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Be safe, check water release schedule before entering the Chattahoochee

June 01, 2016

JCFD rescue boatViewed from a distance, the Chattahoochee River looks easy-going, but its appearance can be deceptive. When the Corps of Engineers releases water from Lake Lanier, the resulting surge of water can cause the river to become fast, powerful and deep.

During the summer, the Johns Creek Fire Department Swift Water Rescue Team may respond several times a month to emergency calls to rescue people from the frigid, rushing water of the river. In some cases, they’re asked to help recover bodies.

 “The surge of water doesn’t come in a crashing wave like in the movies,” said Johns Creek Fire Chief Jeff Hogan. “The water level just rises. If people aren’t watching, they could be stranded on a rock that’s about to be submerged, or in a boat that’s being pushed downstream by a powerful current. Before heading out to the river, please check with the Corps to find out when the water release will occur that day.”

During a release, the Chattahoochee can rise as much as 11 feet in minutes. The water can be as cold as 47 degrees, low enough to bring on hypothermia and hamper efforts to swim to shore.

The Army Corps of Engineers releases water from Buford Dam during weekday afternoons unless there are unusual downstream water demands or especially heavy rains. In those situations, unscheduled water releases can occur in the morning and on weekends.

The Corps provides release notice, but the advance announcements may vary from a few minutes to a few hours. 

JCFD acquired a custom-made rescue boat last year that provides sufficient power and versatility to reach and save people more quickly. The boat has only a 4-inch draft, which allows it to move over most shoals, the gunnels (sides) of the boat are lower, which makes it easier to enter the boat from the water, and it has a hand-cranked hoist to lift a lightweight stretcher.

Hogan said the best safety strategy is to take some simple precautions.

River safety tips:

  • For release times, call 770-945-1466 or listen to 1610AM. River users may also view the daily schedule for releases (see the Buford column).  Call ahead to see when releases are scheduled. And call just before entering the river. Be aware of the time and head for the shore when the release is scheduled. Even though it may take a while for the water to get to you, don't wait.
  • Always wear a flotation device.
  • Keep an eye on the water level - note the water level on a solid fixture, such as a bridge support. If the water level has risen, it's time to get out!
  • Just because you're in a boat, don't assume you're safe. People have drowned after their boat struck rocks broadside and flipped.
  • Make sure someone knows where you are. If you get into trouble, someone can find you and alert authorities.
  • Pay attention to where you are - there are mile-markers along the river. If you have to make an emergency call, you can tell authorities where to find you.
For more information, watch the Johns Creek Fire Department’s Water Safety Video, review the US Army Corps of Engineers safety tips, or download the attached Chattahoochee Water Safety flyer.