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Man drowns in Stanislaus River near SJ River

A man in his 50s was the first person to drown in a South County river this year after he disappeared in the water near the confluence of the San Joaquin and Stanislaus Rivers south of Manteca on Sunday.

The body of the unidentified man was later recovered by divers from the Lathrop Manteca Fire District not far from the Two Rivers RV Park – a facility that has become an extremely popular boat launching spot over the last several months after COVID-19 has led to park closures and limited access to the San Joaquin River Delta.

According to Lathrop Fire Chief Gene Neely, the man’s drowning was the first that his agency responded to this year. Neely said that the man’s body had been recovered in “somewhat shallow water” after a brief search by crews that had responded to a call.

“We’ve had a couple of near drownings and some missing people, but that’s the first drowning we’ve had in that area,” Neely said. “That’s where those two rivers come together, and that confluence creates a lot of different currents that can change along with the river bottom – there’s a big shifting sandbar right there and it can change from day to day depending on the releases.”

The man was not wearing a life jacket.

Last year was the first time that the Lathrop Manteca Fire District installed lifejacket boards at two popular boating destinations – at Dos Reis Regional Park Mossdale Crossing Regional Park – so that those enjoying the river can take life jackets as they need them to ensure that everybody in their boat is protected against the unpredictability of the heavily-used river.

Neely said that after park closures forced people to look elsewhere, the Two Rivers RV Park has become a popular launching spot – prompting the agency to look at possibly adding another board in that area in the future.

And while the COVID-19 virus may make it more difficult for people to get out onto the open water, it hasn’t done anything to thwart the number of people recreating on either the San Joaquin or the Stanislaus Rivers during the peak of the summer.

According to Ripon Consolidated Fire District Chief Dennis Bitters, the number of people floating the Stanislaus River upstream from where the man drowned on Sunday has become so large that it is beginning to impact the way that the agency responds to calls – prompting Bitters to look at possibly charging people for the cost of the rescues that they’re being called out for.

“We’re going out to at least a few of these calls each weekend, and most of them are overdue rafters or people that haven’t checked in with the people that they were supposed to and by the time that we get out there, they’re long gone – they’re back home and they just didn’t call their parents or whoever they told they were going to the river,” Bitters said. “We’re having to call in people and get coverage for our calls in town when that happens, and we’re going to look at some options to see if we can recover some of those expenses.

“There are many people out on the river now as there ever have been and because of some of the changes along the river, we’re usually the ones that go out when we get these calls – it’s getting crazy.”

Part of the unpredictability of both the Stanislaus and the San Joaquin Rivers stems from the fact the river flow is determined by dam releases upstream that can change over the course of the summer – providing more water carry debris and shift the sandy bottom of the river and provide new obstacles, or take water away and make sections impassable by floating rafts let alone the boats needed to search for those that are missing.

Respecting the river and understanding that it can change overnight is something that Neely said people need to consider when they’re going to be out on the water.

“You can’t see the bottom of the San Joaquin River when it’s two-feet deep, and the area under your feet can change rapidly and debris can become dislodged and present hazards that weren’t there the day before,” Neely said. “Just be cautious and careful and take that extra step – don’t assume that just because you’re a good swimmer you’re going to be okay.

“It’s possible to get drug beneath the surface and if you have little ones, they can get into that current and get swept away and if they get lodged under a tree that it’s the water, it can be deadly even if they’re in a life jacket. Always wear a life jacket, take that extra step when you’re going to be in or around the water, and make sure you’re watching the people that you’re with.”

To contact reporter Jason Campbell email or call 209.249.3544.