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Chattahoochee River Deaths: Are strict rules the answer?

Josh Green 7-9 minutes

BUFORD -- In mapping out a business plan eight years ago, Barbara Russell felt uneasy about putting inexperienced kayakers, canoers and tube-riders on the Chattahoochee River north of Garrard Landing Park, a Roswell greenspace off Holcomb Bridge Road.

Any farther north, Russell reckoned, her customers would have to contend with intense water releases from Buford Dam, located 16 miles upriver.

"You know, you don't have those gushes of water here," said Russell, general manager of Chattahoochee Outfitters in Sandy Springs.

On a typical summer Saturday, in these busier times, Russell will put more than 300 people on the water seeking inexpensive amusement and respite from the swelter. Despite the multitudes, she'd never heard of a fatality involving a legitimate outfitter. Not until last weekend.

"We provide life-jackets -- our insurance company wants them to wear life jackets -- and by law, children 10 and under have to wear life jackets," she said. "But I can't control what they do when they're out there."

Russell and other outfitters who operate along a 48-mile expanse in the twisting, chilly waters from Buford Dam to Peachtree Creek near Buckhead -- the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area -- will be under review staring Monday, as federal authorities analyze rules covering how outfitters do business.

Tighter federal regulations could restrict where and when outfitters access the river, or how they must oblige dam releases. A complete overhaul of the outfitter permitting process is possible, officials said.

"I think the ultimate change will be that we reduce the number of deaths that are out there, and that visitors can be safer," said Patty Wissinger, Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area superintendent.

Wissinger said the review has been in planning stages for six months and is not specifically related to the death of 9-year-old Anna Vanhorn, who drowned on a tubing excursion June 3 with Gwinnett-based Ten Dollar Tubes.

Vanhorn, accompanied by her baby sitter and another adult, latched on to a tree as dam-release waters started to rise, rolled off her tube and drowned as water swelled around her, according to a Department of Natural Resources report. Authorities said she wore a life jacket at the time.

Data on the number of fatalities associated with guided Chattahoochee outings was still being compiled this week and wasn't available, Wissinger said. She called Vanhorn's death "an anomaly."

"Any of our rangers can tell you the accidents don't happen with the outfitters," she said.

Ten Dollar Tubes is one of six outfitters federally permitted to operate in the national recreation area. Business managers have declined comment, citing an ongoing investigation.

Park officials will be working with consultants from Washington, D.C. -- and with the outfitters themselves -- to develop safety enhancements.

Options could include more riverside stations that sell cheap life-jackets near popular entry points, like a visitors store recently opened at Powers Island, the busiest swimming hole in the national park. Call boxes near the river with information about dam releases are another possibility, Wissinger said.

Other solutions could be less tangible.

"We'd really like work with an innovative marketing firm, to get the message out that you should enjoy the river but check the dam," Wissinger said.

The national park logs 3.2 million visitors per year. Patronage has steadily increased for three reasons, according to Wissinger: Metro Atlanta vacationers, mired in a slumping economy, are electing to save money by staying closer to home; the oppressive heat of last summer and this spring; and the perception that the river is cleaner, after decades of conservation efforts and dumping restrictions.

"People are returning to recreate at the river, like they used to in the 1970s and 80s," Wissinger said.

On a recent blistering afternoon, Chattahoochee waters beneath the rusty, abandoned trusses of Settles Bridge drifted slowly by -- crystalline in the shallows, teal in deep spots. The water's steal-your-breath frigidity seemed more like an attraction than deterrent to overheated patrons.

One teen swimmer advised others approaching the river, not far from where the girl's body was found, "You guys might want to be careful -- they just released water from the dam."

Julia Ash of Alpharetta appreciated the advice, but as a frequent visitor hardly needed reminding.

"We don't swim when it's released, usually," said Ash, 19. "It's too rapid ... You can definitely tell."

Gwinnett's water rescue team has reported a steady uptick in river visits in recent years, as patronage has climbed. The team responded to the river seven times in 2008, nine in 2009 and 11 times last year. They worked two fatalities -- a fisherman and a swimmer -- in that span.

Lt. David Jugenheimer, a Gwinnett County Fire Department swiftwater rescue team leader, said tragedy usually strikes when river patrons underestimate the Chatthoochee's power.

"Within 15 to 20 minutes, (water from dam purges) can be over your head and sweep you away," Jugenheimer recently told the Daily Post. "Even an Olympic swimmer isn't able to survive that long."

Three river patrons -- a 67-year-old kayaker in April near Roswell, a fisherman, 51, near Johns Creek last month, and Vanhorn -- have died on the river this year. Wissinger stressed that the earlier deaths weren't related to dam releases, and the notion that most Chattahoochee fatalities occur near the dam is a misnomer, she said.

Fishermen, swimmers and safety officials say a dam purge brings a gradual strengthening of river force that can be deceptive. There's no wall-of-water effect.

Downstream flow rate data provided by the Army Corps of Engineers show it takes three hours before a typical water release from Buford Dam will affect the McGinnis Ferry Road area near Suwanee. A typical release won't be flushed through Gwinnett for 16 hours.

The Corps releases water primarily to create hydropower, but also to evacuate water from Lake Lanier and maintain water quality downstream. Release schedules change daily and are subject to last-minute switches, especially when other power generators fail.

A system of horns that warns of dam releases is audible only to Ga. Highway 20 near Buford. The outfitter headquartered nearest the dam, The Dam Store, did not return a request for comment this week.

Wissinger said permitted outfitters do business within the park, and it's unclear how many operate on access points not controlled by the park system. The park service monitors and inspects virtually every aspect of the outfitters except fees, she said.

"Generally, the permit holders are the absolute safest places for people to go," she said. "They have standardized equipment, with tubes and boats that meet regulations."

With larger crowds and the cauldron of mid-summer approaching, Wissinger stressed that patrons should respect the "wild" river, as officials seek big-picture solutions.

"We have near-misses just about every single weekend out on the river," she said. "Time will tell how we can make the best changes."

For updated information on Buford Dam releases, call 770-945-1466. Schedules are also available online and on 1610 AM near the dam.