California's Near-Record Snowpack Is Melting Into Raging Rivers

Jul 3, 2017
Originally published on December 19, 2017 10:20 am

Two years ago, near the end of California's devastating drought, Tom Moore stood on the banks of the depleted Kern River in Southern California and looked out at the slow-moving waters dejectedly.

"We call that a creek," he said of the mighty Kern.

Moore is the owner of Sierra South, a whitewater recreation company in Kernville, Calif. And with the drought, there wasn't much in the way of whitewater.

Oh, how things change.

A wet winter and near-record snowpack has left the Sierra Nevada buried in a deep, lingering snow; ski resorts in Northern California are still open. But as temperatures have risen, melting some of that snow, so too have the state's waterways.

"This is not a creek," Moore says, looking out at the Kern River on a recent hot, summer day. "This is a raging river."

The change in the water's behavior has been good for Moore and whitewater sports enthusiasts — professional kayakers are flocking to the Kern. But it's also proved dangerous. At least six people have died on the Kern River already this year. Some were playing on the water; others were just trying to cool off. Emergency workers worry there will be more.

"This is not the same river [people] may have visited last year," says Sgt. Zack Bittle, with Kern County Search and Rescue.

The water is 10 times stronger than it was a year ago, Bittle says. Riverbanks are less stable. Vegetation and brush that had grown on low shorelines during the drought are now submerged, creating invisible, underwater hazards.

"I can't recommend going in the river this year. It's just insane," Bittle says. He added that if you must go in the water, to be sure to take an expert guide.

The power of the Kern River is partly due to geography. The Kern River draws its waters from the base of Mount Whitney, the highest point in the continental U.S., more than 2 miles above sea level. From there, the snowmelt races down narrow canyons and chutes, past Kernville, to the flat, flax-colored floor of the Central Valley below.

The drop in elevation and surrounding geology gives the Kern River oomph.

But the issues with snowmelt aren't unique to Kern this year. Up and down the Sierra Nevada, waterways are flooding with snowmelt. Further up California's Central Valley, homeowners were evacuated when the King River breached the riverbank. Reservoirs are near full.

Compounding matters is the fact that water officials aren't entirely sure how much snow there is left to melt.

"What we noticed during the heat wave is that the area of snow that is still covered up there didn't really reduce from one extent to the other," says David Rizzardo, of California's Department of Water Resources. "There was just an incredible amount of depth. There's still probably easily 5, 10 feet of snow in some of these places."

Water officials don't really have any historical perspective to look at for guidance either, Rizzardo says.

Two years ago, California's snowpack was 5 percent of normal. It was the lowest ever recorded. This year, the state had one of the biggest snowpacks ever recorded — larger than the last four years combined. The jump from one to the other has made it really difficult to forecast what rivers and the landscape is going to do. The concern water officials have is that this could become the new normal.

"One of the worries with climate change is that we see extremes more often," Rizzardo says. "And the extremes are even more extreme than we've seen in the past."

Whitewater recreation companies like Moore's firm are well aware of the unpredictability. They're booking rafting trips and padding their wallets for possible thin years ahead.

Some customers have been scared off by the recent deaths and the river's strength.

Olivia Vantol is not one of them. The San Diego native is smiling as she hops off a raft and wades up to the shadowed banks of the Kern River on a recent day. She and her family just went over a Class III rapid on the river and the thrill of it is still in her eyes.

"That was my first time river rafting," she says. "I chose a great year to start apparently."

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It's Independence Day tomorrow, which for most Americans means fireworks, barbecues and a day out in the sun. In California, it could mean skiing on the Fourth of July. The wet winter covered the Sierra Nevada and many of the western mountain ranges in a deep, lingering snowpack. Now some of that snow is melting, and it's proving dangerous for people downstream, some who are just looking to cool off. Here's NPR's Nathan Rott.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: The Kern River, nature's equivalent to taking a bucket of water to the highest point in the continental U.S. - more than 2 miles above sea level - and dumping it into a granite chute, a chute that twists, turns, dips and drops some 160 miles to the flat floor of California's Central Valley below. About halfway down that path at a wider, more placid stretch of the river is the town of Kernville and a gentleman named Tom Moore.

TOM MOORE: How is it?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Unintelligible).

MOORE: All right.

ROTT: Moore is the owner of Sierra South, a rafting and kayaking company here in town. And this isn't the first time that he's had an NPR microphone shoved in his face. I visited him two years ago near the end of California's devastating five-year drought when he looked out at the depleted river from this very spot and said...


MOORE: We call that a creek.



ROTT: Today, we just say...

MOORE: Yeah...

ROTT: ...It's a river.

MOORE: ...This is not a creek.


MOORE: This - this is a raging river.

ROTT: Two years ago, the Sierra Nevada snowpack, the source of this water, was just 5 percent of normal. This year, the snowpack was pushing 200 percent. It was one of the largest snowpacks ever recorded. And as temperatures have risen, the river has reacted in kind.

MOORE: Two years ago, I'd look at it as my teenager that was just sitting on the couch doing nothing. Now it's my raging teenager that is just all over the map.

ROTT: Moore says that's been good for business. Whitewater recreation, after all, is far more lucrative when there's actually white water. But it's also come with a price. At the bottom of the Kern River Canyon where it hits the flats near the city of Bakersfield, there's a sign by the road.

ZACH BITTLE: That says that we've lost 280 lives since 1968 to the Kern River.

ROTT: This is Sergeant Zach Bittle with Kern County Search and Rescue.

BITTLE: That was updated the Friday before Memorial Day. And since then, we've lost six. So next year, we're going to have to add at least six to that sign.

ROTT: Six and possibly seven - at least one other man has since gone missing upstream. Some were recreating. Some just went out for a wade. Bittle says that people need to know.

BITTLE: This is not the same river that you may have visited last year.

ROTT: The water is moving with 10 times the force that it was a year ago, Bittle says. Riverbanks are less stable. Hazards are submerged. And this isn't unique to the Kern. Rivers up and down the Sierra Nevada - and throughout the West - are experiencing flooding with the snowmelt, aided by recent hot, summer days. Homes have been evacuated by the King River, further up California's Central Valley. And water experts like David Rizzardo, with California's Department of Water Resources, aren't sure how much snowmelt is still yet to come.

DAVID RIZZARDO: Most of the snowpack has melted off. But what we've noticed even during the heat wave is that the area of snow that is still covered up there didn't really reduce.

ROTT: It just got shallower.

Rizzardo says, it's hard to look for any sort of historical perspective for guidance because what we've seen in the last few years from near-record drought to near-record moisture, is so unusual - or at least it was.

RIZZARDO: One of the worries with climate change is that we see extremes more often. And the extremes are even more extreme than we've seen in the past.

ROTT: Back in Kernville...

UNIDENTIFIED GUIDE: Awesome. Go ahead, and exit the boat. Hold onto your paddles for me.

ROTT: A group of rafters gets off the river. Olivia Vantol is the one with a big smile on her face.

OLIVIA VANTOL: That was my first time river rafting. I chose a great year to start apparently (laughter).

ROTT: Her mom, Judy, looks a little less thrilled.

JUDY: I was really nervous.

ROTT: Olivia shakes her head.

You weren't that nervous?

VANTOL: No - and the fact that you have a life jacket and everything. And they'd done this how many times?

JUDY: Yeah, that's true.

ROTT: Mom still looks a little unsure. But it's time to load up. They're signed up to go down the river one more time.

Nathan Rott, NPR News, Kernville, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIGNAL HILL'S "AMBER LANTERN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.