The weather may be warming up, but the Stanislaus River isn’t.
And with cold, fast-moving water set to be the norm for at least the next month, local officials are urging people to use caution when recreating on the water and taking every precaution possible to keep safe when out on the river.
The Stanislaus River has already claimed one and possibly two victims already this year. A 5-year-old girl was swept away to her death at Knights Ferry in March. A kayaker last week came across the body of a man west of Knights Ferry that rescue workers have been unable to retrieve.
Various agencies such as the Manteca Fire Department at its headquarters station on Union Road offer free life jacket loaner programs in a bid to reduce river fatalities that in years with heavy runoff have reached as high as six on nearby stretches of the Stanislaus and San Joaquin rivers.
According to Ripon Consolidated Fire District Chief Dennis Bitters, it has been a relatively slow start to the summer for the district that is responsible for rescuing those that get into trouble on the Stanislaus River as it flows through Ripon and out towards the San Joaquin River in South Manteca.
But, Bitters said, with temperatures staying steadily hot and lots of snow that has yet to melt in the Sierra it’s looking like heavy releases from upstream reservoirs will continue to be the norm which means that water cold enough to affect people’s ability to swim in it.
“Even on a hot day people need to be prepared for very cold water,” Bitters said. “It feels good when you put your hands or feet in it, but it’s different when you fall off of a raft or a tube into it – and it’s cold enough to drain you pretty quickly as you try and swim through the current.
“People get dislodged from their floating devices all the time, so it’s a good idea to wear a flotation device, even if it doesn’t look as good as going without one.”
In past years, Bitters’ firefighters had the challenge of tracking down people who got lost on the river because it was flowing much slower than people actually thought it was – the drought bringing the current to a trickle in some places, and leaving the majority of the popular floating path so shallow that people had to walk long sections.
But with record snowpack in the Sierra that may not fully melt by the end of the summer, the conditions on the river are much different and far more serious to contend with as dam operators release water to make room for the runoff as it keeps reservoirs remarkably full.
In addition to the cold water, the elevated level of the river has changed the topography that many people are used to, and that also poses threats to those who see the relatively smooth surface and think that it’s like that all the way down the popular stretch.
Emergency officials urge people to use caution when entering the water under normal circumstances, and to abstain from alcohol if possible, in case of something unexpected happening – and those advisements go double for when the river is very high and very cold and very unforgiving.
“There are a lot of snags and submerged obstacles that used to be out of the water and now they’re beneath the surface,” Bitters said. “People need to be really careful so that they don’t get entangled.
“Don’t worry if it’s not as comfortable or cool to be in a personal flotation device when you’re out on the water, because with these conditions it may very well save your life. And if you have kids with you, don’t put them in blowup swimming pools and think that’s safe for them to float down the river – kids can’t swim well enough to sustain themselves in that water for any length of time.”
To contact reporter Jason Campbell email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 209.249.3544.