Caution: Dam Dangers


With the record rains of the last week, reservoirs levels are high and many dams in the TVA system are spilling water, creating potentially dangerous conditions for heedless recreational users.

APRIL 27, 2017—No doubt about it: It’s been a rainy week. With all the precipitation, records for rainfall and runoff have been broken, and TVA is racing to outpace the water and manage flooding across the system. Much hydropower generation is happening throughout the Valley, and many dams are spilling—that is, releasing water through the top of the dam to move it downriver.

Dams routinely spill at rates of around a million gallons per second; Kentucky Dam today is spilling a rate of 2.3 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. “I advise people to not only stay away from the dams, but to stay off the river right now, period. 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.”

In Peney’s mind, there’s no reason to tackle a raging river, period. “There is no fish in the world worth taking the risk for,” he says. “That’s a dangerous gamble you’re taking.”

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. 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. Here's a guide to TVA's safety warning systems.