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In a matter of months, the San Joaquin Valley flip-flopped from severe drought to severe flooding. And now, as the big snowpack in the Sierra Nevada becomes the “Big Melt” in the Valley, who’s underwater, who’s helping clean up, and what does it all mean for our region’s future? This weekly segment featuring interviews with reporters, water authorities, growers and others who live and work in the Valley explores historic flooding and its aftermath.

Water Whiplash: Extreme adventure — and danger — on rivers flowing with snowmelt

 Rafters complete a "paddle high-five" after successfully navigating a Class IV rapid on the upper Kern River on April 28, 2023.
Miles Curtis
Kern River Outfitters
Rafters complete a "paddle high-five" after successfully navigating a Class IV rapid on the upper Kern River on April 28, 2023.

As of May 24, the snowpack in the Southern Sierra Nevada is more than four times the average for this time of year. As the snow melts and low-lying parts of the San Joaquin Valley brace for flooding, this week’s episode focuses on the bodies of water that will transport all that snowmelt: Rivers.

In this interview, Kerry Klein speaks with KVPR reporter Joshua Yeager about some of the upstream businesses benefitting from all this water, as well as the extreme danger that has forced the closure of most riverfront areas in the Valley.

Listen to the interview in the player above, and read the transcript below.

JOSHUA YEAGER: The flows are really intense right now. We’re seeing levels that we haven't seen in more than 50 years and that's created conditions that are often dangerous on the many rivers that flow down from the Sierra, but it's also resulted in some good things for some of the industries that depend on that water source. And it's important to note right now that the snowpack is massive. It’s 450% of average for this time of year and all that snow has to melt, right. And with the recent warm weather we've been having, it's all going to come surging down in torrents down our local rivers.

KERRY KLEIN: Yeah, and so what is the forecast, I mean, how likely are these really high flows and volumes on our area rivers likely to last?

YEAGER: Well, that's a bit of an open question. It's something that water officials are paying very close attention to. I think it's safe to say that for at least the next month, flows are going to be keeping at this record pace and will be pretty dangerous for the general public. And that's why we've seen so many river closures across the Valley in recent months. And we've seen places like the Tulare Lake growing in size and officials say next week will be the peak for the Tulare Lake, but in other places like the Kern River, it might come a little bit later, as late as late June. It depends on where you are, but generally for the next month or so flows are expected to remain very high.

KLEIN: Right. And so as you said there's good and bad about these high flow rates and flow volumes. So you recently visited the Kern River Valley in the foothills east of Bakersfield. There, the water levels are being celebrated in large part. So talk about who's benefiting from all of this water.

YEAGER: Yeah, totally. We spend a lot of time, understandably, focusing on all of the bad consequences of this snow melt, the flooding, etc. But yeah, there's been huge boons, huge positives for the white water rafting industry up in the Sierra and it's an industry that's experienced a lot of hardship in recent years because of this ongoing megadrought that has afflicted our region. But obviously that's not the case this year and outfitters are reaping the benefits of that. You know, I had the opportunity to go on my first rafting trip a few weeks ago when flows were high and it was so much fun. And it was really cool to be able to hear from those outfitters and how these flows are helping them and kind of a lot of the fun that people in our region, and from across the state and country, even, coming to visit, are able to experience.

KLEIN: Right, so that's one of the positives of all of this water, but the flip side of course is that really high water flows can be extremely dangerous. So talk about the risks in rivers and even some of the tragic stories that have already unfolded in our region.

YEAGER: Yeah, these roaring rivers can seem really inviting right now, especially when we're having the scorching weather that we've been experiencing in recent weeks. But precisely when the weather is hottest is when the waterways are the most dangerous. And we've seen more than half a dozen people who have gone missing or have drowned on California rivers so far this spring. That tragically includes, as you kind of alluded to, two siblings who died on the Kings River just this weekend. They were four and eight and, you know, it's just heartbreaking to see these kinds of preventable deaths happen and it's why a lot of sheriffs across the Valley have taken the action to close a lot of the waterways to the general public. That's resulted in some pushback from residents who say it's a form of government overreach, but the public safety officials would point to these deaths that we have seen, and to these really resource-intensive rescue missions they've had to carry out, as a reason for why those closures are necessary.

KLEIN: And rivers are closed really in most of the areas down here in the Valley, right?

YEAGER: Yeah, nearly all of the waterways in the Valley are closed to the public right now. The big exception I would say is the Kern River in Kern County.

KLEIN: So if we focus on communities now, many communities and cities along rivers in our region are being threatened as the snow melts. So let's stay on the Kern River. What are Bakersfield and other communities along the river doing to prepare for flooding?

YEAGER: Yeah, Bakersfield and Kern County have identified areas along the Kern River that are at risk for potential flooding. And to be clear, it's not the whole city we're talking about, mainly just a few low-lying areas. And so to prepare for that, officials are shoring up riverbanks, making sand bags available and really just communicating with the property owners who might be affected by that. But the major concern is the Kern River Valley. That's the mountain pass up to Kernville, Lake Isabella, Sequoia National Forest. The big fear is that river flows might erode the highway up there and could potentially, essentially cut off those communities from Bakersfield and the Valley below. So there's a lot happening to kind of preemptively strengthen those roadways and try to keep everyone safe.

KLEIN: Okay. Well Joshua Yeager, reporter with me here at KVPR, thank you so much for speaking with me today.

Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.