Rivers throughout the Western United States are thundering with greater force than they have for years — and proving deadly as warm weather melts some of the deepest mountain snowpacks in recent memory.
Heavy snowfall in the Cascade Mountains has assured farmers of a full supply of irrigation waters, while record snowfall has virtually eliminated California’s five-year drought and it is now melting rapidly.
Hydrologists say Washington’s rivers, including the Yakima and Naches, are running higher than usual as this year’s snowpack slowly melts off.
Yakima County firefighters rescued seven people from a high-running Yakima River, including six kayakers competing in the Gap2Gap relay race a week ago. In King County rivers, one person drowned and two others have been injured in recent weeks.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Tri-City Herald
And while the Yakima River has dropped about a foot in the past week, experts emphasize the swift and dangerously cold waters, coupled with the debris being swept along, are making it and the nearby Naches River hazardous.
“If you’re going to be on the water, boating or swimming, this is probably not the safest time of the year,” said Yakima Fire Department Lt. Nick Sloan.
To date this year, no river drownings have been reported in Yakima or Kittitas counties. But across the West, high waters are blamed for contributing to at least 14 river deaths and prompted officials to close sections of rivers popular with swimmers, rafters and fishing enthusiasts.
The sheer beauty of the rivers is their draw — and represents a big danger to people who decide to beat the heat by swimming or rafting with little awareness of the risks posed by the raging water.
In California’s Yosemite Valley, the velocity and force of the Merced River is similar to a runaway freight train, said Moose Mutlow of the Yosemite Swift Water Rescue Team.
“You step out in front of it, it’s going to take you,” he said. “You’re not going to stop that, and that’s what people need to get their heads around.”
Heavy storms this winter covered the central Sierra Nevada mountains with snow that remains at twice its normal level for this time of year.
The snowmelt is so dangerous that park rangers fear its impact on the crowded park that drew a record five million people last year, when four people drowned.
This year, one 50-year-old man is believed to have drowned at Yosemite after falling into the Merced River from a winding trail. His body has not been found.
Elsewhere in California, there have been at least 11 drownings since the snowpack started melting in May.
In Washington, a 16-year-old Issaquah boy’s body was pulled from the Snoqualmie River May 25, days after he went missing while swimming in the river. A dive team found the boy’s body about 450 feet downstream from a waterfall he’d been swept over.
Earlier, a woman was taken to Harborview Medical Center in critical condition after falling out of an inner tube while floating the Green River near Auburn.
Chad Stuart, field officer manager with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in Terrace Heights, said cooler weather is keeping the snowcap from melting rapidly, but warm weather could cause the river to surge again.
Yakima Fire Department has conducted seven rescues this year on the river, with six of them during the Gap2Gap race on June 4, while a seventh involved a woman who fell out of her canoe and was stranded on a log in the middle of the river Memorial Day weekend.
Yakima Fire Department’s Sloan said a particularly dangerous spot is where the Naches flows into the Yakima, creating eddies and currents that could trap an unwary swimmer.
He said the water temperatures are also cold enough to impair a person’s ability to swim, as the body attempts to adjust to temperatures that are 30 to 40 degrees lower than air.
Plus, the increased flow has stirred up river sediments, reducing visibility of underwater hazards.
Sloan and Kittitas County Undersheriff Clay Myers suggested people wear life jackets if they go out on the river, as well as let people know where they are going and when they expect to be back.
Officials in Utah, Nevada, Idaho and Wyoming have all issued warnings about cold swift water.
On his first trip to Yosemite, cartoonist Andy Runton, 42, steered clear of the turbulent Merced River.
He took a selfie at a safe distance from a grassy meadow with Yosemite Falls far behind him. Within a few hours of entering the park, Runton said the sweeping vistas and raging waterfalls had left a lifelong impression.
“You can see the power of the water,” Runton said. “You can feel it. Nature doesn’t slow down.”