Hot temperatures are ushering in the unofficial start of summer, along with a favorite pastime that can turn dangerous in an instant — swimming in the Chattahoochee River.
Waterfalls and beach-like patches along 48 river miles of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area are popular points for groups of friends to jump into the water. But, most people “aren’t thinking about how dangerous the river is,” said Ann Honious, superintendent of the Chattahoochee River National Recreational Area.
Since 2012, there have been 28 drownings in the park recreation area, with more than half at a Cobb County destination in the East Palisades Unit. The site, nicknamed ‘Diving Rock at Akers Mill,’ attracts many park visitors as a place to swim and jump off rocks, the superintendent said.
“The river water is cold even in middle of summer,” Honious said. “Flows get high, and people get caught swimming in more than they can deal with. Too many people have found that out.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers manage Buford Dam (and Lake Lanier) and typically release water on weekday afternoons, but not always. During a release, the Chattahoochee can rise as much as 11 feet in minutes.
Dangerous water conditions aren’t always linked to releases, Honious said, adding that day-to-day conditions can become perilous because of rainfall or generally high river flow.
The Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area is urging swimmers to wear life vests or floatation devices, and has installed signage in the Akers Mill area showing a fashionable swimmer and wording such as “Make a statement, wear a life vest and survive” and “Before you swim buckle in.”
“In each of these drownings, these (vests) could’ve saved their life,” Honious said.
All 28 of the victims who drowned in the national park area during a 10-year period were men. The Akers Mill site accounted for 16 of the drownings.
All but one of the 16 victims at Diving Rock at Akers Mill were Black men. The other 12 drownings throughout the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area were victims of different races and ages, the superintendent said.
“No other location has (similar factors in) drownings as Diving Rock at Akers Mill, “ Honious said. “Other drownings were people who were rafting or boating or jumping off Settles Bridge (in Suwannee) and swimming.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 4,000 unintentional drowning deaths per year in the U.S., or 11 per day, from 2011 to 2020. In Georgia, there were 137 deaths per year during that time period.
Drownings are the leading cause of death for children after motor vehicle-related accidents, data shows. A 2021 report by the Georgia Child Fatality Review Panel shows 24 children died due to unintentional drownings. Eleven of those deaths were children, ages 1-4.
Last September, the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area partnered with the Georgia River Network, YMCA and WABE to raise awareness of river safety with videos and signage throughout the park corridor.
In a YouTube video on the use of life vests, Patrice Childs says her 27-year-old son, Priness, drowned in the river last June while saving the lives of his two nieces.
They were swimming in the area of Diving Rock at Akers Mill, according to the park.
In the video, which is produced by WABE, Childs describes Priness as an excellent swimmer.
“The water is both beautiful and dangerous,” Childs says. “On the surface you’re looking at ducks floating by ... but underneath it is very dangerous because you can’t see the current underneath.”
For more information visit the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area website.