Are We Going To Die on the Sacramento River?

There are a few things that worry me. Because of the very wet California winter, water levels are high and I’ve heard flow rates are intense. Additionally, the Sacramento River, unlike the other large navigable Army Corps-managed rivers we’ve traveled, is full of hazards including snags, sweepers, strainers, rocks, stump fields, and eddies.

So looking up the flow rate in Red Bluff where we will be launching, courtesy of the USGS:

Daily discharge, cubic feet per second — statistics for Jun 20 based on 53 years of record

Most Recent
Value Jun 20
Mean Median 75th
7110 10800 12400 12600 12800 14300 18800


It looks like the current discharge is very near the average, despite the wet winter. That may be because the flow is managed to a degree by at least two upstream dams.

The other hazards however, are less easily dismissed.

With the high water in the spring, there is a good chance that the river has pulled more debris and trees into the river. The Sacramento is unusual for managed rivers.

On the Missouri, the Mississippi, and the Tennessee, the banks have been fixed by the addition of riverside levees and millions of tons of revetment, large rock that prevents natural erosion at the river’s edge. This keeps the river from naturally meandering. Unconstrained, rivers tend to cut away at the outside of every bend, often cutting off the loop and forming oxbow lakes. To serve navigation and land ownership, revetment freezes a river in place transforming it into little more than a canal.

For reasons I don’t yet understand, the Sacramento River is different. The upper river above Colusa has very little revetment. Levees sit a considerable distance from the river itself. That allows the river to meander and flood without effecting the largely agricultural areas outside of the levees. It means there are steep banks and natural sandy beaches. It also creates a wild corridor in which critters flourish.

Camping on a sandy beach on the Sacramento River in a punk raft

However, in many places there are agricultural fields and orchards inside of the levees and the river frequently erodes the bends and pulls almond trees and collapsed banks into the river.

This can make navigation on the Sacramento River a bit terrifying. You might come around a bend and see that there are freshly downed trees in the water with the bulk of the river flowing through them. On our punk raft trips, this initiated a flurry of desperate paddling. On the shantyboat, we’ll have Freddy2 to hopefully power us out of any difficult scrapes.

“River sharks”

Jacin playfully termed underwater snags river sharks, barely seen underwater hazards that seemed to swim right for us as we barreled downriver. But ultimately on our punk rafts held up by burly truck tubes, the danger was low as we had a draft of a few inches. In the shantyboat, our draft is about 10 inches (15 counting the skegs). So river sharks are a substantial danger.

We’d already talked about the possible need for a full time watch when we are under way on the upper river, a person to aid the pilot and just point out and help the pilot avoid hazards in the river.

Perhaps that will be enough. Perhaps not. But we will always keep in mind our motto.



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