Follow these tips when visiting dams, reservoirs and other waterways

Stay safe by learning tips for water safety in general, and guidelines for the following areas:

  • Dams and reservoirs.
  • Rivers, streams and other waterways.
  • Canals, flumes and penstocks.


Understanding water safety in general

When you visit a reservoir, river or other body of water, use the following guidelines:

  • Obey all warning signs and restrictive buoys when you swim or boat.
  • Use the buddy system; that is, never fish, swim, boat or raft alone.
  • Don’t dive or jump into unfamiliar or shallow water. Submerged trees or rocks can cause serious injury.
  • Wear a Coast Guard-approved life jacket in and around water at all times, even when water levels are low.
  • Avoid sudden immersion in cold water. This action can stimulate the gasp reflex and cause an involuntary inhalation of air or water. The gasp reflex can trigger cardiac arrest, temporary paralysis, hypothermia and drowning.
  • Teach children that swimming in open water is different from swimming in a pool. They must be aware of uneven surfaces, currents and undertow. They must also watch for signs of changing weather.
  • Actively supervise children around water. Give them your undivided attention.
  • Comply with all warning signs in campgrounds, fishing areas and picnic areas below dams.
  • Make a plan with your family so that everyone knows to get out of the water at a moment's notice.


Staying safe around dams and reservoirs

Designed for hydropower production, reservoirs also offer recreational areas for camping, picnicking, boating, fishing and hiking. Be sure to take the following precautions around dams and reservoirs:

  • Stay out of spillways and water intake areas. Water can rush in, making these areas dangerous for play.
  • Don’t swim or play near a dam or powerhouse. These areas can have strong underwater currents, sudden water discharges, slippery surfaces and submerged hazards.
  • Obey all warning signs and restrictive buoys. These warnings are intended to keep people away from areas where water activity can change suddenly, posing a risk of injury or death.

Get a list of dams and reservoirs in California. Visit Listing of Dams.


Keeping safe when boating on a reservoir

Comply with all laws and requirements when boating on a reservoir. Use the following safety guidelines:

  • Plan ahead and be prepared for changes in the weather.
  • Before you go boating, file a float plan, that is, a written statement with the details of your trip. Leave the float plan with a reliable person whom you can trust to notify the Coast Guard if you don’t return on schedule.
  • Never operate a boat while intoxicated.
  • Know your skill level.

Learn more about boating on a reservoir. Visit CALIFORNIA STATE PARKS – Division of Boating and Waterways.


Staying safe on rivers, streams and other waterways

Many Northern California waterways are part of a vast hydropower system, with dams located upstream and downstream of the most popular recreational areas. During certain times of the year, sudden changes can occur in water levels and river flows. Heavy rains, melting snow or electric generator use can change a waterway from a slow stream to a raging river in minutes. Use the following tips to protect yourself and your family in these areas:

  • Always be alert and aware of your surroundings. Dams hidden from view can still affect the water in unexpected ways.
  • Look for water level changes, including those affected by rain and melting snow.
  • Be aware of your location when powerhouses are nearby or across a stream.
  • Remember that some roads and trails might not be accessible after a water release. The extra water can flood these areas temporarily.
  • Learn the meanings of powerhouse warning signs, strobe lights and sirens. Move to a safe area when warned.


Staying safe near canals, flumes and penstocks

Canals, flumes and penstocks move water from one part of the hydropower system to another. Canals and flumes might look inviting, but they can be very dangerous because the amount of water in them can increase quickly. Use the following tips to stay safe near these areas:

  • Never get into a flume or canal. The water might appear calm, but it is extremely powerful.
  • Stay off flumes. Flumes have steep, slippery sides and contain icy cold water. Getting out of a canal or flume can be very difficult.
  • Obey all warning signs, and never play on or near a canal or flume.
  • If you drop a personal article in a canal or flume, leave it. Retrieving it is not worth the risk of injury or death.

Access another resource

Activity Worksheet. Children can learn about dams and hydropower through fun activities.