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Ripon works to keep river visitors safe
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A Ripon Consolidated Fire District search and rescue boat skims the waters of the Stanislaus River searching for an overturned raft. - photo by Photo Contributed

The dangers of swimming and rafting on the Stanislaus River have been minimal during the drought due to lower water volume, slower flows, and water temperatures more conducive for swimmers.

“We had seven water rescues in the last 12 months,” said Ripon Fire Chief Dennis Bitters. “With the drought, the river was very low, greatly reducing the calls for rescues.” 

Bitters is anticipating the number of rescue calls to go up given the upswing in snow melt after four extremely dry years. The snow melt has returned with the spring waters to its normal swiftness and the temperature has dropped to the low 40s since much of the water in the dams is being released from the lowest portions of the reservoirs which usually is the coldest. The extreme cold of the water is a shock to swimmers who find their arms and legs quickly numbed when they dive into the river and are often unable to swim.  

The safety of the Riparian forest along the banks of the Stanislaus and the river itself is ensured in a joint effort by the Ripon Consolidated Fire District and the Ripon Police Department that patrols the area around the river day and night to keep an eye on illegal camping, drinking and threatening incidents to members of the public. 

Ripon Police Lt. Stephen Merchant explained that his officers consistently patrol the river banks with all-terrain vehicle, electric motorcycles, bicycles, and on foot.  During 2015 the officers on river side patrols handled 116 incidents between citations and arrests.

 “In addition to the water safety issues, and working with the Ripon Fire Department, we routinely respond to the lost and missing rafter calls each summer.  We are strictly enforcing Ripon Municipal Codes and all state laws in the bike bridge park/Stouffer Park areas.  We will have a zero tolerance policy this year regarding no parking and residential permit parking issues,” Merchant said.

The lieutenant added that any fires including barbecues and alcohol consumption are not allowed near the river with the same rules applying to all the city parks.

“In Ripon we are trying to ensure that everyone has a safe summer in our city river parks while maintaining the quality of life in Ripon,” Merchant said. 

In their effort to keep the river and its surrounding river bottom safe to the public, the officers logged 78 citations for open containers of alcoholic beverages, 19 others for minors in possession of alcohol, six for possession of marijuana, four individuals for being drunk in public, three outstanding warrants, one battery on a person, one case of possession of drug paraphernalia, one fishing without a license, one charged with contributing to the delinquency of  minor, one for possession of a switch blade knife and one for vandalism.

A small parking lot is located at the approach to the bike-pedestrian bridge but some take the chance of parking illegally with 19 parking citations issued — 11 for unregistered vehicles, seven for parking in a no parking area and one for outdated registration.

The police river patrols utilize a combination of police officers and department volunteers.

Most of the patrols occur on weekends and holidays.  The patrols fluctuate on the date and time of day they are used, depending on other events occurring within the city and available staffing.  The summer heat brings out a number of young farm workers who are unaware of the cold temperatures and the dangers of the river — with some losing their lives in the presence of their families.

Five years ago in 2011 a search and rescue effort on the Stanislaus River was a textbook example of the Ripon fire and police departments working together, responding in unison to the report of a suspected downing victim.

A 911 call had been received by a 911 dispatcher claiming a rafter had been seen floating face down in the fast moving river current with his hands in the water and his feet hanging off the back of his floating device.

The search effort would last some two hours before it was called off at about 12:30 p.m. — two hours following the initial call.

The Ripon Consolidated Fire District responded to the scene with two rescue boats, almost immediately entering the water near the Highway 99 bridge.  Ground units checked out the shoreline.

Within minutes of his call out, Merchant had hooked up the department’s powered parachute “Air One” to his truck and drove it over to Mistlin Sports Park that had been often used as an emergency air field.

Firefighters had located a partially deflated raft on the shore some 600 yards south of the freeway bridge with Merchant then flying numerous low-level runs over the river from the bridge beyond Caswell State Park and beyond.

Caswell Park had been alerted by a dispatcher to keep watch for a rafter, but no one was on duty at the time.

Uniformed police volunteers drove a four wheel utility unit down the narrow dirt road that paralleled the river, south of the Jack Tone Golf Course,  staying in radio contact with the air unit to check out any suspected sightings in the river.  Merchant later credited the way the two departments worked together with their separate resources finding only a submerged green raft — saying the emergency response was intense.

He concluded the police department had not received any missing person’s report and he hoped the witnesses account had not been factual and Ripon did not, in fact,  have another drowning in the river.

In missing rafter searches in past years, the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue boat team has shown up on the scene numerous times to aid in water rescue events.

To contact Glenn Kahl, email