Figures released this week by the Sacramento County coroner support the perception that 2015 has been the worst year in recent memory for drownings on Sacramento’s two major rivers.
There have been more than twice as many drownings on the Sacramento and American rivers in Sacramento County as in an average year of the past decade. Drownings on the Sacramento River are more than four times normal, going from an average of about 1.5 a year to six in 2015.
It’s hard to pinpoint what’s causing so many tragedies. Hotter summers that draw more swimmers are sometimes blamed for a higher number of drowning deaths. So are years with heavy snow packs that cause the rivers to flow fast, deep and cold. Neither has been a factor this year.
Instead, some experts say the drought may be to blame for many of the drownings, especially at a major danger spot, Tiscornia Beach, where the two rivers meet near downtown Sacramento. The popular wading spot sits just north of downtown, across the American River from Discovery Park.
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Lower-than-normal river flows have created invitingly warm water and exposed sandy shallows that lure unsuspecting waders into an area of Tiscornia Beach where, close to shore, the river suddenly plunges from waist deep to well over a swimmer’s head, and where the current is so forceful it carries drowning victims a mile downstream to the Tower Bridge.
“You’re waist deep and you go a couple more steps, and all of a sudden you’re gone,” said Bob Erickson, a member of the Drowning Accident Rescue Team, the all-volunteer group of divers that responds to incidents in the region’s waterways.
At least five people have drowned at Tiscornia Beach this summer, all but one at the small section of beach on the Sacramento River side of the park, DART members said.
The grim tally largely accounts for this summer’s increase in drownings.
Closing that 250 feet of beach to swimmers and directing them to the American River portion of the beach, which is three times longer and where the shallows extend at least twice as far into the river, would save lives, rescuers said.
“I don’t think it will hurt one citizen in Sacramento to not be able to swim or play in that couple hundred feet,” said Jim Remick, a DART diver and driver of the team’s rescue boat.
Several large signs warning of river dangers went up at Tiscornia after a series of five drownings in less than a month this summer. And DART started patrolling the beach by boat and on foot in late July to head off drownings.
“Last week somebody died right where you’re swimming,” Remick said he told people on the Sacramento River side of Tiscornia Beach after the last drowning on July 19, when 23-year-old Earlsiilian Turner, of McCool, Miss., slipped below the surface.
Remick agreed the situation may be especially bad this year because the Sacramento River has shrunk in width and depth in the drought, letting waders go farther into the river without realizing the danger.
Data from state and federal water agencies show the dramatic decrease in water flowing into the Sacramento River and its depth over the last four years of the worst drought in the state’s history.
In June 2010, a non-drought year, flows into the river from Shasta Lake ranged from about 9,000 cubic feet per second to 15,000 cubic feet per second, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. This June the flows from the lake, the river’s major water source, swung between 5,000 and 7,000 cubic feet per second.
The amount of water released from Shasta Lake into the Sacramento River in June was 45 percent less than in June 2010, the bureau reported.
At Sacramento’s I Street Bridge, the state Department of Water Resources measure’s the river’s height above sea level. In the summer of 2011, the river rose to 15 feet above sea level. This summer it barely topped 5 feet.
With a change in volume, “the river may or may not get narrower. It depends on the shape of the channel,” said Jeff Kitchen, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Service in Sacramento. “In some stretches it may have a significant effect. It’s very site-specific.”
Erickson, with DART, said he believes the Tiscornia Beach area is one place where the Sacramento River has pulled back enough to create heightened danger and this year’s season of tragedies.
“It’s just the river being a little lower, and people going out a little farther,” he said.