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Great Falls Off Limits To Swimmers, Waders
by Guv Callahan, Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall - July 30, 2015

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Summer is here, and as Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall community members break out the sunscreen and bathing suits, joint base leaders are reminding service members to stay out of Potomac River waters at Great Falls Park.

The section of water from the Sycamore Island area – four-tenths of a mile from the Little Falls Dam – to Chain Bridge is prohibited to all swimmers and waders. Aquatic activities in the Great Falls/Potomac River Gorge area are against Maryland, Virginia and District of Columbia law, as well as off-limits under a directive from the Military District of Washington issued in 1984.

Although the waters of the Great Falls/Potomac River Gorge in Washington, D.C. and Maryland may appear calm on the surface, Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall officials warn that the waters contain strong currents and jagged rocks. Since 2001, two dozen people have lost their lives — including a Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall-based Soldier — in the park’s waters. JBM-HH officials are reminding service members that aquatic activities in certain portions of the Great Falls area are not only off limits under a Military District of Washington directive, but are also illegal. (Photo courtesy Tracie Miller, June 18, 2014)
Although the waters of the Great Falls/Potomac River Gorge in Washington, D.C. and Maryland may appear calm on the surface, Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall officials warn that the waters contain strong currents and jagged rocks. Since 2001, two dozen people have lost their lives — including a Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall-based Soldier — in the park's waters. JBM-HH officials are reminding service members that aquatic activities in certain portions of the Great Falls area are not only off limits under a Military District of Washington directive, but are also illegal. (Photo courtesy Tracie Miller, June 18, 2014)

Tracie Miller, JBM-HH Directorate of Emergency Services physical security specialist, stressed the very real and deadly dangers of Potomac River waters in an interview with the Pentagram.

“It's extremely important that personnel understand ... that swimming and wading are 100 percent prohibited and that it is illegal no matter if you're on the Virginia, D.C. or Maryland side,” she said. “If you're fortunate enough to survive, you'll receive a citation. Courts generally give fines or community service in conjunction with these citations because they want people to take this seriously.”

While surface waters may seem calm to some, Miller assured community members that the river is a different beast beneath the surface.

“It's a deep and a fast-moving river with jagged, rocky bottoms, and it creates a very strong current that even strong swimmers have difficulty and issues with,” she said. “It generates a current that is much like a washing machine – it's a circular current, and it'll take you down to the bottom, and you can't get back up.”

For a better idea of the river's dangers, community members need only look at the numbers. According to the National Park Service, 51 percent of all river-related accidents in the Potomac River Gorge area are fatal and 72 percent of river-related incidents in the area are the result of shoreline activities, like hiking or fishing.

In June 2013, an Old Guard Soldier drowned in Great Falls waters. Between 2001 and 2014, this area of the Potomac has seen 24 drownings. In 1984, Fort Myer lost seven Soldiers due to water-related accidents in the falls area.

Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control paint a harrowing picture as well.

According to the CDC, 43 percent of all unintentional drownings occur in natural water. Furthermore, almost 80 percent of people who drown are male and one in five people who drown are children age 14 or younger. They also note that alcohol is a factor in up to 70 percent of deaths associated with water recreation.

Miller said the intention is not to scare people but to educate them on the dangers of the area so they can enjoy themselves in a safe, smart manner.

“We certainly don't want to cause an alarmist attitude – it's a very beautiful place,” she said. “We want them to enjoy and take advantage of everything that the National Capital Region has available, but we want them to do it in a way that is safe, and with awareness, and to make sure that they're respecting nature and the force that nature can be.”

Miller noted that there are some areas of the river where kayaking and other paddling activities are allowed (visit www.nps.gov/grfa/planyourvisit/kayaking.htm), as well as a number of websites, such as www.potomacpaddlesports.com, where community members can see the water levels and safely plan their trips.

“Do a little bit of research prior to engaging in those types of activities on the river just to make it a little bit safer,” she said.

She also said there are many signs indicating what sections of the river are off limits to aquatic activities of any kind.

“There are many ways that our community members can enjoy the Great Falls area and with some very, very simple knowledge in their pockets, they can greatly reduce their risks and come home safely,” she said.

By Guv Callahan, Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall
Provided through DVIDS
Copyright 2015

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