MILLEDGEVILLE, Georgia (41NBC/WMGT) - Imagine swimming across a river and in just a matter of a few hours the water level rises and the current is faster, leaving you stranded. The Milledgeville Fire Department says it has responded to several situations just like that at the Oconee River Greenway this year. Now the chief is working with community leaders to come up with ways to warn the public about the dangers on the river.
Thursday was a picturesque day at the Oconee River Greenway. People come out to enjoy the water, go fishing, or take a walk around the trail. But Milledgeville Fire Chief Tom Dietrich says a day like this could turn dangerous in just a couple of hours.
"They go there to have fun but in just a moment's notice, or with no notice, they can be swept to an island or swept over to a tree and they're hanging on for dear life," Dietrich said.
Dietrich says river conditions can change quickly because of the Georgia Power plant. He says the facility generates tons of water and pumps it into the river.
"When they [Georgia Power] generate, it brings the water level up about six feet," Dietrich said. "When they open the flood gates, several millions gallons of water come through that every hour and it rises faster."
That water sweeps down to the Greenway and causes people to get stranded or caught in the current.
"We've actually picked some up that are hanging on branches downstream," Dietrich said.
There are two posted signs at the Greenway which warn about the dangers of the river. Georgia Power also sounds an alarm before it starts generating or opening the flood gates. Dietrich says the Greenway is four miles down from the facility and people there can't hear the warning.
On Thursday, he held a meeting with city and Baldwin County officials, several different law enforcement agencies, Georgia Power officials, and other community leaders to come up with solutions to protect the public. During the brainstorming session, Dietrich says they decided to post more signs at the Greenway and install a gate at the entrance, which will prevent people from entering during unsafe conditions. They also discussed putting an additional alarm at the Greenway.
"We got to work through the liability situation and get the horn up so that we can just prevent a person from getting injured or killed."
"I think the precautions that we're taking are going to more than adequate," General Peter Boylan (ret.), the Chairman of the Oconee River Greenway Authority said. "Bottom line, accidents happen, stupidity exists, and we're going to do the best we can to protect people on the Greenway."
To put in perspective how fast the water level can rise, firefighters went out on the river Monday while the flood gates were open and the river rose 21 feet in two and half hours. This year alone, the fire department has gone out four times to rescue people. Dietrich says there have been two fatalities out on the Oconee River.
Boylan says the authority will put up more signage and take care of the gate. Dietrich, the Milledgeville mayor, and Boylan will hold a meeting soon to discuss the details of installing an alarm.