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Central Valley rivers are flowing stronger, faster, more fatally

There have been more deaths and injuries than emergency workers can recall in at least 10 years. Rivers known for raging are faster and colder. So are usually peaceful stretches of water.

July 10, 2011|By Diana Marcum
  • Yosemite National Park swift water rescue rangers practice in the raging Merced River before the Memorial Day holiday weekend.
Yosemite National Park swift water rescue rangers practice in the raging… (Tracie Cone, Associated…)

Reporting from Reedley, Calif. — This hot, flat valley has a summertime pact with its rivers.

Come the time of year when the air smells like asphalt and it's so hot that a person's skin prickles just stepping outside, the rivers offer respite. People finishing their shifts at the packing house, or home from a day hauling cattle or driving up from L.A., can grab a raft and float downstream.

But this year, summer is different. This year the rivers changed.

There have been more deaths, injuries and rescue operations on Central Valley waterways than emergency workers can recall in at least 10 years. Rivers known for raging — such as the fast, cold upper "Killer Kern" — are faster and colder, and so are usually peaceful stretches of water.

A massive Sierra Nevada snowpack, almost twice the average, sat frozen through an unusually cool spring, and now melted ice is gushing all at once through every route it can find.

There have been at least nine river drownings reported in the last two months. Among the fatalities were a 28-year-old Dinuba teacher, who was wearing a life jacket while tubing with friends in the Kaweah River; a Lemoore sailor in the Kings River; and a Whittier physician and a friend who slipped while crossing a bridge and fell into the Tuolomne River.

"It's the normally lazy, meandering rivers where people are most getting in trouble," said Sgt. Chris Ramirez, who coordinates the swift water rescue team for the Mariposa County Sheriff's Department.

"These are places where, before, they could grab Uncle Joe and a six-pack of beer and take time floating down, and now the water is just tearing through."

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Signs posted along riverbanks warn "Danger" in different languages. Some parks with public river access remain closed "until further notice."

But take a hot day; a long, golden evening when the sun stays up late; and a beckoning cool river. Soon a flotilla of people on floating devices of dubious merit are navigating submerged rocks and trees. On June 30, there were five rescues on the Merced River near Snelling and four on the San Joaquin River in Fresno in less than 24 hours.

The most tense of the rescue operations began when three teenagers floating down the river on inner tubes got stuck in trees on a usually placid stretch of the Merced.

The Merced Search and Rescue Team called Mariposa County officials for aid — their territory is the churning white rapids just below Yosemite National Park, so they're accustomed to swift water. Four rescuers got the three teens into a boat, but the boat took on water and all seven people went in the river. They clung to an island of trees for hours and were rescued one by one.

Just after midnight, as Mariposa Sheriff's Deputy Tim Rumfelt tried to reach the last stranded man, his rescue raft flipped and sank. Rumfelt was pulled to safety on a rope. The final deputy made it across with a rope and kickboard.

"In 200 rescues I can only think of one other one where we dumped people in the river. Sinking a boat? That's never happened before," Rumfelt said.

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River waters could remain high into September, which is good news for the region's professional river-rafting guides.

"Because of the crazy spring, it's an amazing year for us," said Julie Butchert of Kings River Expeditions. "The water level has made it pretty interesting, unpredictable, fun."

Authorities said they rarely have to respond to incidents on upper, turbulent stretches of water that few would dare enter without a boat and guide.

Even the infamous Kern — "a mean piece of water," as immortalized by country singer and Kern County native Merle Haggard — claims most of its victims not from the narrow, rushing gorges, but rather from places where the river slows down and rolls through towns and cities.

The Bakersfield Fire Department made 12 rescues in a recent week, about the number it usually makes in a year. Most were visitors from the Los Angeles area, Deputy Chief Tim Lynch said.

"It's crazy," he said "Every year people get in trouble on the river, but with the swifter current they're getting in trouble faster than they used to."

Lynch said that even as firefighters were pulling people out of the water, other people were standing in line to jump in with what he called "Kmart coffins — those little plastic rafts where you hit a branch and they go pop."

Each May a warning sign at the mouth of the Kern River is updated with the number of people who have died since 1968.

This year the number went from 251 to 257. In the less than two months since the sign was updated there have been five additional Kern River drownings, three of them over the Fourth of July weekend.

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On a recent sultry afternoon in Reedley, a town south of Fresno, the Kings river flowed past grassy banks, smooth and inviting. Only half-submerged trees hinted at dangers. But a normally crowded camping resort was nearly deserted and another was underwater.

At Lloyd & Geri's Cocktails, one of the patrons wondered aloud what would happen to the owner of the submerged Lindy's Landing down the way:

"He said he probably wouldn't open at all this year. How's he going to pay all those refunds?" he asked at large.

Dawn Kaprielian, behind the bar of the establishment founded by her grandparents in 1947, said she used to float down the Kings every summer weekend. Then, 17 years ago, her husband died on the river.

"I never stepped foot there ever again," she said. "This year I'm not the only one staying away. This is not a time to mess with the river."

metro@latimes.com

Marcum is a Times special correspondent.

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