I love the Kern River.
I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to see water in the river channel again.
But make no mistake, that water is barreling.
It’s also freezing cold and hiding a lot of debris washed down after years of bone-dry drought.
All of which demands extreme caution.
After three people died in the river over Memorial Day weekend, some in the community are asking if we shouldn’t force that caution on people by closing the Kern to recreation as has been done on the Kings and Tule rivers and will soon be done on the Merced River.
No, was Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood’s short answer.
“You can’t regulate stupidity,” he said in his typical, soft-spoken way (not).
He has no way to enforce a shutdown, he said. And he doesn’t believe he has the authority to do it anyway.
County Counsel Mark Nations agreed.
“I don't see anything in the ordinance code that would grant the sheriff or anyone else authority to close the Kern River to recreation and have not heard of any local provision that grants such authority,” Nations wrote in an email.
Tulare County has a special ordinance allowing the sheriff to close its rivers.
The Kings County Board of Supervisors issued a special proclamation giving its sheriff that authority.
Meanwhile, Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims relied on a combination of a penal code giving law enforcement authority to keep people away from areas that pose a menace and a county ordinance that says authorities can restrict swimming areas in county waters.
Either way, it is currently illegal to swim, boat, raft or even wade in the north, south and middle fork of the Tule River above Springville from about Coffee Camp on up.
And it’s illegal to get into the Kings River from Pine Flat Dam in Fresno all the way through Tulare and Kings counties. (The Kings is so high you can't even get a boat under the bridge at Highway 99.)
Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke will be asking his county’s Board of Supervisors to give him authority to shut down the Merced River as well.
Each sheriff’s office told me it will be putting up signs, getting the word out, and patrolling by boat and from shore.
In Fresno County, it’ll cost you $225 if you’re caught frolicking in the Kings River.
But that’s not the point.
“It’s about safety,” said Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux. “We got into week three (of warmer weather) and we had five drownings in three weeks.”
He said the county, with help from the Forest Service, is warning people about the dangers.
“The object isn’t to arrest people, or cite them,” he said.
It’s about protecting lives, including those of his own people who put themselves at risk with every rescue.
On Thursday, Boudreaux had to send a team into the Kings River after some teenage boys were heard screaming for help when they got stuck south of Kingsburg.
The boys were delivered to their parents with a warning, no citation, and Boudreaux hopes they learned a lesson.
“People misjudge the water. It is dangerous.”
Though he feels Tulare County has done the right thing closing two of its rivers, he understood Youngblood’s hesitance to close the Kern.
The Kern is an exceedingly difficult river to police and “a lot of livelihoods rely on it.”
In fact, Boudreaux didn’t close the Kaweah River above Lake Kaweah, a whitewater rafting mecca like the Kern, though that river had two drownings this year.
He said he’s working with the community of Three Rivers and the Forest Service to get the word out to be extremely careful.
And Boudreaux hasn’t closed Tulare’s portion of the upper Kern, either.
In fact, Tulare County deputies went out on 22 rescues on their portion of the Kern this past Memorial Day.
Kern County Search and Rescue personnel were busy with 24 rescues, including helping recover bodies in two of the three drownings.
(By the way, Search and Rescue is a tough, often emotionally difficult, job. And while anyone involved deserves thanks, I think it’s important to note that Kern’s Search and Rescue folks are all volunteers.)
Supervisor Mick Gleason agreed with Youngblood that closing the Kern would be unenforceable, but he was open to the idea of possibly adding signs in popular swimming spots warning people of the river’s dangers.
"I'll give that some thought," he said to my suggestion.
Youngblood, though, was bluntly negative.
“Look at the river,” he said, exasperated. “It’s moving 20 miles an hour. There’s your sign. Don’t get in it.”
Anyhow, as far as closing the Kern, I think Youngblood is right.
With all the nooks and crannies and points of access, patrolling would be impossible. Not to mention it runs through three counties and several jurisdictions including federal, county and the City of Bakersfield. Who would be in charge?
But I also think the other sheriffs are right in closing their rivers. They have established authority and jurisdictions worked out.
So the question of closure, really, all depends on the river.
Meanwhile, Boudreaux reminded anyone interested in jumping into the Kern that it has a long, well-deserved reputation as a “mean piece of water.”
“Hey, Merle wrote the song,” he said.