Paddling Near a Dam? What to Know!

Safety Guidance Courtesy of the TVA Website.


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.


Please follow these simple rules when you are fishing, swimming or wading near or below a dam:
  • Always obey posted rules and warnings.
  • Never go into the water alone.
  • Always wear a personal flotation device.
  • Inspect waders for signs of wear, and use ties to prevent water from entering boots. Wet suits are an excellent substitute for waders, especially in the cold water below the tributary dams.
  • Fish, swim or wade below dams only during low-flow periods.
  • Stay out of restricted areas.
  • Plan a quick exit from the water to the nearest bank in case of an emergency.
  • Move to a safer area immediately if a siren sounds or strobe lights flash at dams equipped with these warning devices.
  • State agencies, which are responsible for boater safety, advise boaters to always leave the motor running, even when drift fishing. The water below a dam can roil up suddenly, trapping or capsizing boaters—a stalled or hard-to-start motor can lead to disaster.
  • For the same reason, never anchor your boat below a dam.

If you are caught in surging water:

Any moving water can be dangerous. If you caught in the water and swept off your feet, remember the following:

  • Drop any items that can weigh you down.
  • Stay calm, lie on your back and keep your feet up and pointed downstream to avoid rocks and foot entrapment.
  • Swim on your back with the current and then swim diagonally across the stream until you reach the shore.
  • Do not attempt to stand up until you are in shallow, slow-moving water.
  • If you get trapped on an island, stay there and signal for help.
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. 


Lake Info App

Want your lake info to go? Download the TVA Lake Info app, an for easy-to-use resource for operating on and around reservoirs and dams in the TVA region. Available for iPhone and Android devices.