It may be the third year of a calamitous drought, but fun-seekers along the North Coast can still get their wet fix.

The good news for recreational users of the Russian River is that the Sonoma County Water Agency last week declared conditions on the upper river "dry" instead of "critical," triggering an increase in water flows.

That means that while there may still be a lot more dry beach along the Russian River than in normal years, there still should be enough water to take a dip or float a kayak or canoe, said Sonoma County Regional Parks manager Bert Whitaker.

"It's mostly shallow, with 3 to 4 feet of water. But there are still a lot of areas along the beach to enjoy and relatively narrow spots to wade," he said. "There will be a few spots you could swim in, but mostly, for adults, it's standing."

Still, the fact that the river will continue to run is cause for boaters to rejoice.

"We're very pleased the Water Agency had the foresight to manage the river in a way where we could have water this summer," said a relieved Lolly Mercer, owner of River's Edge Kayak and Canoe Trips, whose treks cover some 30 miles upriver from Healdsburg.

"Even in more normal conditions, our clients always have to get out a few times for sandbars," she added. "That's what makes it fun. You have to navigate and negotiate your way down."

Linda Burke, owner of Burke's Canoes in Forestville, said boaters can still expect their share of surprises along with schlepping over sandbars and shallow patches.

"Because of the nature of any river, including this one, you will encounter various depths of water as you travel along," she said. "It will range from ankle-deep to waist-deep to neck-deep to way over anybody's head, and that will be the case this year as in every year.

"Based on all the experts I've talked with, our part of the river from Forestville to Guerneville will have adequate flows all summer long," she said.

After it was determined June 1 that storage in Lake Mendocino exceeded a minimum threshold of 50,000 acre-feet — 46 percent of capacity — water officials decided to downgrade conditions to "dry," said Water Agency spokesman Brad Sherwood. That means water flows could be increased to 75 cubic feet per second in the upper Russian River, 25 cfs in Dry Creek and 85 cfs in the lower Russian River.

That is still 10-20 percent less than in a normal year, said Don McEnhill, executive director of Russian Riverkeeper, a conservation group.

River observers say that while conditions won't be perfect, they shouldn't be any worse than last year's.

"We're going to have quite a bit more water than we had for Memorial Day weekend, and that most likely will persist through the summer," Sherwood said.

Still, there will be some drought-related disappointments.

The Sonoma County Regional Parks agency several months ago decided not to put up the dam near Veterans Memorial Beach in Healdsburg this summer, a decision driven in part by planned construction work on the Memorial Bridge nearby.

Consequently, Healdsburg's community swimming hole will be good only for wading. That decision also led to the cancellation of this year's Healdsburg Water Carnival in July.

The show will go on in Monte Rio, however. The river town's annual bash with water carnival parade, fireworks and big water curtain will go on as planned July 5, said Diane DeMartini, who manages the Monte Rio Recreation and Park District.

"I don't know what all the fuss is about. It looks the same to me as it's ever looked," she said of the river conditions.

"The river in front of our beach is probably only up to 4 feet deep," she added. "But then if you go just slightly west of that shallow area, it really drops off. And it gets very deep."

Russian Riverkeeper's McEnhill said anyone looking to cool off should just expect the river to be a little more narrow and shallow.

"There will be more real estate for people to lay out blankets and put up their umbrellas and have picnics," he said, sounding an optimistic note.

In fact, the Russian River is in better shape than some others, like the American River, he added, which may bring in more recreational users than usual.

Parks manager Whitaker said Sonoma County is in conservation mode, installing push-button, timed water controllers at boat and fish washing stations at Doran Beach and Westside Regional parks in Bodega Bay.

The swimming lagoon at Spring Lake in Santa Rosa is open for business. It's always fed by a natural spring that comes off the hillside. Whitaker said crews started work on the lagoon weeks earlier, allowing more time for the lagoon to fill naturally and reducing the need to fill it in from the lake.

<i>You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 521-5204.</i>