 degrees Tuesday — yet more danger for someone struggling to breathe.

“We’d like to communicate a very important message — that cold, swift water demands respect,” Park Manager Heather Wright said.

The lower rivers are tame most years because so much water is diverted to farms and cities. Not 2017. In a Facebook post Tuesday, Riverbank Police Services urged no swimming at the popular Jacob Myers Park on the Stanislaus. The even more-visited Merced River in Yosemite Valley is off-limits to swimmers and rafters.

“In Yosemite Valley, we have a lot of creeks and streams that flow into the Merced River,” park spokesman Scott Gediman told the Merced Sun-Star. “So, it’s just a question of asking people to be very careful of it.”

The Stanislaus National Forest also has many tributaries to the main rivers. Some areas remain inaccessible because of unmelted snow and storm damage to roads.

John Holland: 209-578-2385

BY THE NUMBERS

202 percent: Snowpack in central Sierra Nevada as of Monday compared with historical average for date

2 percent: Snowpack on May 1, 2015, worst of five-year drought

81: Percent of Don Pedro Reservoir’s capacity in use as of Monday. It had filled in February, prompting heavy releases to the lower Tuolumne River to prepare for the snowmelt.

65: Percent at McClure Reservoir on Merced River as of Monday

83: Percent at New Melones Reservoir on Stanislaus River

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