Weather Watch

How to have fun — and stay safe — in the water this Memorial Day weekend

A view of Morro Rock from the beach at Cayucos.
A view of Morro Rock from the beach at Cayucos.

At sea level, water is around 800 times denser than the air we breathe when the air and water temperatures are 59 degrees. Consequently, water can remove body heat 25 to 30 times faster than air does at the same temperature.

Not only can cold water quickly drain your body’s warmth and cause hypothermia, it can also exert hundreds of times more force than the wind can at any given speed — as anyone who’s tried to swim across a river or against a rip current will tell you.

Tragically, many people drown each year in California’s lakes and rivers and along the state’s coastline. This year has the potential to be especially hazardous, and here’s why:

Even though this year’s very strong El Niño event didn’t produce as much rain as hoped for along the Central Coast, it did essentially fill the state’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Shasta and Lake Orville. It also produced a healthy snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, with the most snow in years.

The warmer-than-normal air temperatures statewide this spring — nearly 4 degrees above average — have produced a quicker snow melt.

Consequently, river flows such as the American River will be at their strongest and coldest in recent memory as thousands of people flock to the lakes, rivers and coastline for the Memorial Day weekend.

This swift and icy water can create treacherous conditions for all recreationists — waders, swimmers, paddlers, boaters, anglers and hikers cooling off at the water’s edge.

Due to the greater snowmelt, many unseen obstacles can be lurking below the water’s surface, and swift water can make these obstacles even more treacherous.

Sudden immersion in these cold waters can stimulate the “gasp reflex,” which causes an involuntary inhalation of air or water. It can even trigger cardiac arrest, temporary paralysis, hypothermia and drowning. When faced with swift water, even the strongest swimmers may be easily overwhelmed.

Also, frigid water entering the ear canal can cause vertigo and disorientation that can cause swimmers to move away from the shoreline toward deeper water.

Please remember, recreating in PG&E canals and flumes is strictly prohibited. Stay out of these water conveyances, which are very dangerous because of slippery sides and fast-moving water.

PG&E and California State Parks Division of Boating and Waterways are warning visitors to be aware of colder and higher river and stream flows, and to take precautions when in or near water.

“We ask those enjoying the outdoors to be careful near mountain streams, rivers and reservoirs. Water flows can fluctuate as snow melts faster on warmer days, so always be prepared for a change in conditions,” said Ed Halpin, senior vice president of generation and chief nuclear officer for PG&E.

“The month of May traditionally marks the beginning of boating season in California,” said Lynn Sadler, Division of Boating and Waterways deputy director. “As we enjoy getting back out on and in the water, it is critical that we exercise extra caution and awareness, especially if venturing into unfamiliar waterways, or areas impacted by the drought. Have fun, but please stay safe.”

Below are some water safety tips:

Parental Supervision

▪  Actively supervise children in and around water. Give them your undivided attention. Appoint a designated “water watcher,” and take turns with other adults.

▪  Teach children that swimming in open water is not the same as swimming in a pool — they need to be aware of uneven surfaces, river currents, ocean undertow and changing weather.

Know the Law

▪  Every child under 13 must wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket when on a moving recreational vessel of any length.

▪  A Coast Guard-approved life jacket must be carried for each person on board a boat. This includes rigid or inflatable paddlecraft.

▪  It is against the law to operate a boat or water ski with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 percent or more. You can be arrested even when your BAC is less than 0.08 percent if conditions are deemed to be unsafe.

For more water safety information, please visit

On this Memorial Day, please remember all those who gave everything — including their lives — to preserve our freedom.

There are a number of meaningful Memorial Day observances planned throughout the Central Coast Monday to honor these service members. One is the Lost at Sea Memorial at the Cayucos Pier. It’s dedicated to all those lost at sea: military, recreational and commercial. We simply gather at the base of the pier this Monday for a brief service at 3 p.m. and walk together out over the Pacific Ocean and remember those who never returned.

John Lindsey is the PG&E Diablo Canyon marine meteorologist and media-relations representative. Email him at or follow him at