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Option is being pondered as treacherous conditions continue
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The popular beach at the McHenry Recreation Area south of Escalon that is typically packed on holiday weekends during the summer is now completely underwater as the Stanislaus River continues to surge. - photo by JASON CAMPEBLL/The Bulletin

In the wake of a major upswing in drownings up and down the Sierra due to the cold and heavy runoff from the record snowpack, emergency officials are pondering barring recreational  use on the Lower Stanislaus River.
There is currently discussion in Stanislaus County about formally closing the river as it flows through the county because of the conditions. While that option is on the table for San Joaquin County, Sheriff’s Department Boating Sergeant Jose Alemon said it is not being pursued at the moment. He noted the department has the ability to ask the Board of Supervisors for their blessing on making it temporarily illegal to enter the water. For now, the Stanislaus River is currently open to anybody brave enough to try it.
“We certainly discourage anybody from trying to get into the Stanislaus River and want people to know that it’s not safe right now, especially for the activities that a lot of people in San Joaquin County like to use it for,” Alemon said. “It is currently open to recreation, but we advise against it and try and steer people away when we can.”
The high, cold flows — currently at 5,000 cubic feet per second — could continue for six to eight weeks according to  estimates by the Bureau of Reclamation.
Currently a handful of parks in San Joaquin County including Mossdale Crossing Regional Park and Dos Reis Regional Park – both in Lathrop – are still closed due to high water on the San Joaquin River. Recreational boating is still prohibited upstream from the Mossdale Bridge. Alemon said that the decision to lift that ban will have to come from the county’s OES officials.
Last week a Stockton man who was swept away by the strong water on the Stanislaus River near Knight’s Ferry was presumed drowned. His body still hasn’t been located or recovered by responding emergency crews.
After all of the warnings and all of the concern, Memorial Day weekend on San Joaquin County waterways was uneventful.
But how long that remains the case is yet to be seen.
Just last week the San Joaquin County Office of Emergency Services lifted the temporary recreational boating ban on the San Joaquin River from Mossdale to the Stockton Deep Water Channel – giving wakeboarders, water-skiers and fisherman the chance to head out into the Delta for the first time since high water threatened levees and hundreds of homes in the South County.
But despite windy weather, cooler than expected temperatures and frigid water, people still took advantage of the opportunity.
“We saw quite a few people out on the waterways this weekend and fortunately we didn’t have any major incidents in our county,” Alemon said. “Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case in some other waterways near us, but for the most part people were safe and the issues were pretty minimal.”
And things on the lower Stanislaus River were equally calm over a weekend that had first responders prepared for what they were sure would be a busy few days of pulling people out of the cold, fast and dangerous waters.
According to Ripon Consolidated Fire District Chief Dennis Bitters, his crews – which have already had multiple rescues this year – had no calls over the three-day weekend that required them to deploy on the water.
“We don’t know whether people decided to stay away with the number of warnings that were issued, or the weather was too cool for people to come out, but it was uneventful for us,” Bitters said. “We’re hoping that things stay that way for a while.”
And the high water – the result of the record snowpack in the Central Sierra melting in the warm temperatures and overwhelming reservoirs whose operators are working to make room for the massive amount of water – is wreaking havoc throughout San Joaquin County.
In Escalon, on the border with Modesto, the McHenry Recreation Area was only partially accessible Tuesday morning after water had consumed a portion of the road leading to the back portion of the park. The popular beach area closest to the River Road gate, which features a stairway that normally leads down on a sediment deposit beach below, was completely consumed by the river with only three steps visible from the top.
A sign warns people against getting into the water because of the temperature, the current, and the submerged obstacles that can pin people against them and hold them down despite their best efforts to free themselves.

To contact reporter Jason Campbell email or call 209.249.3544.