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State Agencies Promote Low Head Dam Safety
Updated June 13, 2016 7:24 AM | Filed under: Natural Resources
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(UNDATED) - Three state agencies are working together this summer to promote water safety and alert citizens to the dangers of recreating near low head dams on Indiana river systems.

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 low head dams.

"What can appear harmless during low water levels can turn into a dangerous situation with little rainfall," said DNR 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."

Low head dams are man-made concrete structures in river systems that pool upstream water for various reasons and create a short drop in downstream water levels. A "keeper hydraulic" is described as a strong backwash that prevents escape. Indiana has 146 documented low head dams.

"Anywhere there is water there is a risk of drowning," said Mary Beth Bonaventura, director, Indiana Department of Child Services. "Adults need to actively supervise children in and around open bodies of water. This means, adults must be able to see and hear their child at all times. Do not leave a young child unattended or out of sight, not even for a moment."

"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 recirculates an object back into the face of the dam."

Untrained rescuers, who may act 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. Citizens are encouraged to carry ring buoys, boat cushions, or one-gallon milk jugs half full of water tied to 50 feet of strong rope and use these items to throw to a person. Extending a pole or long tree branch is also a safe and effective way to provide assistance.

"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 placing them in a dangerous situation.

"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 recirculated and pushed under by the water coming over the dam. Low head dams should be completely avoided by our citizens."

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