On a recent weekday morning, Department of Natural Resources Ranger First Class Barry Britt can barely see a boat on Lake Lanier for miles. Patrolling the waters, he checks for flotation devices on one man’s fishing boat. Twenty minutes later, he’s admonishing a couple on personal watercrafts about jumping a wake too close to a boat.
It’s Britt’s fifth summer on the lake while the department stresses water safety on the lake for the busy Fourth of July holiday.
“You see how unstable the environment is out here,” Britt said. “Including alcohol in the mix just makes it easier to slip or fall if you’re a passenger and get hurt.”
According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, there have been three drownings and three suicide by drownings so far this year on Lake Lanier, in addition to one boating fatality.
After three drowning recoveries across the state Wednesday, DNR Major Stephen Adams said the agency is seeing “far too many.”
“Most of our drownings come down to unattended children, people who are swimming far beyond their abilities ... and the drinking,” he said.
The Department of Natural Resources started a database last year for drownings, which created a consolidated place for drowning data in addition to regular paper reports.
There is no statutory requirement for local agencies to report drownings to DNR, but the agency does have to keep records of boating fatalities.
“If (the boat)’s tied up or anchored or if they come off the shore, it’s a drowning,” DNR public affairs officer Mark McKinnon said. “If the boat is in motion in any way, it’s a boating fatality.”
Editor’s note: Markers on the map are approximate locations of where drownings were reported, according to multiple law enforcement agencies.
According to the reports obtained by The Times in an open records request, there have been 23 drownings reported on Lake Lanier since 2013. This does not include the number of boating fatalities.
Hall County Fire Services Battalion Chief Kris Boggs, who was one of the original members when the marine rescue team started in 2003, said the best chance for finding someone in the lake comes through witnesses to establish a starting point.
“If you don’t have a good starting point, then it becomes the needle in the haystack sort of thing,” Boggs said.
Much of that is because of the visibility of the water on Lake Lanier.
“In a swimming pool, you can see somebody when they go under. Here, you can be in 6 feet of water and you can’t see them,” Adams said. “They’re almost impossible to find once they submerge.”
If the marine rescue team doesn’t have anything to go on, Boggs said fire services will turn it over to DNR to perform side-scan SONAR to try and find the person.
Hall, Forsyth and Gwinnett counties take part in the Lake Lanier Water Safety Task Force, joining forces with DNR, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Coast Guard Auxiliary.
Nick Baggett, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ natural resource manager for Lake Lanier, said the task force will meet before every major holiday to strategize. Baggett said the lake tends to have eight to 12 water-related fatalities each year.
“The purpose of that is to go over all the resources we have available to address the high visitation we will typically have during those holidays,” he said.
Britt said DNR will have six boats on the water for the holiday with two rangers per boat, assisted by the counties adjoining the lake.
“Browns Bridge and below is usually our highest call volume just because of the population,” Boggs said.
The data matches the point by Boggs, as the majority happen below the bridge and closer to the Flowery Branch area. Sunrise Cove Marina on Flat Creek Road had two drownings in 2015.
For the Corps, Baggett said one of the biggest challenges is managing the holiday on a property that attracts more than 8 million visitors annually, according to the Lake Lanier Association.
“If we do not stop people from coming into a park once it fills up, then people start parking on the grass or parking in the road,” Baggett said. “If there is an emergency such as a heart attack or a drowning ... the public partners, the ambulance drivers, the police can’t get into the park.”
Baggett remembers his days on patrol as a ranger, where swimmers are nearly impossible to see in the water.
“You’d come up on somebody and have to swerve to miss them, even with your best efforts to watch what you’re doing,” he said.
For that reason, the work between the 911 centers for surrounding counties is paramount, Baggett said. The centers, he said, have developed grid systems and other ways to best identify where a distress call is coming from on the lake.
“Communication is so important, because there are no road signs on the lake,” Baggett said.
Law enforcement are asking for people to keep alcohol out of the mix, pay attention to children and others with limited swimming abilities and to know your own limits when in the water.