Hall County and Georgia state officials share the best ways to stay safe and keep the good times rolling this Memorial Day weekend amid an influx of visitors to Lake Lanier.
Georgia Game Wardens with the Department of Natural Resources have already investigated four boating fatalities, responded to 12 drownings and made 18 arrests for boating under the influence in 2023. In 2022, those numbers ended at 23 boating fatalities, 57 drownings and 287 BUI arrests, according to data provided by the DNR.
This Memorial Day weekend, officials are spreading awareness of ways to stay safe on the water. They will be conducting safety checks and arresting any boaters they find who are driving under the influence, officials said Thursday at a “Belts and Jackets” press conference.
Belts and Jackets is an annual summer initiative put on by the DNR, the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety and the Georgia State Patrol. The goal to encourage all drivers and boaters to utilize safety equipment like seat belts and life jackets when traveling and enjoying hot days on the lake.
Georgia law mandates a boat to have enough life jackets onboard for every passenger. Children under 13 are required to be wearing a life jacket at all times when riding the watercraft, DNR officials report.
“This is your warning, obey and follow navigation and traffic rules and laws,” DNR Law Enforcement Director Colonel Thomas Barnard said. “I really want to focus on one particular boating law that has shown an increase in violation and that is the 100-foot law. The 100-foot law mandates idle speed within 100 feet of a person, boat dock swimming area or any other object in the water, including the shoreline.”
Hall County Fire Rescue makes use of a marine unit that patrols the waters of Lake Lanier every weekend between Memorial Day and Labor Day. As millions of visitors participate in lake activities every year, HCFR Public Information Officer Kimberlie Ledsinger said it’s important to ensure everyone is being as safe as possible.
“We will be out on the lake pushing water safety, a lot of the time we'll be handing out water safety materials, just talking to people about the simple things that they can change to have a safer summer out on the lake,” Ledsinger said. “We do have a lot of visitors, and we're talking millions of visitors [every year], so it's important to just be aware of your surroundings while you're driving a jet ski or a boat out on the water.”
Wearing a life jacket is one of the safest measures someone can take when on the lake. While it is required for children 13 and under, Ledsinger noted the importance for people of all ages to use life vests when possible.
“People are welcome to celebrate and everything, but it's just important that they stay safe and are aware of their limits,” Ledsinger said. “And just make sure they have a life vest on while they're swimming. A lot of people don't realize how quickly they can get tired while they're out there treading water for so long. So it's always a good safety precaution to keep that on even if you think that you're the strongest swimmer.”
The blood alcohol content limit for boat drivers in Georgia is the same as vehicle operators: 0.08 percent, according to literature provided by the DNR. Anything over that limit is liable for a boating under the influence charge and arrest.
Hall County Fire Rescue Wednesday morning sent units to all 20 elementary schools in the county to disseminate pamphlets educating the public on how to enjoy Memorial Day safely.
“We have 20 of our units that are showing up to the 20 different elementary schools,” Ledsinger said. “And they are passing out water safety pamphlets and flyers to all the elementary schools. So we are doing those kinds of initiatives just before this weekend, we're trying to get that word out as much as possible.”
A less often considered aspect of water safety is the water quality in Lake Lanier.
Water quality can be impacted by many changing factors, but the primary one that damages human health is E. coli, according to Chattahoochee Riverkeeper Headwaters Watershed Specialist Becca Risser.
“That's something that it's [E. coli] natural habitat is the digestive systems of warm-blooded animals,” Risser said. “So it gets introduced to our waters through leaky septic systems, through sewer overflows and just from animals domestic or wild.”
Lake Lanier hosts many homes on its shores, most of which have septic tanks. Risser also mentioned how high numbers of geese, dogs and other animals can contribute to varying levels of E. coli.
Chattahoochee Riverkeeper runs a program called “Neighborhood Waterwatch” where volunteers and interns will reportedly take weekly water samples throughout the Chattahoochee Watershed. Those samples are then analyzed for harmful bacteria.
“When we see high levels, we take follow-up samples and walk up creeks to see if we can identify the sources, if there's a sewer spill or an industrial source that we can identify and contact authorities to get stopped,” Risser said. “And then during the summer, because there's a particular interest or risk for people who are swimming, we take water samples just during that warm season on a few beaches around Lake Lanier.”
Risser believes one of the most satisfying aspects of her work is knowing that for the most part, the water in Lake Lanier and the surrounding area is largely safe and clean. When there are heightened levels of bacteria, Risser said it's usually due to sewer line issues that can be fixed quickly once city officials are notified.
The most common time to see heightened levels of bacteria in the waters of Lake Lanier is the 48 hours after a hard rain. Rainfall sweeps all the bacteria from the land down into the water and spikes the bacteria levels for roughly two days, Risser said. She also noted those who are very old or young or those with open cuts should try to avoid swimming in the lake right after it rains.
County and state officials all agreed that everyone should get out and enjoy the Memorial Day sun this weekend. Their hope is the fun can continue and memories can be made with the underlying knowledge that the public is being safe and aware during their festivities.