The Kaweah River is the most treasured resource in Three Rivers and the Sequoia National Park foothills. It is also the most deadly.
On Sunday, April 30, a family outing took a tragic turn when, for the second time in a week, a young adult fell into the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River and was swept away in the turgid water. It took about 24 hours for searchers, both aerial and on the ground, to find the body of Tomas Martinez, 18, of Woodlake after he was carried downriver and out of sight by the cold, fast-moving water.
Tomas was a senior at Woodlake High School’s Educational Options Program. While at Woodlake High, he played soccer and was set to graduate on May 30.
“It is always very heartfelt and difficult on the school community when we lose a student,” said Rick Rodriguez, WHS principal. “The Woodlake Unified School District has been providing grief support to students.”
Counseling staff, a district social worker, and the school psychologist have been available to meet with students, he reported.
The Kaweah River is currently at a higher level than it has been in many years. The water, especially in the Middle Fork, which parallels Sequoia’s Generals Highway and Sierra Drive through Three Rivers, will remain swift and icy-cold into July this year, due to the record-breaking snowpack received during the winter.
Currently, staff at Sequoia National Park is being proactive about warning visitors of the river’s dangers. There is a lighted, variable-message sign alongside the highway before the Ash Mountain visitor center that informs passersby that the river is dangerous and warns, “DON’T SWIM.”
There is a seven-member group called the River Rovers. These park volunteers roam the foothills region to promote river safety. They may be found at river access points and information booths, but there are many miles of river in the foothills so not everybody is reached. However, the Rovers are equipped with radios to report emergencies and illegal, improper, and life-threatening activities.
Mike Boudreaux, Tulare County Sheriff, has proposed that the U.S. Forest Service close public access to a portion of the Tule River that has proved deadly this year, located in Sequoia National Forest’s Giant Sequoia National Monument. [See update below regarding closure of the Tule River.]
In addition, the Kings River in Tulare County is also closed to all recreational use, including swimming and boating, according to the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office.
“Please do not approach the river’s edge or enter whitewater under any circumstances,” Sheriff Boudreaux said in a statement on the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office website. “The current conditions in many of our waterways are not survivable despite safety equipment, training or experience in whitewater. Inner tubes or other small flotation devices are inadequate and extremely dangerous as they are easily overturned in the swift currents and can be deflated by impacts with rocks and branches.”
The superintendent of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks has the power to close an area to the public, but this option most likely isn’t going to occur in Sequoia.
“Even though there is a legal instrument to do such an action, the best course is education, engineering, then enforcement,” said Michael Theune, acting public affairs officer. “It’s getting the word out to the public about how dangerous these rivers are this time of year that will be the most effective in saving lives.”
The spring runoff is a spectacular sight that lures the public to the water. The two recent victims, Martinez, 18, and, on Saturday, April 22, Karissa Jones, 21, both reportedly fell into the river, they weren’t swimming, which is a stark reminder to the public to stay well away from the river’s edge.
There have been three fatalities in Sequoia National Park this year, all occurring since April 21 and all associated with the residual effects of a high snow year: the two young drowning victims and a climber who fell to his death on a snowy slope near the summit of Mt. Whitney.
There have been five drownings in Tulare County, all since April 13, with all the victims between the ages of 18 and 22. The other three drownings occurred in the Tule River above the community of Springville.
In 2016, there were 12 fatalities in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks (and the Mount Whitney Zone). But none of the accidental deaths were river drownings.
—The River Rovers in Sequoia National Park are in need of volunteers. To sign on, contact Karen Six, 565-4212 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
—The Kaweah Commonwealth sent a letter this week to 10 area high schools and five Tulare County school districts. The content of the letter may be viewed (and copied and shared) here.
Forest Officials issue temporary closure of public access to the Tule River in the Giant Sequoia National Monument
PORTERVILLE, California, May 5, 2017 – Forest officials issued a temporary closure order to popular high-use public access areas on the Tule River within the Giant Sequoia National Monument, due to swift moving water and strong currents. The Forest closure order will start Friday, May 5, 2017 until further notice.
Public access areas in the order include all access sites on the Middle Fork of the Tule River beginning at the entrance of the Giant Sequoia National Monument and extending to the Moorehouse Fish Hatchery just below Pier Point Springs. In addition, river access is restricted on the North Fork of the Middle Fork of the Tule River to Wishon Campground.
According to Sequoia National Forest Supervisor Kevin Elliott, "public safety is a shared interested for all of us living in and visiting the area."
"The changing season is contributing to the rapid changes in our rivers and streams," he continued.
Rivers and streams often swell from runoff caused by snowmelt, which could mean powerful currents that can easily sweep you off your feet.
“These areas are very popular with recreationists during the spring and summer months, primarily those seeking places to swim," said Elliott. "This year’s record level snowpack and warming temperatures resulted in swift cold water flowing in these drainages, posing a greater risk to public safety than in recent years."