Watch Out for the Dam Ahead

April is Low-Head Dam Public Safety Awareness Month. If you plan to enjoy water activities this year, you should familiarize yourself with this potential aquatic danger.


What You Need To Know

  • Low-head dams are man-made and stretch across a river or stream as water flows over the top of them.
  • They  look harmless but are nicknamed the Drowning Machine 
  • Most dam-related deaths occur between April and August
  • Swimmers, boaters, and those who fish need to be particularly aware of low-head dams

Low-head dams are built into a river or stream extending across its width. They allow water to flow over the top of the dam with usually a subtle drop-off downstream, ranging from 1 to 15 feet.

Courtesy: DamSafety.org

Under the water’s surface at the drop-off, there’s a strong recirculating current called a boil. It traps anything (or anyone) underwater that comes across it. Hence, acquiring the nickname The Drowning Machine.

Courtesy: Weather.gov

Sadly, more than 100 fatalities from low-head dam incidents have occurred since 2018, based on a recent report from the American Society of Civil Engineers. According to damsafety.org, 91% of U.S. dam-related deaths happen between April and August each year.

Low-head dams are dangerous because they look harmless or even tranquil to an unknowing river goer. Plus, they’re hard to notice if you’re upstream.

Courtesy: Weather.gov

So, swimmers, boaters, and fishermen need to understand the dangers of low-head dams and how to stay safe.

Research

Before planning a water trip, research to learn about any dams or hazards along the waters you plan to enjoy.

Be Watchful and Have a Safety Plan

Communicate your plans with friends and family, and always wear a lifejacket when spending time in or around water. Take heed to any signs in the area.

Courtesy: DamFailures.org

Keep Your Distance, Keep Your Life

Always keep a safe distance from dams. To get around it, walk or portage over land to a safe area. 

How to Survive

If you ever have an unfortunate encounter with a low-head dam and get caught in the recirculating current, first curl up in a ball. 

Force yourself to the bottom, then swim downstream.

Courtesy: Weather.gov

If you see someone else in trouble, never enter the water to help. Call 911, and throw in a rope or throw bag to assist the person out of the water if possible.