April 21, 2012 in City

Frigid waters pose springtime risk

Spring runoff adds to potential danger at area lakes, rivers
By The Spokesman-Review
File photo

Spokane’s water rescue team, pictured on a mission April 12, worked at least three search and rescue efforts on the Spokane River in a week earlier this month.
(Full-size photo)

Water in area rivers and lakes may look tempting during warmer weather forecast for the weekend, but experts say rivers and lakes remain deadly cold.

Air temperatures will soar into the 70s in much of the region, the highest of the year, but water temperatures will remain in the 30s and 40s, said Katherine Rowden, National Weather Service hydrologist.

Cold-water immersion can render a person helpless in minutes, she said.

At least five nonmotorized boating fatalities have been recorded by Washington State Parks since March 17, the highest in any year since 2002.

On April 1, a Gonzaga University student died from hypothermia suffered after his kayak capsized in Rock Lake.

Spokane’s water rescue team launched at least three search and rescue efforts on the Spokane River in a week earlier this month. One man died; one canoeist remains missing.

This rash of small craft accidents continued with at least two more accidents involving three people last weekend in Western Washington. One man remains missing from a rafting accident on the Chehalis River.

Two men who capsized a canoe off Blake Island were rescued, “but they were within minutes of dying from hypothermia,” said Sgt. Jim Porter of the Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office.

Last year, more than two dozen people died on Pacific Northwest waterways in accidents during the high-water period that will likely last until July again this year.

Spring runoff likely will ramp up under this weekend’s warmer weather.

Water levels have dropped from the flood stages reached earlier in the month, but the danger posed by high water is far from over, Avista officials say.

“The recent flooding was caused by rain event, causing flows to swell about three times the normal rate in the Spokane River,” said Mac Mikkelsen, Avista’s hydro safety coordinator.

But the annual runoff of mountain snowpack is just in the early stages, he said.

“We don’t want people to drop their guard,” he said. “The snowpack is 108 percent of normal for the Spokane River Basin, and most of that is yet to come.”

As runoff pours out of the mountains, dam operators sometimes have to quickly increase flows through dams. “Water levels in rivers can change rapidly,” he said.

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