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Rivers dangerous near dams, especially now

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The Wisconsin Public Service hydroelectric dam at Grandfather Falls, Merrill
The Wisconsin Public Service hydroelectric dam at Grandfather Falls, Merrill

WAUSAU, WI (WSAU) -  The warmer weather we’re starting to get can lead to dangerous conditions on the rivers, especially near dams.

Bill Blasinski is from Wisconsin Public Service, which operates several dams by their hydroelectric plants.  He says the late winter and this next week’s warmer weather could rapidly change the water levels. “This year in particular, we’ve got snow melt that’s going to occur. It really hasn’t occurred that much up north and we’re expecting that to occur over the next week or so, making the water levels a little higher than normal for this time of year.”

The long lasting cold weather brings an additional hazard to people using the river. Blasinski says you will probably see more large chunks of ice floating downstream than usual. “I think we will this year, more so than in other years. Right now, a lot of our reservoirs up north still have ice cover on them, so as things warm up and flows increase, these chunks will break off and we’ll be passing them through and down the river. It’s something we have got to be aware of.”

Dangers for boaters are both above and below the dams. Blasinski says the more distance you keep between you and the dam, the safer you will be. “Keep a safe distance away from dams. The further you are downstream, the more time you have to react, and typically, the less impact those changes will have on you. They won’t be as dramatic as you get further downstream.”

The late thaw means lower water temperatures, and that can mean big trouble if you fall in. “This year particularly, we’ve got to be concerned with hypothermia. This water is going to be exceptionally cold for this time of the year, and you know, it’s not anything like last year when we had all of that nice warm weather.”

Blasinski urges people not to go out on the river without a personal floatation device and a cellphone.

For the fishermen that are used to lakes but trying out rivers due to the late thaw, he reminds you rivers can be much more dangerous and conditions can change very rapidly. Do not anchor a boat below a dam, because the anchor could get caught while water is rising... and that can swamp your boat in rapidly moving water.

HUG is a non-profit corporation of dam owners, hydroelectric plant operators, developers, consultants, and hydro contractors. That group and Wisconsin DNR have more safety tips: · Understand the dangers near dams

· Stay away from hazardous areas

· Obey all warning devices such as signs, lights, sirens and verbal warnings

· Wear an approved personal floatation device

· Keep your boat motor running when near a dam so you can quickly leave or maneuver

· Stay clear of the dam spill area where unpredictable water conditions make boat control difficult

· Never anchor boats below a dam because water levels can change quickly

· Do not cross buoy lines

· Bring a cell phone and call 911 in an emergency

Governor Scott Walker who has proclaimed April 29 through May 4 as Dam Safety Awareness Week in Wisconsin.

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