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It’s heating up. But when will California’s waterways be warm enough for summer fun?

Northern and Central California in 2019 experienced the rainiest start to the year in recent memory, including one of Sacramento’s wettest Februaries on record.

It rained hard enough and long enough to eliminate drought conditions statewide by mid-March, and to boost snowpack levels in the Sierra above annual averages at each of this year’s monthly snow surveys.

But within just a few weeks, weather warmed up – perhaps too much, and too quickly.

Fire departments, sheriff’s departments and water rescue agencies across Northern California have consistently urged people to take great caution and avoid swift-moving rivers since March, when warmer and sunnier weather started luring swimmers and boaters to waterways that are still too cold.

Some of those agencies have encouraged people to hold off on river activity until at least June.

With six weeks until the official start of summer, a number of high-profile drowning incidents have already been reported within day-trip driving distance of Sacramento.

A 56-year-old Sacramento man was found dead in the North Fork of the American River near Colfax last Sunday, after three rafters who were not wearing life jackets reportedly flipped and fell into the water. A search by Cal Fire and Placer County Sheriff’s crews was suspended after midnight Saturday amid dangerous rapids and “pitch black” light, Cal Fire said.

Another Sacramento man fell into the North Fork of the American River near Auburn on March 17 and was found dead three days later. It was a sunny Sunday and the warmest day of the year at that point across much of Northern California, reaching the mid-70s. Though Placer sheriff’s officials indicate that the man may have fallen from the No Hands Bridge, deputies used the incident as a reminder on water safety.

“PLEASE avoid getting into the river until after June when the flows have calmed down, and instead, visit your nearest lake – the water is warmer and less dangerous,” the sheriff’s office said in a Facebook post.

The frigid waters of the American River are typically between 38 and 45 degrees in March, according to sheriff’s officials.

National Weather Service’s Sacramento office recently posted an infographic that claims water temperatures below 40 degrees are “extremely dangerous,” stripping away the body’s ability to control limbs and breathing. NWS says anything below 60 degrees is “very dangerous,” with a few minutes of submersion resulting in loss of limb control.

Those factors make the importance of life jackets paramount for those who do choose to traverse waterways in spite of the cold water.

The American River at Fair Oaks has peaked just below 55 degrees in mid-April and again in early May, U.S. Geological Survey data show. The Sacramento River at Freeport came just short of 62 degrees in late April, cooling back down to about 60 by the first week of May.

As Placer sheriff’s officials said in their March social media post, Northern California’s lakes are indeed safer than the North Fork — an extended stretch of the American River from Folsom Lake to the Sierra Nevada that serves as a hotspot for advanced whitewater rafting.

But drownings happen at lakes, too.

A 29-year-old Vineyard man is presumed dead, with a search for his body suspended by authorities April 18 after he reportedly fell into Folsom Lake while jet skiing with a friend April 14. Folsom Lake State Recreation Area Superintendent Richard Preston told The Bee that the two jet skiers were not wearing life jackets.

Preston also said it was “not common” for jet skiing to begin there as early as mid-April, but when it’s a “pretty nice day” with warm weather, boaters and jet skiers pay less attention to the calendar date.

Preston said the water was about 60 degrees on April 14, and it reaches the 70s and low 80s in summer months.

But Folsom Lake’s boat ramps open based on water elevation, not date or temperature, and the mid-April water levels were higher this year than in any since 1989, according to state Department of Water Resources data.

That high water level can be attributed to sustained downpours earlier in the year and melting Sierra snowpack.

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Michael McGough anchors The Sacramento Bee’s breaking news reporting team, covering public safety and other local stories. A Sacramento native and lifelong capital resident, he interned at The Bee while attending Sacramento State, where he earned a degree in journalism.
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