Recreational boaters reminded to check river levels before setting out
River experts say Saturday was a perfect example of why kayakers and other paddlers need to check river conditions before setting off on a float.
Three kayakers had to be rescued from the Kiski River near Leechburg when their kayaks got hung up on submerged trees in the fast-moving water. The women — a mother and her two daughters — were trying to reach a dog that jumped from one of the kayaks. They became pinned against some trees by the force of the water.
All were found unharmed by Armstrong County Water Rescue Task Force 340.
Had they checked water levels, they would have been told it was unsafe to float the river Saturday despite predictions that water levels were dropping after heavy rains days earlier.
“We preach to paddlers to stay in the middle of the river, stay away from the sides where there are more “strainers” (partially submerged trees),” said Neill Andritz, who, along with his wife, Evelyn, have been operating the River’s Edge Canoe & Kayak in Gilpin for 13 years.
Andritz also is a member of the water rescue team that saved the three paddlers.
The Kiski River ran faster and higher Saturday than a federal recreational outlook predicted as late as Thursday.
It was a classic lesson in know your river conditions — daily.
Federal and state safety agencies stress that paddlers and recreational boaters should consult websites providing daily updates on water conditions.
Andritz said the Army Corps’ recreational outlook for water levels last week predicted Kiski River levels to fall by Saturday, prompting the outfitter to accept reservations for the weekend, including 100 tubers looking to float the river.
When Andritz and his wife woke early Saturday and checked the river levels, they were shocked that the river hadn’t gone down but, instead, had risen, with the same higher level predicted for Sunday. Water conditions passed their “safety cut-off.”
They canceled the 100 tubers scheduled to float over the weekend.
The Army Corps issues the weekend water recreational outlooks as a “courtesy,” according to according to Megan Gottlieb, the Corps water management unit leader.
Late-day storms Thursday caused the Kiski water levels to rise instead of decrease, as predicted by the Corps earlier in the day Thursday.
The Kiski’s water level can be greatly impacted by releases from two flood control dams upstream: The Conemaugh River Lake Reservoir and Loyalhanna Lake and Dam, both near Saltsburg.
The inflow to the Conemaugh was four times higher than expected, and the inflow to the Loyalhanna was eight times higher than expected from localized storms later Thursday, with the Loyalhanna reservoir rising more than 12 feet in one day, Gottlieb said.
“People have to look at current conditions before they put their kayak in the water,” she said.
Corps Spokeswoman Carol E. Vernon added that knowing the water levels is part of knowing the waterways, and boaters should be able to read a water gauge and, if they don’t, should take a course.
While the Andritzs were disappointed with the weekend water conditions, being river experts, they checked the water conditions.
“I don’t think normal people check the water gauges,” Andritz said. “They don’t know what they mean. There’s a casual attitude about personal flotation devices.”
People buy kayaks from big-box stores, Andritz said, and aren’t required to learn safe boating practices, that is, unless they take a course from the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.
Boater safety certification is required by the state for operating small, jet-powered personal watercraft and boats powered by motors greater than 25 horsepower for operators born on or after Jan. 1, 1982.
Andritz would like to see the Corps tweak their reservoir releases to allow for slower water releases to allow for safer and lower water conditions for paddlers.
But the sole purpose of those reservoirs is to prevent flooding, not facilitate recreation, Vernon said.
“We are not insensitive to the recreational season,” she said. “We understand the economic value to their communities.
“But what they are asking, we don’t have the authority to do,” Vernon said. “Our operation manuals are a Congressional-mandated mission for our reservoirs.”
Water levels in the Kiski should abate by Friday or Saturday if the region doesn’t get hit with significant runoff from rain, according to Gottlieb. If there is significant rain, lower water levels might not return until next week.
Mary Ann Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Mary at 724-226-4691, [email protected] or via Twitter .