Higher water levels in Valley and Sierra rivers and lakes are posing problems for officials who oversee public parks and the emergency responders who rescue swimmers, officials say.
It was clear by May that melting snow would mean deeper and faster rivers after years of drought.
On Sunday, one family was stranded on an island in the San Joaquin River after going out to a child who appeared to be drowning.
Hector Vasquez, spokesman for the Fresno Fire Department, says that actually is more common than people might think.
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“The sky’s the limit, especially when it gets warm,” he said. People often get brave and underestimate how deep the water is or how strong the currents are.
“A lot of these instances, people don’t even know how to swim,” Vasquez said.
Fresno County sheriff’s Sgt. Rob Dutrow says that almost always is the case.
“We rarely have ‘oh, he’s a strong swimmer, he wasn’t drinking,’ ” Dutrow said. “It’s always zero to no swimming ability at all.”
Dutrow works with the sheriff’s boating unit. He said the Kings River is currently flowing at 6,000 cubic feet per second. Last year’s average was under 1,000, Dutrow said.
David Chavez, park manager for Fresno County, said water levels can cause problems.
“The water is higher, and going through the river at greater velocities,” he said. “That’s a dangerous combination.”
The drought in California drastically lowered water levels in past years, Chavez said.
“Ordinarily, during those past four years, they were lucky to have water for a couple of weeks,” he said. This year, places like Kings River and Laton-Kingston Park have had water since May 31, Chavez said.
Traffic has been so high at Skaggs Bridge Park and Lost Lake on the San Joaquin River that Chavez had to increase staffing to accommodate the cars coming through. People try to double park or park on the turf, he said.
This poses safety problems. The park has to make sure there is enough room for emergency vehicles to get through, Chavez said. Parking on the grass also can damage underground irrigation channels at the parks, he said.
The water is higher, and going through the river at greater velocities. That’s a dangerous combination.
David Chavez, park manager for Fresno County
Both parks have enough parking to accommodate visitors, but Chavez said people want to be closer to the water rather than walk a few more feet from more remote parking lots.
Dutrow, who grew up in Sanger, has fond memories of floating down the Kings River with friends and family. After working with the boating unit, however, he considers it too dangerous.
“Now that I know everything I know, I’m out of it. I’ll never do it again,” he said.
Dutrow has two daughters, a 4-year-old and a 19-month-old. At Winton Park, he sees hundreds of visitors on a busy weekend, including families who let their toddlers waddle out chest-deep into the water with no flotation devices.
“It terrifies me,” Dutrow said. “It’s everything that scares me and everything that worries me summed up right there.”
Officers patrol rivers and lakes regularly on the weekends, including the Kings River, Shaver Lake, Pine Flat and Huntington Lake. Dutrow estimates that his unit performs nearly 50 rescues every weekend.
At least 10 of those, he said, are rescues that would be fatal if his men weren’t there.
Vasquez stressed the need to use proper flotation devices when going out in the water. An inner tube doesn’t count, he said, because it doesn’t stay attached to your body.
Officers on patrol typically spot swimmers hanging onto trees or bushes after they fall off their inner tubes or snag them on a tree, Dutrow said.
Vasquez recommends swimming in public pools where lifeguards are on duty. Make sure an adult is always present, and use proper flotation devices.
Dutrow also stresses that it’s important to learn how to swim. There have been 13 drownings this year alone, he said.
“If you cannot swim, you cannot get in the waterway,” he said.