A wise old river rafter once told me that the snow pack in the Sierras is largely built by three major storms each season. One storm more or less often determines whether a particular season is normal, below normal, or wet in nature. Attempting to predict the outcome is therefore a risky business. It is wiser to relax and just see what happens. It isn’t over ’till it’s over.
Once again this observation has proven true. While just a few weeks ago the concern was about critical drought conditions, now, one big storm later, the snow pack that feeds the American River is at 101% of normal. Once quiescent, all three Forks of the American River are swollen bright red with runoff. In fact, the North Fork briefly peaked at 11,000cfs. That’s three times safe boating flows. Folsom Lake filled to 92% of capacity virtually overnight!
Bottom line: It is going to be another great season for rafting on the American River! It is time to get out your river gear, Spring boating has arrived.
This is another example of why drought conditions in California as a whole do not prevent rafting on dam-controlled rivers such as the South and Middle Forks of the American River. The South Fork, for example, has multiple reservoirs upstream of Chili Bar that are controlled by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) and are collectively referred to as the SOFAR Project. Because of the FERC re-licensing process that ended in 2007 with the acceptance of the Alternative Proposal, the South Fork was guaranteed to have good rafting flows this season, even before this recent storm. In fact, this agreement now provides for predictable recreational flows for rafting for the next 50 years.
Now here is the truly great news, while climate change may diminish snow pack levels in the future, and population increases will undoubtedly increase demand on dwindling water supplies, even in “super dry” years there are 5 days a week of guaranteed water flow for boating on the South Fork. That means Thursday through Monday, from Memorial Day to Labor Day, we can count on good flows that begin and end at specific times of the day, even in the worst drought years ever recorded! Furthermore, 90% of boaters would choose the period in which the flows are guaranteed anyway. That means that even in the worst of times, boating is great on the South Fork of the American. This river has the most reliable water flows of any Class III whitewater river in the West!
One more remarkable fact: The total volume of water that flows down the river is not affected by rafting. No one will go thirsty as a result of your boating the river. The only effect of this agreement was to alter the timing of the release of a relatively small amount of this water, approximately 2% of the total, with the result that a huge amount of recreation results from a relatively small change in the release regimen. This is a win, win situation that benefits recreation, fish, wildlife and also SMUD itself by building a reservoir of valuable community support. Thank you SMUD! We all hope for a similarly favorable outcome on the re-licensing of the Middle Fork of the American, which is currently under way with PG&E.;
See you on all three Forks of the American River this season,
Scott the River Doc and the MaLode Crew
Thanks to Scott Underwood of Mother Lode River Center for this spring 2009 update!