Officials stress water safety as weather warms

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Looking at the long-awaited sunshine graphics shining brightly on this weekend’s forecast, plus today's blue skies, you might think it’s time to break out the swimsuits. Well, according to the experts, it’s not. At all.

“All the water is very cold right now,” said Sgt. Fred Nieman of the Clark County Sheriff’s Office. “It looks inviting, especially if it’s 85 degrees, but it’s not water you just want to jump into. You can get hypothermia real quick.

It’s not August. It’s early June.”

Area forecasters are calling for the year’s first 80-degree days, coming back-to-back Saturday and Sunday. The mercury is likely to rise all the way to 84 degrees Saturday, according to the National Weather Service, before falling to 81 degrees Sunday.

An early June swim would be ill-advised in a normal year, with rivers, lakes and streams needing more than one or two days of sunshine to warm up, public safety officials said. That’s especially the case this year, as the Columbia River and other waterways have pushed past their brims, the result of a rainy spring and snow in higher elevations being melted and working its way into the water system.

It’s not known how much more snowmelt will result from this weekend’s warm-up, which is to be followed by temperatures diving into the lower 60s by Tuesday.

The Columbia is running past Vancouver today at about 17.2 feet, more than a foot over the official flood stage of 16 feet. Capt. Scott Willis of the Vancouver Fire Department said the Columbia’s water temperature is in the low to mid-50s.

The high water gives the river a little extra oomph, plenty enough to cause trouble for unsuspecting swimmers and boaters. In part, that means familiar swimming areas likely hold surprises.

“Anytime the water levels get as high as they are, they start washing off debris from the shores, logs and those things,” Willis said. “Conditions are a lot different right now because of the high water levels.”

In the last month, fire officials have been called twice to rescue people stranded on Vancouver Lake. A man and woman on Sunday night got lost and disoriented by the higher-than-normal water.

Nieman, who heads the sheriff’s office’s marine patrol unit, said patrol boats will be out on the Columbia this weekend and on north Clark County lakes Yale and Merwin.

He said he doesn’t expect swimmers at Moulton Falls, where the East Fork Lewis River remains low compared to the other rivers and streams.

Nieman suggested boaters wear life jackets and watch out for floating debris, and reminds that children 12 and under are required by law to wear life jackets.

Dawn Johnson of Clark County Fire District 6 said she’s overheard people talking about waiting so long this year for it to get hotter that they’re ready to “just go.”

“The river is dangerously high right now, and will get higher with the snowmelt. And colder,” Johnson said. “Hopefully we won’t have to respond because people are being careful.”