Recent rains put water in Clarks Hill Lake.
And with the reservoir at nearly full pool for the first time in several years, Army Corps of Engineers officials expect more visitors this summer.
In 2008, when the lake level hovered at about 315 feet above sea level -- 15 feet lower than full pool -- the lake drew about 5.5 million visitors.
With more than 18 inches of rain since January, the lake level has risen to more than 326 feet. When the lake is closer to full pool at 330 feet, Ken Boyd, the chief ranger of recreation, said an average of about 6 million people visit lake recreation areas.
But more lake patrons also raises the chance for accidents.
Four people drowned at the lake last year, three at West Dam and one at Lake Springs, all Corps-operated day-use areas. Three of those fatalities were adults.
Boyd said the Corps is taking steps to prevent accidents, and potential deaths, at the 71,000-acre lake by promoting water safety education.
"There's potential anytime, of course, for accidents," Boyd said. "That is one of the reasons we have a very aggressive water safety program."
None of the 11 Corps-operated recreation areas in Columbia County, including four day use facilities, have lifeguards. Visitors swim at their own risk.
Boyd said during the summer months, especially on crowded holiday weekends such as Memorial Day, Corps employees contact as many visitors as possible to remind them of water safety. Employees ensure visitors are wearing proper safety gear and have the required equipment in their boats.
"That is one of our primary missions in water recreation, making personal contacts and making sure people are aware of safety issues associated with swimming," Boyd said. "We make every attempt to make sure that we don't have any fatalities, but that is not always an easy task, especially on a facility (this) big and (with) as much ground as we have to cover here."
The lake features 1,200 miles of shoreline, which is longer than California's coastline.
Boyd said that when swimming, distances are often farther than they appear. One of the people who died last year did so while trying to swim to an island.
"We have a lot of coves and a lot of small areas that give the optical illusion that they are a lot closer than they really are," Boyd said. "Folks get out, they get tired and can't make the distance. Although we don't allow alcohol in our parks, a lot of times alcohol is involved when people attempt a lot of these things."
With the water level up, the lake is safer. Swim area marker ropes, which spent much of last summer on dry ground, and channel and hazard marking buoys are floating where they should.
Boyd said swimmers should always keep an eye on children playing in the water. Stay alert, be aware of the surroundings and don't take risks in the water.
"Never swim alone is one of the big rules," Boyd said.
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