Water & Drought

Despite drought, some whitewater runs still alive in Northern California

Rafters navigate the Meatgrinder Rapid on the south fork of the American River.
Rafters navigate the Meatgrinder Rapid on the south fork of the American River. Paul McHugh

Much of California already seems dusty and parched. So how is it even remotely possible that, on a recent Monday, some two dozen kayakers, boogie boarders and even board surfers lined themselves up at a rapid called Barking Dog to ride a thick wave of cool, jade-colored water that rippled through the American River Canyon?

It’s because a band of anonymous aquatic heroes has once again saved California’s whitewater season. These saviors are high-elevation lakes that feed into our state’s much larger and more famous low-elevation reservoirs. As water tumbles from high lakes through river canyons, whitewater rapids in the canyons come alive.

“It’s actually pretty awesome, considering that the state is in its fourth critically dry year in a row, and our south fork American River drainage is in its second super-dry year,” said long-time raft entrepreneur Nate Rangel. “We’re in amazingly great shape.”

Rangel founded the Adventure Connection whitewater rafting company, based in Lotus, three decades ago, and is also president of California Outdoors, an alliance of two dozen raft companies that joined other stakeholders in negotiating agreements by which many central Sierra rivers and reservoirs are managed.

Those agreements, part of the federal re-licensing of dams and hydro developments, were accepted by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission last year and should hold for 50 years.

“I truly appreciate all the cooperative work SMUD (Sacramento Municipal Utilities District) and PG&E (Pacific Gas & Electric) did on it with us,” Rangel says. “Now they get to meet customer needs, and it’s balanced with other beneficial uses of the very same water. They stay whole, and so do we.”

That means the utilities can supply hydropower to their clients at the same time river-canyon flows can provide recreation.

The upshot on the south fork of the American River – by far the West’s most popular rafting river – is that whitewater buffs will see raft-able flows released for three hours a day, Saturdays through Mondays, until Memorial Day. After that weekend, flows will be released five hours a day, Thursdays through Mondays, until Labor Day. Such releases, mid-morning to early afternoon, will continue on weekends through September.

“Our big problem this year isn’t water,” says Dan Crandall, founder of Current Adventures, a kayaking school and trip outfitter based in Coloma on the American’s south fork. “It’s public perception. Water supply and flows will be the same as last year and 2013. From some calls we get, people seem to think it’s bone-dry. Not true!”

That perception got fed in April by media events, he said, such as state inspectors traipsing to traditional snowpack survey sites for TV cameras, and not seeing even a thin snow patch to probe with their dipsticks.

Yet, Crandall says, water managers already knew they wouldn’t see much in the way of snowmelt. So instead of draining reservoirs in advance to deal with runoff, they captured and held every drop of winter rain possible. That resulted in surprisingly good reservoir levels in the central and north state, despite the dearth of snowfall.

In addition to the south fork of the American (which has moderate, Class III rapids), the middle fork of the American (intermediate, Class III-IV rapids) will run on weekends only from Memorial Day until June 28. Starting June 30, it will also run on Tuesdays and Fridays as well as weekends, through Labor Day.

There’s a possibility of more weekdays being added, as well as weekends in September, pending ongoing negotiations with water agencies, utilities and the recreation industry. The Tuolumne (advanced, with Class IV-V rapids), famous for some of the best two-day runs in the world, will be blessed with good flows seven days a week until Labor Day (except for alternate Wednesdays). The Tuolumne’s upstream tributary, Cherry Creek (experts only, solid Class V), also will be running.

More summer-long options will abound on the Trinity River, up in Northern California. The Trinity carries mandated flushing flows, designed to keep it healthy for large populations of salmon and steelhead. Those flows are cresting now. May is seeing a robust 8,500 cubic feet per second, which declines to 1,200 cfs in early June. Then the stream will hold “maintainer” flows of 450 cfs into October.

How that flow regimen translates: If you’re searching for whitewater excitement on the Trinity, you should launch now. There are roughly 70 miles and a half-dozen runs commonly used downstream of Lewiston, ranging from class II to IV, and a variety of outfitters available. For a more relaxed outing, hit the Trinity in July and August.

Not all rivers will be able to host a commercial rafting season this year, however. The ones that lack upstream reservoirs are already drying up.

The once-dependable Klamath, just to the north of the Trinity, did not have a robust snowpack in its drainage, lacks the potential for good reservoir releases, and is experiencing high extraction from tributaries and groundwater. Thus, it will only be a shadow of its usual mighty self. In response, the Klamath Riverkeeper conservation group has moved its annual float trip from August to June. The Otter Bar Lodge kayak school hopes to continue offering lessons into July.

Other rivers that lack a boost in flow from high-elevation reservoirs are turning “bony” – to use a rafting term. The blink-and-you-missed-it whitewater season is already over on the north fork of the American, the Stanislaus, Merced, Kings and Kern. Tubing floats might be possible at various spots on these streams, but that’s about it.

Nonetheless the savvy and informed can find isolated options. For example, the O.A.R.S. outfitter in Angels Camp is offering a unique chance to raft the 6-mile Electra run on the Mokelumne River (class II-III) on May 30, a benefit for the restoration work of the Foothill Conservancy.

Also, American Whitewater, a national conservation group, has negotiated an intriguing set of dam releases and raftable flows on four California mountain streams likely to attract private kayakers and rafters who have their own equipment and the skills to use it. For 2015, the nonprofit has floatable dates available on the Feather and Pit rivers, the south fork of Silver Creek, and the Tiger Creek run on the Mokelumne (see box).

In addition, the All-Outdoors California Whitewater Rafting company says the Goodwin Canyon run (class IV) on the Stanislaus might awaken for two weeks in October, when special salmon-summoning flows will be sent downstream. Dates for runs will be announced in August.

In sum, despite the lingering drought, California will have significant portions of its rivers open for business throughout summer, with special opportunities available for those willing to search them out. And right now, present conditions actually can supply unexpected benefits.

“Usually at this time of year, the south fork American is pretty cold, and it stays that way well into July,” says Crandall of Current Adventures. “That’s because the early flows tend to be all snowmelt. But now, because the river is flowing mainly with rainwater out of reservoirs, it’s already much warmer. That makes the south fork more comfortable for a lot of users right now, whether you’re a rafter, a kayaker or even just prefer to float on an inner tube.”

Whitewater Rafting

  • Basics: Beginners should start with mild runs (Class II or III) and gradually move up in difficulty. Guided trips shorten the learning curve. Learn about proper dress and gear, how to read and judge the water, how to avoid and cope with hazards.
  • Outfitters: Visit the California Whitewater Rafting website, c-w-r.com, to book individual and group trips on rivers from the Klamath to Kern. It offers a full roster of outfitters and concise background on varied rivers. When you contact an outfitter, be ready to list ages, outdoor experience and general fitness of your participants, in order to pick an appropriate outing.
  • South fork trips: For outfitters working the South Fork American, go to TheAmericanRiver.com, which also has trips on the Feather, Pit and Mokelumne rivers. Custom trips and group rates can be negotiated.
  • Kayak schools: On the south fork of the American, schools that offer lessons to beginners and intermediates include: CurrentAdventures.com, TheRiverStore.com and California Canoe & Kayak (calkayak.com).
  • Shuttles: The Coloma Shuttle serves the south fork American river runs. For schedule and reservations, go to Colomashuttle.com, or call (530) 303-2404. The best way to assure pickup is to reserve for a group of seven or more.
  • More info: For more recreation resources on the south fork of the American, go to Coloma.com or the The American River Conservancy, arconservancy.org.