Atlanta, GA

Georgia's Most Popular Lake is Also its Most Dangerous

Bebe Nicholson

But if you follow DNR safety guidelines and use common sense, you can have fun and be safe.

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Lake Lanier at River Forks Park:Mike Gonzalez(The Coffee)-own work

Last week, a 19-year-old made a decision that would end in tragedy. He tried to swim across a cove at Young Deer Creek in Lake Lanier, slipped under water, and never re-emerged. A dive team used sonar to recover his body from 22 feet of water, according to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

This is the third drowning so far this year in Georgia’s most popular, and some say, Georgia’s most dangerous lake.

Memorial Day weekend heralds the end of school and the beginning of summer, which means people will flock to lakes and beaches throughout Georgia. Lake Lanier will attract about 12 million of those people, beating out the other Georgia lakes in popularity.

Unfortunately, Lanier also beats Georgia’s other lakes in accidents and deaths.

According to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Law Enforcement, 57 boating fatalities and 145 drownings occurred between 1998 and 2018.

An article in Newsweek described Lake Lanier is one of America's most deadly lakes, with 43 lake-related deaths and 128 boating accidents from 2015 to 2018. These grim statistics came despite passage of a 2013 bill designed to improve boater safety.

Two Deaths Prompt Stricter Laws

The 2013 legislation followed the tragic deaths of two boys. Kyle Glover and Griffin Prince were killed when another boat slammed into the boat they were in. The driver of the other boat was found later to have been boating under the influence.

The new law increased the age requirement for wearing a life jacket from 10 to 13 years, called for completion of a boating education course for those born after 1998 and turning 16 years old after, and reduced the blood alcohol level for boat operators.

The legal blood-alcohol limit for boaters was dropped from 0.10 to 0.08, making boat operators subject to the same sobriety expectations as the driver of a car.

Fatalities Continue to Climb

But despite stricter regulations, there were 17 deaths on the lake in 2016, according to DNR statistics. Those deaths included nine drownings and eight boating-related fatalities.

Some of those who drowned were strong swimmers. Some were not. But most of them had one thing in common. They were males, and they didn't have on life jackets. Nationally, about four out of five who drown are male, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says.

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Even teenagers who are strong swimmers should wear life jackets:photo by author

Corey Brown, 28, was described as a strong swimmer, but when he jumped off a pontoon boat to save a friend who was struggling in the water, currents swept him under. His body was recovered a few days later.

BUI a Major Factor in Accidents

Boating under the influence is a major factor in boating accidents, despite BUI laws. In May of last year, a 33-foot boat was hit from the rear by a 36-foot boat. Authorities said 13 people were injured, but none seriously. The boat’s operator was cited for boating under the influence.

Then in June of last year, the victims of another accident were not as lucky. A motor boat struck a pontoon boat carrying 12 people, leaving a 9-year-old dead and a 13-year-old missing. The man responsible fled the scene but was later arrested.

Why is Lanier so Deadly?

There has been much speculation about why Lake Lanier is so deadly. Some attribute the accident and fatality rate to sheer numbers. The lake attracts such a high volume of visitors that there are naturally going to be more accidents.

But statistics gathered by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution don’t support that argument.

In 2017, Lake Lanier was only 7% more popular than Georgia’s second most popular lake, but twice as deadly.

Some say murky water, a bottom covered with tree trunks and other debris that can easily entangle swimmers, and a lake floor that drops steeply in places make Lake Lanier dangerous.

But others claim the lake is haunted; a legend that probably stems from the flooding of cemeteries and family graveyards to create the lake.

Lake Lanier was created in the 1950’s to provide water, hydroelectricity, and recreation to the metro Atlanta area, and many families were displaced from their homes in the process.

Farms and buildings were displaced, along with cemeteries, although efforts were made to relocate family graveyards and church cemeteries.

Over the years, divers have shown videos on YouTube that show sunken houseboats and other eerie sightings beneath the murky waters, keeping legends alive.

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Remnants of a washed-away building below the surface of Lake LanierPhoto credit: Only in Your State

Author and historian Lisa Russell wrote about the controversy surrounding Lake Lanier’s origins, when the fertile farmland was flooded to create the reservoir.

According to Russell, the government offered local residents money for their land, most of which had been in families for generations.

In her book, “Underwater Ghost Towns of North Georgia,” Russell wrote that “residents found it hard to price generations of memories, hard work and deep roots.”

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abandoned boats create a hazard:Lake Lanier Association

In 1956, locals watched the waters flood their land, covering their previous life. The Army Corps of Engineers tried to move uprooted trees and wooden structures that might endanger watercraft, but some things were left behind, including an old auto-racing track that sits on the lake bottom.

When the lake’s water levels have dropped during times of drought, submerged roads and other artifacts have been exposed, Russell said.

While tales of ghosts and submerged graveyards are fascinating, Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources focuses on more practical things. The department believes there are simple ways to stay safe on the water.

At the top of the list is wearing a Coast-Guard-approved life jacket. For those who don’t bring one, there are life jacket loaner stations at every beach.

Not swimming while under the influence of alcohol or drugs is another important safety guideline to follow.

The DNR also advises swimming with a buddy in a supervised area and recognizing your limits.

On a boat, obey the 100-foot law, which means remaining 100 feet away from boats, swimmers and boat docks to avoid a collision.

According to 2019 statistics from the U.S. Coast Guard, operator inattention, improper lookout, operator inexperience, excessive speed and alcohol use ranked as the top five primary contributing factors in accidents.

In a move to improve boater safety, a new federal law went into effect in April of this year, requiring the operator of a boat with an installed Engine Cut-Off Switch (ECOS) to use the ECOS link.

This link is usually a coiled bungee cord lanyard clipped onto the boat operator, with the other end attached to the cut-off switch.

The law applies to motorized boats with 3 or more horsepower that is less than 26 feet in length. The new law applies to all federally navigable waterways. Since it is a federal law, states do not have the ability to enforce the regulation, although most states are expected to amend their regulations to match federal law over the coming years.

An overwhelming majority of boats have a kill switch system set up, USCG officials said. So, this new requirement simply obligates recreational boaters to use the safety features already present on their boat.

For updated boater safety regulations in Georgia, you can check with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Lake Lanier is a beautiful recreation spot with a lot to offer, and people will be flocking to its shores this summer. They might even enjoy a ghost story or two, based on the legends.

But putting legends aside, the lake doesn't have to be dangerous. By using common sense, observing safety precautions and follow DNR regulations, Lake Lanier's visitors can have a great, and more importantly, a safe time.

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I've worked as editor, newspaper reporter, freelance writer, and book publisher. My writing includes lifestyle, humor, travel, relationship, family, politics, faith and health articles, along with three published books. In my various careers, I've been a journalist, retail manager, nonprofit director, flight attendant, freelancer and mom. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook and Medium.

Alpharetta, GA
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