Paddling in Floods

From flowing fun to ‘far out’/’oh fudge’ in a flash…

In the midst of the current La Nina weather pattern, there is some great fun to be had with good river flows. There is also risk of the fun turning to “far out – it’s a bit scary” then in a flash becoming “oh fudge!” At least two deaths have occurred in NSW in the last 3 months on flood waters, and numerous near-death incidents have occurred with people being sucked under trees or caught under water. So here are some tips for having fun but managing risks when paddling on high flows, flood waters or when potential flooding may occur – including deciding when not to go paddling:

Tip 1: Understand and appreciate your environment

Rain forecasts, severe weather warnings with high rainfall, and flood warnings:

Warnings: These can be checked here

For significant increases in dam releases, you can sign up to be notified with the WaterNSW Early Warning Network, sign up here

Remember, flood warnings can affect not only the river you are paddling on, but your access points. Some roads may be shut (check the TfNSW website or possibly your local council website under ‘public notices’). Never drive into or through floodwaters – its surprising how easily a vehicle can float and be washed away.

Of course, keep an eye on how much rainfall is predicted in your catchment.

Know your catchment:

Know which catchment area(s) you will be in so you know what rain forecasts to consider (i.e. look at the areas that collect rainfall and will flow down to where you will be paddling), and what tributary waterways to keep an eye on.

A handy map to get an idea of recent rainfall (last 1 hour, 24 hours, or since 9am) in your catchment can be accessed here

Check suitable river and rainfall gauges:

Have a look upstream on your river and see what flows are on their way. Also check what’s coming down the tributaries which will enter your river. There are three main websites for checking water levels/flows:

  • The BOM (Bureau of Meteorology): see and under “Latest River height Data”, click on your river catchments. As well as being able to see the water height at each gauge, this page also states whether the river is rising, falling or steady, and what level of flooding it is at (if any). (Note that flood levels are not written for paddlers though – a river may be ok to paddle on when in minor flood, or it may be too high before it even reaches minor flood level. But it is a guide in that if it is at a minor flood level, be ultra cautious in deciding whether to paddle). For each river, the gauges are listed in order of going downstream (so you can see what’s coming down the river). Going back to the main page you can also access recent rainfall data, or you can get half-hourly info by going here – enter your location, then on the top right of the page, click “current and past weather”. Or to get a broader overview, you can go to the handy map mentioned previously: If you see that there has been large rainfalls in the catchment then expect river conditions to significantly change in the near future – which is when you might be paddling 
  • WaterNSW website: (click on “Daily River Reports” in the column on the left, then click on the map to select your catchment. Note: when water levels are rising quickly, click on the gauge you want so you can see the latest reading (to the minute); the main list shows the average for the day so far). Gauges are also listed in order of moving down the catchment. The advantage of this site is that flow rate (ML/day) is also given, which gives a better indication of water volume moving down a river. But it depends on what you are used to knowing about your river – the heights of gauges, or the flow rate (or both).
  • The Waterways Guide. See Established by PaddleNSW, this website has been established for paddlers and hence gives the suitable range of water levels for paddling on. It doesn’t cover all rivers though (your help to fill in these gaps is most welcome!).

Its important to appreciate that when you check a river gauge height or flow it is only reflecting what the river is doing at that location and time. Conditions can change quickly from intense rainfalls and it is possible that storms can happen between gauges. Occasionally river gauges can malfunction and give incorrect readings or a gauge datum is recalibrated so familiarity before you start is essential.

Of prime importance, you need to know what good paddling levels are – most regular paddlers will know this; if you don’t know, ask your club, or look a reputable online group such as on Facebook etc, check paddling guides – people are usually happy to help. The advantage of the BOM site is that it does say when a river is in minor flood (and above) – but as noted earlier, this is not a definitive guide for paddlers.

