After several years of drought along the Russian River, the time to get back in the drink is now, with the water at its highest summer-time flow in four years and hot weather making the prospect of a refreshing dip all the more enticing.
Strong beach attendance since Memorial Day suggests there is pent up demand for water fun, whether it’s swimming, canoeing, kayaking or just splashing around, business owners said.
And while locals are among those flocking to Sonoma County beaches, weekend visitors have included plenty of daytrippers from the Greater Bay Area, San Jose and even Santa Cruz who have been lured by the Russian River
“We don’t have clear water like this over there,” Antioch resident Erik Overmyer said, referring to his East Bay community as he paddleboarded upstream along a swift section of river near Del Rio Woods in Healdsburg. “You can’t see the fish go by.”
The river, the center of local tourism in the decades before Wine Country drew so much of the spotlight, has enjoyed a surge in popularity over recent years, offering affordable, ever more varied opportunities for outdoor adventure and family fun.
The explosion of recreational kayaking and, more recently, stand-up paddleboarding, has added to a passing parade of canoes, rafts and inner tubes, traditional watercraft still widely enjoyed on the Russian River.
Over the past two decades, the Sonoma County Regional Parks Department also has invested millions of dollars in new riverfront parks, parking and other amenities, increasing access to the river and enhancing longtime destinations on the upper and lower river alike.
Declining water levels during the prolonged drought put a damper on water recreation during the past few seasons, especially last year, when bone-dry conditions prompted the Sonoma County Water Agency to reduce summer-time reservoir releases to the bare minimum, seriously decreasing the river flow.
With water levels at a low point and the river temperature high, word came last Labor Day that a dangerous blue-green algae had been detected in some areas of the waterway and was even responsible for the death of a dog. Public health warnings scared away some people for the last precious weeks of long, warm days.
There are no signs of blue green algae now, amid high hopes that the region will escape any such threat this year, though public officials will be monitoring the situation.
The return of rain last winter has positioned the region better than many other parts of California, leaving lakes Sonoma and Mendocino at their highest levels since early January 2013, state records show. Plentiful supplies allow for more water in the river this summer than last year.
Sonoma County Water Agency spokeswoman Ann Dubay said the river should still be “noticeably higher than during the drought,” particularly on the upper river above Dry Creek, allowing for good times throughout the system.
The highest flows of the summer may be right now, just as river fans are beginning to pack beaches and get out on the water with friends and family.
“It’s a good year for the Russian River,” said Bill Mashek, owner of Forestville-based Rubicon Adventures, a commercial provider of stand-up paddleboard training and guided trips.
Seasonal dams also are going up this month at three locations on the river, including for the first time in two years Healdsburg Veterans Memorial Beach, a popular family destination in large part because of its expansive swimming area and on-duty lifeguards. The dam will be in place this week, making for a wide, deep swimming area by the July Fourth weekend, park personnel said.