The snowpack statewide Monday was at 196 percent of normal.
Department of Water Resources electronic readings for May 1 indicate the snowpack water content today is at 42.5 inches.
“California’s cities and farms can expect good water supplies this summer,” said DWR Acting Director Bill Croyle. “But this ample snowpack should not wash away memories of the intense drought of 2012-2016. California’s precipitation is the most variable in the nation, and we cannot afford to stop conserving water.”
That said nowhere is the snowpack as big as in the Central Sierra that includes the Stanislaus, Merced and Tuolumne watersheds. Snowpack as of April 1 was 163 percent of normal. On Monday it led the state at 202 percent of normal with an average snow water equivalent of 47.1 inches.
That means a lot of water — and cold at that — will be heading this way until at least through June testing levees and making river activities perilous.
When Chief Dennis Bitters was anticipating the river season at this time last year, a lack of water was presenting its own unique challenge for the Ripon Consolidated Fire District.
But that has changed thanks to the unusually wet winter that has filled the reservoirs that feed the Stanislaus River, and given the mountains above them a record snowpack that will ensure that water will be flowing higher and faster and for a longer period of time than it has in more than half-a-decade.
And that presents its own new set of challenges for the fire chief and his crew.
With temperatures expected to reach the mid 90s through Wednesday, the snowpack runoff at the higher elevations – where the temperature is above 80 degrees – has officially begun and accelerated the inflow into reservoirs that were threatened with capacity issues just over a month ago.
And according to Bitters, all of that cold water flowing into reservoirs like New Melones must be pumped out, and for the first time in years the water coming from the bottom of the reservoir is cold enough to make a difference for the people who swim in it.
“It’s cold water coming in and the water that’s coming out is coming from the bottom of the reservoir and this year that means a lot more than it did,” Bitters said. “You can become hypothermic much faster now if you’re in the water, and we get a lot of people when it gets hot that want to go out to the river and have a good time and they don’t realize how that water will affect them until they’re in it.”
The high-water levels also present challenges to would-be floaters who think that the added current and seemingly smooth surface will lead to a lazy afternoon of fun.
And unfortunately, he said, that fun often means people who are drinking and are floating along on rafts and even inside of inflatable pools that were never designed to be used in such a setting. When one of those flimsy flotation devices – often the only ones that people have with them – hit a submerged tree branch or a snag that was, last year, above water, that typically means that the person is now in the water and they’re susceptible to the cold and the current that can be deceptive and misleading.
“It looks like it’s smooth, but there are currents that can pull into corners and not allow you to get out – almost like a whirlpool – and other currents than can pull you down,” Bitters said. “It’s always changing, and unless you’re familiar with the topography all of those other elements can make it dangerous for people who are out on the water.
“Everybody wants to go out and have a good time, but when you introduce alcohol and now cold water it changes things a little bit.”
And all of that doesn’t even take into account the typical issues that Ripon firefighters run into during the warm season – people who overshoot their destination when floating on the river, or get lost along the way without any way to communicate with the outside world.
In recent years that has meant launching kayaks after the sun goes down so that search and rescue crews can locate the stranded swimmers in the shallow water. Now that the river is high, the risk for crews that have to go out in less-than-desirable conditions also increases, and the sheer number of people who take to the water increases the chance that they’ll have to venture out and find those who have lost their way.
“We just want people to be safe, and to be smart,” Bitters said. “If somebody is going out there they should have a flotation device like a life jacket in case they end up in the water, and they should have way to communicate with somebody that knows where they are so we can find them if something happens.
“People also need to know where it is that they’re getting out, and know that it looks different from land than it does when you’re in the water. If you miss that last beach, it can take a long time to get to another spot where you’re able to get out of the water. We want people having fun, but we want them to be smart as well.”
To contact reporter Jason Campbell email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 209.249.3544.