Sierra snow meltdown approaches its full force

American River Middle Fork running 3,600 cfs; not the usual 1,000
By: Gus Thomson Journal Staff Writer
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With temperatures in the Sierra rising into the 80s, an unusually late mountain-snowcap meltdown is causing downstream flows to rise rapidly. For Steve Jones, Placer County Water Agency’s power system manager for the past 28 years, the strong flows are a late-June rarity. Middle Fork Power System measurements showed flows more than 3½ times above normal for this time of year. “We’ve had seasons like this before but not in a long time,” Jones said. Jones, who will retire July 1, said that for the first time since 1983, the water agency’s Hell Hole Reservoir will continue spilling into July. Jones said that the dam started to release water over its top June 7 and projections are that it will continue to do so through July 27. That sends more water downstream along the Middle Fork of the American River. Measurements on Monday showed a flow of 3,600 cubic feet per second. Jones said a normal flow at this time would be about 1,000 cfs. For commercial rafters, that means the upper Middle Fork – and its infamous Tunnel Chute – are too wild to take a chance on. “When the flows get even above 1,500 cfs, they don’t like to raft it,” Jones said. “And the Tunnel Chute, they just can’t get through.” The chute, a man-made tunnel carved out of rock by 19th century gold miners to divert the riverbed, is one of the high points of a Middle Fork whitewater run. Nate Rangel, president of California Outdoors whitewater rafting organization, said Monday that the industry is working around the water conditions, and moving more excursions onto the North and South Forks of the American River. “We’re playing it by ear and I don’t expect to be on the Middle Fork until at least the middle of July,” Rangel said. “We’re just lucky we have three awesome rivers.” Rangel, the owner of Coloma’s Adventure Connection rafting business, said that outfitters are taking some extra steps this spring and summer because of the colder water and higher flows. Rafters are running multiple-boat trips rather than single boats and adding kayakers for safety. Wetsuits are also being used on trips and that should continue through early July, Rangel said. The cold water and high flows are cause for concern with the Auburn State Recreation Area. The Middle and North Forks of the American River come together at the confluence, in the canyon below Auburn. Supervising Ranger Scott Liske said that five river rescues have already taken place this season at or near the confluence – with four of the five people being rescued innocently going into the water and ending up in trouble. The other was a slip and fall into the water, he said. “Luckily, all the rescues have been successful,” Liske said. “But the flows are expected to be especially heavy Wednesday and Thursday with the warm temperatures projected.” Liske said the Parks Department is urging people to stay out of water that is fast-flowing and frigid, with a temperature hovering at about 50 degrees. Small children, even if they can swim, should be outfitted with personal flotation devices, if they’re going near the water, he said.