Caution: Wild Waters

With the heavy rains in February, reservoirs levels are higher than normal, and many dams in the TVA system are generating, sluicing and/or spilling water, creating potentially dangerous conditions for heedless recreational users.

FEBRUARY 23, 2018—With rainfall at 200 percent of normal across the Valley—and with more rain on the way—TVA is racing to outpace the water and prevent flooding across the system. Many dams are generating, spilling (that is, releasing water through the top of the dam) and/or sluicing (releasing water below the dam) to move water downriver to open flood storage capacity. Conditions on the Tennessee River and its reservoir system are volatile, at best—especially in west Tennessee and Kentucky.

It’s not unusual for dams to spill at rates of up to a million gallons per second; Kentucky Dam today is spilling at a rate of about 2 million gallons per second. This creates hazardous conditions for recreational lake users—particularly those who willfully ignore horns and lights and signs meant to warn them away from certain danger and even potential deadly situations. (To read more about the warning systems in place near dams, click here.)

“There is a lot of water moving through the system at a pretty good clip now, and I think that many people just don’t understand the tremendous power that water has,” says Todd Peney, director of TVA Police. “We’re seeing situations in which people are ignoring our warning systems, thinking that they can handle the water or that they know better, and that can lead to disaster.”

What does disaster look like? Think boats pulled over spillways and plunging hundreds of feet into roiling water. Think fishermen on banks losing their footing and getting sucked under the surface by the whirl created during generation. Think kayakers in lifejackets losing control and submitting to strong undertows. It ain’t pretty.

“When the water is like this, you just can’t win—no boat engine can overcome the force of a dam spillway,” says Peney, who has seen more than his fair share of drownings. “We’re seeing a lot of debris throughout the system, which is another danger. You can easily encounter a log that’s been swept out of someone’s yard or away from a dock, and that, too, can capsize a boat or knock a fisherman off his feet.”

Be smart, be safe. Pay attention to water warnings. And always heed alarms when you’re in the water near dams.

Decoding Dam Dangers

If you enjoy fishing or swimming or boating on the Tennessee Valley reservoir system—great. During calm weather, the waters it contains are safe if you observe basic boating precautions. However, if you’re in the water near a dam, powerhouse or lock, you need to be aware of some potential hazards, and familiarize yourself with the systems TVA uses to communicate them to you. Here's a guide to TVA's safety warning systems.