This year’s epic runoff into San Joaquin Valley rivers is creating a tricky tightrope for local agencies tasked with keeping the public safe.
How do you let people enjoy the bounty of water while making sure they don’t do anything lethally stupid?
Upper Kern River
It’s a difficult balance, as Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux discovered after his office issued a blanket closure of the upper Kern River on its Facebook page Thursday evening.
The order immediately closed all public access to the river – indefinitely – from about two miles east of Johnsondale Bridge to the Tulare-Kern county line, about four miles east of Kernville.
Reaction was swift with about 150 people commenting either for or against.
“This closure is beyond unacceptable as the life blood and economy of the Kern River Valley depends on access to the Upper Kern,” wrote the Kern River Conservancy, a nonprofit group river educational group.
On the other side: “Sheriff Boudreaux made the hard call. No one life is worth any amount of money,” wrote Julian Tapia.
Friday morning Boudreaux said his office would be amending the closure order and that it did not apply to professional rafting companies nor to experienced boaters and kayakers. The order will be changed to make that clear, he said.
“The focus is not on businesses, or experienced boaters,” he said Friday morning. “But I definitely want those people without safety vests and proper equipment to stay out of the river. You do not get to go in the water and I don’t care how mad you get.”
Campgrounds and other access points on the upper river will remain open, he said.
Deputies will be patrolling and if they see people in the river who shouldn’t be, especially children, they will be warned to get out. If those same folks go downstream and get back in, that could result in a citation, Boudreaux said.
He and his officers will be watching the river, evaluating the incoming flows through the weekend to see if the closure order can be lifted or altered and a new order may be issued Monday or Tuesday.
Boudreaux acknowledged the order posted Thursday night on the department’s Facebook was more broad than intended, but may have a good effect.
“It got people’s attention,” he said. “Now they’re talking, they’re aware.”
In the last big water year, 2017, Boudreaux said, his department pulled seven bodies out of Tulare County rivers. And it still hasn’t found one person who went missing from the Slick Rock area of Kaweah River April 28.
Kern River – Keysville
Meanwhile, the Bureau of Land Management closed all public access to the very popular Keysville recreation site below Isabella Dam beginning Thursday evening until “such time that conditions allow for the safe use of the public lands,” according to its Facebook page.
SJV Water called the local BLM office for comment but no one ever picked up the line.
The back-to-back blanket closures created frustration and confusion for commercial rafting companies, which have been traversing the big water on the upper Kern since January and were looking forward to running trips down the lower Kern after years of drought and Covid have crimped their business.
Keysville is where those companies launch for lower Kern trips, explained Tom Moore, owner of Sierra South Paddle Sports in Kernville.
After the orders came out and caused panic among rafting companies, he said the BLM assured him that professional companies were exempt from its order. He’s also now working with Boudreaux to craft a more tailored closure for the upper Kern.
“It’s like taking a meat cleaver to a surgical procedure,” Moore said of blanket closure orders. “Nobody knows the river better than we do.”
Commercial rafters aren’t the ones drowning in the river, said Moore. In fact, they help rescue people who get stranded, he added. Moore’s outfit has even trained Tulare County Sheriff’s employees and recently received a request from the Kern County Fire Department for training in swiftwater rescues, he said.
Lower Kern River
The Kern River under Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood’s jurisdiction, from just east of Kernville all the way to Interstate 5, is open and will remain so.
“A lot of that is symbolic,” he said of river closures. “There’s no way to police it. And if you send a message to LA that the Kern River is closed, you’ve just killed the economies of Kernville, Wofford Heights and Lake Isabella.
“I would think with a river that’s raging that high, anyone smart enough to spell their own name would know better than to get in it, or let their kids in it.”
But it does happen. There were 11 drownings in 2019 and 13 in 2017, the two most recent wet years.
In fact, there are still people missing in the river.
The Sheriff’s office sent crews to search for bodies just last month when flows were temporarily halted as the Army Corps of Engineers rerouted water from the power plant at Isabella Dam through its gates.
Youngblood said the Sheriff’s office is putting out social media posts and working with the local nonprofit Kern River Conservancy to urge people to be cautious this year.
“But the issue may resolve itself at the end of the month here if the river gets so high it washes out Highway 178 in the canyon,” he said. “There are two or three spots where it’s getting close.”
Kings, Merced and San Joaquin rivers
All public recreation on the Kings, Merced and San Joaquin rivers is closed.
Someone already drowned in the Kings River back in March, said Sheriff Dave Robinson.
That river is especially dangerous because of its weir system. Every couple miles there is a weir which people can easily get stuck in, Robinson said. That’s what happened in March to a farmworker who drowned.
The worker wasn’t trying to recreate in the river, he was doing his job trying to clear debris out of the weir, said Robinson.
“We’re just trying to prevent those accidents from happening,” said Robinson. “We really need to urge people to stay out of the Kings River for any type of recreation. It’s just not safe.”
In Fresno County, the river closures include recreation areas such as Winton Park, Avocado Lake Park, Skaggs Bridge Park, Lost Lake Recreation Area, Laton-Kingston Park and China Creek Park.
“The flows are just way too dangerous,” said Tony Botti, public information officer for the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office. “That can cost you your life right now.”
Most of the community has heeded the warnings and closures, said Botti.
But there have been a few who haven’t. Two kayakers and their dog got stranded in a tree in the San Joaquin River. Their kayak was inflatable and started to deflate in the tree, said Botti. The Fresno City Fire Department rescued them.
Kaweah and Tule rivers
At the same time the Tulare County Sheriff’s office issued its order on the upper Kern, it also closed portions of the Kaweah and Tule rivers, per its Facebook page.
The Army Corps of Engineers asked the department to close the Slick Rock and Cobble Knoll recreation sites on the Kaweah River above Kaweah Lake because high flows had created unstable banks.
Tulare Search and Rescue Teams had to rescue two people from the Kaweah River at Slick Rock on April 28. A third person from that group is still missing.
The order issued Thursday closed sections of the Tule River from the National Monument to Lower Coffee Camp.
“There will be no public access at all sites on the Middle Fork of the Tule River beginning at the entrance to the Giant Sequoia National Monument and extending to the Moorehouse Fish Hatchery just below Pier Point Springs. Also, river access is restricted from the North Fork of the Middle Fork of the Tule River to Wishon Campground,” the order states.
The closures will remain in place until the rivers are determined to be “safe.”