Environment & Science

Swift, high water makes for a deadly year on the Kern River

The Kern River flowing outside of Bakersfield in late March 2017, following the spring snowmelt. Swift, high waters are making for a deadly year for drownings on the river.
The Kern River flowing outside of Bakersfield in late March 2017, following the spring snowmelt. Swift, high waters are making for a deadly year for drownings on the river.
David Brossard/Flickr Creative Commons

Listen to story

01:02
Download this story 0.0MB

Update, Sunday, July 2, 2017: A Los Angeles man died on the morning of Saturday, July 1 while jumping into the Kern River, according to Bakersfield.com. He and his cousins were reportedly jumping from rocks near Keyesville when authorities warned them about the dangerous currents. He ignored their advice. Earlier this weekend, the body of 27-year-old Orange County rapper Michael Ramirez was pulled from the Kern River after he drowned more than a week ago, reports the Los Angeles Times. Over Memorial Day weekend, three people died and 24 were rescued in multiple incidents along the Kern River. 


It’s likely to be a busy 4th of July weekend for lodge and campground operators and river rafting companies along the Kern River in the southern Sierras. Area search and rescue teams also expect to have a busy weekend on the river.

“It’s just so much more dangerous than it’s been in years past,” said Sgt. Zach Bittle, search and rescue coordinator for the Kern County Sheriff’s Department. “We’re encouraging people not to go in the river."

Five people have drowned so far this year and the bodies of two more have yet to be recovered, including that of Orange County rapper Michael Ramirez, who was swept downstream on June 22.

That puts 2017 en route to becoming one of the deadliest years on the Kern in recent memory. Deaths have ranged between one and four per year since 2012, according to Bittle.

Nine people drowned in the river in 2011, when, like this year, an El Niño weather pattern caused heavier than normal rain in the Sierra Nevada mountain range that feeds the river. 

Bittle estimated that the river currently holds 10 to 12 times the amount of water that it has in recent years. That means the water is moving much faster than normal and covering up vegetation and boulders that can cause deadly undertow, he said.

Giovanni Reyes from Valley Village visits the river every summer, often taking dips with his  13-year-old daughter at what used to be a calm section near the Sandy Flat Campground. This year, he said, he won’t let her go in more than waist-deep. 

“While it seems calm, the current underneath sucks you in,” he said. 

For those determined to get in the water, here are Sgt. Bittle's recommendations: