Department of Natural Resources Public Affairs Officer Mark McKinnon explains to GPB's Ambria Burton what the DNR has seen from Georgia's yearly drowning and boating incident numbers.

Water safety in Georgia is a priority as the summer season begins. Learning about preventative measures against accidents like drowning while swimming, boating as well as ensuring the water's quality can help ensure your family's safety.

Educating the public about simple ways to prevent drowning is a priority in Georgia, where the state's rivers, lakes and coast areas — as well as swimming pools — create water hazards.

Between 2016 to 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the drowning death rate in Georgia was 1.37 deaths per 100,000 people, more than the national drowning death rate of 1.28 deaths per 100,000 people during this time.

"[Drowning and boating incident numbers] varies from year to year, and there are a lot of reasons for that," Mark McKinnon, Public Affairs Officer for the Georgia Department Natural Resources Law Enforcement Division, told GPB. "A lot of it has to do with weather. Sometimes, if you have a summer that has a lot more rain, particularly on the weekend, you're going to see those numbers go down for drownings, and for boating incidents and boating fatalities, because less people are on the water."

He added: "When we have a summer where it's very dry and very hot, you see a lot more people on the lakes and rivers and, and unfortunately those numbers go up. Our goal is to try to get those numbers to continually go down by giving people information and trying to explain to them the dangers of being around water, but also encouraging them to enjoy it but to enjoy it safely."

Common mishaps that cause people to drown are often due to overestimating ability and thinking they are better swimmers than they are. Overestimating is especially dangerous in vast bodies of water like lakes, rivers, or even the ocean, where one's perception of distance does not match reality.

"Oftentimes, in a lake, they try to swim across the cove, or they try to swim out to an island," McKinnon said. "It's very difficult to judge distance on the water, so when you think that island out there is not very far away, once you start to swim toward it, you realize that it's much further than you think. They get exhausted in the middle, and then they can't make it back to land."

Lack of supervision by adults who are distracted by things such as friends, devices, books and more and are not watching their kids is a huge problem when it comes to childhood drowning.

"Drowning can happen very quickly," McKinnon said. "We've seen cases where kids drown in a swimming area with lots of people right around them, but it just happened silently, and no one notices, so please supervise the children."

McKinnon says that the best method for teaching water safety in Georgia is for parents and guardians to prioritize it.

"It starts at home with parents, guardians, grandparents, and whoever may be around — even friends," he said. "Just making it a priority to teach their kids to swim and to be respectful of the water, not to be afraid of it, so they understand there are dangers there, but they can enjoy it and they can enjoy it in a safe way."


Water safety organizations and initiatives

Several entities and organizations in Georgia dedicate their time and resources to educating people on the proper techniques and measures to take when in the water or providing watch patrols over what is happening at lakes and rivers.

SPLASH is the state of Georgia's water safety initiative that provides tips and advice using their acronym:

  • Supervision – Designate an adult to watch children at all times. Do not assume someone else is watching.
  • Prevention – Wear personal flotation devices (PFD or life jacket), install fencing around pools, and use drain covers in hot tubs and pools.
  • Life jackets save lives – Wear them and be sure your children do.
  • Arm’s Length – Adults should be arm’s length to children in water, and safety tools such as hooks should be nearby at all times.
  • Swim Lessons – Knowing how to swim greatly reduces the chance of drowning. Classes are often available through the Red Cross or YMCA.
  • Have a Water Safety Plan – Know what to do during a water emergency.

They provide resources, including “bilingual brochures, boats check by law enforcement officers, public service announcements and videos, and social media messaging.” SPLASH also provides toolkits with downloadable material that “presents water safety information to a group or class of any age.”

Their website mentions, "The goal of this initiative is to save lives. That is accomplished by getting the safety information to the masses."

Most recently, the Sandy Springs Police Department launched their new river patrol unit for the Chattahoochee River, ready for Memorial Day weekend, to help them interact better with the public, according to their public information officer, Sgt. Matthew McGinnis.

"We don't want to simply respond to one phone call," McGinnis told GPB. "We would rather be on the river and already be able to interact and hopefully educate some folks about not jumping off dangerous [areas]. We try to prevent some drownings we've had the last few years."

McGinnis explained that the most common calls they receive from the river are from stranded people.

"Once the dam opens and the water begins to move quickly, they get stranded or unfortunately will have jumpers that get injured when they jump, things of that nature," he said.

The river patrol unit starts Saturday for the Memorial Day weekend, and McGinnis says they have everything prepared and are ready to get on the water. He shares some recommendations with anyone visiting the river this weekend.

"We recommend people just be safe," he said. "Use common sense when you're on the water. Don't swim beyond your means. Don't think 'the river doesn't look too wild; I can just swim across.' It's always wider than you think, and the water moves quicker than you think it does. Be safe, and of course, call us if you need us."


Water quality

As many are preparing to spend their summer visiting Georgia's lakes and rivers, some people are concerned with whether the water quality is safe.

Joe Cook is a guidebook author and paddle Georgia coordinator for Georgia River Network. He says the water is safe to swim in ... for the most part.

"Where we have problems now is after we have heavy rain events," Cook told GPB. "You have pollution washing off the surface of the land and off our city streets. You'll have sometimes sewage overflows and so those bring bacteria into our rivers that can make our rivers unhealthy to recreate in. As long as we don't have a big, heavy rain event, most of our rivers are going to be safe to swim in. But after we have a big rain event, especially downstream from urban areas, then you're going to have spikes in bacteria that could make the waterway unsafe."

The Chattahoochee River BacteriALERT program provides "timely notifications of potentially elevated levels of fecal bacteria to recreational users Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area." The data they collect estimates the "levels of E. coli concentration" throughout the river.

In a May 18 check of water samples from 3 different CRNA locations, Medlock Bridge; Powers Ferry; and Paces Ferry, they found that the estimated count of E. coli per 100mL of water was 40, 55, and 110, all of which were under the 235 limit, making it low risk in those areas.

Hotspots or places where pollutants are found regularly in waterways are typically "downstream from urban areas," according to Cook.

"When you have to have a heavy rain, you're going to have a spike in bacteria and there are other localized areas where you're going to have high pollution levels." 

He adds, "Back to that old adage, you need to pay attention to what's going on upstream. If you know of a pollution problem upstream, then you maybe ought not swim in that particular area. And it's also a reminder to be mindful of those downstream. What we do upstream affects the way people downstream from us enjoy and use the rivers."

News releases and the websites of riverkeepers or watershed groups are outlets that inform the public about things like sewage spills or bacteria in waterways. As Cook explained, the riverkeeper and watershed groups test for bacteria weekly throughout the summer and post the results on their websites.

"You can look on the on the website and see, 'Oh, low bacteria levels this week. We haven't had much rain since then, so in that case, we're probably going to have pretty good water quality,'" he said.

Cook recommends people download Georgia River Network's River Guide app, which "provides a lot of useful information about our rivers."

He said about water safety in general: "The important thing is to know the water body that you are going to be recreating in and make sure that you're aware of any hazards that might be present in that river."

For more information on water safety in Georgia, visit:

GPB's Orlando Montoya also contributed to this story.