Although the central San Joaquin Valley has enjoyed an average water year in the midst of a five-year drought, sheriff’s deputies in Madera, Fresno and Tulare counties are preparing for one of the downsides to the coming snowmelt: faster, deeper and more dangerous waterways.
The Fresno County and Madera County sheriff’s offices and Tulare County Sheriff’s Department already have begun to swell the ranks of their water-rescue teams in preparation for summer. Although each faces challenges specific to the region’s lakes and rivers, all rescue personnel understand one sad fact: People will die in the water this year, and most of these deaths could be prevented.
Deputy Corey Holston with the Fresno County sheriff’s boating unit works year-round with a sergeant and another deputy to keep Shaver Lake, Pine Flat Reservoir and a portion of the Kings River safe. The team also patrols dozens of small lakes and sloughs throughout the county.
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The unit is currently training four more full-time deputies and six reserves to patrol the waterways from Memorial Day to Labor Day – the peak boating season.
The boating unit will patrol Shaver, Pine Flat and the Kings every Friday through Monday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. The last few years have been relatively calm, but Holston is not expecting an easy season in 2016.
“It’s much more dangerous,” he said. “We’ve already had a drowning in Millerton, a fatal accident in Mendota and a capsized boat in Shaver. The season hasn’t technically started yet.”
Holston expects the number of rescue calls to jump from around 50 in 2015 up to 100-150, the average number before the drought hit. The county likely will see five to 10 drownings this summer, also the average number.
Virtually all of these are preventable.
The majority – probably 90 percent – of all boating accidents and drownings last year were alcohol-involved.
Fresno County sheriff’s Deputy Corey Holston
“The majority – probably 90 percent – of all boating accidents and drownings last year were alcohol-involved,” Holston said.
The lion’s share of the Fresno County rescue calls come on the Kings River, where Holston said people often drink alcohol all day in the hot sun while floating from east of Sanger to Reedley.
“Just don’t go in the water if you’ve been drinking,” he said.
Holston expects more people to take their boats out on lakes and rivers because of the improving economy and the higher water levels from the Sierra Nevada snowmelt.
He warns that last year’s massive Rough fire will mean more debris floating in the Kings River than in previous years, so it’s important to have a good lookout on every boat.
The shoreline itself also will be tricky.
“Because of the low water levels these last four years, there’s shrubbery and grass growing where there hasn’t been before,” Holston said. “And that will now be covered in water, so people could get entangled.”
Rescue personnel understand one sad fact: People will die in the water this year, and most of these deaths could be prevented.
Holston also stressed basic water safety in these faster, deeper bodies of water: Wear a life jacket, and stay out of rivers or canals if you are not a strong swimmer.
Sgt. Kevin Kemmerling of the Tulare County sheriff’s emergency services division is focused on a slightly different task: marshaling one of the most popular – and dangerous – rivers in the country.
Kemmerling said the Kern River is the main source of rescue calls in Tulare County. The icy water picks up speed while dropping from 13,000 feet above sea level to around 200 feet, and the melted winter snow will only speed things up.
The famous kayaking river could see as many as 12 drownings this year, he warned.
Again, alcohol is a factor for the 25 to 35 water-related incidents the Tulare County deputies respond to. This is made even worse by the whitewater.
“Whitewater is white because it is about 65 percent air, and people do not float in aerated water,” Kemmerling said. “If you get in the rapids – and you don’t know what you’re doing or you’ve been drinking – you won’t be able to get out.”
He continued: “The typical current (in the Kern) is 9 to 12 miles per hour. At 9, the force on a person’s body is 151 pounds. We’ve had people drown in 3 feet of water because their foot gets caught, the force of the water pushes them down and they can’t get out.”
151 poundsThe force created by a 9 mph river current.
Kemmerling’s unit includes six resident deputies from various rural areas near Tulare County waterways. The swift-water dive team consists of 14 deputies and works with the department’s search-and-rescue team, which consists of 20 sworn deputies and 75 volunteers.
The department also watches the Tule River, Kings River and Kaweah River, as well as a handful of lakes spread throughout the county.
Kermmerling echoed Holston’s recommendations about alcohol use and life jackets, but he added something further.
“This water is really cold – it’s melted snow,” he said. “People can become hypothermic in water that is less than 91 degrees. This can happen in minutes with no thermal protection.”
Madera County sheriff’s Lt. Bill Ward said he also expects an upswing in water accidents, given the faster currents and deeper water. The department’s boating unit, which focuses mainly on patrolling Bass Lake, only received a few calls for accidents or drownings in the last few years.
Ward said the Sheriff’s Department was working to increase the number of deputies trained as divers and swift-water rescuers.
He recommended staying away from fast-moving water or any body of water if you’re unsure of the environment. The streams will be cold from the snowmelt, which will cause even strong swimmers to tire faster.
Finally, Ward warned against walking on rock formations near rivers or streams. Deputies have had plenty of calls for people who have slipped and fallen into rushing water.