Snow loads to snowmelt: Officials urge caution this spring |

Snow loads to snowmelt: Officials urge caution this spring

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — Historic snow caused structure concerns for property owners and businesses this season and now that massive snowpack will create a whole new set of hazards once it starts to melt.

Following one of the most prolific snow seasons, officials are urging caution and to make safety a top priority when venturing outdoors.

The snowpack was recorded at 221% of normal on Monday at Phillips Station, near Sierra-at-Tahoe and the UC Berkeley Central Sierra Snow Lab near Donner Summit recorded 220 inches last month making it the snowiest March ever. 

With that historic snowpack set to melt in the coming weeks and months, officials from California State Parks’ Division of Boating and Waterways, the Department of Water Resources and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) are urging the public to take extra precautions and to be aware of cold-water dangers this spring to avoid a tragedy. 

The continuous stormy weather this season, including a dozen atmospheric river-fed storms, will lead to rises in river and stream flows not seen in years. The eventual spring warm-up will bring fast flows and cold temperatures when all that snow comes rushing downhill. 

The agencies are encouraging all Californians to wait until summer to recreate in the water, when conditions are safer.

“After successive low-water drought years, it is imperative that Californians understand water safety in and around rivers, streams, lakes and Sierra reservoirs,” said State Parks Director Armando Quintero. “As the temperature rises, snowmelt-fed waterways can quickly induce incapacitating cold-water shock to even the strongest swimmers. We encourage everyone to follow the advice of public safety officials and avoid entering waterways if asked to do so.”

“California has one of the largest snowpacks on record,” said DWR Director Karla Nemeth. “As this snowpack melts in the coming months, the waterways will be especially cold, fast and running higher than normal. Be aware of fluctuating water levels. We want everyone to always make safety a top priority when recreating.”

Officials have offered a list of tips including planning ahead, know your limits and understand the proper use of life jackets/flotation devices.

“This year is very different from the last several years, in that the excessive snowpack and rain will continue to create challenges for us in the weeks and months ahead,” said Cal Fire Chief Joe Tyler. “Rising water levels in rivers and streams will be very cold, very fast and can easily overwhelm those that aren’t prepared or don’t heed warnings. Our teams will continue to focus on localized flooding risks, potential for major flooding, water rescues and our operational capabilities to support our communities moving into the spring and summer months.”

The agencies hope to educate not only regular water enthusiasts but occasional visitors to high, fast-running waterways who may venture near the edge to test the water or take selfies. Just one slip or unwatched child can become a devastating drowning statistic, like what happened a few years ago to a woman who lost her footing and fell over Eagle Falls, the Tribune previously reported.

Here are some key safety points to know before heading outdoors:

Know the water

  • Do not enter cold, fast-running water. It can be dangerous not only to you but also for first responders.
  • Many unseen obstacles can be lurking below the water’s surface – this is especially the case with this year’s expected high runoff following low water years. Drought-stricken forests and storm-driven landslides have filled rivers with submerged trees and rocks. Swift water can make these obstacles even more treacherous.
  • Sudden immersion in cold water can stimulate the “gasp reflex,” causing an involuntary inhalation of air or water and can start the drowning process immediately. It can even trigger cardiac arrest, temporary paralysis, hypothermia and drowning.
  • Never enter the water to rescue a victim. Throw something that floats and call 911.

Plan ahead

  • Prior to leaving home, check the status of the park unit you want to visit to find out what restrictions and guidelines are in place.
  • Know your GPS coordinates so you can provide your location in case of emergency.
  • Alert someone where you are going and your expected return time. Be sure to let them
    know when you return safely.

Know your limits

  • When faced with cold, swift water, even the strongest swimmers may be easily overwhelmed. Do not enter the water and never enter the water to rescue a victim. Throw something that floats and call 9-1-1.
  • Swimming in open water is more difficult than in a swimming pool – people tire more quickly and can get into trouble.
  • Never go on the water alone. If available, guided trips for solo or inexperienced floaters or paddlers are recommended.

Know about life jackets

  • Although life jackets are strongly recommended when recreating in or near waterways, this year’s expected high runoff in rivers can be dangerous even with the use of life jackets.
  • Conditions change quickly in open water and even the best swimmers can misjudge the water and their skills when boating or swimming. Wearing a properly fitted U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jackets can increase survival time.
  • Learn more about life jackets at Know how to Supervise
  • Actively supervise children in and around open bodies of water, giving them your undivided attention. Do not assume that someone is watching them. Appoint a designated “water watcher,” taking turns with other adults.
  • Teach children that swimming in open water is not the same as swimming in a pool: they need to be aware of uneven surfaces, river currents, ocean undertow and changing weather.

Additional resources

The public can find additional safety information at these web links:

The Sierra snowpack is at 174% of normal and with storms stacking up into next week, Liberty Utilities is urging customers to prepare. The photo was taken along the Sierra crest near Echo Summit.
Bill Rozak/Tahoe Daily Tribune

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