How dangerous are Columbia’s rivers? 5 things you need to know before you wade in

Seth Shelby, an avid outdoorsman, prepares to end his run down the Congaree River near the Gervais Street Bridge on Monday.
Seth Shelby, an avid outdoorsman, prepares to end his run down the Congaree River near the Gervais Street Bridge on Monday. gmelendez@thestate.com

Officials are urging common sense and caution among rivergoers after three people drowned in Columbia’s Saluda and Congaree rivers within the past week.

“It’s certainly a little unnerving when you have so many (drownings) so close together,” said Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler. “Unfortunately, it’s not really that uncommon.”

The deaths occurred at a time when levels in the Congaree, Broad and Saluda rivers are relatively low, which Stangler said is surprising. He urged people to understand the hazards of rivers and to be ready to deal with them.

“These are flowing rivers,” he said. “This isn’t a water park. This isn’t a pool. There’s no lifeguard on duty. Safety is your responsibility.”

Last week’s deaths are the worst toll that Richland County Coroner Gary Watts can recall in recent years, but the total number of incidents is not above average, he said.

Several people drown every year in the Saluda River near the zoo, because it’s a popular “summertime place to go,” Watts said.

The other popular area that’s easily accessible is on the Congaree, near the Gervais Street bridge downtown.

Kayakers and people fishing tend to frequent the area as well. But swimmers are more likely to be involved in a potentially fatal incident.

“People try to maybe swim further than they’re capable of swimming or they get in and don’t realize the intensity of the water flow and they just get overwhelmed,” Watts said. “There are a lot of unseen water hazards.”

Knowing that, here are five things you need to know before you wade in:

1. Know the risks

Columbia’s three rivers each have their own hazards, but Stangler said all three pose similar threats for people who either don’t know the rivers well or are not experienced swimmers.

“If you’re not prepared and you’re not using good common sense, all it takes is one little thing and things can go wrong,” he said.

Trees or debris under the water can cause people to get stuck in the river and be overcome by the water, Stangler said. Rocks also pose dangers either from rapids, someone slipping and falling or injuring part of their body on a rock if they’re swept away by strong currents.

Holes and drop-offs are a threat hidden under the rushing waters of the river, according to Sgt. Rhett Bickley of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

“You could be walking along waist-deep in sandy gravel, take two steps and end up in a 12-foot hole,” he said. “That’s just one of the dangers of the river. You can’t see the bottom. You don’t know the holes. You don’t know the (tree) root masses.”

2. Know the river conditions

Water levels and currents in the river can change throughout the day, depending on rainfall, temperature or water being released from a dam, according to Stangler.

The water rushing over the rocks near the zoo creates dangerous rapids, but Bickley said the cooler temperatures of the Saluda – its waters come from the depths of Lake Murray – also could play a factor in people getting into trouble.

“When you go from a hot rock to a cold river, it can be a shock to your system,” he said. “All three of those play in to somebody getting into trouble if they’re not experienced with the river.”

SCE&G provides current and predicted conditions for the Saluda River on its website, which Bickley urged people to check before heading out.

“You want to be able to enter and exit in the calmest water possible,” Bickley said, adding that this, ideally, is an area of water that is shallow and allows you to touch the bottom while walking in or out.

3. Know your strengths and limits

A key water safety issue responders want to hammer home is knowing how to swim, said Capt. Brick Lewis of the Columbia Fire Department.

“If you’re going to be in and around water, whether it’s swift water or not, we encourage you to know how to swim,” Lewis said.

Stangler, Bickley and Lewis also said many river drownings involve alcohol. Bickley is part of DNR’s diving team, which is deployed to people after they are presumed to have drowned.

“Frequently, the witnesses you’re talking to have been consuming alcohol,” he said. “And then in the aftermath, in the coroner’s report, you find out that (drowning victims) were drinking when they got into trouble.”

Toxicology tests for the three people who drowned last week arepending, according to Watts and Lexington County Coroner Margaret Fisher.

4. Know what to bring

None of the people who drowned last week was wearing a life jacket, said Bickley, who added that all three likely still would be alive if they had one.

There’s no life jacket requirement for people swimming in a river, Bickley said. But people who are tubing or kayaking are required to have a life jacket with them – they just don’t have to wear them.

In addition to life jackets, Bickley urges rivergoers to bring a waterproof bag to carry their ID and a cellphone.

And bring a friend. Don’t go alone. Think “buddy system.”

5. Know what to do

One cubic foot of water weighs about 62 pounds, according to Stangler. Even at times of low flow, the water flow in the Saluda River is around 700 cubic feet per second.

“That’s thousands of pounds of force from water moving down that river,” he said.

If you find yourself being swept away by swift water, don’t fight it. Instead, first try to float on your back, Lewis said.

“Float up and let the current take you downstream,” he said. “Try to go at an angle. Keeping your head above the surface is most important.”

Keep moving at an angle across the river as it carries you downstream, Lewis said, until you get to a place where either you can stand close to the shore or you can divert yourself by swimming backward to the shoreline.

Staff reporter Cynthia Roldán contributed