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Dangerous Depths - Officials Warn Of Conditions

POSTED June 22, 2011 12:08 a.m.
It seems at the beginning of every warm weather season, water officials issue a dire warning about conditions on the Stanislaus River. The basics: it’s moving fast, it’s cold, and it’s filled with hidden dangers, remain the same. The difference this year? Take the essence behind those typical warnings and multiply that by a hundred and you might have an inkling of what officials fear for the 2011 summer season.
“I’m very concerned,” stated Oakdale Rural Fire Chief Lee Winton in no uncertain terms. “The water is extremely cold, running at record levels and it doesn’t look like it’s going to recede. The flow rates could go up — through the roof up.”
Winton and his rural crews have already had their new rescue boat (made possible through a donation from Oakdale Irrigation District) in the water multiple times in the past week, and there have already been drowning deaths reported in Riverbank and Ripon. If the recent activity is any indication of things to come, the body count could rise as surely as the water level.
Preliminary data given to Oakdale Irrigation District as of June 15 regarding New Melones states the dam is at 2.153 Million Acre Feet with a total capacity for storage at 2.4 MAF, which means the water is practically sloshing over the rim as it is and there’s more water coming from the deep snow pack run-off.
The inflow to New Melones is 8,000 cfs (cubic feet per second), which is the highest cfs inflow to date this year.
According to Steve Knell, Oakdale Irrigation District General Manager, the New Melones operating permit doesn’t allow for storage after June 30, hence whatever comes in, must be released. Downstream of Goodwin, the river is currently flowing at 2,000 cfs.
Information gleaned from the Bureau of Reclamation stated that river flow of 8,663 cfs on the Stanislaus occurred on May 26, 2001, which caused flooding in homes near the river in Oakdale.
“From now until July 1, things could get interesting on the river,” Knell said.
The threat is real for a repeat of 2001 conditions, prompting a safety meeting between local agencies to prepare an action plan in the event the Stanislaus swells its banks and threatens homes again.
Winton confirmed, “We are prepping for potential flooding and getting a plan together.”
The US Army Corps of Engineers has spent considerable resources trying to ensure the safety of those recreating on the Stanislaus River — from offering free life-jackets in a loaner program to actively patrolling the river on boat and kayak — yet they can’t do anything about the flow of the river.
“We try to do as much as we can to promote water safety but we can’t control the amount of water released,” Norm Winchester, US Army Corps Natural Resource Specialist said. “Everyone is doing their part to notify people about the conditions but barring telling people they can’t get in the water, there isn’t much we can do.”
In spite of repeated warnings, people continue to take chances with their lives by climbing into little inflatable pool rafts that are unsuitable for river conditions, basically taking their lives into their hands.
And sometimes the lives of their children.
One rescuer who wished to remain anonymous said he saw a family floating down the river in an inflatable raft holding a 2-year-old in their lap without a life jacket.
It’s instances like this that chill the blood of every rescue personnel, particularly when they know it only takes a split second to turn a rescue operation into a body recovery.
“Usually from Memorial Day to June 1 is when the river is moving the fastest,” Winchester said. “But it’s ten times higher than normal right now. That’s dangerous. And there’s still a lot of snow up at the pass so it’s going to run high longer than normal.”
Winton said adamantly of the river, “I wouldn’t get in it. People are really putting themselves at risk by getting in that water. None of the people we’ve rescued thus far were prepared for the conditions. They didn’t have a clue. The surface looks okay…it’s what’s underneath that’s the problem.”
The upcoming July 4 weekend — a weekend typically busy with river enthusiasts — is already putting rescue personnel on high alert.
“All stations will be covered with extra engines brought in from outlying areas,” Winton shared, similar to the Maximum Enforcement Period observed by law enforcement during high traffic holidays. “We’re trying to prepare for whatever might happen. But people need to understand, this is not a normal year.”
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