Despite a dry year, snowmelt makes for dangerous water recreation

Despite the dry year, outdoor recreationists who enjoy California rivers and streams should remain aware of dangerously cold swiftly moving water. Although California’s snowpack is about half of normal, rising temperatures are accelerating the snowmelt.

Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) urges those who choose to venture near or in water to take extra precautions, especially around hydroelectric facilities and dams, where water flows can change rapidly. Anglers also are encouraged to take precautions as trout season has opened for most California rivers.

“Public safety is our most important responsibility. We encourage everyone recreating in or near water to plan at all times how they can quickly and safely escape in case of changing water flows and cold temperatures,” said Jan Nimick, PG&E vice president of Power Generation.

Despite the dry year, snow runoff is expected to continue into early summer.


Most California rivers are fed by snowmelt, making them cold even in summer. Simple actions such as recognizing if the water is too cold or swift, knowing your limits, wearing a life jacket and simply not entering the water when conditions seem unsafe can save lives.

Below are some water safety tips:

Stay Out and Stay Alive – Stay Out of Canals and Flumes

  • Recreating in PG&E canals and flumes is strictly prohibited. Stay off elevated flumes and out of these water conveyances, regardless of who owns them, as they are very dangerous due to slippery sides and fast-moving cold water.  Be mindful of signs and warnings. Stay out of areas that are signed as restricted, fenced off or buoy-lined.

Know the Risks

  • Prevention is the best way to save a person from drowning. By the time a person is struggling in the water, a rescue is extremely unlikely and places the rescuer at risk.
  • Sudden immersion in cold water can stimulate the “gasp reflex,” causing an involuntary inhalation of air or water. It can even trigger cardiac arrest, temporary paralysis, hypothermia and drowning. When faced with swift water, even the strongest swimmers can be easily overwhelmed.
  • Cold water entering the ear canal can cause vertigo and disorientation. This can confuse swimmers, potentially causing them to venture deeper into the water.
  • Cold water also reduces body heat 25 to 30 times faster than air does at the same temperature and causes impairment that can be fatal.

Learn About Self-Rescue Techniques

  • If you do fall into the water, here are some survival tips:
    • Don’t panic. Try to control your breathing; don’t gasp. A sudden, unexpected fall into cold water causes an involuntary gasp (or torso) reflex. It takes less than one-half cup of water in a person’s lungs to drown. If you remain calm, you have a greater chance of self-rescue.
    • If you have a boat, stay with it. It will help you stay afloat and will be seen more easily by rescuers. If it’s capsized and a portion of the craft is above water, try to climb on top.
    • Stay afloat with the help of a life jacket, regain control of your breathing and keep your head above water in view of rescuers.
    • If possible, remove heavy shoes. Look for ways to increase buoyancy such as by holding onto seat cushions or an ice chest.
    • If you’re in the water with others, huddle together facing each other to help everyone stay afloat and keep warm.
    • If you do fall into a river without a life jacket, keep your feet pointed downstream and turn onto your back.
    • If you fall into the water with waders on, roll onto the shore. Wear a belt with waders.

Know your Limits

  • Swimming in open water is more difficult than in a swimming pool – people tire more quickly and can get into trouble.
  • Many unseen obstacles can be lurking below the water’s surface – this is especially the case during spring and early summer snowmelt. Rising water can make these obstacles even more treacherous. Guided trips for inexperienced paddlers are recommended.

Wear a Coast Guard-approved Life Jacket

  • Conditions change quickly in open water and even the best swimmers can misjudge the water and their skills when boating or swimming.

Adult Supervision

  • 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. Use the buddy system and never swim alone.