Park officials warn of flooding dangers as American River rises

After years of drought, the Sacramento region’s rivers Wednesday were flush with water as a result of recent storms and increased water releases from Folsom Dam.

The rising water levels sent an estimated 200 homeless campers along the American River scrambling for higher ground. Over the past few days, Sacramento County park rangers have warned campers to move, while a Sacramento police helicopter broadcast the same message from the sky.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Ann McCallops said while sipping a cup of coffee next to a chain-link fence bordering Interstate 5 at Discovery Park.

McCallops was camped under a bridge next to the river with her husband, but she said rangers told them to leave early Wednesday.

Homeless people have long lived on the American River Parkway and in other wooded areas, but the drought opened up new opportunities to establish camps as waters receded to historic lows. Homeless camper Will Henkins said many opt to live as close as possible to the river so they aren’t disturbed by park rangers.

“That’s the only place we can hide from the rangers,” he said. “Out of sight and out of mind. If they don’t see us, they won’t bother us.”

Sacramento County authorities pre-emptively closed several access points Wednesday for safety reasons.

At the confluence of the American and Sacramento rivers in downtown Sacramento, Discovery Park beaches – where a week ago anglers tried their luck from shore – were inundated Wednesday. Along the bank, cautionary signs warned “HIGH FLOWS: Raft, swim, or boat at your own risk.”

Access points at Howe and Watt avenues on the American River Parkway are closed to vehicle traffic. A detour near Sailor Bar, mile 21.5 on the bike trail, is in place for bicyclists and pedestrians. Boat launches at Upper Sunrise and Sailor Bar are closed because of the increased flow.

“The river is still rising, and it seems to be rising faster than anticipated,” said Michael Doane, chief ranger for Sacramento County Regional Parks.

Since Monday, the American River has risen by 3 feet, according to Doane. The Sacramento River at the I Street bridge was standing at 18.5 feet, an increase of 3.5 feet, Doane said. Authorities have projected the river to hit 22 feet at the bridge by the week’s end.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation increased water releases from Folsom Dam to 15,000 cubic feet per second this week to make room for rain expected to begin Thursday and continue through the weekend.

Organizers for the Blue Diamond Almonds Shamrock’n Half Marathon on Sunday are planning a course change for the 13.1-mile course that will start and finish at Raley Field. Race participants will get final instructions of potential changes Thursday afternoon or Friday by email.

Richard Chang: 916-321-1018, @RichardYChang