July 22, 2008

Drowning Cases Up As Water Levels Go Down

By Rob Pavey

It's a statistic rescue workers know all too well: When water levels go down, drownings go up.

This year, with Thurmond Lake 11 feet low and most designated swimming beaches unusable, lake visitors are seeking unfamiliar waters that are often deeper and more dangerous.

Since May, four people have drowned while swimming near Lake Springs and West Dam recreation areas, where the most recent victim - 9-year-old Jonathan Tyler Thomas of Augusta - died Sunday.

Although many popular parks have designated swimming beaches, they are high and dry when lake levels fall and swimmers are forced into deeper water, corps spokesman Billy Birdwell said.

Since 1986, 100 of the 220 recreational deaths at Thurmond Lake and the Russell and Hartwell reservoirs upstream occurred while victims swam in undesignated areas. "That's almost half the total fatalities from all the other causes put together," he said.

During the same time, just six drownings were reported in designated swimming beaches, which are typically built with flat, even bottoms and shallow water.

This season, water levels are more than six feet lower than in 2007, when a total of 10 fatalities were reported, of which two involved swimming in undesignated areas, according corps figures.

Currently, 15 corps boat ramps are closed because of low water and several of the 18 that remain open are expected to be closed later this year as lake levels continue to fall.

The reservoir's full pool is 330 feet above sea level. Monday's level was 318.41, with long-range forecasts that call for a pool of 315 by early September unless rainfall patterns improve.

Reach Rob Pavey at (706) 868-1222, ext. 119, or

[email protected]

Originally published by Rob Pavey Staff Writer.

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