“Don’t go in the water. Don’t get anywhere near the water.”
That’s the advice of everyone from Mammoth Lakes Police to county sheriff’s deputies to US Forest Service rangers this week, as hot summer temperatures finally hit the massive snowpack still suspended above Mammoth.
“You can feel the vibration when you are just standing near the river, there is so much water right now,” said Inyo National Forest spokesman Mike Johnson Thursday. “There are just torrents of water coming down. Whatever you do, don’t go in the water. It’s just very dangerous.”
Mono County Sheriff Lt. Dave O’Hara agreed. Just this past weekend, he said, sheriff’s deputies were travelling along the West Fork of the Walker River (in Walker Canyon) and saw an empty raft floating on the raging river.
They started a search, fearing the worst. Some time later, they found the former occupants of the raft stuck on the east side of the river; very wet, very cold, but alive.
“They said they were experienced, but it didn’t matter in that kind of water,” O’Hara said.
“And it’s so cold. It was just snow a few hours ago. If you fall in that, hypothermia will get you if the current doesn’t.”
Eastern Sierra creeks and rivers are normally calming down from peak runoff by early July, but the combination of a record snowpack, rain this past week, and higher-than-normal temperatures predicted for the holiday weekend could add up to some big problems for hikers, campers and anglers.
“It’s going to exacerbate the snowmelt,” said Gary Barbato, a hydrologist with the Reno-based National Weather Service.
“Add to that that this last storm was very humid and when the air is humid, melting snow does not evaporate as quickly as it would if the air was drier. That, along with the rain, didn’t help.”
The only thing that has helped is that it has stayed relatively cool for much of the past several weeks. That’s allowed the snow to melt off slowly and consistently.
But that may be about to change. Temperatures as high as 92 degrees are predicted for Bridgeport by Monday, with the mid-eighties predicted for Mammoth Lakes.
Many of the area’s creeks, including McGee and Convict Creek, are already full. That means more water hitting already swollen creeks and already water-logged soils, just when Mammoth’s holiday visitors arrive in droves.
“We’ve extended our flood warning for your area into Tuesday evening due to the warming trend,” said Barbato.
Flooding is already causing problems for visitors trying to stay in area campgrounds.
“Although we are trying to accommodate everyone, we are having to re-route some people to campgrounds that are not flooded,” said Johnson. Some of the worst-hit campgrounds are those in Lee Vining Creek, including Moraine and Lower Lee Vining.
Little Deadman Creek campground is also flooded.The flooding problem is exacerbated by the fact that many of the campgrounds normally open by now have not opened yet, due to the snow. That means fewer campgrounds; Add flooded ones, and things get interesting.
People are also pulling out of the backcountry trips they had planned and looking for other things to do where there isn’t so much snow. Creek crossings are also a problem; it is simply too dangerous to cross some high country creeks right now. Several bridges are out, after winter avalanches destroyed them.
So the forest service is getting creative, sending campers to whatever spaces are left, plowing others they had not intended to have to plow, setting up temporary RV camping areas.