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Hazardous conditions may mean closure of Mokelumne River

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Posted: Tuesday, June 28, 2011 12:00 am | Updated: 12:00 pm, Wed Jun 29, 2011.

The unusually hazardous conditions in the Mokelumne River this year are causing the San Joaquin County Sheriff's Office to consider closing the river to the public for safety reasons.

The Mokelumne and rivers throughout California are plagued by swifter-moving water due to late-season storms and snow at the higher elevations. It's also a whole lot colder even if it's hot outside the water.

Mokelumne and Clements firefighters rescued seven rafts between Friday and Sunday. No injuries were reported.

The sheriff's office cannot unilaterally close access to the river. It requires approval of the California Department of Boating and Waterways, according to San Joaquin County Supervisor Ken Vogel.

The sheriff's boating safety unit is considering all its options regarding river use, sheriff's spokesman Dave Konecny said Monday.

After three rafts were rescued from the Mokelumne River from June 17 to 19, firefighters rescued two more on Saturday and three on Sunday, according to Mokelumne Fire Chief Michael Kirkle.

Neither Kirkle, Mokelumne Fire Capt. Mark Weber nor Clements Fire Chief Dave Ingrum have full details on the rescues, but they involve people riding cheaply made rafts that got punctured by wood in the river.

"Everybody was fine," Weber said. "They get scared when they get stuck. They were getting stuck in some hairy situations."

Some rafters were wearing life jackets while others were not, according to Assistant Clements Fire Chief James Renton.

Rafting the Mokelumne River from the fish hatchery off McIntyre Road near the Calaveras County line down to Stillman Magee Park on Mackville Road has been a popular summer activity for years.

What's made it more dangerous this year is the late-season snowfall that has made the river more than twice as swift and much colder than in previous years, authorities say.

Ingrum said that rafters can get from the fish hatchery near Lake Camanche to Stillman Magee Park in two hours this year, compared to a four-hour trip in previous years.

That's because the East Bay Municipal Utility District, which controls Mokelumne River flows, increased water releases during the weekend to 2,400 cubic feet per second. In a typical year, flows run below 1,000 cfs, EBMUD spokesman Charles Hardy said.

Furthermore, he said, mountain snowpack melts by the end of May in most years, but this year melted snow could keep flowing until the beginning of August.

Contact reporter Ross Farrow at rossf@lodinews.com.

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