High river poses danger to swimmers

With a hefty snowpack in the Sierra and a strong, snow-melting sun, the icy surge of the Carson River is a double-edged sword for Valley residents: advantageous for hay farmers, but dangerous for swimmers.

"We're running above average," Gary Barbato, a hydrologist for the National Weather Service, said Monday. "But the forecast is for the river to fall pretty drastically in the next week."

According to Barbato, as of Monday at 12:30 p.m., the East Fork of the Carson River was running at 1,080 cubic feet per second, versus the average flow for the same day at 736 cfs.

"The flows are dangerously high," said Barbato. "The water is cold and fast. There's also lots of stuff in the river that could get you in trouble. If you get out there in the middle, then you'll have a hard time swimming to shore."

Barbato said the Natural Resources Conservation Service forecasted June and July flows at 111 percent of average. He said the river peaked on June 6 at 3,740 cfs and has been declining gradually since.

Still, he said, there are significant swings in flow between morning and evening hours. For example, on Monday afternoon, the highest flow in the preceding 24 hours was at 6:45 a.m., coming in at 1,360 cfs. The lowest was at 5:15 p.m. the previous day at 897 cfs. Although far from flood stage (7,450 cfs), Barbato said the high flows and daily fluctuations are nonetheless risky for would-be swimmers.

"Really keep an eye on your kids," he said. "There are big ups and downs between morning and evening. If you're camping, that is something to watch out for. During afternoon hours, it looks pretty low, but in the morning hours, it comes back up. Keep that in mind."

Above-average flows are only part of the problem. Summer run-off brings all kinds of debris with it, from rocks and trees to whatever else may fall in the river's path. The danger is especially salient downstream of the old power dam near Ruhenstroth, where the still-deteriorating structure continuously sheds concrete and rebar.

Last summer, a Douglas High School student was knocked unconscious while swimming in the pools below the dam. Emergency personnel said the young man would have drowned if not for his friends pulling him out and performing CPR.

On Friday, another man jumped into the river in the same area and broke his ankle. According to reports, the man was clinging to a rock when rescuers arrived. Members of the East Fork Fire & Paramedic Districts, assisted by Douglas County Search & Rescue, had to put a life jacket on the victim and float him downstream to a stretcher.

"He jumped in the exact spot where we had the incident last year," said Search & Rescue President Rod Hogan.

Hogan said there's a diversion tunnel below the water that creates an undertow, increasing the danger of the spot.

"It takes a lot of training and a lot of hard work to have something like this come out as smoothly as it did," Hogan said of Friday's rescue.

The incident was the second swift-water rescue call that day. Earlier in the afternoon, Mono County authorities sought aid from Douglas County for a situation in the Walker River Canyon, but Douglas was canceled after Mono successfully rescued the people.

To view current river conditions, visit www.wrh.noaa.gov/rev and click on the rivers and lakes link.


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