A huge Sierra Nevada snowpack means 2017 will likely be exciting for kayakers and others who like to play in the Truckee River.
It could also be deadly for the unprepared.
That’s because the surging Truckee is creating and exposing types of hazards that are less frequent in lower-flow seasons.
One glaring example is a potentially deadly reverse flow hazard in Reno that could trap boaters or tubers in a spot that’s incredibly difficult for rescuers to reach.
“There is no way of escaping,” said kayaker of Charles Albright of Reno. “It is going to be really dangerous.”
It appears flows associated with the stormy winter rearranged the rocks at the Glendale Diversion to create the hazard, which Albright referred to as a “drowning machine.”
The diversion is an earth and stone structure the Truckee Meadows Water Authority created in 2011 to divert water into the Glendale Water Treatment Facility.
The problem is the flows appear to have carved a submerged bowl downstream from the diversion. The bowl alters the flow and creates a reversal back toward the diversion.
That reversal, which goes across much of the entire channel, is enough to trap objects or people who float into it.
“You can’t fight the current,” Albright said. “It is like a sloped hole feeding back into itself.”
The effect is similar to reversals that develop at low-head dams across the country and has potential to be equally deadly.
Since the 1960s there have been nearly 400 deaths due to people being caught in such reversals, according to research published in the Journal of Dam Safety.
Andy Gebhardt, director of operations and water quality for the water authority, said the authority is aware of the problem at Glendale.
“The flood just washed some rock away, we were not anticipating that,” Gebhardt said. “We want to get back in there and take a look and make sure it is not doing any more damage and repair it.”
Gebhardt said the authority will install signs upstream to warn people to get out of the river and walk around the structure.
But until repairs are made it will remain a hazard.
The rocky river bottom at the location adds to the entrapment risk because a person trying to stand could get his or her foot lodged between rocks.
“You can’t get your foot loose,” Albright said. “Your head and body are under water and you drown.”
Even if a person managed to stay afloat within the reverse flow zone rescue would be difficult.
That’s because the jagged, uneven rocks installed on the river bed extend below the hazard for several hundred feet and up the steep riverbanks.
That makes it difficult for rescuers to reach the spot where people would likely be trapped.
“We couldn’t get into it from downstream and to get into it from upstream would put the rescuer at extreme risk,” said Kevin Joell, director of the Reno Fire Department Water Entry Team.
Joell said there’s a chance rescuers could use a fixed, highline rope system to reach the spot. But that’s not ideal, either.
“That is not a quick, immediate rescue,” Joell said. “Realistically it may end up being a body recovery at that point.”
It’s also important for people to realize Glendale likely isn’t the only fresh hazard on the Truckee River.
There’s a similar reversal at Chalk Bluff in west Reno and high flows fueled by cold snowmelt are likely to increase risk on the river deep into spring.
People should expect faster, colder water in the Truckee and prepare accordingly.
“This is completely different than what we have had the last six to eight years,” Albright said. “It is going to change a lot and it is going to be a lot more hazardous.”
Truckee River safety tips
- Always wear a personal floatation device (PFD) and helmet when in or around the river.
- Wear sturdy shoes, consider thermal protection from cold water.
- Do not drink alcohol or use drugs when boating or tubing.
- Never go into the river alone.
- Have a plan and rendezvous point in case you become separated.
- Let a friend or family member know where you are going and when you plan to return.
Source: Reno Fire Department Water Entry Team
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