San Joaquin River releases keep water safety top-of-mind -- even in drought year

The Fresno BeeMay 23, 2014 

Even in the midst of a drought, public safety officials are keeping an eye on water safety issues on the San Joaquin River on the unofficial start of summer, the Memorial Day holiday weekend.

That's because the Bureau of Reclamation is releasing water out of Friant Dam. The bureau says the water is headed to a group of west Valley farmers who hold rights dating back to the 1800s.

For folks who just like to fish or cool off at the river below Millerton Lake, it means higher levels of cold, swift-moving water. Fresno County Sheriff's Lt. Kathy Curtice, who oversees the agency's boat unit, says that can raise the risk for careless swimmers and others who get in the water in parks such as Lost Lake and Skaggs Bridge.

"We're aware of it and we're monitoring it," she said. But, "we're not super-concerned," she added.

It is an unusual year for the unit. Because of the low levels of water in the Kings River, deputies are concentrating more on the San Joaquin, although problem areas on the Kings such as Avocado Lake are still in focus. The boat unit also patrols lakes including Shaver Lake and Pine Flat Reservoir. Curtice said lower levels of water in lakes such as Edison and Florence makes those recreation areas less of an issue.

When water levels rise and cover vegetation such as trees and shrubs, rafting and boating becomes especially perilous. The trees become "strainers" that can trap a swimmer underwater. Invasive weeds such as hydrilla are also dangerous and can quickly tangle around a person's legs, Curtice said.

Water safety is also an issue on the vast system of irrigation canals on the Valley floor, Curtice said, where man-made strainers such as submerged shopping carts are hidden dangers.

Back on the Kings, Tulare County on Tuesday closed the river on its side to motorized watercraft due to lack of water until further notice. The Kings riverbed on the Tulare side is closed to all-terrain vehicles and motorcycles, too, and the Tulare County Sheriffs' Office warned that it will enforce the bans.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6339, or @jimguy27 on Twitter.

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