Water quality:

Water quality will usually decrease with floods, as pollutants get washed in. Sewerage systems can also overflow. Minimise contact with the water that looks contaminated, and if it smells funny, don’t touch it. If you suspect chemical or sewerage pollution, ring the EPA hotline 9995 5000 or your local council (if after hours, still ring the council – most will put you through to or provide an after-hours contact number).

Your local council website will usually have a public notice around any issue and its worth checking, but bear in mind the lag time between the pollution happening, it being reported and investigated, and being posted on the website. What you are seeing is most likely ahead of this process.

If paddling on rivers with decreased water quality avoid where practical getting water on your face and especially avoid getting polluted water in your mouth – definitely do not swallow untreated river water that looks suspect. In that respect always have a drink bottle of fresh water with you.

Other key factors to consider with increased flows:

  • Generally avoid paddling on a rising river – its better to catch it on the way down.
  • Consider flood debris – the river you usually paddle on can be quite different during or after a flood or high flows – lots of extra logs etc can get washed down and stacked up against existing trees and logs, creating strainers and pinning hazards. New trees can fall in across the whole width of the river.
  • Wet river banks and fresh silt deposits can create slippery banks and make exit points tricky.

Tip 2: Be as equipment-ready as possible

We won’t go too much into this, as the gear you take shouldn’t be much different to what you always take paddling on moving water or whitewater. But some extra things to consider are:

  • Is your boat the right boat for higher flows/minor floods? You may need more maneuverability than usual to get around fallen trees / new obstacles. And do you have the right paddle? You don’t generally need your marathon racing paddle – a whitewater paddle will probably be more suitable.
  • Defo take a spare paddle – you’re a bit more likely to need it.
  • And your rescue equipment (throw ropes, pin kit etc) and emergency comms (PLB or sat phone if mobile reception is patchy).
  • Change of clothes – more likely to have a spill and need these.
  • Emergency overnight gear – there’s more chance of things going wrong and spending the night out.

Tip 3: Think about you and your paddling people

  • Think about what could possibly go wrong and what you might do. Consider not only your own skills, but the skills of those you are with – can they do it? And who are you responsible for – just yourself, or others as well?
  • Consider the public ramifications if you paddle on floodwater and have an incident – expect no one to support your decision, rescue authorities will be unimpressed or even angry should there be an incident needing their assistance, certain insurances may be invalid, and it tarnishes the reputation of your club and/or the paddling community in the public eye.
  • Consider whether the risk is really worth it. Can you paddle elsewhere, another time? Why do you want to do it, do you have to prove anything? (Most people will have way more respect for a person who chooses safety over ego). And if you want an adrenaline rush, there are more risk-managed ways to do it (eg. whitewater not in flood, or an artificial whitewater course).

If you’re going on a group paddle that someone else is organising, and there is the potential for higher-than-normal flows:

  • Ask the organiser what the predicted water level or flow rate will be, what gauge to look at, what tributaries are upstream, and what their water level/flow safety cut-off is. If they can’t answer or won’t answer, don’t go. These are legitimate and responsible questions – you have a right to ask them (if the info hasn’t already been provided) and a right to have them answered. As mentioned earlier, the PaddleNSW Waterways Guide lists the flood levels of many rivers so check it out.
  • Aim to be responsible for your own safety – do you have the skills or can the organiser meet the skill base required to keep you safe? What rescue experience do they have? (If you want a bit more assurance, note that Paddle Australia has a qualification/accreditation system for people guiding on moving water and for rescues, so you can ask if they have these qualification/s – see and click on whitewater to see the moving water and rescue qualifications).
  • If you are not confident, don’t go. You know your paddle ability better than the organiser. You can build up your skills (and therefore confidence) gradually and more safely in other ways eg. a training course, paddling on a higher-than-normal flow in a well-managed way to build up skills, or easier paddles.

There’s a big difference between fun in a risk-managed environment, and fun in a non-risk managed environment – which can easily become ‘oh fudge’. Manage your risk, know your flow, have fun and stay safe.

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