Are you looking for something completely different to do one day soon? Here’s the perfect activity – go and watch ‘em release water from Buford Dam!
No, I’m not kidding. It’s easy and oddly fun to do, too, thanks to a footbridge which crosses the Chattahoochee River almost directly below the looming mass of Buford Dam.
And it never seems to get old.
Step one is to decide when to go. To find out when the next release is scheduled, call the Buford Dam water release info line at 770-945-1466. A recorded message will let you know. Releases happen at various times, and if the time is convenient then step one is done.
The next step is to get to the viewing area. It’s at the Corps of Engineers’ Lower Pool West Park, accessible from Buford Dam Road. From Ga. 400, take the Ga. 20 exit and go east for about 0.3 miles to Market Place Boulevard. Turn left and go 0.8 miles to Buford Dam Road. Turn right and go 4.3 miles to Lower Pool West Road on your right. Turn right and go down the hill to the end of the road. Park at the far end of the parking area, near the boat ramp, and then follow a distinct footpath through a grassy field toward the dam. That path takes you to the footbridge and your front-row seat to the release of water.
Note that a parking fee or a CRNRA pass is required to park.
I like to get there about 10 or 15 minutes before the release begins. Usually, there are other people there too. It’s a minor happening of sorts, and folks who are in the neighborhood will often come to see. Once, I saw a family spread out a picnic on the bridge, waiting.
I find me a nice spot on the bridge and settle in for the brief wait.
But before the water cuts loose, let’s turn the clock back and see how it came to be.
The date was March 1, 1950. Along with a crowd of about 3,500, a group of Georgia’s leaders gathered near the town of Buford, for the ceremonial groundbreaking of what would ultimately become known as Buford Dam. Folks had been discussing the project since shortly after the end of World War II. Congressional authorization came on July 25, 1946, authorizing “a multiple purpose dam on the Chattahoochee River at Buford in the interest of navigation, flood control and power and water supply.”
What eventually developed was what you see there today. The main dam (that hulking mass of grass-covered dirt that you see towering over you from the footbridge) is what’s known as a “roll-filled earth” structure. It’s 192 feet high and 2,360 feet long. Three adjacent “saddle dikes,” also earthen structures, have a total additional length of about 6,600 feet. The main spillway (down which the water is about to come) is carved out of rock, and the powerhouse is constructed in a site carved into the rock too. Inside that powerhouse, at maximum flow, turbine-driven generators can produce about 130 megawatts of electrical power.
The dam’s gates were closed on Feb. 1, 1956, and the completed dam was dedicated on Oct. 9, 1957. Then, on May 25, 1959 – about nine years after that star-studded groundbreaking – the lake was officially declared “full.” Total cost of the project, from planning to completion, was around $44 million –a lot of money for the time.
But wait – is that a siren breaking your reverie?
Before a release begins, the Corps of Engineers sounds a warning siren. It will definitely get your attention. About four or five minutes later a second siren sounds, with a third another four or five minutes later and more after that. If you listen carefully after that second siren sounds, you may hear a difference in the sound of the river.
And somewhere in there the release of water will begin.
What’s it like? Is it a tidal wave, a wall of water roaring down the river?
No, to the surprise of many. Instead, it’s an unmistakable increase in the current, accompanied by a relentless rise in the level of the river. When it starts, sometimes the crowd will cheer. Up and up and up comes the water (four feet, six feet, sometimes more -- how far up it comes depends on how big the release is). It happens slowly but oh-so-quickly too, like life. Pick out a rock. Look at it. Then look at it again a moment later. It may be gone from sight.
The air will get colder too as all those zillions of gallons of 50-degree water pour through the turbines and start their rush down the river. You’ll feel the chill.
The sirens continue every few minutes for a while and then, eventually, cease. Below your feet, the icy gray water rushes by. Up in the powerhouse, the turbines are generating electricity. Maybe, on the bank, a fisherman is eating his lunch, waiting, if it’s a short release, for the water to go back down when it’s done.
The little crowd on the bridge slowly disperses.
They say the fishing is good right after a release. This afternoon, I may have to go check that out for myself.