High water levels on the San Joaquin River

Water levels on the San Joaquin River are higher than usual through May due to increased flows mandated by the restoration agreement. This stretch is located near Sycamore Island Park. (KURTIS ALEXANDER/THE FRESNO BEE)

Earlier this month Metro reporter Kurtis Alexander and I drove out to Sycamore Island Park to do some kayaking on the San Joaquin River.

I neglected to check the flow levels before we left — something all paddlers should do — but the river was noticeably higher. And it’s even higher now.

Of course, this is all a result of the federally mandated restoration program. From April 12 through May 7, total releases from Friant Dam are scheduled at 1,060 cubic feet per second. Which is a lot for the San Joaquin. To put 1,060 cfs in perspective, consider that the minimum flows before the settlement were 100 cfs — barely a trickle. (You can see the entire schedule for 2013 here.)

What does this mean for people who use the river? It means they must pay attention and use proper paddling techniques, because narrow stretches along the river now boast significantly stronger current. And if that current carries you off to the side, especially when coming around a bend, you’re susceptible to being swept into submerged root systems. These “strainers” pose one of the biggest dangers on the river. When people get stuck in them, the current makes it impossible to break free and they typically drown.

There are some navigational hazards of the man-made variety, too. As part of the restoration, biologists from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife have installed monitoring stations to track planted salmon fingerlings as they cruise the river. One of these stations is located at Scout Island, between the Fig Garden and San Joaquin country clubs, and it’s set up in an area where the river is extremely narrow.

Making life interesting for boaters, one leg of the monitoring station extends out from the Fresno side while the other extends out a few yards upstream from the Madera side. Both are marked with pink ribbons (and there are warning signs upstream) but aren’t easy to avoid when you’re ┬ánavigating a 13-foot kayak through a narrow stretch of river.

In fact, it’s like a mini-slalom course.