California’s epic melting snowpack means cold, deadly torrents ahead of Memorial Day weekend

Sacramento, Calif. (AP) – California’s rivers fed by this winter’s massive Sierra Nevada snowpack have turned into deadly torrents, public safety officials warn ahead of Memorial Day weekend’s traditional start to outdoor summer recreation.

At least seven people, including two children, were killed or went missing this spring after powerful rivers gushed down California’s massive mountain range, and there have been several rescues.

“This year we’re seeing high water, fast water and cold water,” said Capt. Justin Sylvia, a fire spokesman in Sacramento, which is crossed by the American River.

Sylvia said Tuesday that there have already been 20 water saves in Sacramento this year, nearly equal to the whole of 2022, after crews conducted a rapid water-saving exercise on the lower American River near its confluence with the Sacramento River.

Memorial Day weekend is usually one of the busiest, if not the busiest, times, and “swimming down the American River is kind of a quintessential Sacramento activity,” said Ken Kasparis, spokesman for Sacramento County Regional Parks.

“Probably thousands of people use the river to swim or swim or rafting, what have you, and conditions are going to be very dangerous this weekend, so we’re urging people to stay away from the river,” he said .

Even settlement along the coast is being discouraged, Kasparis said, expecting colder weather to discourage use of the river. Forecasters predicted mild weather across interior northern California, except for a chance of scattered thunderstorms in the mountains.

With Californians expected to stagger outside, the governor’s office of emergency services issued a sweeping warning Thursday about the conditions they will face, including fast-flowing water, after months of severe weather.

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An extraordinary series of storms last winter buried the Sierra Range in deep snow that is now melting, swelling rivers in the central valley that were running low a few months ago due to extreme drought.

Reservoirs that store water and provide flood control must release higher flows into rivers to maintain room for incoming runoff. In turn, changes rivers. Sandbars and shores can become steep slopes and can lead to unexpected plunges into cold water.

“It can really give a shock to the body,” said Daniel Bowers, the city of Sacramento’s director of emergency management. Experts say muscle control can be lost within minutes.

Recent tragedies include an 8-year-old girl and her 4-year-old brother who were swept away in the Kings River on Sunday. The Fresno County Sheriff’s Office said the girl’s body was found in the afternoon and the boy’s body was found about 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) downstream on Monday.

The fatal accident occurred after both the Kings and San Joaquin Rivers were ordered closed to recreational users through March 14.

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

Placer County’s messaging about risk is blunt. “If the public doesn’t listen to our warnings this year, people are going to die, more people than we’ve seen in the last few years,” Sheriff Sgt. says Kevin Griffiths in the public service announcement video.

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The American River is not closed to recreation in Sacramento, but Bowers, the emergency management officer, urged all river users to wear life jackets, even if they are using another flotation device.

Co-owner Kent Hansen said Thursday that American River Raft Rentals of suburban Rancho Cordova has temporarily suspended its operations on the lower section of the river because flow rates are too high.

“We certainly understand that this is part of the business and so we would never put profit over security,” Hansen said. “We are hoping that all of our guests will soon choose a safe time to visit when the water flow is back to normal, navigable flow.”

Fire Captain Sylvia emphasized that people should call 911 immediately if someone is in trouble with the water.

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

In Yosemite National Park, waterfalls are roaring and runoff is bound for the Merced River. The park has advised visitors to stay away from all waterways and away from smooth rocks.

“We shouldn’t have to say this, but don’t try to wade, wade or swim in any rivers or creeks,” the park said via Facebook.

With summer approaching, the Kern County Sheriff’s Office plans to hold a ritual Friday to warn people about the southern Sierra’s infamous Kern River, which country legend Merle Haggard sang in his song “Kern River.” I said “a small piece of water”.

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A sign at the mouth of the Kern River valley, which states the number of lives lost in the river since 1968, is updated each spring to add the deaths of the previous 12 months. This year, the total was to be increased from 317 to 325.


Antczak reported from Los Angeles.

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