With the unofficial start of summer looming over the Memorial Day weekend, outdoor enthusiasts and recreational businesses alike are looking forward to returning to Sonoma County waterways rejuvenated by record rains after five years of drought.
The winter deluge transformed Lake Sonoma, the region’s major reservoir, opening more areas to explore in the lake’s twin arms that reach deep into wild country northwest of Healdsburg.
The ever-popular Russian River also has new surprises in store for boaters and swimmers. Beaches on the lower river drew sizable crowds last weekend, raising businesses’ hopes for a profitable season in the tourism-oriented region.
“We’re all shined up and spiffied up and ready to go,” said Debra Johnson, president of the Russian River Chamber of Commerce.
Monte Rio Beach was jammed last weekend and attracted a modest crowd on Monday afternoon, said Steve Baxman, fire chief and chairman of the Monte Rio Recreation & Park District.
“Everything’s great. The beaches look good,” he said.
While the winter storms ended the drought emphatically — dropping nearly 58 inches of rain on Santa Rosa — they also created new dangers.
Consistent high flows on the Russian River fell short of major flooding but still reconfigured the serpentine waterway, altering both the river’s banks and its bottom in ways that could prove hazardous, Baxman warned.
“You’ve got to be careful,” he said, noting that the river is still running higher than normal with a significant current in spots.
Swimmers and boaters should wear life jackets, Baxman said, or at least “make sure you have people watching each other.”
The river flow at Hacienda Bridge Monday was 627 cubic feet per second, nearly twice what it was on the same day last year. In January, the river peaked at a torrent of more than 52,000 cfs.
Larry Laba, owner of Russian River Adventures in Healdsburg, said he had to postpone sending customers down the river from Memorial Beach to Wohler Bridge in inflatable canoes for several weeks due to the high flows.
One of the tricky spots — a place he called the “S-turn” — no longer needs signs advising paddlers how to get through because the river cut a new, straight channel over the winter.
“One of our favorite trouble spots is gone after 16 years,” Laba said.
The nine-mile stretch of river he uses is color-coded, with fluorescent pink tape marking obstacles to avoid and blue tape showing the way to go.
David Robinson, Sonoma County Regional Parks programs manager, said the current recently was so swift that members of the agency’s 5-year-old beach patrol team postponed their usual dive trip to scope out dramatic drop-offs and other changes to the river bottom at popular swimming holes like Mom’s, Sunset and Steelhead beaches, all in Forestville.
“The river is different from what we’re used to, and so we’re trying to tell people to be cautious about it,” he said.
Among county parks beaches, only Healdsburg Veterans Memorial Beach has a lifeguard.
The beach patrol will have its loaner life vest program operating again this summer, with stations for pick-up and drop-off at the three Forestville beaches.
In Villa Grande, located at a hairpin turn in the river just west of Monte Rio, the high water obliterated much of the beachfront property at Patterson Point Preserve.