Snowmelt in Lake Tahoe Basin Will Be Massive and Deadly, Concerned Officials Warn

River Truckee rafting near Tahoe Dam California
White Water Rafting on Truckee River Credit: First Tracks Online

The Lake Tahoe Basin still has about half of this year’s massive snowpack still attached to the mountain slopes. In fact, as winter continued into May (Squaw Valley saw 20″ of fresh snow in May) the snowpack actually grew.

But summer is almost here, days are getting longer and temperatures are warming up. The increasing temperatures are already causing that snowpack to melt, Lake Tahoe is rising, but as the snowpack further melts down the slopes through rivers and streams it will push an already fast water flow into a furious torrent.

The swift, icy flow is going to make water recreation and hiking more dangerous as was recently seen at Lake Tahoe with a Bay Area woman being tragically swept over Eagle Falls in Emerald Bay, reports the Tahoe Daily Tribune.

 “Streams are still on the rise,” Jeff Anderson, a hydrologist for Natural Resources Conservation Service Nevada, told the Tribune on Tuesday. “We are only really getting warm temps again. I expect to see streamflow increase the first part of this week, especially on streams coming off the crest where there is significant snow to melt.”

Anderson compares this year with 2017 when the Sierra had an even larger snowpack during peak winter. But in 2017 there was no May delay in the snowmelt, and late May and June 2017 proved to be dangerous. Multiple people drowned that year after getting into trouble while kayaking, swimming, or paddleboarding in the Upper Truckee River.

south Yuba, Yuba, river death, nevada
A popular spot for swimming, the HWY 49 crossing of the South Yuba River. Credit: Pinterest

More recently, the Placer County Sheriff’s Office reported a man went missing while swimming in the American River confluence near Auburn earlier this week. And Mateo Rios, of Rocklin, is still missing after he was seen floating in distress last weekend down the South Fork of the American River near Chili Bar Park.

The best piece of advice for people wishing to be on the water right now?

“Hands down the biggest thing people should use is a PFD,” officials said.

Not having life vests almost cost two people their lives Monday. They escaped with their lives but it did cost them some money. Their canoe started taking on water during choppy conditions. Luckily a citizen pulled them to safety, but the pair were later each issued a citation after it was discovered there was no PFD in the vessel or on their bodies.

“Lake Tahoe is a beautiful place but you have to be smart and safe,” a spokesman said. “The mornings may be nice on the lake but once the wind kicks up in the afternoon, it gets rough. You have to know your own limitations, don’t take risks and take proper precautions.”

A life vest also helps battle cold shock response — a gasp reflex that can include hyperventilation and muscle spasms that can result in water inhalation and drowning can happen in seconds, helping victims to stay afloat in the ice-melt water, and hopefully a little more calm, while fighting for breath and struggling to reach the shoreline.