Memorial Day weekend marks the traditional start of the rafting season along the American River, and this year may be an unusually dangerous one for people flocking to the area’s waterways.
Record rain and snowfall have shattered the years-long drought in Northern California and left the American River running high, fast and cold. Public safety officials say rafters and swimmers face more hazards than they have in years.
Warning signs discouraging boaters and rafters have been posted at park entrances along the American River Parkway, but rafting companies and park officials say they expect countless people to ignore the peril and hit the river this weekend.
The biggest hazards can’t yet be seen, trees, branches and debris swept downstream during the winter’s massive storms that are now submerged but still may snare passing rafts and boats.
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“There’s a whole new set of hazards out there,” said Sacramento County park ranger Commander Stan Lumsden. “It’s a recipe for disaster.”
River flows below Nimbus Dam last year at this time were about 4,000 cubic feet per second, a relatively fast pace that later in the summer was cut in half. This week, the flows have been running at more than 9,200 cfs.
The two companies that rent to rafters, American River Raft Rentals and River Rat Raft Rental & Bike, say they both will be open starting Saturday and will warn customers to wear life jackets and use common sense on the water.
Lumsden said river flows are expected to drop to 5,000 to 6,000 cfs by the weekend, a level he described as “still pretty high.”
The rafting companies say they will emphasize that the river is not as placid as in drought years and that life jackets should be worn.
“There’s going to be more of a safety talk beforehand,” American River Raft Rentals manager Kent Hansen said. “We try to tell everyone to wear them, and we’ve given them to people who have their own rafts.”
The company also has allowed people in the past to use its pumps to inflate rafts they bring on their own, but it won’t be permitting that for people who show up with pool toys and other flimsy inflatables that can easily be punctured and sink.
Hansen said employees rafted down the river earlier in the week to check for problem areas. If river flows are too high this weekend the company will offer guides to accompany rafters, he said. If they are extreme, the rental service will shut down.
River Rat will also be warning rafters about the conditions.
“The water will be low enough to go and do a mostly mellow ride, but you’ll still have to paddle to kind of avoid some obstacles in the water,” employee Ian Owens said.
Rafters will be told to launch this year below the PCA bridge just downriver of Sunrise Boulevard, to avoid hitting the pilings that earlier this month snagged a group and forced firefighters to rescue two rafters clinging to the structure in the water. None of the five wore life jackets.
Alcohol is not allowed on the river during holiday weekends, and authorities will be patrolling the water and issuing citations. In past years, throngs of people showed up at ranger checkpoints with coolers full of booze and were told to return it to their vehicles. A change in the county ordinance over the winter bans alcohol altogether from the parks and parking lots in the county parks, and signs went up this week alerting people to the ban. Alcohol below Howe Avenue in the city’s jurisdiction is always prohibited.
So far this year, authorities believe three people have drowned in area waterways: a 13-year-old boy who jumped into the water at Negro Bar on May 1 and disappeared underwater; a 19-year-old who went missing May 11 after jumping into the water near a popular swimming hole known as Clark’s Pool in the Auburn area; and a 52-year-old man jumped off a boat in the Delta on May 20 to rescue a child.
Many area drownings occur near Tiscornia Beach at Discovery Park, where the confluence of the American and Sacramento rivers make for dangerous current conditions and steep underwater dropoffs.
That beach area will remain closed this weekend because of winter storm and flooding damage, but county parks officials say the park itself will open on a limited basis to allow people to launch boats.
“The beaches will be closed,” parks director Jeff Leatherman said. “The water just kind of receded three weeks ago. Discovery Park’s essentially been under water since December.”
Even with that beach area closed, Leatherman said people need to be cautious around the water. “No matter what, whether the river’s flowing at 3000 cfs or 10,000 cfs, we want people to make safe choices,” he said.