With local rivers and waterways swollen to the max because of this season’s heavy rains and runoff, Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke has a message to swimmers, kayakers, and canoers — stay out of the water.

Warnke has joined Tulare County Sheriff Mike Bourdeaux and Fresno County Sheriff John Zanoni to declare rivers such as the San Joaquin and Merced off limits, probably throughout the summer. Heavy rains and water releases from Friant and Pine Flat Dams have raised the rivers to near flood stage, and while the river might look inviting to water enthusiasts, the dangers of the swift and icy water are evident. Anyone caught in the rivers will be issued a citation and fined.

In Fresno County, Zanoni recently announced that kayakers were spotted by a Sheriff’s helicopter and ordered out of the San Joaquin. When they exited the river, deputies were waiting for them and issued a citation that can carry a fine of $250.

Authorities are concerned that residents will visit the rivers for recreation as the valley weather heats up. Warnke said that for safety reasons, the ban on entering the rivers would be in effect through the summer, perhaps until September.

Some parks will stay closed because the entire park is already underwater. This includes Skaggs Bridge Park west of Fresno and the Riverfront Park in Firebaugh.

Hagaman Park, located on Highway 165 between Los Banos and Hilmar, is underwater and will stay closed. But Henderson Park, situated near Snelling, is open, but the water near the park is closed.

“We want people to stay out of the water, absolutely,” he said.

The sheriff remembered that in 2017, a lady and some children entered the swollen river near Snelling on innertubes.

“They didn’t realize what was waiting for them downstream,” said Warnke, who responded to the call. “They got caught up in the trees and other debris, and we had to do a full-on rescue. Besides being swift and very cold, people can’t see what is underneath the surface. There could be barbed wire fences, sharp bushes, and other debris.”

Warnke is adamant that violators will be cited for trespassing if caught, and the fine could increase.

“If we have to deploy our rescue team or a helicopter, a violator can be made to pay for the cost. This is not like an automobile accident. This is something that is totally preventable, and the taxpayers shouldn’t have to foot the bill. I don’t want to risk the safety of my deputies, so violators can be held liable.” 

David Borboa