Danger downstream

Often unseen, low head dams create deadly traps

Posted on Jul 01 2016 in Outdoors

Photo by Xavier Arnau/Vetta/Getty images plus

By Jack Spaulding

Everyone enjoys a peaceful canoe or kayak trip in the summertime. Floating and gently paddling downstream is relaxing, and the scenery is always interesting when running a river during the hazy, lazy days of summer. But travelers need to be aware: Often, unseen danger exists on many Indiana rivers.

One situation to avoid at all costs is the area around a low head dam. Low head dams are man-made concrete structures in river systems pooling upstream water for various reasons. They create a short drop in downstream water levels. The dam forms a “keeper hydraulic,” a strong backwash below the dam preventing escape. Indiana has 146 documented low head dams.

In recent years, Indiana has been affected by tragic losses of lives at low head dams. Since 2010, a total of 14 people have drowned near them.

“What can appear harmless during low water levels can turn into a dangerous situation with little rainfall,” said Indiana Department of Natural Resources Law Enforcement Director Danny L. East. “When a keeper hydraulic exists at the face of a low head dam, escape is unlikely if not impossible.”

“Indiana conservation officers continuously train to respond to fast water emergencies, and we find that low head dams present unusually difficult circumstances for our officers,” said Maj. Terry Hyndman, operations commander for DNR Law Enforcement. “The backwash from the face of the dam to the boil continuously re-circulates an object back into the face of the dam.”

Untrained rescuers acting when seeing another person in trouble account for 25 percent of low head dam drowning victims nationwide. Shore-assisted rescue is the safest way to assist a person caught in the hydraulic of a low head dam without placing the rescuer at risk. Boaters are encouraged to carry ring buoys, boat cushions, or gallon milk jugs half full of water tied to 50 feet of strong rope. These should be used to throw to a person. Extending a pole or long tree branch is also a safe and effective way to provide assistance.

“We all promote the wearing of a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket when enjoying Indiana waterways,” said Lt. Kenton Turner, boating law administrator for DNR Law Enforcement. “Unfortunately, the hydraulic of a low head dam prevents the lifejacket from keeping a person above water as they are re-circulated and pushed under by the water coming over the dam. Low head dams should be completely avoided.”

“Low head dams are deceptively dangerous, and can go from serene to life-threatening in a matter of seconds,” said Mary Moran, recovery branch director for the Indiana Department of Homeland Security. “Even during perfect weather, rainfall upstream can raise water levels causing dangerous conditions. This makes already obscured low head dams almost impossible to see and avoid.”

Canoe and kayak enthusiasts are encouraged to learn the river system and discover the low head dam locations prior to beginning their trip. From the upriver perspective, the low head dam may not be easily seen until it is too late to avoid, causing an unsuspecting person to go over the dam and into a dangerous, life-threatening situation.

If you encounter a low head dam, pull your canoes or kayaks out of the water well above the dam. Then portage (carry) your boats on dry land around the dam, and never approach the dam face from downstream.

Jack Spaulding is a state outdoors writer and a consumer of RushShelby Energy living along the Flatrock River in Moscow. Readers with questions or comments can write to him in care of Electric Consumer, P.O. Box 24517, Indianapolis, IN 46224; or email jackspaulding@hughes.net.