Decoding Dam Dangers

If you enjoy fishing or swimming or boating on the Tennessee Valley reservoir system—great. Most of the waters it contains are perfectly 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.

A large amount of water can be discharged through a dam without warning at any time. For example, when the demand for electricity is high, the turbines that generate electricity at a dam may start automatically, resulting in a significant increase in the flow of water within only a matter of seconds. In much the same way, river operations for flood control can create rapidly rising water levels—this is especially true below tributary dams, which are usually located in steep terrain. Even if you’re an experienced boater, angler or swimmer, it pays to follow some simple safety rules and to learn about the dams' warning systems so you can respond quickly and appropriately.

Warning Systems at Dams

To help warn recreational reservoir users of potential danger, TVA has installed:

Horns: Horns are sounded before water is released from the turbines at powerhouses or through spillways. When you hear these horns, leave the areas upstream and downstream of the dam immediately.

Strobe lights: These are activated before TVA starts the turbines that generate electricity at a dam’s powerhouse or releases water through spillways. When you see these strobe lights flash, leave the areas upstream and downstream of the dam immediately.

Warning signs: Signs direct visitors to stay clear of hazardous areas and warn of rapidly rising water and sudden spillway and turbine water surges. Take them seriously—always obey all warning signs.

Electronic spillway strobe lights and horns: These are activated before TVA starts the turbines at dams or releases water through the spillways. When you hear and/or see them, move away at once. During high-flow periods, the spillways at dams may be used to regulate upstream reservoirs. When water is released through spillways, the water below the dams can become extremely turbulent and hazardous. Under certain flow conditions, boats can be drawn upstream toward the dam where the water is plunging through a spillway.

Remember that dam release schedules can change without notice at any dam, so always pay close attention and obey warning devices. 

This table shows the types of warning devices installed at various dams throughout the Tennessee Valley.

  Horns Strobe Lights Warning Signs Electronic Signs with Horns + Strobe Lights
Apalachia X X X  
Blue Ridge X X X  
Boone     X  
Chatuge     X  
Chickamauga X X X X
Cherokee X X X  
Douglas X X X  
Fontana     X  
Fort Loudoun X X X X
Fort Patrick Henry X X X  
Great Falls x X X  
Guntersville X X X X
Hiwassee     X  
Kentucky X X X X
Melton Hill X X X  
Nickajack X X X X
Norris X X X  
Nottely     X  
Ocoee 1 X X X  
Ocoee 2     X  
Ocoee 3 X X X  
Ocoee Whitewater Center X X X  
Pickwick X X X X
South Holston X X X  
Tellico     X  
Tims Ford X X X  
Watauga X X X  
Watts Bar X X X X
Wheeler X X X  
Wilbur X X X  
Wilson X X X X