The first sign of trouble on the Elkhorn River was the sound of a father yelling for help.
His kayak had capsized, pitching him into the water and sending his 13-year-old son downstream with the boat.
The scary situation ended safely Sunday, in part because of an aggressive rescue effort. But veteran observers of Nebraska’s rivers worry that other boaters, especially novices, won’t be so lucky. The reason: Historic March flooding has changed the nature of some of the state’s rivers. Notably, the Elkhorn River, and to a lesser extent the Platte River, aren’t as safe as they appear, said Rich Tesar, a retired outfitter and board member of the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District.
The Elkhorn especially is running deeper, swifter and stronger than before, and many of the sand bars are gone, Tesar said. In March, thick ice combined with powerful flows from runoff scoured out the river bottom.
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“(It) made it much, much deeper than it used to be,” he said. “People see it and they think they can get in and touch the bottom, but they can’t because the river could be three to five times deeper than normal.”
Even Nebraska rivers that weren’t similarly scoured are studded with debris and trees that can snag boaters and tubers. In some cases, the obstacles are submerged, which makes them especially dangerous.
In the case of Sunday’s water rescue, the 39-year-old father and his son had been on the river with another kayaker about four hours when they encountered “a swirl of rushing water,” according to the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office incident report. The man, who declined to be interviewed by The World-Herald, told sheriff’s officials that he tried to get around the swirling water but was sucked in and his kayak turned over.
Authorities located the boy about a mile downstream from his dad, said Waterloo Fire Chief Travis Harlow. The youth had been nabbed by the other kayaker. Omaha’s police helicopter landed in a field near the dad, and one of the officers helped him to safety.
On Tuesday, the river was carrying about 12,000 cubic feet per second at Waterloo, or about four times the amount of water that triggers shutting it down, Tesar said. By Thursday, the Elkhorn was running at about 10,200 cubic feet per second.
The power and depth of the Elkhorn is prompting the NRD to reconsider the river level at which it will open its access ramps. In the past, the ramps were open anytime the river was at or below 5 feet. (River-gauge readings are based on elevation, not river depth.) But because the river is now deeper, a “5-foot reading” might actually be twice as deep as it used to be, said Tesar and NRD general manager John Winkler.
“We need to adjust how we determine when it’s safe and when it’s not,” Winkler said. Determining the new level is going to take some time, he said. Until then, the NRD is focused on repairing its flood-damaged access ramps.
The NRD’s decision on when it will open its access ramps means that outfitters have their own decisions to make. In the past, metro area outfitter Tubing & Adventures followed the NRD’s lead in deciding when to send out boaters, said owner Brock Beran.
Beran said his company will consult with the NRD. Depending upon what the NRD decides, Tubing & Adventures may set its own threshold for boating and tubing.
Beran said his staff will float the river first, though, to get a feel for it and decide when to open.
“The river is dropping,” he said. “We might open this weekend.”
Tubing & Adventures has its own private access points, so they’re no longer dependent on the NRD sites, Beran said. His company offers a float from about West Dodge Road to Harrison Street, which is a little more than 6 miles.
Harlow, the Waterloo fire chief, said last weekend’s rescue illustrates a couple of points for the public to consider.
First, wear your life jackets. The father and son didn’t have their life jackets on — they were strapped to the kayaks, he said. “If you’re going to need your life jackets, by the time you need them, it will be too late to put them on,” he said.
Second, water rescues are costly. Taxpayers and volunteers foot the bill. In this case, volunteer firefighters from Bennington, Valley and Waterloo responded along with the Valley and Waterloo Police Departments, Douglas County Sheriff’s Office and Omaha police helicopter.
Eventually, the rivers will silt back in, Beran and the others said.
Beran said his crew will focus on educating people before they send them out on the river. More at risk, he said, are members of the public who drive to a bridge over the river and drop a boat in.
“We’ve been battling Mother Nature for 11 seasons,” he said. “A lot of this will be education — being sure our customers know there are some dangers out there. You have to pay attention.”